Europe: News from the frontlines

By STAN MILLER

Europe has been experiencing major recession since 2008. All figures point out that we’re in it for the long haul.

In the United States, strong attacks against the working class combined with a policy of quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve and the ability of the U.S. to borrow money almost indefinitely thanks to its role as the world’s first superpower did help the American ruling class maintain an acceptable level of profit—even if it is decreasing. Europe, on the other hand, entered a greater recession, especially since 2010. The large sums that were used for the 2008 bailouts dug huge holes in the public finances of many European countries.

There was no quantitative easing from the European Central Bank as countries like Germany, whose economy depends largely on the export of manufacturing goods, favored a strong euro currency. Speculation on government bonds, which pitted countries against one another to give investors their money’s worth, led to the sovereign debt crisis of 2010.

The countries of southern Europe and Ireland, contemptuously dubbed the PIGS now by the ruling classes (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain), had enormous amounts of debt to pay and could not borrow anymore—but the capitalists did find a way, as they always do. These states simply had to sell all their assets and get rid of any kind of welfare system in order to reimburse their debt.

The same policies that the IMF had pushed onto South America in the 1980s, with dreadful consequences, were now applied to southern Europe—privatization of public companies, layoffs of hundreds of thousands of civil servants, lowering of the minimum wage, etc.

Since 2010, Greece has been on the forefront of the struggle against austerity. Its public and private-sector unions have called dozens of general strikes. The number of strikers and the turnout in the protests has been incredible. Not only union members but high school students, the unemployed, retirees, and housewives have protested the austerity that was inflicted upon them by the Troika: the IMF, the ECB and the EU.

But however strong and impressive these days of general strikes might have been, they did not manage to put a stop to the attacks on working people. Why? It was because they lacked self-organization. The trade-union bureaucracy would call general strikes for people to vent their anger but not to challenge austerity in the long run. In some local struggles, however, working people did take the matter into their own hands and it made a huge difference.

I will give just one example of what bottom-up self-organized workers’ struggle can achieve. Vio Me was a small-sized chemical factory in the north of Greece. The workers were union members with some ties to the Greek Communist Party, an old-school Stalinist organization. The factory went bankrupt.

With the high unemployment rate in the region, the workers knew they would not be able to get a job again. So they decided to occupy the factory and restart it to produce ecologically sound goods for the community. The Greek Communist Party dropped them at once and ran an issue of their monthly review branding the workers as “petty bourgeois” people who wanted to be bosses. Yet on the contrary, the workers had no illusions that they would carve out their own little socialist paradise out of the capitalist system. For they knew that there is one crime that is worse than all of the others in capitalist society—disrespecting the sacred right of the rich to private property.

There were huge fights with the cops, who tried to drive them out of the factory. But even if they could not rely on the union bureaucracy they did find some support in their community and in the Greek far left. Far left militants joined the workers in fighting the cops, had the workers on tours and rallies all over the country, and collected money in solidarity. The factory is still occupied today. But the main point is that these workers gave us a blueprint for successful struggle—counting on their own democratically self-organized forces and reaching out to other workers, rather than relying on professional misleaders in the labor movement.

Struggles like Vio Me can actually have the momentum to inspire others to engage in a fightback because they take place in a general situation of instability. In the last European election a few months ago, all countries in southern Europe and in Greece in particular clearly rejected the traditional parties of the system. The center left and the conservatives, which used to gather more than 90 % of the vote, now barely have a majority. Voters on the Greek left decided to switch their allegiance to a reformist party, Syriza. That is not yet socialism, of course, and workers in their fight against austerity will undoubtedly find Syriza in their way, but it is not business as usual either.

In France the crisis is unfolding at a different pace. France was not hit as hard by the crisis as southern European countries because its economy was larger and less overspecialized. But we did take some blows. The first visible signs of austerity were massive layoffs in the auto parts industry in 2009, which led to radical local strikes. These strikes aimed at preventing the layoffs or getting bigger severance packages. Several days of national strikes and protests were called, which gathered as much as 3 million people under the general slogan, “no to austerity,” even though the labor officialdom had no intention of carrying the fight to the end.

In the fall of 2010 France saw the biggest strike since 1968 against a pension “reform” scheme that would actually cut benefits. Railroad workers and oil refinery workers were on an all-out strike for 17 days. There were huge protests and one-day strikes in other industries like the postal service, auto, education, civil service, etc.; high school and college students took to the streets as well. It is estimated that 8 million people took to the streets or went on strike at some point.

But the pension reform did pass, and since then austerity has intensified. Not only that but the election of a “left” president (François Hollande from the Socialist Party) was the perfect excuse for the trade-union bureaucracy to do nothing and go along with the layoffs and the concessions.

What happened since Hollande was elected in 2012? People had voted for the “left” to get rid of the unpopular right-wing president Sarkozy and also because they told themselves: it cannot be worse than the right wing. But it actually was worse—in the form of unrelenting attacks on working people, immigrants, and LGBT people. They did not deliver even in terms of basic civil rights: Gaza solidarity demos in July 2014 were banned by the government.

The first gesture of the Hollande government was to give huge tax cuts to the rich. Then they proposed a bill introducing same-sex marriage and also the possibility of artificial insemination for lesbian couples and legal status for children born out of surrogate parents abroad. But in front of massive protests from the right wing, the government let the parliamentary debate drag on for months, opening the way for homophobic hate speech and aggression. At the end, the government gave concessions to the reactionaries; while retaining the right of same-sex marriage, it withdrew the two other provisions of the law.

As we say, each time the left takes a step back, reactionaries take a step forward. In electoral terms, the traditional far right (the National Front of Marine Le Pen) was the first force in the 2014 European election. Regardless of what is going to happen in the 2017 national elections, the damage has been done already; the National Front has popularized chauvinist and racist ideas among working people and the political class.

Some industrial action took place in France in 2014. In June, several strikes unfolded at the same time and managed to link up for brief moments—a six-month local strike of postal workers against precarious labor, a two-week national strike of railroad workers against privatization, and a strike of precarious theater workers against the loss of their unemployment benefits. The first strike was a victory, albeit a hard-earned one. The second went to defeat but saw the emergence of a new generation of workers who might constitute a pool of radicals in the future; and the last strike is still ongoing.

These movements might not change the overall characterization of the period but they do give revolutionaries some leeway to try to obtain victories, while connecting the militant minority of workers who radicalize with socialist ideas.

Stan Miller is a member of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) in France and of its minority current, Anticapitalisme et Revolution. This article is based on his presentations at recent Socialist Action forums in Philadelphia and Hartford, Conn.

Photo: Workers in Athens bang pots during general strike last July. Simela Pantzartzi / EPA