Labor strikes engulf Europe: Mass support swells response to global austerity program

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General strikes, student protests and mass demonstrations are still rocking Europe in opposition to relentless budget cuts and belt-tightening. “We are at war with the government,” explained a Greek demonstrator, “because it is clearly at war with us.”

Too many jobless, homeless, sick and vulnerable people are un-served and unprotected by the governments that run their societies. Europe’s unrest is a sight for sore eyes to the wounded, and to the legions of working-class warriors who are fast becoming the leaders they’ve been looking for.

Crisis in the European Union.

As the Great Recession spread to Europe, creditor banks and governments responded with demands for poorer European governments to pay up their loans. Greece holds the biggest debt in the eurozone (those 16 who share the same currency — the euro). It is a member of the European Union (EU), which includes 500 million people in 27 countries.

Last May, Greek officials announced deep pay and benefit cuts for public workers, elimination of the minimum wage, big cuts to public school funding and pensions, and sharp sales tax increases. Outraged public and private sector unions took to the streets, and quickly swung nationwide public support their way.

Their mighty uproar scared the EU’s elite, especially German and French banks that could go bankrupt if Greece defaulted on its debts to them. Eventually, these major banks, along with the International Monetary Fund, bailed out Greece. Naturally, they exacted high interest rates, and then the financiers started pressing other debtor nations to pay up.

All of this is unfolding in a global recession that was sparked by a bursting housing bubble in the United States in 2007. The recession was not caused by spendthrift workers purchasing Jaguars on credit, or by governments paying too much to care for the sick or feed the hungry. But that’s the propaganda dished up by politicians who tirelessly preach against the evils of “deficit spending” and the redemption of “austerity.”

After the Greek bailout, Europe’s rulers launched a crusade against government “overspending” and stepped up grim plans that punish workers to resuscitate capitalism.

Rebellion spreads.

A few months after Greek workers went on the warpath, the French joined them. France’s standard of living has been backsliding for years, but when the government unveiled plans to “reform” a hard-won 1983 pension plan, workers went ballistic. The plan forces people to work over 41.5 years to get full retirement. For those whose work lives are interrupted, such as mothers, the unemployed, part-time and immigrant workers, the change means having to work until they die.

Public sector unions ignited the fightback with a general strike on Sept. 7. It was influenced by the unity of tens of thousands of leftist, feminist, union, gay rights and anti-war activists who marched with persecuted Roma residents on Sept. 4. In more than 140 demonstrations throughout France they denounced the deportations of Roma by Pres. Sarkozy’s rightwing regime.

In September and October, planes, trucks and tankers were idled, schools closed, postal workers, garbage collectors and armored truck drivers stopped work. Dockers blocked oil shipments to refineries, which closed gas stations.

Union members coordinated strikes in rolling work stoppages — taking turns in going on indefinite and one-day general strikes. They walked each other’s picket lines, defended each other from cops. They built solidarity and honed organizing skills. They inspired millions of other European workers to resist the same ruthless scarcity schemes.

By Sept. 29, in a Day of Action called by unions across Europe, ten million people were demonstrating from Greece to Spain. In Brussels, Belgium, the EU capital, 100,000 marched, representing most EU countries.

Millions of others mounted strikes and protests in their home countries. Instead of running out of steam, as Pres. Sarkozy hoped, nearly three million came out in France. Shouted the youth who quickly followed the workers lead, “Unemployed at 25, exploited at 67. No! No! No!”

Spain, with unemployment at 20 percent, was paralyzed by its first general strike in eight years. When police attacked picketers, strikers fought back. Essential organizers were the 16,000 shop stewards who met in Madrid to coordinate their strike. Leftists in Barcelona and Seville set up neighborhood strike assemblies. Said bus driver Angel Martinez, “If we don’t stay alert, this is just going to be the beginning. We’ll have to have a general strike every day.”

In Eastern Europe, Romanian public workers held a general strike on Sept. 29 and Slovenians continued an indefinite strike against a wage freeze. In the Czech Republic social security and healthcare workers hit the bricks in mid-October, acutely aware that when public services are slashed, their jobs are too.

Keep on rolling.

With a high-five to the French, British workers and students hit the streets when on Oct. 20 their Prime Minister announced “Death by a thousand cuts” as one headline put it. Firefighters went out on strike, students chanted “Stop the cuts, join the resistance!” Tens of thousands of students and teachers took to London streets in November when the government revealed its 40 percent cut of funds for higher education, which is largely free. Most teaching grants will be wiped out and tuition fees tripled.

On Oct. 23 thousands of Catholic and Protestant workers demonstrated together in Northern Ireland. In Belfast they chanted, “They say cut back — we say fight back!” Commented a blogger, “This is all about clawing back hard-earned social programmes and workers rights, and returning the Irish worker to the good old days of feudalism, and control by colonizing masters.”

Just the beginning.

Protests continue to spread and shift throughout Europe. Different sectors take turns in rolling strikes to keep the cops and politicians off balance. Union ranks and regional leaders challenge conservative national heads. Cross-union alliances among militants flourish.

Will this hurricane of labor protest spread to the U.S.? It would be the logical tactic for workers here. State governments have already stripped funding from public schools, transit and healthcare programs, and the nation hovers at 10 percent unemployment — while the 20 percent in this country who own 84 percent of the wealth get richer!

And worse is yet to come. Soon after the U.S. elections, a federal bipartisan deficit commission released a draft report with these proposals: lower Social Security payments, raise the retirement age to 69, hike gas sales taxes, and cut 10 percent of the federal workforce. And reduce taxes for corporations and the rich!

What’s clear from Europe’s upheaval is that when working people boldly lead, they generate wide public support. Everywhere, huge gulfs have opened up between the workingclass majority and their capitalist governments and political parties.

Those battle lines are not about to disappear. And in the U.S., as elsewhere, the forces of the working class are much larger, multi-skilled — and in position to shut things down! This is just the beginning. And one job of radicals is to fan the flames.

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