One result of capitalism’s global meltdown is an inability of governments to pay off loans. When lenders suspect a country may default, they hike interest rates, aggravating the problem.
To stop countries from defaulting, bodies such as the International Monetary Fund offer loans conditioned on the implementation of austerity measures. This declaration of war by bankers, big business and capitalist governments leaves workers with no option but to fight.
Since 2009, mass strikes have rocked Puerto Rico, Nepal, India, and Trinidad and Tobago to name a few countries. And general strikes — action by a majority of unions in a city or nation that gains support from unorganized workers too — are on the rise as a tool for propelling the working-class movement forward.
Indeed, as the FS goes to press, a 24-hour nationwide general strike is paralyzing the Dominican Republic. Hugo Cedeño, with the newspaper Workers Trench reports, “Everyone is declaring victory in telling the government ¡Basta ya! with rising prices and austerity measures.” His group passed out thousands of flyers calling for an end to the Free Trade Agreement of the Caribbean and Central America.
Embattled Bolivia and Honduras. In Bolivia, inflation is also forcing workers into the streets.
Rising fuel and food prices are devastating workers and their families. In reply, thousands of teachers, healthcare workers and miners protested last year, demanding 15 percent wage hikes to match inflation. President Evo Morales, leader of the Movement for Socialism (MAS), countered with a paltry offer of 10 percent.
Elected in 2005 on a wave of massive rebellions led by unionists and indigenous groups, Morales has abandoned the base that put him in office and become an opponent of workers.
In April 2011, the main labor federation, Bolivian Workers Central (COB), launched a nationwide general strike over wages. Protesters battled riot police and blocked roads connecting major cities.
Morales was forced to abandon plans to lift food and fuel subsidies, and to raise his wage offer. His proposal is pending approval of the 55 unions involved in the strike. Meanwhile, discontent is widening.
In Honduras, strikes are shaking the hated “Pepe” Lobo regime, established through a military coup in 2009, and backed by the U.S. government. After coming to power, Lobo instituted the PROHECO program, which slashes public jobs and pensions, and puts educators on temporary contracts with no benefits.
In March 2011, 25,000 civic employees struck and were met with tear gas; 305 striking teachers were summarily dismissed. Honduras is now infamous for its human rights violations. Since the coup, 65 workers have been murdered outright (14 of them teachers), along with 300 more “suspicious” killings.
On April 12, the Unitary Confederation of Honduran Workers (CUT) organized a general strike to protest spiraling food prices and challenge the legitimacy of Lobo’s regime. Strikers, who blocked 11 main highways, faced severe repression: picket lines were broken by tear gas and live rounds, resulting in woundings and detainments. But the struggle, aimed at bringing down the regime, has broad public support. In May, transport workers went on strike. And the return of ousted President Manuel Zelaya, also in May, shows the Lobo regime is feeling the pressure from below.
Solidarity deepens in South Africa. Since the onset of the Great Recession, South Africa has lost over a million jobs and official unemployment stands at 25 percent, and unofficially is much higher.
Since the ’90s, lowered corporate taxes have aided investors at the expense of regressive taxation and skyrocketing living costs for the majority.
Last autumn, when over a million public sector workers went on strike, army personnel were forced to staff hospitals to keep things running. An initial government offer of a 5.2 percent wage raise was upped to 7.5 percent, but workers held out for 8.6 percent and a housing subsidy. To the chagrin of capitalist government and media, women strikers courageously held their picket lines despite fierce attempts by scabs to break through. Simultaneously, 70,000 gas station and auto shop workers struck for a 20 percent wage increase, as did 8,000 miners for a 15 percent raise.
Police used water cannons and rubber bullets on strikers, and arrested hundreds. Yet workers held their ground for almost a month, nearly wiping out the economic gains S. Africa made from hosting the World Cup. The strike was “suspended” in September 2010 with no compromise reached.
Now the struggle is extending outward from the unions, pulling in community groups and sectors not traditionally aligned with labor such as churches. Many workers say the feeling of solidarity is the same as during the anti-apartheid movement, despite attempts by government and media to paint the workers as selfish.
General strikes paralyze Greece. In late June, unions launched a 48-hour general strike, the first in 30 years. Building on a 24-hour strike in May, workers halted public transportation, grounded flights, held ships and cargo in port, and shuttered media outlets. Electric workers conducted rolling blackouts. In Greece, the two largest labor federations, ADEDY (representing the public sector) and GSEE (representing the private sector) make up half the nation’s workforce.
Last year, Greece’s “socialist” government accepted IMF loans conditional on pay cuts and tax hikes. Plans are now being finalized for another $60 billion loan. On the chopping block are public jobs. The IMF wants extreme privatization for their “rescue,” though Greece already suffers 15 percent unemployment.
The latest shutdown caps months of strikes and protests. And it’s predicted that by year’s end, industrial actions will contract the economy by 8 percent.
Yet the public resoundingly supports workers. This is a huge advance for the movement. Initially, many people viewed belt-tightening as a necessary fix to Greece’s fiscal woes. Strikes and labor actions were pivotal in turning opinion against the IMF’s plans.
Confronting the French Empire. In France last September, between two and three million workers struck — 270,000 in Paris alone. To date, fourteen national strikes have rocked France since 2010. While passing tax cuts for corporations and the rich, President Nicolas Sarkozy has attacked pensions with plans that include raising the minimum age for retirement.
Strikes in September 2010 were launched mainly by public workers in transportation and education, alongside automotive, metal and energy workers in the private sector.
These actions followed on the heels of labor unrest in Martinique and Guadeloupe, French “Departments,” or neo-colonies, in the Caribbean. On both islands, predominantly Black workforces held general strikes for several weeks in 2009, ultimately winning significant raises for the lowest wage-earners.
In France, massive strikes have so far wrung only a few concessions from Sarkozy. Namely, a widening of the category of workers who can still retire at pre-reform age, including those in physically demanding trades and mothers who took time out from work to raise children. The core of the pension bill went through, but the fight isn’t over.
A blossoming resistance. What all these workers share in common are capitalist governments that resort to violence and repression when confronted with demands by workers and the poor for a better life. As defenders of a system designed around profits, they are incapable of offering anything more than trifling concessions to workers, and that only after lengthy struggle.
Resultantly, what started as defensive actions by labor unions to combat inflation and austerity, is blossoming into mass, class-conscious movements that encompass widening sections of the community.
A labor movement with the vast support of the population and its own anti-capitalist political representation would be unstoppable.
Contact Jason Combs at firstname.lastname@example.org.