Massive mobilisations in Spain, Mexico, Italy, India: The union barrier against self-organisation and unification of struggles

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While governments of every country are bent on imposing more and more violent austerity plans, the mobilisations of 2011 – the movement of the Indignant in Spain, Greece, etc., and the occupations in the United States and other countries – continued during the first quarter of 2012. However, the struggles came up against a powerful union mobilisation that managed to seriously hold back the process of self-organisation and unification, which began in 2011.

How do we get out from under the unions’ thumb? How do we once again find and revive the tendencies that appeared in 2011? We are going to try to give some elements of a response to these questions.

Massive demonstrations

We will begin by briefly recalling the struggles (see our territorial press for a more detailed chronology).

In Spain, brutal social blows (in education, health and basic services) and the adoption of a “Labour Reform”, which makes sacking easier and allows firms to immediately lower wages, have provoked big demonstrations, particularly in Valencia but also in Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao.

In February, there was an attempt to create a climate of police terror in the street, by using the pupils of secondary education as punch-bags, and workers of all generations came onto the streets to struggle shoulder to shoulder with the schoolchildren. The wave of protests spread throughout the country, generating demonstrations in Madrid, Barcelona, Saragossa, Seville, which were often spontaneous or decided upon during the course of improvised assemblies.[1]

In Greece, a new general strike in February led to massive demonstrations throughout the country. Participating in them were employees of the public and private sectors, young and old, as well as the unemployed. Even some cops joined in. Workers from the hospital at Kilki occupied their workplace, calling for solidarity and for the participation of the whole of the population, and launching an appeal for international solidarity.[2]

In Mexico, the government concentrated most of its attacks against workers of the teaching sector, waiting to generalise them to other sectors, in the context of the general degradation of living conditions in a country where it was said they were “armour-plated against the crisis”. Despite the extremely strong union grip, the teachers demonstrated in large numbers in the centre of Mexico.[3]

In Italy, in January several strikes broke out against the avalanche of job losses and the measures adopted by the new government: among rail workers, in firms like Jabil ex-Nokia, Esselunga di Pioltello in Milan; FIAT at Termini Imerese, Ceramica Ricchetti in Mordado/Bologna; the refineries at Tapani; among the precarious workers of the Gasliani de Genes hospital, etc; and, also among sectors close to the proletariat such as lorry drivers, taxi drivers, shepherds, fishermen, peasants... That said, these movements have been very dispersed. An attempt at co-ordination in the Milanese region failed, as it remained imprisoned within a trade unionist vision.[4]

In India, a country which, together with China is considered to be “the future of capitalism”, a general strike convoked by the unions broke out on February 28. More than a hundred unions representing 100 million workers throughout the country answered the summons (although far from all workers were called out by their union). This mobilisation was widely hailed as one of the most massive strikes in the world up to now. However, it was above all a day of demobilisation, a way of letting off steam in response to a growing wave of struggles since 2010, at the spearhead of which were the automobile workers (Honda, Maruti-Suzuki, Hyundai Motors). Thus, recently, in the car production factories, workers acted on their own initiative and didn’t wait for union orders to mobilise, showing strong tendencies for solidarity and a will to extend to other factories. They also expressed tendencies to self-organisation and the setting up of general assemblies, as in the strikes at Maruti-Suzuki in Manesar, a new town whose development is linked to the industrial boom in the region around Delhi. During the course of this struggle, the workers occupied the factory against the advice of “their” union. Workers’ anger rumbled on and that’s why the unions were agreed on a common appeal for the strike... in order to put up a united face against the working class![5]

2011 and 2012: one and the same struggle

Young people, the unemployed and precarious workers have been the motor force of the actions of the Indignants and Occupy in 2011, even if these mobilised workers of all ages. The struggle tended to organise itself around general assemblies, which went together with a critique of the unions. It didn’t put forward any concrete demands, focussing instead on the expression of indignation and looking for explanations for the situation.

In 2012, the first struggles in response to the attacks of the state came in a different form: here the spearhead is made up of  “established” workers of 40-50 years old from the public sector, strongly supported by the “users” (heads of families, parents of the sick, etc.), who were joined by the unemployed and youth. The struggles polarised around concrete demands and the tutelage of the trade unions is very much present.

It seems then as if it’s a matter of “different” if not “opposed” struggles as the various media try to make us think. The first are supposedly “radical”, “political”, animated by some “idealists having nothing to lose”; the second on the contrary, are made up of fathers of families impregnated with a union consciousness who don’t want to lose their “acquired privileges”.

Such a characterisation of these “two types of struggle”, which obscures the profoundly common social tendencies, has the political aim of dividing and opposing both reactions from the proletariat, which are products of the maturation of consciousness and express the beginnings of a response to the crisis, and which will have to unite in the perspective of massive struggles. It’s much more a question of two pieces of a puzzle that have to fit together.

This however will not be easy. A struggle where the workers play a more and more active and conscious part, in particular in the most advanced sectors of the proletariat, is a real necessity and its first condition is a clear assessment of all the weaknesses affecting the workers’ movement.

The mystifications

One of them is nationalism which has particularly affected Greece. Here, the anger provoked by the unbearable austerity has been channelled “against the German people”, whose so-called “wealth”[6] is supposed to be at the origins of the misfortunes of the “Greek people”. This nationalism is used to propose “solutions” to the crisis based upon “getting back economic national sovereignty”, an autarkic vision shared by both the Stalinists and neo-fascists.[7]

The so-called rivalry between right and left is another of the mystifications with which the state tries to weaken the working class. We can particularly see it at work in Italy and Spain. In Italy, the eviction of Berlusconi, a particularly repugnant individual, has allowed the left to create an artificial euphoria – “We are finally free!” – which has been a strong factor in the dispersion of the workers’ responses that we saw in the beginning of the austerity plans imposed by the “technocratic” government led by Monti.[8] In Spain, the authoritarianism and the brutality of the repression which traditionally characterises the right has allowed the unions and the parties of the left to attribute the responsibility for the attacks to the “wickedness” and venality of the right and divert discontent towards the “defence of the social and democratic state”. In this sense we can see a convergence of mystifications, both from the traditional forces for corralling the working class, the unions and the parties of the left, and those more recently deployed by the bourgeoisie in order to face up to the movement of the Indignant, in particular DRY (“Democracia Real Ya!” – “Real Democracy Now!”). As we’ve said: “the strategy of DRY, in the service of the democratic state of the bourgeoisie, consists in fact of putting forward a citizens’ movement of democratic reform to try to avoid the appearance of a social movement of struggle against the democratic state, against capitalism.[9]

The union barrier

In 2011, the bourgeoisie in Spain was surprised by the movement of the Indignant, which, paradoxically, managed to quite freely develop the classical methods of the workers’ struggle: massive assemblies, open demonstrations, wide-ranging debates.[10] This is connected to the fact that it was mobilised not on the terrain of the firm but in the streets and that the young and precarious workers, who constituted its motor force, fundamentally distrusted all “recognised” institutions such as the unions.

Today, the implementation of austerity plans is on the agenda for all states, particularly in Europe, provoking strong discontent and a growing militancy. These states don’t want to be taken by surprise and, to this end, they accompany the attacks with a political operation that obstructs the emergence of a united, self-organised and massive struggle of the workers that can take forward the tendencies which appeared in 2011.

The unions are the spearhead of this operation. Their role is to occupy the social ground by proposing demonstrations which create a labyrinth where the efforts, combativity and the growing indignation of the masses of workers cannot be expressed, or flounders on a field mined with divisions.

We clearly see this in one of the preferred tools of the unions: the general strike. In the hands of the unions, such endless mobilisations, which often bring together a good number of workers, cut the class off from any possibility of taking charge of a struggle and turning it into a massive riposte to the attacks of the bourgeoisie. No less than sixteen general strikes have been called in Greece in the last three years! There have already been three in Portugal; another is being prepared in Italy; a strike – limited to the education sector! - was announced in Britain; we’ve already talked about the strike in India at the end of February; and, in Spain, following the general strike of September 2010, another was announced for March 29th.

The multitude of general strikes convoked by the unions is of course an indication of the pressure exercised by the workers, of their discontent and combativity. But, for the most part, the official general strike is not a step forward. Rather it’s a way of letting off steam faced with social discontent.[11]

The Communist Manifesto argued that “The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers”; the principal acquisition of a strike is found in the unity and consciousness, the capacity for initiative and organisation, the expressions of solidarity and the active links that are allowed to be established.

It is these acquisitions that the top-down general strikes and the union methods of struggle weaken and distort.

The union leaders announce the general strike in a loud press and TV song and dance, launching great proclamations invoking “unity” but, at places of work, the “preparation” for the general strike in fact constitutes an immense manoeuvre of division, confrontation and atomisation.

Participation in the general strike is presented as the personal decision of each worker. In many firms, there are even management or administration staff who ask workers about their possible participation, with all that means in terms of blackmail and intimidation. This is what the “constitutional” right of the “citizen” to strike comes down to!

This manoeuvre faithfully reproduces the lying schema of the dominant ideology, according to which each individual is autonomous and independent, deciding “in all conscience” what to do. The strike is another of the thousand agonising dilemmas that life imposes on us in this society and to which we must respond alone in the greatest distress: must I accept this work? Must I profit from this occasion? Must I buy this object? Who should I vote for? Should I go on strike? From these dilemmas we come out with the feeling of being still more alienated: it is the world of competition, of the struggle of each against all, of everyone for themselves, that’s to say the quintessence of this society.

The days preceding the general strike see a proliferation of scenes of conflict and tensions between workers. Everyone confronts agonising questions: should I strike knowing we will get nothing? Am I letting down my comrades who are on strike? Can I afford the luxury of losing a day’s pay? Will I lose my job? The workers are caught between a rock and a hard place: on one side the unions, who try to make those that don’t take part feel guilty, on the other the bosses, who make all sorts of threats. It’s a real nightmare of confrontations, of divisions and tensions between workers, exacerbated by the question of whether to maintain a “minimum service”, which is a new source of conflicts.[12]

The capitalist world functions as an addition of millions of “free individual decisions”. In reality, none of these decisions are free but are subjected to a complex network of alienated relationships; from the infrastructure of the relations of production – the market and wage labour – up to the immense structure of juridical, military, ideological, religious, political and policing relations.

Marx said that the real intellectual richness of the individual depends entirely on the richness of real relationships”[13] these latter being the pillar of proletarian struggle and of the social force which alone will be able to destroy capitalism, whereas union summonses dissolve the social relations and enclose the proletarians in isolation, the corporatist prison, suppressing the conditions which would allow them to consciously decide: the collective body of the workers in struggle.

It’s the capacity of the workers to collectively discuss the pros and cons of an action that gives them their strength, because it is in this framework that they can examine the arguments, the initiatives, the clarifications, taking into account doubts, disagreements, feelings, the reservations of everyone, in a framework where they can take common decisions. It is this way of carrying out a struggle where the greatest number of workers can involve themselves with their responsibilities and convictions.

It is precisely all this which is thrown into the bin by the union call to “forget the talking shop” and “get rid of sentimentalism”, in the so-called “strength we get from blocking production or services where we work”. The working class draws its strength from the central place that it occupies in production, from the fact that it produces almost all the riches that the bourgeoisie appropriates. Thus, through the strike, the workers are potentially capable of stopping the whole of production and paralysing the economy. But in reality, the tactic of the “immediate blockade” is often used by the unions as a means to divert the workers away from their first priority, which is to develop the struggle through taking charge of it and its extension.[14] Moreover, in the period of the decadence of capitalism, and especially in periods of crisis such as we’re living through today, it’s the capitalist system itself, with its chaotic and contradictory functioning, which is responsible for the paralysis of production and its social services. Blockages in production – which can often last well over 24 hours! – are put to the profit of capitalism in order to eliminate stocks. Regarding services such as teaching, health or public transport, blockades can be used by the state in order to pit the “users”, most of them workers, against their comrades on strike!

The fight for a single and massive struggle

During the movements of 2011, the exploited masses were able to act on their own initiative and take up their most profound aspirations, expressing themselves according to the classical methods of the working class, inherited from the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, May 68 etc. The present imposition of union tutelage makes this “free expression” more difficult, but the latter will continue to find a way. Against the union grip, workers’ initiatives are beginning to appear: in Spain for example we’ve seen several expressions of them. At the demonstration of March 29th in Barcelona, Castillon, Alicante, Valencia and Madrid, strikers carried their own banners, formed pickets to explain their mobilisation, claimed the right to speak at union meetings, held alternative assemblies... It is significant that these initiatives happened in the same way as those which developed around events in France in 2010 against the retirement reform.[15]

We are faced with the need to join a combat on booby-trapped ground in order to open up the way to authentic proletarian struggle. The rule of the unions seems insurmountable but conditions are ripening for the wearing out of their authority and thus for strengthening the autonomous capacities of the proletariat.

The crisis, which has already lasted five years and threatens to break out in new convulsions, little by little dispels illusions about “light at the end of the tunnel”, and reveals in its turn a profound preoccupation about the future. The growing bankruptcy of the social system becomes more and more evident, with everything that this implies about living conditions, human relations, thought, culture... Whereas during periods when the crisis wasn’t so sharp, the workers seemed to be able to follow a road mapped out in advance, despite the often terrible sufferings that go along with exploitation, this road is progressively disappearing. And this dynamic is today worldwide.

The tendency, which was already expressed in 2011 with the movement of the Indignant in Spain and Occupy[16] to take to the streets and squares in large numbers, is another powerful lever of the movement. In the present life of capitalism, the street is a place of alienation: traffic jams, solitary crowds buying, selling, managing, running businesses... When the masses take over the streets for “another use” – assemblies, massive discussions, demonstrations – they can become a space of freedom. This allows the workers to begin to glimpse the social force it is capable of becoming if it learns to act in a collective and autonomous fashion. It sows the first seeds of what could be the “direct government of the masses” through which it educates itself, frees itself from all the rags that this system sticks to its body, and finds the strength to destroy capitalism and construct another society.

Another force that pushes the movement towards the future is the convergence of generations of workers in the struggle. This phenomenon has been seen in miniature in struggles such as those against the CPE in France (2006)[17] or in the revolts of youth in Greece (2008).[18] The convergence all working class generations in common action is an indispensable condition for undertaking a really revolutionary struggle. At the time of the Russian revolution in 1917, proletarians of all ages kept close to each other, from children raised on the shoulders of their brothers or fathers, up to white-haired oldsters.

There is a whole range of factors that will help the working class to develop its powers, but this will not be immediate or easy. Hard battles, animated by the persevering intervention of revolutionary organisations, punctuated by often bitter defeats and moments of difficulty, confusion and temporary paralysis, will still be necessary in order to allow the full delivery of this power. The weapon of criticism, a firm criticism of errors and weaknesses, will be fundamental in order to go forward.

On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, criticise themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them, recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! Here is the rose, dance here![19]

C.Mir 27/3/12

 



[1]. See in  Spanish: “Por un movimiento unitario contra recortes y reforma laboral” (http://es.internationalism.org/node/3323);“Ante la escalada represiva en Valencia” (http://es.internationalism.org/node/3324).

[3]. See in Spanish:“Nuestra intervención en las movilizaciones del magisterio en México” (http://es.internationalism.org/ccionlinemarzo2012panfleto).

[6]. Deliberately forgetting the 7 million ‘mini-jobs’ (paid at 400 Euro a month) that the working class in Germany endures.

[7]. A minority of workers in Greece are aware of this danger, hence the appeal for international solidarity by the hospital workers of Kilkis and the students and teachers of the occupied law school in Athens

[8]. Which didn’t even owe its birth to the election charade!

[10]. The bourgeoisie didn’t really give the movement a free hand - it used new but ‘inexperienced’ forces like DRY against it.

[11]. If we are to believe the “disquiet” and “anger” of the big business leaders and politicians, the general strike really does seem to worry them, as though it was the equivalent of some kind of revolution. But history has shown that all this is a comedy show, regardless of what this or that individual member of the ruling class might think

[12]. Let’s recall what we said in the article “Report on the class struggle” in International Review n° 117 (2004): “In 1921, during the March Action in Germany, the tragic scenes of the unemployed trying to prevent workers from entering the factories was an expression of desperation in the face of the retreat of the revolutionary wave. The recent calls of French leftists to block the public transport taking employees to work, or to prevent pupils from going to their exams [during the movement of spring 2003 in France]; the spectacle of west German unionists wanting to prevent east German steel workers – who no longer wanted a long strike for a 35 hour week – going back to work [at the end of the steel workers’ strike in 2003], are dangerous attacks against the very idea of the working class and its solidarity. They are all the more dangerous because they feed on the impatience, immediatism and mindless activism which decomposition breeds. We are warned: if the coming struggles are a potential crucible of consciousness, the bourgeoisie is out to convert them into graveyards of proletarian reflection.http://en.internationalism.org/ir/117_class_struggle.html

[13]. The German Ideology, “Feuerbach”.

[14]. Read our article “What can we learn from the blockade of the oil refineries in France?” http://en.internationalism.org/wr/343/refineries.

[15]. See International Review n° 144: “France, Britain, Tunisia: The future lies in the international development of the class struggle” (http://en.internationalism.org/ir/144/editorial). These struggles in 2010 politically and practically prepared the ground for the evolution of class consciousness in 2011

[16]. For a balance sheet of these movements, see “2011: from indignation to hope” (http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201203/4766/statement-social-movements-2011).

[17]. See  International Review n° 125, “Theses on the Spring 2006 student movement in France” (http://en.internationalism.org/ir/125_france_students).

[18]. See International Review n°136 ‘The youth revolts in Greece confirm the development of the class struggle” (http://en.internationalism.org/ir/2009/136/intro).

[19]. Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.