Editorial: a new period of class confrontations

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

The mobilisation of the young generations of future proletarians in France, in the universities and high-schools, and in demonstrations, as well as the inter-generational solidarity around the struggle, confirms the opening of a new period of class confrontations. The real control of the struggle by the general assemblies (mass meetings), the latter’s combativeness but also the reflection and maturity that found expression within them – especially their ability to avoid most of the traps set for them by the ruling class – are signs that a profound development is under way in the class struggle. Its dynamic will have an impact on the workers’ struggles to come.[1] But the struggle against the CPE in France is neither an isolated nor a purely “French” phenomenon: it is the expression of an international rise and maturation of the class struggle. Several new characteristics have appeared in this process which are destined to gain in strength in the future.

We are still a long way from generalised massive struggle, but we can already see the signs of a change in spirit within the working class, of a more profound reflection especially among the younger generations who have not been subjected to all the campaigns about the death of communism after the collapse of the Eastern bloc sixteen years ago. In the “Resolution on the international situation” adopted by the ICC’s 16th Congress and published in International Review n°122, we showed that since 2003 we have witnessed a “turning point” in the class struggle, one of whose main expressions is a tendency to a greater politicisation within the working class. We highlighted the following characteristics in the struggle:

  • they have involved significant sectors of the working class in countries at the heart of world capitalism (as in France 2003);
  • they have been preoccupied with more explicitly political questions; in particular the question of pensions raised in the struggles in France and elsewhere poses the problem of the future that capitalist society holds in store for all of us;
  • they have seen the re-emergence of Germany as a focal point for workers’ struggles, for the first time since the revolutionary wave;
  • the question of class solidarity has been raised in a wider and more explicit way than at any time since the struggles of the 80s, most notably in the recent movements in Germany;
  • they have been accompanied by the emergence of a new generation of elements looking for political clarity. This new generation has manifested itself both in the new influx of overtly politicised elements and in the new layers of workers entering the struggle for the first time. As evidenced in certain important demonstrations, the basis is being forged for the unity between the new generation and the ‘generation of ‘68’ – both the political minority which rebuilt the communist movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the wider strata of workers who have been through the rich experience of class struggles between ‘68 and ‘89.”

Every one of these points is fully confirmed today, not only by the struggle against the CPE in France but also by other examples of responses to the attacks of the bourgeoisie.

The simultaneity of the workers’ struggles

In two of France’s most important neighbours, and at the same time as the struggle against the CPE, the unions have been forced to take the initiative in the face of growing social discontent, and to organise large-scale strikes and demonstrations in some sectors.

In Britain, a strike called by the unions on 28th March was taken up by 1.5 million municipal employees to protest against a reform in their pension scheme which would oblige them to work until 65 instead of 60 before earning the right to a full pension. This was one of the most massive strikes for years. The ruling class orchestrated a major propaganda campaign presenting the workers as “privileged” relative to those in private industry. The unions also did all they could to isolate this category of workers – state employees – who have continued to “benefit” from a legal retirement age of 60 years. The anger of workers in Britain was all the greater since in recent years, 80,000 workers have lost their pensions as a result of the bankruptcy of several pension funds, while all workers have been the object of a long series of attacks by the Blair government.

In Germany, the increase in the working week from 38.5 to 40 hours without any increase in wages has followed hard on massive job losses in the state sector. This increase in the working week is only one of the attacks planned in the “Agenda 2010” initiated by the Social-Democratic chancellor Schröder with the Hartz plan, which also included a reduction of over 50% in holiday and Christmas bonuses for state employees and which led to their first strike for ten years. The strike has lasted, under union leadership, for two and a half months in Baden-Württemberg. In the country at large, the state employer has accompanied these measures with a vast media campaign against its own workers, from the garbage collectors to hospital workers (requisitions, threat to replace strikers accused of “laziness” because they refuse to work an extra 18 minutes each day). While the media campaign presents state employees as “privileged” because they enjoy job security, the DBB and Ver.di unions helped to divide the workers among themselves, presenting each attack as a specific problem and isolating their struggle from those in private industry. Under the pressure of rising social discontent, the IG Metall union called a strike on 28th March of 80,000 engineering workers in 333 companies to demand wage increases, in an industry where wages have stagnated for years and which has been hard hit by job losses and factory closures. On 28th March (the same day as one of the biggest demonstrations against the CPE), the Social-Democratic Minister of Labour within the right-left “Grand coalition” government was persuaded by the mobilisation in France that discretion was the better part of valour, and withdrew a measure similar to the CPE which had been planned to increase the new hire trial period for all jobs from six months to two years.

The social turmoil has also reached the United States. Major demonstrations have been organised in several towns to protest against the law now before the Senate, after its passage through the House of Representatives in December 2005, to make illegal immigration a criminal offence and toughening the repression not only against illegal immigrants themselves, but also against any who offer them shelter or assistance. It is also planned to increase checks on immigrants and to reduce the validity of residence permits from three to six years, renewable once only. To cap it all, there is the administration’s proposal to extend the frontier barrier that already exists in several places (notably between Tijuana and the southern suburbs of San Diego) along the whole 3200 kilometres of the border with Mexico. In Los Angeles between 500,000 and 1 million people mobilised on 27th March, following the demonstration in Chicago of more than 100,000 people; similar gatherings took place in many other towns, notably Houston, Phoenix, Denver and Philadelphia.

Though less spectacular, not a month passes without struggles taking place somewhere in the world, giving expression to the essential characteristics of the workers’ struggle internationally, and bearing with them the seeds of the future: workers’ solidarity across the barriers of corporation, generation, and nationality.

The development of workers’ solidarity

These recent expressions of solidarity have been subject to an almost complete blackout by the media.

Other important struggles have taken place in Britain. In Northern Ireland, 800 Belfast postmen walked out on wildcat strike for nearly three weeks against fines and management pressure, speed-ups and increased workloads. At first, the workers mobilised against disciplinary measures against two colleagues, one in a “Catholic” the other in a “Protestant” post-office. The Communication Workers Union showed its true colours and opposed the strike. One of its spokesmen declared in Belfast: “we repudiated the action and asked them to go back to work, pointing out that the action was illegal”. But the workers continued the struggle, legal or not, and showed that they had no need of the unions to organise.

A joint demonstration crossed the “frontier” separating the Catholic and Protestant districts, going up the main streets of the Protestant, then down the main street of the Catholic district. Other struggles of recent years, especially in the health service, have already shown a real solidarity between workers of different confessions, but this was the first time that such solidarity has appeared in the open between “Catholic” and “Protestant” workers, in a province torn for decades by bloody civil strife.

The unions, with the help of the leftists, then did an about-turn and pretended to declare their “solidarity”, notably by organising strike pickets at each post-office, thus effectively isolating the workers from each other and so sabotaging the struggle. Despite this sabotage, the open unity of Protestant and Catholic workers on the Belfast streets in this strike revived memories of the great unemployed demonstrations of 1932, when proletarians from both sides of the divide came together to fight cuts in the dole. But that was in a period of working class defeat, which made it impossible for these exemplary actions to strengthen the development of the class struggle. Today, there is a greater potential for the class struggles to come to defeat the divide-and-rule policies that the ruling class uses to preserve the capitalist order. This struggle’s importance lies in the experience of class unity put into practice outside the control of the unions. Its implications go far beyond the local situation of the postmen who were its protagonists; it offers an example to be followed as widely as possible.

Nor is this an isolated event. In February, at Cottam, near Lincoln in central England, fifty power workers went on strike in support of Hungarian immigrant workers whose pay was only half that of their English comrades. These immigrant workers’ contracts left them at the mercy of immediate redundancy, or of transfer with no prior notice to sites elsewhere in Europe. Here too, the unions opposed the strike because of its illegality, since neither Hungarian nor English workers had taken a “democratic vote”. The media also denigrated the strike, a local rag even dug up an academic to say that the UK workers had a “certain amount of honour” in striking in solidarity with their fellow workers. In contrast, however, “the foreigners themselves have stayed at their posts throughout” (a scholarly claim somewhat undermined by pictures of Hungarian and British workers standing together on the picket lines). For the working class, however, the recognition that all workers defend the same interests no matter what their nationality or their different rates of pay or work, is an important step forward in their ability to enter the struggle as a united class.

At Reconvilier in the Swiss Jura, after a first strike in November 2004, 300 engineering workers at Swissmetal walked out for a month at the end of January, in solidarity with 27 laid off comrades. The struggle began without the unions, but the latter finally organised negotiations with the bosses and confronted the workers with the alternative of either accepting the loss of pay for their strike days, or of accepting the lay-offs: they were in effect blackmailed into accepting either wage cuts or lay-offs. As one Reconvilier worker said, following the logic of the capitalist system means “choosing between cholera and the plague”. And another wave of 120 redundancies is already planned. But the strike has at least posed clearly the question of the workers’ ability to oppose this blackmail and the logic of capital. Another worker drew this lesson from the strike’s defeat: “We are to blame for having left the control of the negotiations in hands other than our own”.

In India, during July 2005 the workers of the Honda factory in Gurgaon, in the suburbs of Delhi went on strike. Joined by a mass of workers from neighbouring factories in this industrial city, and supported by the local population, the workers were confronted with brutal police repression and a wave of arrests. On 1st February, 23,000 airport workers went on strike in 123 Indian airports. This strike was a direct response to a management plan to reduce the number of airport employees by 40%, lay-offs aimed mostly at older workers who are likely never to find work again. Air traffic in Delhi and Mumbai was paralysed for four days, and was also brought to a halt in Calcutta. Using a law against “illegal acts endangering civil aviation” as an excuse, the authorities declared the strike was illegal and in several towns, notably Mumbai, sent in police and paramilitaries to bludgeon the strikers back to work. As loyal partners of the government coalition led by Congress, the unions and the leftists were already negotiating with the government as early as 3rd February. They then called the strikers to meet with the Prime Minister, pushing them back to work in exchange for an empty promise to re-examine the planned redundancies in the airports. They thus helped to sow division among the workers, between those who wanted to continue the struggle and those who thought they could bring it to an end.

Workers’ combativeness was also in evidence at the Toyota factory near Bangalore, where workers struck for fifteen days from 4th January against line speed-ups which had been the cause of an increase in both accidents and management-imposed fines. These penalties for “inadequate productivity” were being systematically docked from wages. Here too, the workers immediately came up against the opposition of the unions, who declared the strike illegal. The repression has been fierce: 1500 out of 2300 strikers have been arrested for “disturbing the social peace”. The strike received the support of other workers in Bangalore, and this forced the unions and leftist organisations to set up a “coordination committee” in other workplaces in the city that supported the strike, and against the repression of the Toyota workers – in order to keep this example of spontaneous workers’ solidarity under control and sabotage it. During February also, other workers in Bangalore came out to demonstrate their support for 910 workers of Hindustan Lever in a struggle against lay-offs.

An international development of the struggle offers hope for the future

These struggles wholly confirm a maturation, a politicisation of the struggle that began with the “turning point” of 2003 against the “reform” of pensions, especially in France and Austria. Since then, there have been a number of clear expressions of workers’ solidarity, which we have reported in our press in opposition to the blackout organised by the media. Such reactions found expression in particular in the strike at Mercedes-Daimler-Chrysler in July 2004, when the workers in Bremen struck and demonstrated alongside their comrades of Sindelfingen-Stuttgart who were being blackmailed into accepting lay-offs in exchange for keeping their “benefits”, while at the same time management was proposing to transfer 6,000 jobs from Stuttgart to Bremen itself.

The same was true of the baggage handlers at Heathrow in August 2005, who in the midst of an anti-terrorist campaign in the wake of the London bombings walked out spontaneously in support of 670 workers of mostly Pakistani origin laid off by the Gate Gourmet airline food company.

There are other examples. In September 2005, 18,000 Boeing mechanics struck for three weeks against the new contract proposed by management which aimed at reducing both pensions and health benefits. In this conflict, the workers were fighting against differentials between younger and older workers, and between workers in different factories. Even more explicitly, the strike in the New York metro on the eve of Christmas 2005, against an attack on the pensions for future recruits demonstrated the workers' ability to refuse such attempts at division. Despite massive pressure, the strike was largely solid since the workers were well aware that they were fighting for their children’s future and for the generations to come (which is a slap in the face for all the bourgeois propaganda about the integration or non-existence of the American proletariat).

Last December, the workers of the SEAT factory in Barcelona walked out against the unions who had signed a “shameful agreement” accepting the lay-off of 600 workers.

The summer of 2005 saw Argentina’s biggest strike wave for fifteen years, hitting the health service, food processing companies, and the Buenos Aires metro, and also involving municipal workers in several provinces, and school teachers. In several places, workers from other companies joined the strikers’ demonstrations. This occurred particularly in the case of the oil industry, of office workers in the legal system, of the teachers, and of the municipal workers who were joined by the unemployed at Caleta Olivia. At Neuquen, health service workers joined a demonstration of striking teachers. At one children’s hospital, the strikers demanded the same wage increase for all professional categories. The workers have come up against both fierce repression and slanderous campaigns in the media.

The development of a feeling of solidarity in the face of massive frontal attacks, which are the consequence of capitalism’s economic crisis, is tending to break through the barriers that each national bourgeoisie tries to impose: the trade, the factory or workplace, the company, the branch of industry, nationality. At the same time, the working class is being pushed to take charge of its struggles itself, to assert itself, and little by little to gain confidence in its own strength. In doing so, it comes up against the manoeuvres of the ruling class and the sabotage of the unions as they try to keep the workers isolated. In this long and difficult process of maturation, the presence of the young generations of workers who have not suffered the impact of the ideological retreat after 1989 is an important element in the dynamic. This is why, whatever their limits and weaknesses, today’s struggles are laying the groundwork for those to come, and bear within them the seeds of the development of the class struggle.

The bankruptcy of capitalism and the deepening crisis are the proletariat’s allies

Officially, the world economy is in good health. Unemployment is at its lowest for ten years in the USA, and has been falling for the last year in Europe: Spain’s economy is more dynamic than it has ever been. And yet, there is no respite in the attacks on the working class. On the contrary. In the Detroit region, Ford and General Motors (threatened with bankruptcy) have laid off 60,000 engineering workers. Redundancy plans follow one after another at SEAT in the Barcelona region, and at Fiat in Italy.

Everywhere, the boss state, the supreme representative of the interests of the national capital, is to the fore in attacking the workers: increasing precarious working (the CNE and CPE in France) and labour flexibility, attacking pensions and health benefits (Britain, Germany). Almost everywhere, health and education systems are in crisis. The US bourgeoisie declares that it is not competitive enough because of the weight of pensions on companies’ balance sheets – pensions that are at the mercy of bankruptcies and stock exchange collapse.

This systematic dismantling of the Welfare State (attacks on pensions, on Social Security, on the unemployed through reductions in the dole, waves of redundancies in every country and every branch of industry, the generalisation of precarious working and job flexibility) not only plunges today’s proletarians into poverty, it also means that the system is less and less able to integrate new generations of workers into the productive process.

Everywhere, these attacks are presented as “reforms”, a structural adaptation to the globalisation of the world economy. One of their main characteristics is that they hit both young and old almost simultaneously. The bourgeoisie is not in a state of obvious crisis everywhere, but all these attacks on the working class are demonstrations of capitalism’s historical dead-end, of its utter lack of perspective for the new generations. Those countries which, in Europe, are offered as economic models (Spain, Denmark, Britain) are often those which hide, behind the façade of a “healthy” economy, large-scale attacks on the workers and a serious increase in poverty. The ideological façade does not stand up to reality, as we can see from the example of Britain described in the 1st April issue of Marianne: “The Blair miracle is also one child in three living below the poverty line. One child in five who doesn’t get three meals a day (Tony Blair, in a speech at Toynbee Hall in 1999, promised to ‘eradicate child poverty within a generation’. How many years does the Prime Minister think there are in a generation?). Of these children, almost 100,000 sleep in the bathroom or the kitchen for lack of space: not surprisingly, since you have to go back to 1925 to find a Labour government that has built less council housing than New Labour! Ten million adults are able neither to save, nor to insure the little they have. Six million are unable to clothe themselves properly in winter. Two million households – mostly pensioners – are inadequately heated. It is estimated that 25,000 of the latter died as a result of the cold in 2004”. What better demonstration of the bankruptcy of the capitalist system could there be than its inability not only to provide work for the young, but to protect them from cold, hunger, and poverty!

The riots in the French suburbs are a clear expression of this dead-end. If we look at the world as a “snapshot”, the situation looks desperate. The world is full of unemployment, poverty, war, barbarity, chaos, terrorism, pollution, and insecurity, careless incompetence in the face of natural disasters. After the hammer blow against the older workers and future pensioners, the blows are now falling on the younger workers and future unemployed! Capitalism is openly showing its real face: that of a decadent system with nothing to offer the new generations; a system gangrened by an insoluble economic crisis; a system which since World War II has spent fantastic sums on the production of ever more deadly and sophisticated weapons; a system which, ever since the 1991 Gulf War, has covered the planet in blood notwithstanding the promises of an “era of peace and prosperity” that was supposed to follow the collapse of the Eastern bloc. It is the same bankrupt capitalist system, the same capitalist class at bay, that is dumping millions in poverty and unemployment, and spreading death and destruction in Iraq, the Middle East, and Africa!

But there is hope, as the young generations in France have just shown. By rejecting the CPE, and calling for the support of wage workers and their parents’ generation, they have shown a clear awareness that all generations are affected, that their struggle against the CPE is only a step, and that the attack that the CPE represented is directed against the whole working class.

The bourgeoisie’s hired media not only maintained a blackout lasting several weeks on what was happening in France, around the world, they also systematically distorted events to present the movement against the CPE as a mere repeat of the riots of October-November 2005, endlessly turning the spotlight on the sideshow of confrontations with the police, or of the exploits of the “wreckers” in the demonstrations. Behind the deliberate confusion between the blind and desperate violence of the suburbs last autumn, and the diametrically opposed methods used in the struggle of the student youth and the workers who joined them, lies the deliberate intention of the ruling class to prevent the working class of other countries from developing an awareness that it is both necessary and possible to fight for another future.

This intention on the part of the ruling class is perfectly understandable. Given its class prejudices, it has no clear awareness of the proletarian movement’s perspective, but it nonetheless understands confusedly the importance and the depth of the struggle that has just taken place in France. It is not limited to the working class in France itself. Fundamentally, this is just a moment in an international renewal of the class struggle whose depth expresses, over and above the particular demands around which the student youth mobilised, an increasing rejection by the young generations of the future offered them by the capitalist system, whose increasing attacks on the exploited can only provoke increasingly massive, and above all increasingly conscious, class confrontations, increasingly aware of the solidarity of all workers in struggle.

WIM, 15th April, 2006



[1] See the “Theses on the spring 2006 students’ movement in France” in this issue.

 

See also :