Workers respond to the world-wide crisis

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During the summer there was no break for the class struggle. In Britain, strikes by postal workers, on the London underground and in the public sector expressed a growing discontent within the working class. In the post office 50,000 jobs have gone in recent years and now another 40,000 are threatened. On the tube, following the collapse of Metronet, there are threats to both jobs and conditions. These are the reasons workers struggle: to fight against attacks on their working and living conditions.

There will be no let up in these attacks because of the state of the capitalist economy. Its crisis is worsening and compelling the ruling class everywhere to do everything to cut costs, regardless of its impact on workers.

The economic crisis is international and so is the struggle of the working class.

In the last issue of WR, for example, we recorded how in South Africa in June the working class mounted the biggest strike there since the end of apartheid in 1994. During July and August the struggles continued. There was an unofficial strike in Durban during the building of one of the stadiums for the 2010 World Cup. There have been strikes by car workers, by miners, in a range of manufacturing industries, by health workers and metal workers. Many petrol stations were closed down as a result of a strike in the fuel sector. At two platinum mines 3250 workers were dismissed following an unofficial strike in which workers from one company came out in solidarity with those from another (the unions subsequently helping one of the companies recruit to replace those sacked). In a series of actions in July there were strikes in the six tyre-manufacturing plants of Dunlop, Goodyear, Bridgestone and Continental.

These are only some representative examples of the development of recent workers' struggles in South Africa. The scale might not be typical, but they are definitely part of the international recovery of the class struggle that has been underway since 2003.

Earlier on this year (WR 302, 304) we wrote about the wave of illegal strikes that swept a number of sectors of Egyptian industry. For a country that is supposed to be one of the economic success stories of the Middle East, there is a remarkable amount of enduring discontent and already a developing understanding of the need for class solidarity across the divisions of trade and enterprise. There were also attempts to crush the movement by force.

In Latin America struggles have also been developing. In Mexico it was reported that strikes had hit 3715 enterprises in the first 6 months of this year, the highest figure in 15 years. In Peru during the spring there was an indefinite nation-wide strike of coal miners - the first in 20 years. This was followed soon afterwards by a nation-wide teachers' strike. In Argentina during May and June, Buenos Aires metro workers held general assemblies and organised a strike against a pay ‘deal' concocted by their own union. In Brazil in March this year 120 air traffic controllers, in reaction to the dangerous state of air travel in the country and the threat to imprison 16 of their number for striking, stopped work, paralysing 49 of the country's 67 airports. This action was particularly remarkable because this sector is mostly subject to military discipline. The workers nevertheless resisted the intense pressure of the state up to and including denigration by the supposed friend of the workers - President Lula himself. The warnings by the controllers about safety in Brazilian airports were tragically confirmed in July by the disaster at Sao Paulo airport that cost nearly 200 lives.

Also in Brazil, for several weeks in June, a widespread strike movement affected the steel sector, the public sector, and universities - the most important class movement in this country since 1986.

Workers are also struggling in the richest countries

Of course a cynic might say that it's inevitable that in the ‘developing' world, where the poorest countries have lost out to the major powers of Europe, Japan and the US, it's easy to see why workers will struggle, while questioning the tendency of the struggle to develop in the countries with the strongest economies. It would be mistaken to view the situation in this way. Just a glance at the most recent examples of the class struggle in Europe gives us plenty of demonstrations of the direction things are going.

In early July at Oostakker in Belgium, there was an unofficial strike at a Volvo factory during a pay dispute, with workers walking out while the unions continued ‘negotiations' for an improved offer. Also in Belgium at the Opel plant in Antwerp there has been a whole series of strikes and protests (many of them unofficial) against the massive loss of jobs that will result from a major re-organisation.

In Spain, during April, there was a demonstration of 40,000 workers from all the enterprises in the Bay of Cadiz, expressing their solidarity in struggle with those sacked at Delphi. In May there was an even bigger movement that mobilised workers from other provinces of Andalusia. This movement of solidarity was result of the active search for support by the Delphi workers, of their families and notably their wives who organised in a collective to win the widest possible solidarity.

At about the same time spontaneous walkouts, outside of union control, took place at Airbus plants in several European countries to protest against the company's austerity plan. These strikes often involved young workers, a new generation that has already played a very active part in these struggles. In Nantes and Saint-Nazaire in France there was a real will to develop active solidarity with the striking production workers of Toulouse.

In Germany there was a series of strikes over six weeks by 50,000 Telecom workers. There have also been numerous wildcat strikes by Italian airport workers and others.

And the USA has not been immune from struggle, despite its continuing reputation for having the highest productivity in the world. As it says in a major article in Internationalism 143 (publication of our section in the US) "The working class in the US has been totally part of this resurgence. As in other countries workers in the US have been pushed by the relentless attacks on their working and living conditions by a capitalist system mired in a permanent economic crisis, to defend themselves and leave behind the period of disorientation characteristic of the decade of the 90's. As we have pointed out in our press the high point of this trend was the three-day strike by New York City transit workers over the holiday season in December 2005. However this was not an isolated incident but rather the clearest manifestation of a tendency of the class to come back to the path of the struggle as seen in the grocery worker' struggle in California in 2004 and the struggles at Boeing, North West Airlines and Philadelphia transit in 2005. This same tendency to return to the path of the struggle continued in 2006, as expressed in particular by the two-week teachers' wildcat strike in Detroit in September and the walkout by more than 12,000 workers at 16 Goodyear Tire & Rubber plants in the US and Canada in October of the same year."

The article also reminds us of the central characteristics of the current phase of the class struggle:

"The emergence of a new generation of workers facing for the first time its class enemy.

The posing of the question of class solidarity both within the class as a whole and between the generations of workers.

The recovery of the historic methods and forms of struggle of the working class - mass assemblies, the mass strike.

A growing consciousness of the stakes contained in the present historical situation."

The ruling class responds with violence, threats and lies

We cannot talk about the struggle of the working class without looking at the response of the bosses, the bourgeoisie, and the capitalist states, all intensely alive to the threat of the class struggle. And here there are some differences between the responses in different countries.

In Guinea, for example, during January and February there was a strike movement that gripped the whole country in a struggle against starvation wages and food price inflation. Against this movement there was bloody repression that left over 100 people dead. In Mozambique, in July there was an unofficial strike of 4000 cane cutters. When security guards fired on their picket line one died and others were seriously hurt. In South Africa police recently fired rubber bullets at a picket line at a platinum mine. In Korea, throughout a series of sit-ins at an E.Land hypermarket chain over several weeks, there have been a number of attacks by thousands of riot police to drag workers away, often beating them up. Repression is a basic response from the ruling class to workers' struggles.

In the face of all the propaganda about the Chinese economic ‘miracle', it is important to remember that this has been accompanied by workers' struggles and that the Chinese bourgeoisie often resorts to violence. A recent report from libcom for example reports: "800 striking miners at the Tanjiashan Coal Mine in Hubei Province fought hired security guards for two hours last week after they attempted to break a six day strike. Radio Free Asia reported that the security guards set about the workers and in the ensuing clash at least one worker and one security guard died."

Apart from straightforward violent repression, there are other ways in which the state attacks workers and their struggles. For example, in Zimbabwe, because of sky-high inflation, Mugabe's government has introduced a freeze on salaries, wages, rents, service charges, prices and school fees. According to Reuters "More than 7,500 business people have been arrested and fined for breaching price controls" and Mugabe "has accused some businesses of raising prices as part of what he calls a Western plot to oust him". So, while wages are frozen, and real inflation continues in the informal economy regardless of the official cost of commodities, Mugabe makes a show of ‘curbing' those who raise prices and says the whole thing is nothing to do with the state of the economy but is a all a plot by foreigners, thereby fuelling anti-working class nationalism.

This might sound crude, but the bourgeoisies of the most developed nations are quite capable of making direct threats or resorting to blackmail. In France, for example the election of Sarkozy has brought in a campaign for the country to change its ways and follow the ruthless approach of Anglo-American capitalism. Or, in the US, General Motors and Ford, both wanting to massively cut costs, have threatened that production could easily be moved from the US to somewhere like Mexico or Thailand, where workers are paid significantly less.

But while repression shows the true face of capitalism, and thinly veiled threats can still be quite brutal in their implications, they are not the only weapons our exploiters have at their disposal. Most dangerous of all are the slogans of the left and the unions. They speak openly of struggle, but in union campaigns. They say that we must fight, but for something like nationalisations. This summer's strikes by postal workers showed what we all have to face. The left and the unions shouted about the dangers of privatisation, yet all the attacks have been undertaken by the nationalised Royal Mail. In the event of an election they will be vehemently against the Tories getting back, which effectively means agreeing to the return of the Labour government of the last ten years. And as the crisis-ridden reality of the economy becomes impossible to hide they will all demand increasing state intervention in every aspect of social life.

When we look to the best of the struggles since 2003, we can see that the working class is only strong when it fights for its own interests, with its own methods, and for its own goals. Whether facing open state violence, or the more subtle sabotage of the left and unions inside the struggle, the necessity remains for the workers to organise themselves as a social force in its own right, independent from the unions and parties which are no more than agents of the capitalist state.

WR 6/9/7 (Based partly on an article in International Review 130)