The wave of austerity measures that governments across Europe have imposed because of recession and the debt mountain that stem from capitalism’s economic crisis has been met with a mixed response from the working class. We have seen the rise of the ‘indignados’ in Spain and the angry demonstrations and assemblies in Greece, but there are other countries where workers’ discontent is more held back by the actions of the unions.
On the rack in Portugal
Already the poorest country in Western Europe, Portugal, like Ireland and Greece, has had a bailout package from the IMF and EU. As things stand the Portuguese economy is predicted to shrink by 3.3% in 2012, with no serious economist expecting the economy to pick up in 2013. There will probably be a need for a second bailout before long.
The crisis has led to an array of attacks on basic standards of life. The government has privatised several industries, cut public sector jobs/wages/services, cut welfare benefits, frozen pensions and put up a whole range of taxes. A rise in the mortality rate in February, with a thousand more deaths than usual, is being attributed to the increased costs of heating and health care.
General strikes in November 2010 and November 2011, although expressing workers’ anger, were very much under the control of the unions. More recently the Portuguese government has introduced new labour laws to make it easier to sack workers, to reduce holidays and cut redundancy money. One of the union federations, the UGT, signed up to these measures in January in a pact with the government and employers. The Stalinist federation, the CGTP, declared itself against the latest attacks, denouncing them as, among other things, a “return to feudalism”. The attacks are in reality the latest expression of the crisis of capitalism, and the actions of the Stalinist ‘opposition’ have held back the response of workers. On 22 March there was a further general strike. The ‘Socialist’ UGT was not participating, and the lack of coordination between the demonstrations called by the CGTP and others further served to divide up the energies of different groups of workers. It was also significant that it was mainly workers from the public sector who were involved. There were clashes with the police, who also beat up a number of individuals. However, it’s not just the threat of state violence that workers have to be wary of; the union straitjacket holds workers back everywhere.
Struggle in Spain
Similar measures in Spain have also led to a general strike, the first in 18 months. Recent government measures make it easier to lay workers off and cut wages. This is in a country where half of those under 25 are out of work (the highest rate in the EU) and the overall rate is officially 24%: that’s 5.3million in a population of 47million. The union organisers of the 29 March strike claimed that millions were on the street, attending demonstrations in 110 locations with 80% of the workforce involved. More realistic observers suggested that hundreds of thousands were on the street, which could easily translate into an impressive number on strike. Clashes with the police in a number of places underlined the depth of workers’ anger, and the force that the state has at its disposal.
The trouble is, these union controlled processions provide an outlet for discontent, but are not part of an effective fight. Over the last year there have been two general strikes in Portugal, more than ten in Greece, not as expressions of workers’ discontent but as a means of diverting it. Workers’ anger is channelled into actions that only lead to frustration and a sense of impotence.
On demonstrations in Spain on 29 March the ICC distributed a leaflet that showed where the strength of the working class lies. Any movement that leads towards the holding of workers’ assemblies is a real step forward for the struggle. Against union parades it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of assembles. Holding workplace or street meetings to discuss, to exchange experiences and develop new initiatives – this is a vital means of developing workers’ organisation and consciousness.
The ICC also published on our Spanish website other leaflets produced by radicalised minorities coming out of recent workers’ struggles or the Indignados movement. Their common denominator was the concern to advocate the active participation of the greatest number of workers – which necessarily implies challenging the trade union control of the demonstrations and rallies. As the leaflet of the 15M Assembly Castellón put it:
“At the end of the demonstration we will go the Ma Agustina so that those who agreed yesterday can try to take the stage and read our statement. If that is not possible to do what we agreed:
- begin to shout “we want to talk” for a period of time
- to shout “freedom of expression”
- finally if that still doesn’t work, to leave with a great commotion shouting “they do not represent us”
- to head towards the Las Aulas
On the theme to be discussed at the end of the demonstration, as was proposed on Wednesday, a letter will be communicated to the main trade unions on Monday which will ask what is the order of speakers at the end in order to know when we will be able to speak”.
Two other appeals are published in this edition of World Revolution
The reason these initiatives are so important is that the attacks of the bourgeoisie are not letting up; on the contrary they are being intensified. On the day after the 29 March strike the Spanish government announced a further 27 billion euros worth of cuts. Central government spending will be cut by a further 17%, public sector workers’ pay is frozen, and fuel bills will go up with tax on gas on electricity. The Finance Minister said it was the most austere budget since 1977. Some commentators criticised the proposals for not cutting enough. The cuts are supposed to keep costs down, but will just as likely further contribute to the deepening of recession.
Against the attacks of the bourgeoisie many have been tempted to emigrate. Maybe half a million have left Greece; a majority of Spanish and Portuguese youth are reportedly considering emigration. But, apart from such choices always being attempts at individual solutions to widespread problems, this ignores the international reality of the capitalist crisis from which no country is immune.
In Germany the lowest unemployment figures in two decades have just been announced. Yet the evidence of a series of strikes in March in the German public sector shows that, whatever the differences between national economies, workers’ anger is an international phenomenon. It’s true that in the latest strikes in Germany workers have been, to a certain extent, used as pawns in pay negotiations between unions and government, but there is clearly real discontent. Ultimately, an international workers’ struggle is the only response to the attacks brought on by an international capitalist economic crisis. Car 30/3/12
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