In the first ten months of 2003 there have been large scale struggles involving workers from a range of sectors struggling with a determination unknown since the 1980s. In May and June millions of workers in France demonstrated against attacks on pensions. In Austria there were a series of demonstrations, also against attacks on pensions, culminating on 3 June with the largest demonstration seen since the Second World War when a million people took to the streets (this is in a country with a population that's less than 10 million).
There have also been significant, unofficial, isolated, spontaneous struggles: the wildcat strike by BA workers at Heathrow, the unofficial strike by up to 1000 workers at Alcatel-Espace in Toulouse in June, and in August 2,000 contract workers at an oil refinery in Puertollano (Spain) went on unofficial strike after an accident that killed 7 workers. In September up to 2,000 Humberside shipyard workers, from three different firms, went on unofficial strike in support of 98 subcontract workers who had been sacked for demanding another £1.95 an hour. There is also the current strike among postal workers in Britain, currently involving at least 20,000 workers.
There have been a growing number of struggles in most European countries, along with struggles in the US. For example, in California there have been strikes on the public transport system in Los Angeles which through solidarity action closed down bus lines, the underground and light rail transport. A strike of 70,000 supermarket workers in California has affected nearly 900 stores in the first such action in 25 years.
In Greece there has been a wave of strikes in the public sector involving thousands of workers including teachers, medical staff, fire-fighters and coast guards. Other strata such as 15,000 Athenian taxi drivers have also been on strike and demonstrated.
After 14 years with no large-scale mobilisations, record low levels of strikes in the main capitalist countries and the ruling class proclaiming the end of the class struggle, these recent struggles are the expression of a change in the social situation. What these struggles mean
To fully understanding the meaning and implication of these struggles it is necessary to put them in their historic context. On the immediate level the struggles of this year are not that different from those in other periods of struggle since 1989. In 1993 there were huge demonstrations in Italy against attacks on pensions, in 1995 there was a large scale class movement in response to similar attacks in France. However, this year we have seen simultaneous movements, struggles following each other and the growth of small but significant unofficial struggles. Above all, these struggles have unfolded in a context of growing unease in the working class about the future capitalism holds for it.
At the time of the struggles in France comparisons were made with May 68. We did not see this year as being a new 68, but the comparison does highlight the importance of the factor of workers' embryonic questioning of capitalism.
"In 1968 one of the main factors in the resurgence of the working class and its struggles on the scene of history at the international level, was the brutal end of the illusions encouraged by the period of reconstruction, which for a whole generation had offered the working class full employment and clear improvements in its living conditions after the unemployment of the 1930s and the rationing and famine of the war and the immediate post-war period. With the first expressions of the open crisis, the working class felt itself under attack not only in its living conditions and working conditions, but also in terms of a blockage in the perspectives for the future, of a new period of increasing economic and social stagnation as a result of the world crisis. The size of the workers' struggles following May 1968 and the reappearance of the revolutionary perspective showed clearly that the bourgeoisie's mystifications about the 'consumer society' and the 'bourgeoisification' of the working class were wearing thing. Though we must keep things in proportion, there are analogies between the present attacks and the situation at that time. Obviously there is no question of identifying the two periods. 1968 was a major historical event which marked the emergence from more than four decades of counter-revolution. It had an impact on the international proletariat incomparably greater than the present situation.
Nonetheless today, we are witnessing a collapse of what appeared in a sense as a consolation after years in the prison of wage labour, and which has been one of the pillars that has allowed the system to hang on for 20 years: retirement at the age of 60, with the possibility at that age of enjoying life free from many material constraints. Today, workers are being forced to abandon the illusion of being able to escape for the last years of their life from what is increasingly experienced as a purgatory: a working environment where there are always too few people for the job, the amount of work is constantly increasing, and the rhythm of work is constantly speeding up. Either they will have to work for longer which means a reduction in the length of the period when they could at last hope to escape from wage labour, or else because they have not contributed for long enough they will be reduced to a wretched poverty where deprivation takes the place of overwork. For every worker, this new situation poses the question of the future." ('The massive attacks of capital demand a mass response from the working class' International Review 114).
This questioning is strengthened by the experience of the proletariat over the last 14 years. With the collapse of the eastern bloc the proletariat was thrown into a profound retreat. The collapse left workers feeling helpless as the whole international situation changed, with the world engulfed in chaos. At the same time the ruling class used the collapse and the growing economic 'boom' of the 1990s to push the idea that the class struggle was dead and that workers had to see themselves as citizens who had a stake in society. These campaigns crashed into the reality of the recession from the beginning of the new century and the subsequent bursting of the internet bubble and the tidal wave of lay-offs that has been sweeping the US, Europe and the rest of the world. At the same time, across Europe, in the US and beyond, capitalist states have been attacking the welfare state; cuts in unemployment pay and entitlement, cuts in pensions, attacks on health, education etc. All of which has shown the working class what capitalism has to offer and generated a determination among workers to respond to attacks on pensions and other parts of the social wage.
The smaller, isolated, unofficial struggles express a growing discontent in the proletariat against accepting attacks imposed by the bosses and unions. The Heathrow check-in staff, not known for their militancy, simply could not stomach yet another attack or the union's complicity, so they walked out. The fact that such a small number of workers could cause such concern to the bosses, unions and media was a graphic example of the fact that the ruling class know that something is changing in the social situation The perspective
The potential contained in the present situation is of historic importance. Today is not the same as 1968, the class is not emerging from a period of historic defeat lasting decades, but from a decade or more of retreat. And before 1989 there had been 20 years of waves of struggles. Thus, the present generations of workers have potentially over 30 years experience of confronting the attacks and manoeuvres of the ruling class to draw on. This, combined with the questioning being produced by the increasingly global nature of the attacks, could provide the conditions for the taking of important steps towards the eventual decisive class confrontations between the proletariat and bourgeoisie, which will determine whether the proletariat has the ability to go onto the revolutionary offensive. Class identity, the key question for the working class.
Central to this perspective will be the ability of the proletariat to regain and strengthen its class identity. By 'class identity' we mean the understanding of being part of a class, one with common interests to defend. This sense of class will be the basis for eventually taking struggles onto another level through their extension and self-organisation.
The nature of the attacks is providing the grounds for this to happen. The dismantling of the 'social buffers' of the welfare state, along with the intensification of exploitation in the factories, offices, hospitals etc and the growth of mass unemployment (over 5 million in Germany, 10% of the working population, levels of lay offs in the US unknown for decades, 800,000 manufacturing jobs lost in the UK since 1997, etc) confront workers with the stark reality of capitalism: either work your guts out to produce surplus value or rot in poverty.
For decades the ruling class have tried to use the welfare state to soften the impact of capitalism on the working class, but now the truth of what Marx said in Capital is becoming clearer: "Capitalist commodity production is thus the first economic formation in the history of humanity in which unemployment and the destitution of one large and growing layer of the population, and the direct helpless poverty of another, also growing layer, are not merely the result, but also a necessity, a condition for the existence of this economy. Insecurity of existence of the whole of the working population and chronic want... have for the first time become a normal social phenomena" (Capital Vol. 1). Counter-attack of the bourgeoisie
The ruling class is fully aware of the threat posed by the working class. The capitalist state has a whole apparatus for dealing with workers' actions: the trade unions, democracy, leftists, courts, police etc. Nonetheless, its greatest fear is that the workers will develop their class identity and on the basis of this begin to pose political questions about the nature of capitalism, and the need for an alternative.
Thus, when the French bourgeoisie had to carry out a frontal attack on the working class it did all it could to stop this generating a sense of class identity. The unions and left presented it as a struggle against a 'hard line' right wing government, rather than capitalism being the cause. All sectors of the population were mobilised. And they also made an example of the teachers, whose struggle suffered a brutal defeat. In Austria the unions were also able to contain the anger within demonstrations and limited strikes. In Germany, the ruling class was able to use the struggles in France and Austria to stir up a struggle of engineering workers in the East, which, through the demand for equal pay with workers in West, stoked up divisions. They were able to turn workers' anger against other workers who did not join the strike.
The latter attack was an expression of the wider problem of decomposition that the proletariat will face in its struggles. The growing decay of the social fabric works against the development of class identity because it breeds the idea of each against all. Each individual or sector of workers is encouraged to just be concerned with their every day survival, even if that means doing down your fellow workers. During the teachers struggle in France, the radical trade unions encouraged the idea of the most militant workers trying to impose the struggle on other workers by blocking schools, roads etc, leading to hostility between workers and profound demoralisation. In Spain (Puertollano) the unions kept the subcontracted workers' struggle separated from the permanent workers, again leading to hostility and demoralisation.
The ruling class is very sophisticated and has much experience to draw on in its struggle against the proletariat. It is essential to understand this, because to underestimate the capacity of the class enemy is to disarm the working class. Today's struggles are only the first unsteady steps in the opening up of a period of the potential development of the class struggle. The bourgeoisie is going to do all it can to undermine, divert and corrupt working class combativity and its deepening consciousness.
The working class is faced with an enormous challenge. There is going to be a long and torturous development of struggles marked by defeats and set-backs. Workers will need to confront the devastating effects of the deepening crisis: mass unemployment and poverty. Entering into struggle is a very difficult process, but the serious reflection that has to accompany the development of struggles gives them more political significance. The development of the struggle will also enable the proletariat to begin to draw out the lessons it had already started to grasp in the 1980s, in particular on the role of the unions and the need to spread struggles beyond one sector. This whole process will be fed by and stimulate the wider questioning of the capitalist system. The changing social situation is a great historical challenge, but there is not any guarantee that the class and its revolutionary minorities will be able to meet it. This will depend on the determination and will of the class and its minorities.