The British government's announcement of the need to 'reform' the pensions system is not unique. Every national bourgeoisie is adopting the same measures: redundancy plans which don't leave any economic sector untouched; relocation of plant and investment; increasing hours of work; dismantling of social protection (pensions, health, unemployment benefits); wage cuts; the growing insecurity of employment and housing; deterioration of working and living conditions. All workers, whether at work or on the dole, whether still active or retired, whether they are in the private sector or the public sector, will from now on be confronted with these attacks on a permanent basis.
In Italy, following attacks on pensions similar to those in France and a wave of redundancies in the FIAT factories, there have been 3700 job cuts (over a sixth of the workforce) at the Alitalia airline.
In Germany, the Socialist and Green government led by Schröder, with an austerity programme baptised 'Agenda 2010', has begun to cut health insurance, increase the policing of work stoppages, increase sickness contributions for all employees, increase pension contributions and raise the retirement age which is already set at 65. At Siemens, with the agreement of the IG-Metall union and under the threat of relocating to Hungary, it is making the workers work between 40 and 48 hours instead of the previous 35 without any wage increase. Other big enterprises are negotiating similar agreements: DeutscheBahn (the German railways), Bosch, Thyssen-Krupp, Continental, as well as the entire car industry (BMW, Opel, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Daimler-Chrysler). It's the same in the Netherlands, where the minister of the economy has announced that the return to the 40 hour week (with no compensatory payments) would be a good way of re-launching the national economy.
The 'Harz IV plan', which is due to come into effect at the beginning of 2005 in Germany, shows the direction that all bourgeoisies, and first and foremost those in Europe, have begun to take: reducing the length and amount of unemployment benefits and making it harder to obtain them, notably by forcing people to accept offers of employment which pay a lot less than the jobs they have lost.
These attacks are not limited to Europe but are taking place on a world scale. While the Canadian aircraft builder Bombardier Aerospace intends to cut between 2000 and 2500 jobs, the US telecommunications firm AT&T has announced 12,300 lay-offs, General Motors 10,000 more, posing a threat to its Swedish and German plants, and the Bank of America has announced 4500 lay-offs in addition to the 12,500 from last April. In the USA, where unemployment is reaching record levels, more than 36 million people, 12.5% of the population, live below the poverty line. In 2003 1.5 million more people had precarious jobs while 45 million are deprived of any social protection.
And all this without mentioning the terrible conditions of exploitation facing workers in the 'third world', where there is a race to lower wages as a result of frenzied competition on the world market.
Most of these attacks are presented as indispensable 'reforms'. The capitalist state and each national bourgeoisie claim that it is acting in the general interest, for the good of the people. In order to get workers to accept sacrifices, it claims that these 'reforms' are all about 'solidarity' between 'citizens', that they will make society fairer and more equal, as opposed to any defence of egoistic privileges. When the ruling class talks about greater equality, its real aim is to reduce the living standards of the working class. In the 19th century, when capitalism was expanding, the reforms carried out by the bourgeoisie really did tend to raise the living standards of the working class; today capitalism can't offer any real reforms. All these pseudo-reforms are not the sign of capitalism's prosperity, but of its irreversible bankruptcy.
Workers begin to respond
Despite the strength of union control over the struggles, despite workers' hesitation to enter into the fray, it has become clear that the working class is beginning to respond to these attacks of the bourgeoisie, even if this revival is still a long way below the level of the attacks themselves. The mobilisation of the Italian tram drivers and the British postal workers and firefighters in the winter of 2003, then the movements of the FIAT workers at Melfi in the south of Italy in the spring against redundancy plans were already signs of a revival of class militancy. The wide-scale movements in France and Austria against pension 'reforms' in the spring of 2003 provided definite proof that there is a real change of mood in the class; and today there are many more examples to be added.
In Germany last July, more than 60,000 workers at Mercedes-Daimler-Chrysler took part in strikes and demonstrations against threats and ultimatums by the bosses. The latter demanded that workers either accept certain 'sacrifices' regarding their working conditions, increase productivity, and accept job-cuts or face the relocation of the plants to other sites. Not only did the workers of Siemens, Porsche, Bosch and Alcatel, who all faced similar attacks, take part in these mobilisations; at the same time, when the bosses tried to stir up divisions between the workers of different factories, many workers from Bremen, where the jobs were to be relocated, associated themselves with the demonstrations. This is a very significant embryo of workers' solidarity.
In Spain, the workers at the shipyards of Puerto Real and San Fernando in Andalusia, as well as Ferrol in Galicia, launched a very determined movement against privatisation plans that involved thousands of job-cuts. The unions, which had already prepared a 'calendar of mobilisations', were taken aback by the workers' militancy. On 17 September, the workers of Ferrol decided in a general assembly, against the advise of the unions, to demonstrate outside the headquarters of the ruling Socialist Party. In San Fernando the workers spontaneously decided to march through the town. Part time workers and workers on insecure contracts often joined the movement. To keep control of the movement, the unions changed strategy, leaving the programme of mobilisations 'open' to such initiatives and allowing the base unionists to take them over. Even though the movement was dominated by traditional union actions aimed at derailing workers' anger into dead ends (such as blockading motorways and railways as at Sestao, often resulting in futile confrontations with the police), the newest and most significant aspect of these struggles was a push towards seeking the solidarity of workers in other sectors. Again at San Fernando, the unions were forced to organise a one-day general strike and demonstration which was the biggest in the town's history.
More recently, a demonstration organised by the unions and 'alternative worldists' in Berlin on 2 October, which was supposed to 'close' a series of 'Monday protests' against the government's Hartz IV plan, attracted 45,000 people. On the same day, a gigantic demonstration took place in Amsterdam against the government's plans, and it had been preceded by important regional mobilisations. Officially there were 200,000 participants, constituting the biggest demonstration in the country for ten years. Despite the main slogan of the demo, "No to the government, yes to the unions", the most spontaneous reaction of the participants themselves was surprise and astonishment at the size of the demo. It should also be remembered that the Netherlands, alongside Belgium, was one of the first countries to see a revival of workers' struggles in the autumn of 1983.
On October 14, 9400 workers from the Opel factory in Bochum, in the industrial heart of the Ruhr, came out on strike as soon as General Motors had announced its plans for massive redundancies across Europe (see our leaflet on this situation), and during union-led strikes in General Motors plants in other countries workers expressed real sentiments of class solidarity. Opel workers at Zaragosa in Spain stopped production in support of "comrades in Germany". In Silesia in Poland workers said "today it's the Germans' turn, tomorrow it will be ours", while German workers were quoted as saying "the policy of the bosses is to set the wage earners of Europe against each other". However, we have to remember that these Europe-wide union mobilisations also have the aim of diverting class solidarity into nationalist anti-Americanism (GM being a US-owned multinational).
Conscious of its responsibility in the slow maturation of consciousness going on in the class, the ICC has intervened very actively in these struggles. It produced leaflets and distributed them widely in Germany in July and in Spain in September. On 2 October, both in Berlin and Amsterdam, the ICC achieved record sales for its press, as it did during the struggles of spring 2003 in France
This situation opens up new perspectives. Even though these struggles are sporadic, the fact that they have involved large numbers of workers in important proletarian concentrations, and the fact that they have followed one after the other, show that they are not a flash in the plan. Each of these movements is a sign of the reflection going on in the working class. The accumulation of attacks by the bourgeoisie is bound to sap illusions that the ruling class is trying to spread. Workers are becoming increasingly anxious about the future which this system of exploitation has in store for their children, for the future generations. Above all, the recent struggles reveal the beginnings of an awareness that workers everywhere are facing the same attacks, and that they can only fight back as a class pitted against capitalism in all countries.