The ‘financial crisis' is the top story in the bourgeois media. Wall to wall coverage helps to obscure the international movement of the working class which alone can provide a solution to the crisis.
The International Labour Organisation has said that in industrialised countries wages will fall 0.5% during 2009. Based on past research the Global Wage Report 2008/9 shows that for each 1% drop in GDP per capita average wages fall by 1.55%. Recessions hit workers hardest. The Director General of the ILO admitted that "For the world's 1.5 billion wage-earners, difficult times lie ahead." In particular "Slow or negative economic growth, combined with highly volatile food and energy prices, will erode the real wages of many workers, particularly the low-wage and poorer households." In addition the ILO predicts that that the global financial crisis will make at least 20 million more people unemployed. Already, in November the US economy lost 533,000 jobs, the biggest monthly job loss since 1974; and at the time of writing the ‘Big Three' car companies in the US, Ford, GM and Chrysler are on the verge of collapse and have gone cap in hand to Washington, desperate for the government to bail them out. In Britain, unemployment figures for November were the worst for 11 years. The same story could be told all over the world.
For the working class the crisis arrived a long time before banks started collapsing and stock markets panicked. Workers have already been struggling against the impact of the economic crisis throughout the last five years. These struggles are not yet massive, but they are already significant, facing the manoeuvres of the unions and repression from the state.
Who controls the struggle?
In Italy government plans to cut more than 130,000 jobs in the education sector (two thirds of them actual teaching posts) led to a wave of protests for several weeks in October and November. There were hundreds of occupations of schools and universities, hundreds of demonstrations, all sorts of meetings, and lecturers taking their lessons into public places, open to all. Despite government accusations that this was all a left-wing plot, the protests were mostly not run by traditional opposition parties. Occupations involved both teachers and pupils. Demonstrations attracted parents, teachers, pupils, students and other workers. At the end of October there was a massive demonstration in Rome. Even allowing for the exaggerations of demo organisers (they claimed more then a million were on the street) this attracted hundreds of thousands from a whole range of sectors.
Alongside the protests were strikes in other sectors, both private and public; in particular, in early November, a one-day national transport strike that affected trains, buses and metros. There have also been unofficial strikes by Alitalia staff. As an article in the International Herald Tribune (11/11/8) said of unrest at the bankrupt airline: "The unions themselves dissociated themselves from the strike." It also quoted an academic airline analyst: "My feeling is that these wildcat strikes are semi-spontaneous and the results of a small minority, which seems to point to the fact that the various unions have increasingly diminished control over their members." Here's a frank acknowledgement that a) the unions' function is to control workers, not fight for them and b) increasingly they're finding it difficult to do this job. This describes a situation that's not unique to Italy, but has worldwide relevance.
Unions sell the crisis
600,000 engineering workers were involved in a series of rolling strikes, demonstrations and rallies in Germany in early November. With different actions in different places or in different companies on different days, this divided workers' energies and undermined the possibility of a united struggle. It was organised that way by the IGMetall union as part of its strategy before negotiations with employers that would affect 3.6 million workers. IGMetall threatened an all-out strike to back up an 8 percent pay demand, but in the end settled for an 18-month deal that give a 2.1% rise from February followed by another 2.1% from May. Having limited the potential of workers' struggles in the first place "Berthold Huber, IG Metall general secretary, said the result was ‘fair' given the ‘historically difficult situation'" (Financial Times 12/11/8). The plea for workers to make sacrifices for capitalism's ‘difficult situation' will surely soon wear thin through repetition.
Echoing the protests in Italy, in mid-November school students walked out of classes and 100,000 joined protest demonstrations in over 40 German cities. The anger at the conditions in which they work (overcrowded classes, not enough teachers, the intense pressure of exams etc) shows that the education system has not yet succeeded in preparing them to passively accept their future conditions when they will be working for wages.
Struggles across Europe
During October there was a wave of strikes in Greece. It culminated in a nationwide one-day strike that involved the public sector, transport etc, as well as hundreds of thousands of workers from the private sector. Still dominated by the unions, the demands ranged from those that directly affected workers (pay, pensions) to issues that the ruling class builds campaigns around, like privatisation and opposition to government bail-outs of the main banks. It is noteworthy that there was also a general strike of shop workers - the day after. Yet again the unions divide and rule
There was also a wave of school occupations, some 300 across Greece during October. The government challenged the occupations' legality and arrested students involved in demonstrations. Similar protests have been going on since new legislation was introduced in 2005.
In France during November there was a 4-day strike on Air France, and a national 36-hour rail strike.
During October there was a nationwide strike in Belgium affecting a number of sectors protesting over rising prices.
China is no exception
There was once foolish speculation that the Chinese economy could rescue the rest of world capitalism, or at least withstand the deepening crisis. In reality, such an export-led economy was bound to suffer when its customers started cutting back. Far from remaining aloof from the financial crisis, in mid-November "China unveiled a huge fiscal stimulus package designed to prevent its economy from slumping next year" (Financial Times 10/11/8). This involved a massive package of projects aimed at increasing domestic demand in the face of declining exports. With a value of nearly a fifth of Chinese GDP it rivals the measures introduced by states in Europe and the US.
In October the Financial Times (29/10/8) had already reported that "Signs are growing that China's economy could be cooling quicker than expected, with a string of big industrial companies announcing production cuts over the past week." This, in turn, should be put in the context of the official statistics for the first half of the year that admitted at least 67,000 factory closures. This could easily be in six-figures by the end of the year. With millions having left the country for the cities no wonder the Chinese Minister of Human Resources and Social Security said the employment situation in China is "grim."
This is the real state of the economy and there have already been extensive responses.
"China has told police to ensure stability amid the global financial crisis after thousands of people attacked police and government offices in a northwestern city in unrest triggered by a plan to resettle residents. After decades of solid economic growth, China is battling an unknown as falling demand for its products triggers factory closures, sparks protests and raises fears of popular unrest." There have already been "labour protests in the country's major export regions, where thousands of factories have closed in recent months, prompting fears the global financial crisis could stir wider popular unrest (Reuters 19/11/8)."
Today in China there are protests against rising prices and unemployment. With future job losses already forecast in their millions it is easy to see why the Chinese state is concerned about the prospects for social stability. The fact that the police are its weapon of choice shows that Chinese capitalism doesn't expect to have an economic answer to the effects of the global crisis, and will have to resort, as usual, to repression against workers' struggles. That doesn't preclude the possibility that the ruling class there will allow a certain development of ‘independent' trade unions, since the latter would be far more effective at absorbing social discontent than the official unions.
The crisis of capitalism is worldwide. But so is the response of the working class. What is needed above all is for workers to become conscious of the real dimension and significance of their struggles, because they contain the seeds of a global challenge to this tottering social order.