Millions of workers took strike action across Europe on Wednesday 14 November following a call from the ETUC to protest at austerity writes Fred Leplat. The call for a European-wide day of protest from the normally very cautious ETUC is indicative of both the scale of the crisis and of the increased receptiveness for action and cooperation in struggles across Europe.
General strikes were held in Spain and Portugal, while industrial action and demonstrations were organised in Italy, Belgium, Greece, Malta, Cyprus and France. The unprecedented co-ordinated trade-union action took place as it was announced that the eurozone was entering into a double-dip recession with the crisis in Portugal, Spain and Greece spreading to other countries in the currency bloc.
Massive, angry and militant demonstrations were held in many countries. In Madrid, demonstrators forced the closure of shops by pulling down their shutters and more than 80% of members followed the call for strike by the unions. The protests were particularly well supported in Portugal with hundreds of flights cancelled, and even embassies and consulates abroad closed. According to the Financial Times, the “participation in the strike by a number of small shopkeepers and family businesses signalled that a previous broad consensus in Portugal over the need for austerity was growing fragile.”
Solidarity protests were held in Norway, Germany, France and around Britain. In London, the Coalition of Resistance organised a protest outside the offices of the European Union which attracted 500 people who then went on to a rally an indoor rally with live links to Spain, Portugal and Greece. The next TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady told the crowd outside the EU office that austerity had “unleashed misery” across Europe but that it was “business as usual” for those who caused the crisis. PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka said that the action around Europe “raises the question why is this not happening today in Britain?”
The widespread and massive mobilisation occurred in those countries hardest hit by the crisis. In Greece, people have seen their purchasing power drop by 35% over three years and unemployment rise to 25% while the government last week deepens austerity with a package which includes another 150,000 civil servants being sacked by 2015. Spain, also with over 25% unemployment, has seen over 400,000 people being evicted by the banks as people are unable to pay off their mortgages. With just over 20% of the cuts yet to come in Britain, the big battles are ahead, and the need is urgent to organise more than a national demonstration every 18 months.
The mobilisations of the 14 November demonstrate that despite four years of austerity, the working class in many countries is still angry, undaunted and resisting. But despite the resistance, there has been no significant retreat for the austerity offensive, except in Portugal where a one day general strike and the largest demonstration since the fall of Salazar in 1975, forced the government to drop its plan to raise taxes on workers. In Greece, with 20 days of general strike every year for the last three years, all of the plans pushed by Troika of the IMF, EU and European Central Bank have been endorsed by the Parliament. Greece is the front line of the fight against austerity, and solidarity with the people of Greece is not a moral issue nor is it about providing aid. It an essential part of the strategy to win the fight against Troika. The best help we can give to the people of Greece in their resistance is by organising the fight in our own country now against our own governments and ruling classes that destroying our welfare state.
With the Troika still declaring that more austerity is required, the need to escalate and co-ordinate the action in each country and across the continent is now posed. But austerity is no longer widely accepted. Those who caused the crisis are carrying on as before. Bonuses for corporate executives are back to pre-crisis levels. Companies such as Amazon and Starbucks pay as little, if any, corporation tax as possible by using the tax havens. Those who expose the corruption of the elites, such as the Greek journalist Costas Vaxevanis or UK Uncut, have the full weight of the law thrown at them. Vaxevanis went on trial, and then cleared, for breach of privacy within a week of publishing the names of 2,000 rich Greeks with Swiss bank accounts who were suspected of not paying their taxes. The list had been supplied two years previously by the IMF to the Greek government but no action had been taken during that time.
Nearly five years on from the start of the crisis, governments no longer argue that “we are all in it together” and that austerity is working. This opens the road to winning over the millions who are suffering that there is an alternative to austerity which is to cancel the debt, tax the rich, to nationalise the banks, and to direct investment to public services including health, housing and public transport and plan to stop climate change .
While the pace and scale of the attacks will vary from country to country, they are all orchestrated by the Troika. The response that is possible in each country also depends on the state of the working class movement. If the initial response is against each national government that is pushing through the austerity package, the 14 November day of action is an escalation of the resistance as it marks its international co-ordination, something not seen since the world-wide day of protests against the invasion of Iraq on the 15 February 2003. The movement needs to develop the momentum gained by this new stage for the resistance to go on the offensive against austerity.
In each country, but especially Britain, the battles against cuts in public services and jobs need to be co-ordinated by common action. The ground has to be prepared by the national leadership of unions taking the lead with a campaign now for action, including extended strike action, to defend the welfare state. Without such a national campaign, organisers in communities and stewards in workplace may seem overwhelmed by the prospect of the possibility of convincing people to take action and fight for an alternative.
The decision of the TUC last September to consider a general strike is important, but unions should not be putting off action now against cuts in services and redundancies while waiting to establish the feasibility of a general strike. The anti-cuts movement at a national level also needs to be united, and the practice of campaigns which are owned subsidiary of a political organisation should end. The Coalition of Resistance has been able to establish itself as a broad coalition, and was the only one with a presence on the 20 October TUC demonstration. It is now organising for a Budget day protest outside Downing Street on 5 December, and for a People’s Assembly Against Austerity next year to bring together all those fighting back to step up the resistance.