Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Europe: Workers Opening Fight Against Bosses Austerity

By John Catalinotto
Published Jun 7, 2010 10:00 PM

Inspired by the courageous example workers are setting in Greece, workers throughout Europe are beginning to respond with strikes and street demonstrations to the capitalist offensive that is minimizing their wages, eliminating vital social benefits and contracting the job market.

In a period of a few weeks, workers in Portugal, France, Italy, Spain and Romania have been or will be in the streets and on strike protesting austerity programs. The ruling-class governments disguise these programs as so-called common sacrifice to reduce government debt and prevent collapse. In reality, the programs squeeze workers while subsidizing banks and businesses.

The Greek workers’ exemplary actions — nine major work actions since February and another planned for June — stem from the refusal of the PAME union confederation leadership to hold workers responsible for solving the capitalist crisis. In other countries, where union heads talk about defending the solvency of “their” country, they can only wind up sacrificing workers’ wages and benefits and weakening their unions’ ability to fight.

The Communist Party of Greece also raised the banner of a united European workers’ struggle to confront the capitalist offensive. Hanging from the ruins of Athens’ Parthenon the banner read, “Peoples of Europe, rise up.” Nothing would be better to confront the financial giants based in the most powerful imperialist countries in Europe — Germany, France, Britain especially, as well as the U.S. — who have whipped all European governments into line to impose drastic cuts on the workers.

The capitalists are first targeting the workers in the economically weaker countries — Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy. These are also countries — along with more affluent France — where bosses fear the militancy of the working class and want to crush the workers’ movements lest that militancy spread. There is no doubt, however, that austerity programs are also planned to squeeze workers in Germany, France, Britain and the rest of northern Europe.

300,000 in Lisbon

During the last week in May the major workers’ demonstration was in Portugal, which like Greece is one of the poorer countries still integrated in the imperialist world. Of Portugal’s 10 million people, 300,000 workers — as estimated by the action’s organizers in the CGTP union central — marched down Lisbon’s big boulevards to reject the regime’s austerity. All observers agree it was the largest workers’ protest since the 1974 revolution ousted a fascist regime, already weakened by the liberation struggles in Portugal’s African colonies, which then won independence.

A member of the CGTP national leadership committee told Reuters May 29 that the demonstration was only the first step in protesting an austerity plan that includes tax increases and a freeze on civil servants’ pay. “It’s a stage of a continuous struggle that will intensify,” said Armenio Carlos. “We’re leaving all options open, including calling a national general strike.”

In France a few days earlier tens of thousands of workers marched in the pouring rain to defend the retirement age, which the government wants to raise eventually to age 70, and pensions, which the regime wants to cut.

Italy’s CGIL union confederation, 6-million strong, announced a nationwide one-day strike on June 25, with protest rallies around the country two weeks earlier to build up to that action. The Italian government plans to reduce civil service jobs, cut salaries, raise retirement age and cut the health care system in an attempt to cut the budget by 24 billion euros (As of May, 1 euro equals about $1.25).

Unions in Spain, where unemployment hovers at 20 percent, still haven’t announced a national general strike, although there have been strong strikes in the Basque country over the past few months. The government announced a program to cut 80 billion euros from the budget by cutting 13,000 public service jobs, reducing salaries of state workers by 5 percent and freezing pensions.

France and Italy have center-right regimes in office. Greece, Portugal and Spain have center-left regimes led by nominally socialist or social-democratic parties. These Western European “left” parties may have presided over workers’ gains in the past, but now they hardly distinguish themselves from the rightists, much like the Democratic Party in the U.S. In most cases the rightists and the others have joined in parliaments to impose austerity plans on the workers.

Romania is one of the first of the Eastern European countries, victims of the 1989 counterrevolutionary wave that turned them into virtual colonies of Western capital, where workers are holding general strikes against austerity cuts. There, the current salaries are already quite austere by West European standards.

On May 17 there was a massive protest in Bucharest, Romania’s capital, where retired workers nearly stormed parliament. On May 31 tens of thousands of public sector workers walked off the job protesting cuts imposed by the International Monetary Fund in return for a 20 billion euro loan. The IMF ordered Romania to slash public-sector wages by a quarter and cut pensions by 15 percent and wants it to cut government spending on goods and services by a fifth. Teachers, government workers, customs officers, pensioners and medical staff all joined the strike.

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