Denmark: Huge mobilisation against austerity measures

Draconian austerity measures are being imposed on the Danish workers by the conservative government presently in power, including plans to sack 20,000 public sector workers. This has provoked a massive worker backlash, with the recent 80,000-strong demonstration in Copenhagen. This is a taste of what is to come.

Ted Grant used to say that the British labour movement moves like an elephant. As a matter of fact, this goes for the entire Northern European labour movement. It might not have the same explosive characteristics of the French, Spanish, Italian and Greek labour movements – on the surface, the Northern European workers’ movement might even seem somewhat stolid sometimes. However, the Northern European labour movement is very well-organised, strong and has a good memory of the past – like an elephant; and it might be slow to take its first step, but once it does move, you had better get out of the way. And once it has taken one step forward, it is not very easy to push it back.

This is what we are now seeing in Denmark. The Danish workers have been forced into action by the right-wing government’s plan to attack living standards. The government plans to sack 20,000 public sector workers, halve the unemployment benefit period from four to two years (it used to be nine years), cut child benefits by five percent, axe  workers’ tax deductions for union subs and impose a number of duties, thereby robbing working class families of billions of kroner.

Massive demonstration

On Tuesday, June 8, 80,000 workers and youth rallied in Parliament Square in Copenhagen. This proved to be a massive protest against the right-wing and its attacks on living standards. More than 150 buses with trade unionists and youth arrived from other parts of Denmark to take part in the demonstration called by the trade union federations LO and FTF as well as a wide range of students’ organisations and other social organisations. Despite orders from the union leaders, dockers in Esbjerg as well as scaffold workers in Vejle and Copenhagen laid down tools and decided to spend the day to meet, discuss and protest.

The protest was probably even bigger than the massive mobilisations in 2006 and 2007. More importantly, the mood was more militant. One could clearly sense an element of anger and hatred towards the government, the bankers and the rich. Supporters of the Marxist journal Socialistisk Standpunkt reported that it was very easy to sell their papers, and their entire stock was sold out.

When the government’s plan was announced, the chairman of SF (the Socialist Peoples’ Party, the main party to the left of the Social Democracy) Villy Søvndal called for early elections. This is now at the top of the agenda of the most militant layers among the workers and youth. The biggest applause for the speakers at the demonstration came after an appeal was made to call immediate elections.

Indeed, if elections were to be held today, the bourgeois government would be kicked soundly out of office. A poll of June 2 showed 30 percent support for the Social Democracy, 18 percent for the SF and 3 percent to the Unity List (a small party consisting of remnants from the Communist Party as well as several Maoist and ex-Trotskyist groups). If elections were held today, the workers’ parties would be swept into government by public anger against the right wing and the ruling class in general. The situation is even more radical among the youth. Polls show that among the youth, the SF is the biggest party with around 26 percent; he SD comes second with about 25 percent; and the Unity List is backed by 6-7 percent of the youth.

The austerity package will cut public spending by 24 billion kroner (3.23 billion euro) over the next three years. Besides that, the government is imposing a freeze on municipal spending, which involves mass layoffs and cuts in public schools, nurseries, nursing homes for the elderly, cultural projects and other services in society that allows for a semi-civilised existence for the working class. The plan is designed to meet demands from the European Union to cut the budget deficit below 3 percent of gross domestic product by 2013. Denmark’s deficit for 2010 is expected to reach 5.5 percent of GDP.

The economy

Danish capitalism has been hit hard by the global crisis. The Danish economy is entirely dependent on exports, especially of hi-tech production to German industry. In 2009, GDP dropped 5.1 percent, and the total drop in GDP in the years 2008-09 was 5.9 percent. Industrial production plummeted 23 percent in 2009. Economists are talking about “five years without growth” (2007-2013), almost like the seven years of famine described in the book of Genesis. The difference with the Bible, of course, is that the “years of plenty” before the bad years was strictly reserved for a tiny minority of bankers and capitalists.

The 2008-09 economic decline was more than three times as large as the falls in 1974-75 and 1980-81. It was even worse than the economic backlash in the 1930s. It was slightly bigger than the 1856-57 economic crisis. As a matter of fact, one has to go back to the Napoleonic wars and the default in 1813 to find a bigger collapse in the Danish economy.

The labour leadership

The latest offensive from the ruling class has provoked the workers into taking action. After a period of paralysis, caused by the crisis, the class struggle is now coming back on a higher level than before. Even the trade union leaders can feel this. They can sense the pressure from below. Also, the government’s measures are threatening the trade union bureaucracy. The attack on tax deduction for union subs and the unemployment benefit period is a blow to the unions. The aim is to smash the high level of organisation in the Danish working class (1.5 million workers are organised in LO and FTF, the main trade union federations).

After years and decades of attempts from the right-wing labour leaders to separate the LO from the Social Democracy, the LO is now clearly affiliated with the Social Democracy and SF. The trade unions and the workers’ parties are now more closely attached than they have been since the 1980s.

The SF

On the other hand, the alliance between the SD and SF leaders is also closer than ever before. The effect of the united front between the bureaucracies of the SD and SF has been used to pull the SF massively to the right in order to make it “responsible” and “ready for government”. One activist from the SF at a demonstration commented that he could no longer find any differences between the right-wing leaders of the Social Democracy and his own party. A large layer of SF militants are developing an even more critical attitude towards the leadership. This could also be seen at the party congress in April, where the left wing received good results in the internal elections.

The political divisions within the party are already becoming visible and are bound to become clearer in the future – especially if and when the party form a government with the Social Democrats and the bourgeois Radical Party (that is firmly backing the government’s austerity measures, and calling for more). Such a government will be a government of cuts and attacks on the working class. This will prepare the way for explosive developments inside the trade unions and the workers’ parties – especially the SF that has never formally been part of a government before.

The SD and SF leaders have presented a common economic programme. This programme, mis-named “Fair Solution”, is actually calling for the workers to work longer hours, increasing the working week from 37 to 38 hours. This programme does nothing to tackle the question of the profits of the bankers and big capitalists. The whole programme makes it impossible for any new government of the left to meet the big hopes that the workers have in such a government. The leaders have even refused to commit themselves to rolling back the present austerity measures. They know that in order to do such a thing, they would have to cut into the capitalists’ profits and enter into conflict with the ruling class and challenge private ownership of the means of production.

Class struggle

For now, it seems that the LO and FTF leaders are trying to calm down the mood, using the mobilisations to “let off steam”. If they wanted to, they could easily organise a campaign to bring down the present government. A general strike and a workers’ blockade of parliament so that no law can be passed, as happened back in 1985, could topple the government and force early elections. But if a new government is brought to power on a wave of mass strikes and protests, it would come under enormous pressure from the working class. Clearly, this is the last thing the leaders of the labour movement want.

However, even the most powerful bureaucratic apparatus cannot stop the working class from moving. In the last few weeks, the Danish workers have begun to take strike action again, after more than a year with virtually no strikes due to the impact of the crisis. Copenhagen almost ran out of beer due to a strike at Carlsberg. The postal workers have struck. So have workers at Danfoss and at TDC (the biggest telecommunications company).

We are still in the early stages of the process of radicalisation. The workers will have to go through many stages. They will first go through the school of a “popular front” government of the SD, SF and the Radical Party. Through these experiences, it will become even more clear to the working class, starting with the most advanced layers (especially inside and around the SF), that living standards cannot be defended without a serious struggle against the capitalists and their right to own and control the means of production.

Source: Socialistisk Standpunkt (Denmark)