November 14 strikes and demonstrations – for a workers’ Europe

The European Trade Union Confederation has called a European Day of Action and Solidarity against austerity on November 14. The initiative was taken by the Portuguese CGTP-IN trade union confederation which decided to call a 24h general strike against the latest package of austerity measures proposed by the right wing government of Passos de Coelho in the 2013 budgets. It was the enormous explosion of anger on September 15, when the largest demonstrations since the Portuguese revolution of 1974 took place, which pushed the union to take this action.

Pressure from below

The Spanish trade union leaders had also been under strong pressure from below, ever since the events in July, when a march of striking miners’ had been welcomed in Madrid by hundreds of thousands and then semi-spontaneous walk-outs of civil servants against a new package of austerity measures led to huge demonstrations on July 19. [See: Striking miners get heroes' welcome in Madrid] At that time the trade union leaders of CCOO and UGT started talking about calling a general strike, but first attempted to defuse the pressure into a “March on Madrid” on September 15. For many trade union activists this was clearly not enough. Had there not been already massive demonstrations on July 19th which had not changed the government’s position one inch?

The vacuum left by the trade union leaders was partially filled by the movement of the indignados which called a demonstration to “encircle Parliament” during the debate of the 2013 budget. Tens of thousands participated in the march which was met by brutal police repression. An opinion poll afterwards showed that 75% of the population backed the very radical aims of this action.

Finally the Spanish trade union leaders named the day of the general strike as November 14 in order to make it coincide with the Portuguese call. They also put pressure on the meeting of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) to issue a call for action on that day.

It is clear that the crisis has not hit all countries to the same degree yet and it is also true that the rhythm of the class struggle is determined by factors which are still national. For instance, the Greek trade unions have already called three general strikes this autumn, the latest one on November 6 and 7 coinciding with the voting in Parliament of the most recent Memorandum of Understanding with the troika. They have now agreed to call for a 3-hour strike on November 14 with mass demonstrations.

Same process, different speeds

In Italy, where the trade union leaders have not taken up the struggle against the austerity cuts imposed by the Monti government in a serious way, the CGIL leaders have finally decided to call for a 4-hour general strike with demonstrations. The FIOM, involved in a bitter defensive battle against the assault of the FIAT bosses, is calling for a demonstration in Pomigliano and a regional 8-hour strike. Also several other sectors have since joined to extend their strike to 8 hours. These include the teachers and the university workers and the workers in the trade sector. The 14-N movement is also connecting with a rising movement of Italian students against the cuts on education. On Wednesday it is likely that we will see hundreds of thousands of students on the streets in Italy.

The only other country where there will be massive strike action is Belgium. The sudden announcement of closures (like Ford Genk) and massive sackings has shocked many workers. The union leadership in the North has used the Ford drama to divert the attention of the Flemish workers away from the European Day of Action on 14N. The union leaders of the metal workers even opposed openly at internal union meetings a strike that day, because 'there is no solidarity from other European countries with Belgian Ford workers now or with Opel workers in the past'. Nevertheless, the majority socialist union of railway workers has called for a national 24-hour strike that day. Others have followed especially in the South. The Walloon and Brussels socialist metal workers are taking the lead and will stop for 24 hours and have called others to do the same. Still, even here, the national leaders of the FGTB and the CSC have only called for a “day of action” giving freedom to the different affiliates to decide which form it will take. Some leadership! A number of socialist federations and some regional trade union bodies (Liege and Centre) have called for strike action on the day.

In France, where the Hollande government has just accepted a whole series of measures demanded by the capitalists, which the workers will have to pay for, a national day of action with demonstrations has been called by the main trade union confederations, but again, the issue of strike action has been left to the different federations.

In other countries the actions called by the trade union leaders will be mainly symbolic or even non-existent. It can be argued that in countries where the impact of the crisis has not been so severe, or which have escaped mostly unscathed from it so far, conditions do not exist for calling a general strike. However, even in such countries (Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden…) it would be the duty of a serious trade union leadership to at least call mass workplace meetings to discuss the situation of attacks in Southern Europe, explain the roots of these in the crisis of capitalism and use this to prepare the struggle to defend workers’ rights in their own countries, which no doubt will also come under attack.

International character

The idea of an Iberian general strike and then of a Europe-wide day of action has captured the imagination of many working class and youth activists. This reflects a very healthy internationalist instinct. This is not just an abstract question. Millions of people in the countries which have been most harshly hit by the crisis of European capitalism (Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy, to different degrees), have suffered three or four years of austerity packages, through which the capitalist class, has attempted to make the workers pay for the crisis. The workers can see that this is a general assault on their rights, conditions and social services which goes beyond the national borders of one country. The struggle in one country is followed closely by tens of thousands of working class and youth activists in another, trying to draw advanced lessons from each other.

The very fact, that this is as a Europe-wide action, puts more pressure on the trade union leaders in each country and encourages trade unionists to take action. Thus, for instance, whole sections of the UGT trade union in Portugal, whose leadership refused to call for the general strike, with the excuse that this was a sectarian initiative of the CGTP, have now decided to join in. This is the case for instance with the civil servants federation of the UGT.

The situation in Portugal remains extremely explosive. On November 7 there was a demonstration of thousands of police officers against the austerity measures and then on November 10, there was a joint demonstration of military officers, sergeants and privates against the latest budget cuts. A sharply worded statement read at the end of the armed forces rally warned the government against attempting to use the army in any way to repress the movement of indignation of the Portuguese people.

In this context it is significant to note that the leadership of two of the Basque nationalist unions, ELA and LAB, have come out explicitly against the November 14 general strike. They have attempted to cover this extremely mistaken and short-sighted decision by criticising the social partnership model of trade unionism of the leaders of CCOO and UGT and the fact that there have been a number of general strikes in the Basque Country (the latest on September 26) in which CCOO and UGT refused to participate. This, however, is no excuse, as one cannot criticise the leaders of CCOO and UGT for not struggling and then not join in when they actually call for a strike. It is clear that this decision of the leadership of ELA and LAB is causing discussion and ferment in their ranks, more so when other nationalist and radical unions like the CGT, the SAT in Andalucia, the CIG in Galicia, etc, are all calling for general strike, while maintaining their criticisms of the leadership of CCOO and UGT.

It is clearly a step forward that for the first time ever general strike action (even though of different intensity) is being coordinated in four different countries. Comrades of the International Marxist Tendency are actively participating in the general strikes, demonstrations and solidarity actions being called and in some cases we have taken the initiative of calling for solidarity actions to be organised.

Class struggle

At the same time it is important to explain in a comradely way the limitations of even the most radical general strike in this context of acute crisis of capitalism. This is clearly demonstrated in the case of Greece where there have been 18 or more general strikes in the last two years and despite the militancy shown by the working class and the youth, they have not been able to stop the brutal austerity measures imposed by the troika and willingly implemented by the Greek government.

There are times when a strike, or even the threat of strike, is enough to force concessions from the bosses. However, in the current situation the crisis of capitalism and the very existence of a common currency leave the national governments no room for manoeuvre. Within the limits of the capitalist system there are no other possible policies.

The ETUC statement calling for the November 14 day of action states that “the austerity measures… are dragging Europe into economic stagnation, indeed recession, as well as the continuing dismantling of the European social model.”

However, when it comes to proposing an alternative they say: “While supporting the objective of sound accounts, the Executive Committee consider that the recession can only be stopped if budgetary constraints are loosened and imbalances eliminated, with a view to achieving sustainable economic growth, and social cohesion, and respecting the values enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights.”

The problem is that if you support the principle of reducing the deficit (“sound accounts”), at a time of economic recession this can only be carried out precisely with the kind of brutal austerity measures which are being implemented. Any country which attempted to “loosen budgetary constraints” would be immediately priced out of the markets for financing its debts, as was nearly the case with Spain before the summer (when it was seen as “not doing enough to reduce the deficit”).

At bottom, this is a question of class struggle: the capitalists want the workers to pay the price for the crisis of their system. The onslaught on workers’ rights and conditions is aimed at recovering profitability and competitiveness against the capitalists in other countries. No amount of talk about “sustainable economic growth” and “social cohesion” will convince the capitalists who are only interested in their profits. That is simply how the system works.

The European trade union leaders, in fact, seem to yearn for a return to an idyllic past, in which matters could be solved through polite negotiation and gentlemen’s agreements between capital and labour (“They reiterate that social dialogue and collective bargaining are central to the European Social Model”). The question is: why is that “model” under assault on the part of the capitalists? The answer is that because of the crisis of capitalism they can no longer afford the concessions which they were forced to make in the past.

As a matter of fact, social partnership did not even work in the previous period, but at least there were some crumbs which the bosses could throw at the trade union leaders that they could in turn sell to their members. This is no longer the case. The answer to this is not a return to a situation which no longer has any basis in the objective economic reality, but the adoption of different trade union policies, adequate to the current situation.

Even the hard won, acquired rights of the past can only be defended through the most militant action. It is for this reason that a 24-hour or even a 48-hour general strike cannot solve the situation. Even in Portugal, where the extraordinary mobilisation of September 15 forced the government to back down on its attempt to increase workers’ social security contributions to pay for a reduction of bosses’ contributions, it simply meant that the government introduced the same amount of cuts in a different way.

Limitations of the system

The ETUC proposes a list of policies which should be adopted. They call for a “Social Compact for Europe with real social dialogue, an economic policy that fosters quality jobs, economic solidarity between countries and social justice.” These are all laudable aims. Who can be against quality jobs, economic solidarity and social justice? As Jens Weidmann, the head of the Bundesbank, said when the question of growth vs. austerity was put to him: “Growth is always a good thing. But to favour growth is like supporting world peace.”

The point is, by what measures is this to be achieved? The ETUC, in line with the trade union leaders of most countries, argues for a policy which is based on “tax the rich - fight tax evasion - implemented a Tobin tax - issue Eurobonds.”

The example of the first months of the Hollande government in France provides a glimpse of where these policies would lead if they were to be seriously implemented by any government. The French Socialist Party came to power presenting itself as precisely the party of tax the rich, protect public services and “stimulate” the economy. The immediate impact of Hollande’s attempt to tax the rich was to provoke some prominent capitalists to declare they would take fiscal residence abroad and in less time than it takes you to say Keynesianism, the president had watered down his policies. This was quickly followed by a €30bn program of cuts and then by an additional €20bn tax cuts for the capitalists to be paid for through increased VAT (€10bn) and another €10bn budget cuts – that is, to be paid by the workers. So much for taxing the rich and fighting tax evasion!

The issuing of Eurobonds would just mean the German capitalists taking over the risk for their weaker Greek, Portuguese, Irish, Spanish, Italian etc. counterparts. This they are not prepared to do, as national capitalist antagonisms still exist, and each national ruling class looks after its own narrow interests first and foremost. Furthermore, this would mean that the German capitalists would have to pass on the bill to the German workers, creating at home the sort of social and political instability which is afflicting the weaker Southern European capitalist classes.

Need for a socialist programme

In reality, what is required is a clear political alternative which starts by recognising that what we are facing is a most serious crisis of the capitalist system, in which all the measures implemented in the previous period to avoid a crisis are now dragging the economy down and preventing any serious recovery.

If this is understood, then the alternative has to be one which is not confined within the limits of a sick system, but goes beyond it and challenges it. Yes, we want quality jobs, yes we want social justice. But why is it that tax-payers’ money is used to bailout the banks piling up national debt and budget deficits, while basic social services are being cut? The answer is simple, because the capitalist class rules and imposes its priorities. Why is it that companies are sitting on massive amounts of cash and not investing in creating jobs? The reason is simple, because capitalists will only invest if they have a reasonable expectation that they can sell at a profit, and at the present time households and the state are saddled with a mountain of debt and they are not likely to increase consumption but reduce it. Why is it that in a country like Spain, 400,000 families have had their homes repossessed while there are 700,000 new built empty homes (many of them in the hands of the same banks evicting families)? Because under the logic of the capitalist system housing is not a right or a social need to be fulfilled, but rather a source of profits.

What needs to be explained is that there is an alternative to the anarchy of a system based on the profit making motive of an unelected minority which rules over our lives. The banks and big companies should be expropriated and taken into public ownership, so that the resources of society can be democratically and rationally planned to fulfil the needs of the majority of the population. That is socialism. It is imperative that the November 14 strikes, demonstrations and solidarity actions are used to argue the case for a socialist alternative.

In the countries which are further ahead in the social and political turmoil created by the current crisis, there is already a widespread questioning of the economic and political system of capitalism. In Greece, but also in Spain, in Portugal, the old parties which were the pillars of bourgeois democracy in the past are thoroughly discredited, including the social democracy. There is a growing polarisation in society and a significant section of the most advanced layers are looking for a political alternative to the left. In the case of Greece, Syriza has become the largest party of the left and to a certain extent the country’s biggest party. Marxists are part of this movement and are fighting within it to arm it with a clear revolutionary socialist program, the only one which can offer an alternative to the present suffering of austerity and cuts.

In Spain, one of the slogans of CCOO and UGT for the general strike is “there are culprits, there are alternatives.” There are culprits, yes, the capitalists and their rotten capitalist system, there are alternatives, yes, militant class struggle and socialism!