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Protest sweeps Europe

by Megan Cornish Saturday, Apr. 18, 2009 at 2:59 AM

France Jan 29, 2009. Public and private workers mount a one-day strike with mass support. Schools, courts and transportation shut down in several cities. This article is from: Freedom Socialist Vol30 No2 April-May 2009.

France, Jan. 29, 2009. Public and private workers mount a one-day strike with mass support. Schools, courts and transportation shut down in several cities.

Furious resistance to paying for the current economic meltdown is spreading across Europe. In country after country, workers are marching, striking, occupying plants and sometimes rioting. Their message to an apprehensive ruling class is not subtle. "We refuse to pay the price of a catastrophe we did nothing to create."

Workers and students in Greece, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Poland have all mounted major

demonstrations and strikes.

So far, the outrage has been directed against heads of government who make massive bailouts to banks and businesses, while they abandon workers to layoffs, pay cuts, and social service cutbacks. But as the crisis inevitably deepens, working people may well move beyond revolt to challenging the profit system itself.

International Monetary Fund brings harm, not help. The financial train wreck in Europe has unfolded first and hardest in the less developed countries. Nations long subject economically to the major imperialist powers, and former workers states (which turned from nationalized economies back to capitalism in the 1990s) are hit worst today, because of the exploitative speculation of Western European and U.S. titans during the boom. When the bubble burst, currencies, real estate and stock markets crashed, causing massive job losses, mortgage defaults, and a severe drop in buying power.

Many countries turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for money to keep their failing banks afloat.

Even as the economic collapse spread, the IMF carried on business as usual. This meant "bailouts" were given only on condition that governments impose austerity measures on workers. Countries were required to chop social services, public sector jobs and pensions to pay back the loans. In other words, the working class was expected to give up its very standard of living

to enrich lenders - the banks of the rich nations.

IMF policies further cripple economies because impoverished working people cannot afford to buy the products that capitalism must sell to survive. So, the steady transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich that has been going on for decades continues. It is a main reason why this crisis is so severe. And "staying the course" will only prolong and deepen the depression.

Indignant workers say no. Explosions on the Continent began last December in Greece. Youth riots over the police murder of a student erupted just before a huge, already-planned one-day general strike sponsored by the main union

federations. Strikers were protesting IMF-imposed privatizations, tax increases and pension "reform" (cutbacks).

Workers in Iceland turned out in the thousands for weeks during January, to oppose government-imposed belt-tightening, also mandated by the IMF. By the end of the month, the government had fallen.

Rioting broke out along with union-organized demonstrations in Latvia and Lithuania, on the western border of Russia. These too were against

government-imposed tax raises and wage cuts demanded by the IMF. Near the end of February, the Latvian government likewise resigned.

At this writing, the Ukraine is considered a tinderbox about to explode over the same issues of IMF-imposed cuts that would come out of the hides of workers, while the loan money flows to banks.

In Ireland, hundreds of thousands demonstrated against social service cutbacks and job and pension cuts. Workers have occupied for several weeks a Waterford Crystal plant that laid them off when the company filed for bankruptcy. Hundreds of farmers demonstrated outside several meat factories to protest beef price cuts.

Workers in the major imperialist countries are also fighting back. In February, France's eight main unions called a one-day strike of up to two

and a half million workers, which nearly 70 percent of the public supported. It marched against President Nicolas Sarkozy's investment centered "stimulus" plan. Private sector workers backed this vast mobilization of public workers. A second general strike was called for March 19.

During the February finance meeting of the "Group of Seven" industrial nations, tens of thousands of unionists and unemployed workers marched

through Rome objecting to Italy's handling of the economy. It was part of a nationwide strike by Italy's largest union.

Germany has the strongest economy in Europe. But tens of thousands of autoworkers for Opel, owned by GM, demonstrated against threatened cutbacks

that are part of Europe-wide layoffs. Public sector workers staged wildcat strikes over a long-standing wage dispute. And railway workers carried out scattered work stoppages for higher wages and better working hours, promising more strikes.

Labor's upsurge is very much from the grassroots.

Although the fight-back started in Europe, where workers had previously been somewhat insulated from the harshest effects of corporate globalization, revolt is spreading worldwide in poorer countries. Angry labor is on the move in Mexico, China, Russia, and Turkey.

The Caribbean island of Guadeloupe went on a general strike for 44 days and neighboring Martinique for a month against low wages, the high cost of living, and a deliberate policy of underdevelopment for these provinces,

theoretically part of France. The strikes won wage increases, price cuts, a moratorium on foreclosures, evictions and utility cutoffs, and jobs for youth.

Youth in the forefront. Young people are among the hardest hit. High unemployment among the young is an international epidemic. Skyrocketing

college student fees threaten education, which in many countries has been free or inexpensive for decades.

December's youth riots in Greece aroused sympathy demonstrations in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Britain, and the Ukraine. January saw Britain-wide

building occupations at more than 20 niversities, described as the biggest sit-ins since the historic year of 1968. Students denounced Israel's war against Gaza and called for divestment from the arms trade. Later, demands

broadened to abolishing the recently-imposed tuition fees.

The rise in militancy shows great potential for the labor movement, if older and young workers join forces.

Women are severely affected by swelling poverty and unemployment. Intensified domestic violence has become an added threat. They and their

children most need the social services that are being cut everywhere, and they make up the bulk of the workforces that provide these services.

Yet, though active everywhere in Europe's eruptions, women's demands and organizing efforts are rarely covered in the media.

Immigrants under attack. The use of imported labor has exploded internationally, propelled by corporate globalization and free trade policies. Desperate workers are forced out of the poorest countries to look for work, often becoming an underpaid army of refugees in richer countries

where big business cynically abuses them to drive down wages.

Under the pressure of today's economic disaster, these workers are especially vulnerable to scapegoating - a classic divide-and-conquer tactic

of bosses and governments.

For example, hundreds of British energy workers, including sympathy strikers, went on wildcat strikes in February. They were fired up over an

oil refinery decision to hire 400 Italian and Portuguese laborers at a time when local joblessness is skyrocketing.

The strikers angrily denied that their actions were xenophobic, saying that they were fighting against sub-contractors, not workers. Nevertheless, militant and radical unionists must take the lead in defending immigrants, or the whole class will be fatally weakened.

Time to turn left! Up to now, social rage has been mostly directed against government leaders rather than the system itself. But as disaster

intensifies and the ruling class continues to feast while the people go hungry, workers are bound to draw broader conclusions. Capitalism is

bankrupt, unable and unwilling to provide for the needs of all. When that awareness spreads, the Left needs to be ready to provide the know-how for

building the socialist alternative.

In Solidarity With All Living Creatures

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