By Nicky Dempsey
Unions in a number of European countries have called a mass one-day strike for November 14. It is the first time since the crisis began that co-ordinated industrial action has been organised in a number of different countries. It represents an important step forward in the growing collaboration between the workers’ organisations in a number of countries and poses the question of a European-wide action programme to deal with the crisis.
The action was first called by unions in Portugal. These have since been joined by unions, students and social organisation in Greece, Spain, Malta and Cyprus. In Italy a 4-hour stoppage has been called by the CGIL union federation.
It is reported that union leaderships in Belgium and France are also considering action. In what may be an unprecedented move ETUC the official European confederation to which most national trade union confederations in Europe are affiliated has issued a call for:
‘a day of action and solidarity on 14 November 2012, including strikes, demonstrations, rallies and other actions, mobilising the European trade union movement behind ETUC policies as set down in the Social Compact for Europe.’
Portugal’s successful struggle
The prominent role played by the Portuguese labour movement is not accidental.
The militancy and persistence of the Greek struggles against austerity have been unmatched anywhere else in Europe in the current period and has created the largest popular support for any anti-austerity party in SYRIZA.
But in Portugal the right-wing Social Democrat led government has been repeatedly blocked in its efforts to impose austerity measures – this has not taken place elsewhere. The latest government budget imposes swingeing social security and income tax hikes on all workers but is widely expected to be challenged in the Constitutional Court.
A successful legal challenge to the previous policy of slashing pay in the public sector forced the government to rewrite its budget and to shift to tax hikes on the take-home pay of all workers. An initial attempt to repeat the tactic successfully employed in many other European countries – of pitting public and private sector workers against one another – was successfully resisted. It remains to be seen whether the government will be able to carry out this broader attack.
The large mobilisations of the unions and other organisations were clearly uppermost in the deliberations of the Constitutional Court’s judges.
But the necessity of engaging in a broad-based attack on all workers is a reflection of the weakness of the Portuguese ruing class. Long-term low growth and low profitability, much lower than Greece for example, means the Portuguese ruling class has fewer resources to draw on and has limited ability to buy off opposition.
As a result the large mobilisations have blocked government austerity plans. A large turnout on 14 November will place the ruling coalition in some difficulty with the Court yet to deliberate. It will also demonstrate to the entire movement across Europe that the struggle against austerity can register successes.
In Britain the level of mobilisation is qualitatively lower than in many other EU countries. Even so, the TUC is affiliated to ETUC and it is possible that union leaders may issue calls for symbolic solidarity actions. There will be a series of events on 14 November in Glasgow, Manchester Sheffield and London, details here.
The co-ordinated nature of the strike action means that EU-wide demands and solutions are posed. All the militant forces engaged in action are by definition opposed to austerity. At the same time, unlike in Britain, very few layers have lapsed into Euroscepticism. Yet without providing a credible economic alternative the mobilisations have not led to a decisive break with the framework of the ruling classes of Europe. The spurious goal of reducing public deficits remains the dominant ideology even of the opponents of austerity.
All the schemes to increase tax rates on the wealthy, the issuing of ‘Eurobonds’ and increasing minimum levels of pay have a contribution to make. Some of these schemes carry a danger that they can reinforce the ruling class idea of deficit-reduction, if they are posed in terms solely or primarily as finding an alternative method of reducing the deficit. And none of them deal with the decisive issue which has caused both the slump and the deficits, which is the investment strike by private capital.
The reality is that, if Europe were a unified economy it would be the largest in the world. It has vast resources. In the EU, the level of profits is a large multiple of the level of public sector deficits, more than ten times greater. It is the refusal of capital to invest these profits which is the cause of the crisis.
This hoarding of capital is also the potential source of resolving the current crisis in the interests of workers and the majority of social layers in Europe. This implies greater public investment at the national and EU-wide levels, using the ability to instruct banks dependent on the state to invest and supplemented by EU taxation on capital if necessary to prise the resources from them.
The alternative is a resolution of the crisis in the interests of capital, lower wages and lower social wages to drive up profits to such an extent that capitalist investment once more become attractive. All of this accompanied by the fostering of racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia. A renewal of investment based on such conditions would restore growth at the expense of the vast majority of the population of Europe.
The opposition to austerity will take a qualitative step forward with the actions on 14 November and should be strongly supported in every country where action takes place.