Europe prepares for biggest coordinated shutdown in generation


Workers in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta, are set to walk out in a European-wide general strike. Toby Abse reports.

The co-ordinated general strikes in a number of European countries on Wednesday 14 November  may on one level only be a symbolic protest against the vicious austerity policies attacking  working class living standards, pensions, unemployment benefits, health services , education and other parts of the public sector all over the European Union. After all, a one day strike will not bring the system or indeed any national government crashing down – but on another level such a transnational strike is a tremendous and exciting step forward for the anti-cuts movement in Europe.

It is clearly about time that the workers’ movement started to co-ordinate its actions across national boundaries in exactly the same way as the capitalists and the politicians that represent their interests.

The notion that a European austerity offensive – that in the case of Greece, Spain and Portugal is directly linked to the demands of the Troika ( European Union/European Central Bank/ International Monetary Fund) – can be successfully fought on a purely national basis is obviously absurd.  It requires a European wide mobilisation of the working class on resolutely internationalist lines.

Even the most combative workers’ movement on the entire continent, that of Greece, which has staged general strikes on 20 days in the last few years (generally for 24 hours, occasionally for 48) has not succeeded in halting the bosses’ attacks, precisely because the  Greek capitalist class is tied to its international counterparts, who are absolutely determined that no working class, even in one of the smaller and  less populous European countries, can reverse the austerity offensive, precisely because of the example it would provide to others in similar situations.

It should be equally obvious that secessionist movements in Scotland or Catalonia will offer no way out of  austerity ; the enemy of Scottish workers is not the English and the enemy of Catalan workers is not the Castilians.

Indeed smaller national states might well offer more scope to multinational companies seeking to promote a race to the bottom, as should be obvious to anybody who has taken a close look at the SNP’s economic policies. Indeed, in the days when they openly used Ireland as a model, they made it obvious that they would offer international capital a more favourable tax regime than even the tax-lite British state.

So far trade unions in five countries are committed to participation in the European general strike on 14 November – Spain, Portugal, Greece , Cyprus and Malta. Whilst the ETUC called for a ‘ day of action and solidarity for a Social Compact for Europe’ at the meeting of its Executive Committee on 17 October, it would be wrong to see the original initiative coming from this very bureaucratic body.

It seems to have started with the biggest Portuguese union confederation, the CGPT, calling a general strike for 14 November against  the ‘exploitation and impoverishment’ of the Portuguese population in the wake of partially successful Portuguese protests that forced the Portuguese government to retreat on some aspects of its austerity policies. This then led both the two main Spanish trade union confederations Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) and the UGT in  to decide to call a general strike for the same day. The CCOO said ‘Unemployment, cuts, the impoverishment of the majority and the deterioration of public services justify a general strike’.

This co-ordinated Iberian general strike seems to have been the spark behind the decision of GSEE (General Confederation of Greek Workers) to announce their intention to come out again on 14 November on the day of the latest Greek general strike on Thursday 18 October, even if the Greek announcement came a day after the ETUC meeting.

Whilst the ETUC statement makes some reasonable points and acknowledges the Europe-wide nature of the anti-working class offensive, it romanticises the virtues of ‘the European social model’ and sows some dangerous illusions  by ‘supporting the objective of sound accounts’ or stating that  ‘fiscal consolidation has had a sharper effect than originally estimated by institutions, including the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund’, thus implying like Miliband and Balls that cuts are too deep and too fast, but not something to be totally rejected.

Moreover, it promotes the idea of ‘strikes, demonstrations, rallies and other actions’, a mix and match menu that would give excuses to trade union bureaucrats eager to avoid too serious a degree of mobilisation rather than calling for general strikes in every country in the EU. Nonetheless, from an agitational viewpoint, the ETUC day of action statement does provide a lever for putting demands on Brendan Barber and his ilk at the British TUC.

It is no longer appropriate to simply demand of the TUC that it name the day for a general strike. We should redouble our efforts to argue that if the TUC is seriously committed to investigating the practicalities of a general strike, it should go ahead and organise it on the 14 November when general strikes are taking place all over Europe against austerity policies that are remarkably similar to those of the Cameron- Clegg coalition in the UK.

After all, Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite asked the crowd in Hyde Park on Saturday 20 October if they wanted a general strike, and got a thunderous response from thousands of people shouting “yes”. He then asked for a show of hands on which the idea was overwhelmingly carried.

We must emphasise that if he is serious about all this, he should push for 14 November.

We should also put pressure on Bob Crow and the RMT to back a 14 November call; indeed, we must hope that the union’s militancy and its willingness, on occasions, to co-operate with European transport unions.

If even the most militant national trade union leaders do not heed this call, we must nonetheless, do everything we can to ensure that the 14 November mobilisation in the UK is not  reduced to a few badly publicised poorly attended lunch time rallies or some invitation only rally in the evening in Congress House. If anybody has a live industrial action ballot, they should suggest the strike be held on 14 November for example.

Let’s do all we can to bring the spirit of the European general strike to Britain’s shores.


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