European workers continue struggles

Sometimes by examining what the corporate media cover and what they ignore, you can learn something useful about what the superrich want the workers to know.

For example, news that Greek teachers called off a strike when the government threatened to put any teacher on strike in jail received some coverage in the U.S. big-business media.

On the other hand, a search of LexisNexis news sources database showed that there was no coverage of the news that 3.7 million German metal workers won a 5.6 percent raise over the next 20 months.

According to a report on www.industriall-union.org, the contract negotiations were backed up by a number of warning strikes, involving 750,000 members of the IG Metall union nationwide and 180,000 members in Bavaria, a center of German industry. The union made it absolutely clear that all its members would walk out if no agreement was reached.

It was not the first big strike in 2013 in Germany: Lufthansa, the national airline; Amazon; and postal service workers all went out. Post office workers got a 5.5 percent raise.

These raises won are greater than the current rate of inflation in Germany and even higher than the increase of productivity, so they are real wage increases.

German workers, however, had suffered a series of reverses and givebacks for decades. Especially after the unification of Germany in 1990, the German bosses pushed the costs of this process onto the backs of the German workers.

The percentage of German workers in a union fell from 40.6 percent in 1991 to 18.5 percent in 2010, the latest year for which figures are available from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This is probably due to a lot more part-time and temporary workers and job exports.

The creation of the European Union gave the German bourgeoisie a huge market for its exports. The bosses outsourced or threatened to outsource production to low-wage areas in the EU, like Portugal and Slovakia. For example, in 2005, IG Metall reached three separate concessionary contracts with Volkswagen, based on such threats. (New York Times, Oct. 26, 2005)

Real wages declined over most of this period, even from 2004 to 2008, when German capitalism was expanding. When most of the countries in the EU adopted a common currency, this market became one where Germany’s prices and profits were stable, as long as Germany could control Europe’s economy and impose a policy of austerity.

Given its lock on the European market, Germany is the world’s number two exporter, after China.

Greek teachers

As part of the plan imposed by the “Troika” (the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank) in return for a continued bailout, Greece is preparing to lay off 150,000 government employees. To prepare the school system for the 10,000 layoffs to come, the government wants to increase school time by two hours per week and make mandatory reassignments to other schools.

Before the teachers could begin their strike, the education minister, Constantine Arvanitopoulos, said students had a “sacred right” to take the test for admission to university and issued a civil mobilization order on May 12. Under this order, if teachers strike, they face jail or dismissal.

PAME, the Communist-led trade union, held a protest May 13 against this order that different sources called small, if spirited. Since high school teachers were subject to the civil mobilization order, they did not participate in the demonstration, although elementary school teachers had a contingent.

French austerity

The French statistical agency INSEE declared May 19 that France’s economy was officially in recession, that is, its gross domestic product had officially declined two quarters in a row. This is “official” confirmation of a long-term economic decline.

The harshest response the government, led by a party that calls itself socialist, announced was to make workers work longer before they can retire. And of course, after retirement, they would get less from the government and would have to depend more on their own savings.

The French Parliament also passed a law on May 14 significantly reducing the legal protections French workers have with respect to their jobs. It will be far easier and faster to fire them, or reduce their salary and hours.

Two of the major trade union confederations — Force Ouvrière and Conféderation Générale des Travail — earlier refused to agree with the government’s proposal. This refusal led to the parliamentary vote. Both union groups have announced they intend to pursue their struggle against this law.

What is particularly significant about this law is that many of the rights and protections that French workers have, like the right to strike, come from the constitution and other laws. Fewer French workers than U.S. workers are members of unions, according to the OECD, and union contracts generally don’t cover layoffs and recalls.