General strikes rock Europe

“Sciopero generale” in Italy. “Algemene staking” and “grève générale” in Belgium. In any language the words “general strike” elicit fear among the ruling class. Hence the financial press, including the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News and London’s Financial Times, covered the recent general strikes in Italy and Belgium extensively. Although these corporate media thieves won’t admit it, a general strike — whether citywide, regional, national or transnational — represents the elevation of the class struggle from a narrow struggle around specific economic demands to a classwide struggle around broad political demands.

1.5 million Italians strike over ‘anti-worker’ law

The two Italian labor federations that called for a one-day general strike Dec. 12, CGIL and UIL, gave the clearest accounts of the success of the massive job action. The appeal “to the squares” — to rally in the plazas instead of going to work — led to mass rallies in at least 54 Italian cities and towns. The squares were packed to overflowing as at least 1.5 million workers stayed off the job to protest Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s misnamed “Jobs Act.”

Every sector of the working class took part. Air and surface transport ground to a standstill. Schools were closed. Automotive and other manufacturing workers stayed away from the factories. An estimated 50,000 students turned out, some joining the battles with police in Milan and Turin.

Had the third labor federation, CSIL, not opposed the tactic of the national strike, hundreds of thousands more workers would have been in the streets.

Prime Minister Renzi deliberately refers to his bill as the “Jobs Act,” using the English wording to encourage an association with President Obama’s bill of the same name. Just as the U.S. bill has not made a dent in unemployment here, so the Italian version will not create a single job. What it does instead is overturn a 1970 law that made it hard for bosses to lay workers off.

Renzi’s twisted logic argues that public and private sector bosses will be more likely to hire workers as regular employees if they can fire these workers at will! These employers have already increased hiring temporary workers to get around the current law that protects workers based on seniority.

To refute Renzi’s argument, all one has to do is look at the situation in the U.S. Here most workers lack protection from layoffs and firings. This has not constrained the huge expansion of the temporary, part-time and precarious workforce.

Clearly, the large numbers of young workers and students who joined the strike see through Renzi’s claim that his bill will reduce youth unemployment, now over 40 percent.

Belgian strike hits austerity

Ruling-class stressors remained high over the weekend following the Italian strike in anticipation of another action expected to halt the Belgian economy on Dec. 15.

“There has never been as strong a strike in a common front, from north to south and from east to west,” stated Marie-Helene Ska, federal secretary of the union federation CSC. (7 Sur News, Dec. 15)

Six hundred flights were cancelled at the Brussels airport, and nearly all bus or rail transportation was shut down. Pickets shut Antwerp and Ghent ports and closed schools, hospitals, factories, oil refineries, stores and cultural institutions. Roadblocks and barricades across the country demonstrated the power of the workers to stop business as usual. Scuffles with police were widespread.

Unions called the general strike, following weeks of strikes and huge demonstrations, to block new governmental austerity measures. Prime Minister Charles Michel has proposed a new round of budget cuts, elimination of annual inflation-based pay raises, raising retirement age from 65 to 67, and other austerity measures.

“Paralysis” is how the ruling-class media described the state of the Belgian economy when the strike was in progress. The powerful expressions of workers’ power there and in Italy should be closely followed by workers here. General strikes of a political nature — the last one here was the immigrant workers’ mass walkout on May Day 2006 — would give a strong and proper response to high unemployment, falling wages, union busting as in “right-to-work” (for less) laws, police brutality, and the multitude of attacks on workers and the oppressed.