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Europe‘s workers fight neo-liberal attack

1 million-plus take to streets

Published Oct 24, 2007 10:32 PM

200,000 workers march in Lisbon Oct. 18
to demand job security, no more cutbacks.
Photos: Avante

Unions in Portugal, France, Germany and Italy held uncoordinated strikes and mass demonstrations from Oct. 18 to 20. All were aimed at countering a relentless attack from the imperialist ruling class that has cut wages and benefits and eliminated job security for tens of millions of workers.

Where mass workers’ parties played a strong role organizing the struggle, as the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) did in Portugal, the goal of the protest remained clear and the mobilization on the highest level. Even in countries where the leadership was lacking, the mass rallies, marches and strikes, all defending workers’ rights, showed a mass combative spirit among the workers.

The protests coincided with a summit meeting of the European Union in Lisbon where heads of government of 26 countries signed a new treaty. This treaty replaces the constitution that had already been rejected by referenda in France and the Netherlands in 2005. Such a treaty would impose common institutions on the member states that would rapidly erode social and economic gains workers had made since 1945 regarding wages, benefits and job security. It would also demand greater militarization of all EU members.

When the European Central Bank puts limits on any member country’s deficit spending, this exerts pressure to cut government spending for pensions, health care, wages and spending on education.

West European workers at present have more guarantees than U.S. workers, not to mention workers in Eastern Europe and in Asia who are now part of the globalized economy. For example, 85 percent of French workers have a legally enforceable right to their job compared to only about 15 percent in the United States.

In Portugal and Italy the governments are led by nominally “left” forces and in France and Germany by center-right parties. Both groupings are imposing anti-worker policies, that is, neo-liberal policies that allow government intervention only on behalf of the capitalist monopolies.

PORTUGAL: Largest protest in more than 20 years

200,000 workers march
in Lisbon.

Led by the major labor confederation, the CGTP-IN, more than 200,000 workers came to Lisbon on Oct. 18 to hold what union leaders called the “country’s biggest demonstration in 20 years.” The local target was the nominally “Socialist” Prime Minister Jose Socrates, whom the PCP describes as leading a sharper and more widespread attack on workers and democratic rights than any government since the fascist Salizar regime was overthrown in 1974.

A major target of the protest is so-called flexicurity. The bosses present flexicurity as a tradeoff with workers providing more flexible work hours in return for unemployment insurance. In practice, just as in the recent deals with GM and Chrysler, it provides more leeway for management to arrange work hours and dismiss workers.

“Flexicurity is, above all, for this government, a slogan to impose liberalization and a lack of job protection for many years,” Jose Carvalho da Silva of the CGTP union said in a speech at the rally.

The Portuguese workers have maintained a high level of class consciousness and combativity even in the period since the overthrow of the USSR. The PCP, a mass workers’ party, which still has a proclaimed goal of a socialist society, is playing a key role in the struggle to defend workers’ rights.

More clearly than in the other countries, the workers in Portugal have expressed that their enemy is the bourgeois regime, even if it is administered by a “Socialist” premier, and the imperialist European ruling class along with that in the United States. Their allies are the other European unions and the struggles in the oppressed countries against U.S.-led wars.

FRANCE: Rail workers shut down traffic

Some 754 of the normal 800 long-distance trains never moved in France on Oct. 18, nor did nine out of 10 trains on the Paris Metro. Suburban and regional trains in the Paris area were severely limited, with four out of five shut down by government accounts.

Twenty-nine French cities, in addition to Paris, lost public transportation, with Marseilles, France’s second largest city, nearly completely shut down. Besides workers in transportation, some teachers, school aids and workers in electricity generation and gas distribution—generally public employees—also struck.

Some 300,000 people marched to support the rail workers’ pension rights, including 50,000 in Marseilles and 25,000 in Paris. They carried signs and banners reading, “Together we can win,” “Solidarity” and “Struggle to win.” Young workers told the French newspaper Le Monde, “We are fighting for our elders’ rights in order to defend our future.”

French workers had told rightist President Nicolas Sarkozy that if the government tried to take away the right of railroad workers with outside jobs to retire with a full pension at age 50, they would react. “He’s a thief robbing me,” one worker told the media. “My pension will go from 65 percent of my final wages to 46 percent.”

The strike continued through Oct. 21, especially on the suburban trains and the Paris Metro or subway. The French government is proclaiming that it will negotiate with the unions, but won’t back down on removing the pension language that lets some workers retire at 50, which Sarkozy claims costs the government 1.6 billion euros.

The October issue of Le Monde Diplomatique points out that Sarkozy has given the wealthy elite of France tax breaks worth 13 billion euros a year and wants to increase them to 15 billion euros.

GERMANY: Train conductors disrupt work day

German train conductors also went out on a one-day strike Oct. 18 for the third time in two weeks. About half the local and regional trains in Germany didn’t run. A court order prohibits strikes on long-distance trains.

In Eastern Germany, 80 percent of the trains stopped, more than in heavily populated and industrialized western areas. Traffic jams clogged most German cities, slowing the economy, as Germany has the highest percentage of train users in the world.

The conductors are asking for recognition of their union and a 30-percent wage hike, since their wages are far below comparable workers elsewhere in Europe. Since Deutsche Bahn, the public company that owns the railroads, does not want to recognize the union and is only offering 10 percent, these one-day strikes will likely continue. Günther Kinscher, one of the union leaders, told German television, “Our membership is asking us to authorize an unlimited strike.”

ITALY: 800,000 workers demand job security

As in Portugal, the major issue in Italy is job security. Now young workers—some 4 million or one-sixth of the workforce—have short-term job contracts and thus no secure positions. This was the driving issue for the 800,000 workers, unionists, youths and women who jammed Rome with banners and red flags on Oct. 21, demanding that the “center-left” government of Romano Prodi guarantee better rights for workers.

The demonstrators were ready to struggle. What complicated the protest was that its main organizers, which included the Rifoundation Communist Party and the Party of the Communists, both separate successors to the once-massive Italian Communist Party, are also both supporters of the Prodi government and hold minister posts in it. Leaders of these parties insisted that the government itself was not a target of the protest. Prodi called on his ministers to stay away from the demonstration, and they did.

The coalition that includes these left parties is not only administering a capitalist state, it is dominated by pro-capitalist politicians and is carrying out an attack on workers’ rights and benefits. It is also participating in imperialist interventions in Lebanon and Afghanistan, and has asked for an 11 percent increase in the military budget. The strong Oct. 20 action shows that a large section of the Italian working class refuses to accept this collaboration with the “lesser-evil” Prodi regime.