EUROPE: Workers battle austerity cuts


Resistance grows to increasing misery

All the major Greek labor organizations — the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE) together with the Civil Servants’ Confederation and the All-Workers Militant Front — have called for general strikes on Feb. 20. A few days later international observers, whose task is to verify that the Greek government is fully implementing the austerity program imposed on Greece, are scheduled to arrive.

Greece has entered its sixth year of economic depression, made far worse by the austerity that the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank required before Greece gets bailout funds. What makes this austerity even more painful is that almost all the funds that come in almost immediately go out to foreign banks.

In its monthly report on the economy for January, the GSEE claimed that “from 2010-13 pensioners and workers lost 50 percent of their real income.” The reasons for this loss: lower and unpaid wages, higher taxes, raging unemployment, elimination of union bargaining rights, and especially a lower minimum wage. (ANSAmed, Feb. 14) One of the “refinements” of the latest austerity plan is lowering the minimum monthly wage from approximately $800 a month to $650.

According to the Hellenic Statistical Authority, the Greek economy declined at an annual rate of 6 percent in the last quarter of 2012. As bad as this is, the Finance Ministry called it a significant improvement over earlier in 2012 when the decline was greater. (Greek Reporter, Feb. 15)

The Greek economy has shrunk by 25 percent since 2009, and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is predicting that the Greek economy won’t start to grow again until 2015. Given the current unemployment rate of 27 percent and a youth unemployment rate of 60 percent, this means Greek workers face increasing misery if nothing changes.

On Feb. 6, protesting farmers took 55 tons of vegetables and fruit into the center of Athens, after announcing on television that they would hand out free food. A huge crowd gathered, with some parents holding their kids on their shoulders so they could get the food. In the ensuing crush, numerous people were injured, and one man was knocked off his feet, hit his head, was trampled on and had to be hospitalized.


Teachers, parents oppose school restructuring

Since the start of 2013, hundreds of thousands of teachers in France, along with parents, have taken to the streets in massive demonstrations to oppose the “Peillon plan” to restructure the school day.

On Feb. 12, around 70 percent of the elementary schools were on strike in Paris, according to the mayor, and 35 percent throughout the whole country, according to the Ministry of Education. There was a big march of teachers with their students and parents in Paris and smaller marches elsewhere. (Agence France Presse, Feb. 12)

In France, the national government is responsible for education. Ever since a system of free public education was set up in the late 19th century, elementary students have gone to school four days a week, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The fifth day — currently Wednesday — used to be for catechism and religious instruction, but now is a day of enriched education, if the pupil’s family can afford it, or else haphazard childcare.

The restructuring the government of President François Hollande has announced, without any consultation with unions, parent associations and local governments, adds a half day to Wednesday and reduces the school day for the rest of the week by 45 minutes. Local governments must pay a share of the cost.

Imposing such a major change on millions of families’ schedules has aroused massive anger. And local officials, who will have to find the money to pay for after-school programs, are wondering what additional costs will be assigned. Many schools are dilapidated and overcrowded. How will this issue be addressed?

The Teachers Federation of Paris, in a Dec. 19 blog on Le Monde, points out that this restructuring hides other questions, such as “salaries, the number of classroom staff, the content and methods of teaching, how disabled students should be taught.” According to one union leader, “It hinders the possibility of a real transformation of French schools.”

The government has proposed hiring 10,000 teachers a year for the next six years, but the unions have charged that in many regions class sizes are already far too large and 10,000 is insufficient..

Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris who is in the same party as Hollande, wants to put the reforms into effect as soon as possible, if he can find the 5 million euros needed without raising taxes.

The French government needs additional funds to reform its educational system, but at the same time that it is spending squandering most money huge sums on its imperialist adventures in Africa.

Spain, Portugal:

Workers battle wage cuts, evictions

Poverty has grown by leaps and bounds in Spain and Portugal over the past few years as the capitalist crisis imposes wage cuts and high unemployment rates across the Iberian peninsula. Tens of thousands of workers in dozens of cities in both countries went out on the streets Feb. 16 to demand a halt to this process of impoverishment.

In the Spanish state, the focus of the struggle was on housing. In past years 400,000 people have been threatened with evictions and foreclosures as their job losses made it impossible to keep up mortgage and rent payments. Already about 100 people have committed suicide rather than accept losing their homes.

The largest demonstration that day was in Barcelona, where demonstrators say 100,000 were marching. They targeted bank branches and the headquarters of the rightist ruling Peoples Party, chanting, “Our most powerful weapon — solidarity.” (El Pais, Feb. 18)

Spain’s unemployment rate has been more than 25 percent for nearly two years now, with youth unemployment more than 50 percent.

In neighboring Portugal, the poorest country in Western Europe, the employment situation is hardly better. Official unemployment is nearly 17 percent. Average wages have sunk about 15 percent in the past year.

The rightist-led government made an agreement with the European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank “troika” a year ago. In return for loans, it agreed to enormous cuts in the budget. As in Greece, Spain and other European countries, this meant cutting benefits for the working class in order to guarantee payments to the banks.

What kicked off the Feb. 16 protests was an additional 4 billion euro cut to social security programs. Tens of thousands of workers called out by the CGTP union confederation marched in more than a dozen Portuguese cities under the slogan “Against poverty and against exploitation.”

Reports in the weekly newspaper of the Portuguese Communist Party, Avante, say that the ruling class has flooded the media with articles, reports and discussions trying to convince everyone that austerity is the only way out of the capitalist crisis. More and more people are becoming convinced, however, that this is a lie and that the crisis lies within the capitalist system itself.

— John Catalinotto


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