• Building Class Consciousness

  • Por Christine Mendelsohn | 25 May 09
  • The struggle of the workers at the Renault Dacia plant in Rumania has clarified how competition between wage-earners in the Eastern and Western parts of the European Union works. Their resistance to blackmail through the threat of delocalisation has had an impact on the morale of people in the West by putting an end to the idea that wage-earners in Europe can be exploited indefinitely.

    As representative of the European Left Party (ELP), I met the Renault Dacia union leaders at Pitesti last April. Work had already been resumed the week before. The exchange of views showed to what extent the interests of the various European populations and wage-earners do not automatically converge: political work consists of taking the existing divergences into account, overcoming them by way of a class analysis.

    Extremely low salaries and the inflation of food prices had sparked the strike — neither the workers nor the engineers could live on their pay although they were providing their company with a high quality and very profitable product — the Logan. Despite the blackmailing threat of delocalisation outside the European Union, and the declarations by the firm’s bosses that the strike was illegal, 70% of the wage-earners struck for three weeks and won an increase of 97 euros resulting in an average wage of 250 euros, with the addition of an annual bonus. Initially, a worker’s wage was 150 euros, and an engineer’s 300. A recent law requires that a strike be adhered to by at least 50% of union members or 30% of all the employed wage-earners. This is to be calculated on a daily basis during a strike. The law was passed by Rumanian politicians and members of parliament at the time of accession to the European Union, on the pretext that it was a requirement of the European Community. The Rumanian union (BNS) referred the matter to the ILO, as this law was more restrictive than what their national constitution already provided. They asked the ELP to intercede with the Rumanian government on this issue.

    Two press conferences, one at Pitesti and the other at Bucharest, show that the issues discussed in Rumania are similar to those raised in France:

    “Workers in the West want to keep their jobs, and workers in the East want those jobs to come to them. How do you handle this contradiction?”

    “Isn’t it fair that wages drop in the West so as to rise in the East”.

    “How can Rumanian wage-earners remain attractive if they continue to demand wage increases?”

    Local representatives of the Socialist Alliance stressed that Rumanian’s joining the E.U. two years ago created a dynamic in favour of jobs — but also made it very difficult to live on one’s salary. What is most noticeable since its entry into the European Community is the increase in the number of banks (e.g. Société Générale), of supermarkets (Carrefour) and retail pharmacies. They also pointed out that German radioactive wastes have been buried in a plot of land near the Dacia plant over the last 15 years. The Rumanian government has recently been asked to accept household refuse from Naples. The refusal of the European Union to allow Rumania and Bulgaria to enter the Schengen area, in contrast to the conditions established for the first Eastern European countries which had joined, provoked an outburst of anger amongst Rumanian citizens who do not want to become colonised or second-class citizens.

    The example of Dacia, and the demonstrations of those sectors of the population completely dependent on their own work, belies the theory that the law of the market will even out living conditions throughout Europe and even throughout the world. Demonstrations are now taking place in the West, in the East and even in the South where there are hunger riots. This is clear proof that the cleavage is not a North-South or East-West one but is between wages no longer enabling a decent standard of living and the firms that are delocalising so as to benefit from increased exploitation. The motivation of all this is increased profits for the shareholders — fuelling speculation on basic foodstuffs and raw materials. This is the choice that the heads of government of our European countries have made through their treaties and directives.

    Neoliberal policies reduce the wage-earner to a resource, the cost of which must be reduced. Simultaneously, they push him to be the consumer that capitalism needs in order for it to function. This contradiction is reaching an unacceptable threshold — witness the number of demonstrations for wage increases throughout Europe. However, while the rights of capital are fully detailed, the right to strike is not yet recognised as a Community right, either in the Lisbon Treaty or in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Responsibility for this is relegated to the national level — this is a political battle that we must wage at the European level as well as in every individual country.

    When the Rumanians joined the European Community their hopes were based on catching up to Western European standards of living. They see, in fact, that the present policy of the European Union is only based on the exploitation of the wage-earners of the East so as to permit greater exploitation of Western wage-earners.

    We must attack this way of constructing Europe, which has altered the conditions of its enlargement. Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece enjoyed substantial structural funds when they joined to make it possible for them to catch up to the standard of living of other Europeans. The last ten countries to join have been granted less funds, and their wage levels are used for a policy of social and fiscal dumping — creating a low-cost region in the very heart of the Common Market.

    The European Left Party is in favour of increasing the European budget to support its enlargement policy. Otherwise, as a Hungarian comrade said at the ELP’s Summer University, the feeling Eastern European people have of being colonised could lead to a sharper rise of the extreme right in these countries — with consequent destabilisation in all of Europe.

    The situation in Rumania strikingly demonstrate the truth of Jack Ralite’s remark: “Poverty is a social and political structure”. The neoliberal leaders of the European countries have knowingly constructed this policy in each of their countries and have consolidated it at the European level in treaty after treaty, even though the populations have voted “NO”.

    It is against these choices that the European Trade Union Confederation organised, last April, a demonstration in Ljubljana in which we took part. In reaction to all these problems, the ELP has decided to run a campaign against job insecurity. The European Left Party is struggling to ensure that policies are no longer subordinated to those who are only interested in the accumulation of profits for shareholders. We are fighting for policies aimed at quality of life — for human beings and for the planet. These are the trends that ought to become the pillars of the economic and social policies of the European Union. The Transform! Europe network was present at the seminars on immigration and at the general assembly of immigrants during the European Social Forum (ESF) at Malmö via the Réseau International Frantz Fanon (International Frantz Fanon Network), one of our partners. Together we initiated a seminar “Frantz Fanon: A Contemporary Alternative to the Clash of Civilisations” and also took part in a seminar on the International Conference Against Racism, also known as the Durban Conference.

    What is our analysis of this?

    Firstly, we note that the question of “immigrants” was hardly present at this Forum, unlike in preceding Social Forums. The seminars devoted to this question were, nevertheless, of high quality, making even more evident the discrepancy between the internal weakness of this Social Forum and the central, indeed strategic, place of the “immigrant” issue in European policies. The Migrant Forum held in Madrid, a short while earlier, had been a great success and mobilised many associations and movements, both European and African.

    However, for us the weakness of the Social Forum on this issue cannot be explained by an apparently sufficient attention paid to it elsewhere in European politics; the importance of the link between immigrant issues and all the social, democratic, political and cultural issues that was central in Madrid should have found an echo at Malmö.

    The immigrant question is certainly a solidarity issue, but it goes far beyond this – the quality of our democracy, i.e. the relations between peoples, is reflected in it. It is at the heart of the clashes between visions of society, the neoliberal concept of Europe and the concept of “another world”. Witness the signature, after Malmö, of the “Immigration-Asylum Pact” by the European countries and the Council of Europe less than three months after the European Parliament had passed the “return” directive. The measures taken by the European states are part of the whole logic of criminalising and locking up foreigners. Detention is established as a system in the context of a frightening European “harmonisation” of the internment of immigrants. As the Migr’europe network has stated: “Camps for foreigners are at the epicentre of a multitude of attacks on fundamental rights. Do not let a curtain of silence be drawn over them”.

    We note, unfortunately, that only the GUE/NGL Group carried out a coherent struggle against the very principle of this “return directive” — in fact from the presentation of the first draft. Their actions and speeches against “Fortress Europe” are, indeed, to be welcomed.

    The appeal of the Migrants assembly at the Malmö edition of the European Social Forum, ratified by the social movements’ assembly, must be communicated in all our countries. It is available on the ESF web site. The success of the “citizens’ counter summit” held in Paris on September 17 reinforces the timetable of initiatives passed.

    The seminar on Frantz Fanon also was a success. We conclude that the work undertaken must continue, that it is a highly pertinent, useful subject. It is, indeed, a necessary one for the altermondialiste movement itself, so as to deepen understanding of what anti-racism must be: the multicultural struggle against withdrawal into communal identities, against the phony theory of “the clash of civilisations”. Our pamphlet “Letters of the South to the North” was distributed, confirming in Malmö the success it enjoyed at the Fête de l’Humanité .

    It is very interesting that during our seminar, as well as the one devoted to the Durban Conference, many people shared the same questions, the same desire to see in the history of slavery, the deportation of blacks and the triangular trade, the social roots of racism and discrimination in today’s globalised world. It seems that, though many European countries have dealt with the history of fascism (although even here, this is not quite true) most of them do not deal with the five-century-long dominion of slavery and then colonialism.

    The preparatory committee for the Durban International Conference on Racism, which took place in Geneva from October 7 to 17, 2008, underscores the central importance of these questions.

    In conclusion, it seems to me that we have to strengthen coordination on these issues in the Transform! network. We must look toward a European-level meeting.

    Christine Mendelsohn is Member of the executive board of the European Left Party and of the French Communist Party.