• Popular Movements Challenge Policies

  • By Dominique Crozat | 20 May 09
  • Dominique Crozat reports on the various movements and protests all over the world. The characteristic of their outstanding breadth is the merging of classical and new forms of resistance into a broad social movement.

     

    This crisis is not a thunderclap in a clear sky. Its causes are deeply rooted in the very contradictions of capitalism. These roots reach down into the sphere of production and out to the policies of employers and of government. The devaluation of the work force over a long period of time, the reinforcement of precariousness, assaults on social safety nets, the intensification of work and pressure on wages have played an important role in the financialisation of the economy. Weak consumption as a result of policies designed to moderate wages throughout the world make it impossible to resist the crisis and restart the economy. These policies have weighed heavily on the people and on employment, and they have contributed to the disarray and discontent of larger and larger segments of the population. Discontent has spread around the world, to all countries and to sectors that had previously felt more or less untouched.

    More recently, governments’ responses to the crisis only have served to exacerbate the anger. Billions injected into banks and large private companies, in exchange for nothing in return, are felt to be a true provocation. There is strong feeling that governments are keeping afloat those responsible for the crisis. On the one hand, the stability pact does not stimulate the owners of resources, while on the other hand, different countries’ governments announce draconian austerity measures in the name of public-sector budget deficits. Job-cutting plans proliferate, along with wage freezes or even wage cuts ranging from 7 to 15% in countries like Ireland, Latvia and Hungary. At the same time, directors and shareholders of banks and state-aided companies continue to receive indecent bonuses and dividends. The so-called “moralisation” of finance is a delusion. This is seen as the worst recession since World War II. According to the ILO, the crisis could cause the disappearance of more than 50 million jobs.

    Gaining ground everywhere …

    … is the idea that it is not up to the people to foot the bill for the crisis. This would, in fact, be double jeopardy. After having suffered for years from implemented policies, they now have to pay a second time: for the consequences of a crisis caused by these policies.

    It is, therefore, not surprising that mobilisation is growing everywhere. Movements, often powerful, were underway in the period immediately preceding the declared crisis: In 2007, in Portugal, in the face of deliberate deindustrialisation, tapping into pensions, deregulation of employment, a public sector salary freeze, and assaults on the labour code, a united front of unionised labour led to an important mobilisation: 70% of workers responded, directly or indirectly, to calls for a general strike in 2007. In France, the same year, the young turned out massively against a proposed First Employment Contract (CPE), with the support of all workers’ representatives with the result that this discriminatory proposal was withdrawn.

    In 2008, labour struggles at Dacia in Rumania showed that workers in Eastern Europe refuse to be treated like second-class citizens. This time, significantly, they had the support of workers at Renault in France. 

    In April, 2008, after two months of strikes and mobilisation, German civil servants, along with workers in the metalworking sector, won a 5% increase in wages. Discontent only continues to grow, while the feeling of being made to suffer the consequences of the crisis continue to feed the fury.

    At the end of 2008, the young were the first to massively react in Greece. The vigour of the autonomous, anarchist milieu is not new within the stunning radicalisation of the movement, but it is not enough to explain it. The children of the middle-class were in the front rank. The economic and financial crisis has unleashed the anguish of this generation without a future, massively affected by unemployment, precariousness and poverty. Greek youth can take pride in the resonance of their movement throughout Europe. Today, the root causes of their movement persist, and all are looking for the best way to prolong the movement of last December. There is growing awareness that it is neoliberalism that has shattered the future. In Athens, in Thessaloniki, popular assemblies have been created at the neighbourhood level, while general assemblies and coordinated meetings continue to take place. 

    The Greek €700 generation is related to the generation that fought against the CPE in France, to the Italian €1,000 generation and to the Mileuristas in Spain. Italy, Spain, France and Greece have, in fact, developed an economic and social model that sacrifices the young as a variable, as a safety valve, in the labour force. Youth unemployment is particularly high in these countries – 18% in Spain, 19.4% in France, 20% in Italy, 23% in Greece – which explains why the young are so mobilised in these countries against an inequitable social model. 

    The same policies of restriction and austerity implemented throughout Europe inspire the same protests everywhere. In France, in the face of growing protest from secondary school students, Nicolas Sarkozy has put off implementing his reform of secondary school education for fear of provoking a situation similar to that in Greece. In November, 2008, all of Germany – and, particularly, Baden-Württemberg – was affected by strikes and demonstrations by secondary school students protesting the lack of professors, crowded class rooms and lack of resources. 

    Apart from the young, more and more people are mobilising to say, “We refuse to pay for your crisis”. The arguments are still national, but European authorities fear that these movements will spread. So, they are multiplying repressive measures against those engaged in social protest. Common features can be seen everywhere.

    In Eastern Europe, people who had seemed submissive are taking part in the largest street demonstrations since the fall of the Soviet Union. Growth rates have plunged brutally, and governments could think of nothing better than to slash jobs and wages to meet the demands of the IMF. In Latvia, popular mobilisation caused the government to fall. In Lithuania, too, thousands gathered in front of the Parliament to protest the government’s austerity plan. In Bulgaria, social movements that express the fury of the people are proliferating.

    In Rumania, at Dacia, again, 2,000 workers gathered to demand an anti-crisis plan from the government, including a plan to save the auto industry after the announcement of the third suspension of production in four months.

    Political analysts foresee a “hot Spring” in these countries and see this as only the beginning.

    In Italy, the government has managed to break decades-long union solidarity. The only visible opposition to the government, in a context of increasingly fragmented political parties, is that of the CGIL which has decided to break ranks with other Italian unions who had broken the tradition of a unified national contract and signed separate accords with the employers. On October 30, 2008, massive mobilisations and demonstrations in the education sector protested against a reform intended to eliminate thousands of schools. The second assault came from the FIOM/CGIL metalworkers who rallied around the slogan “The crisis should be paid for by those who caused it.” On December 13, 1.5 million people demonstrated in defence of stable employment, wages and social justice. The strike of February 13, 2009 in metalworking and education was a success and 700,000 demonstrators gathered in Rome. On April 4, there will be a national demonstration organised by CGIL.

    In Portugal, the social movement is gaining strength. A day of protest on behalf of national education was massively supported in January, 2009. On March 13, up to 200,000 workers from both the public and private sectors marched in Lisbon in the biggest protest of its kind the Portuguese capital has ever seen. The Socialist government was in the firing line, accused of increasing unemployment and favouring the rich at a time of crisis.

    In Ireland, where unemployment grew from 4.7% in 2007 to 9.2% today and where the state budget is being ruthlessly slashed, rage is mounting against the plan that the people are going to have to swallow while banks receive massive aid. More than 120,000 people turned out in the streets of Dublin on February 21 to oppose the government’s cost-saving plan: firemen, artisans who make porcelain and glass, teachers, policemen, civil servants and workers from the private sector. According to the Secretary General of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), this was just the first step in an ongoing action campaign. The solidly established social contract linking the state and the social partners has gone up in smoke. And, this situation is all the more worrisome for European authorities because the Lisbon Treaty is to be submitted to a new referendum in Ireland before October.

    In Spain, mobilisations are still too sectarian and fragmented significantly to affect the liberal orientation of the government. The crisis could, nevertheless, still change that: On February 1, 20,000 people in Andalusia answered the call of the United Left and took to the streets of Seville to make clear that workers should not have to pay the cost.

    In Germany, an alliance of almost 100 organisations, under the international motto of “We won’t pay for your crisis”, are calling for two big marches in Frankfurt and Berlin. These marches are the beginning of further mobilisations and actions against the politics of the global crisis of capitalism. The struggles are becoming still more connected in the multi-organisational call for a week of action against the “crisis and war” on the 60th anniversary of NATO.

    In the United Kingdom, the government faces opposition from eight Labour-affiliated unions not in favour of privatising 30% of the postal service, the last public service left in London apart from the Underground. More than a third (125) of Labour MPs have signed a petition against privatising the Post Office. Demonstrations against the employment of foreign workers, in connection with the Total refinery in early February, have underscored the powerlessness of the authorities to deal with the crisis. Ironically, the author of the slogan “British jobs for British workers” is Prime Minister Gordon Brown himself! The adoption of the slogan by British strikers and the Unite union is certainly shocking and xenophobic, but it does reflect the unease of a working class faced with the threat of social dumping in other countries and, in the present context, is part of the same unwillingness to underwrite the crisis that is being expressed throughout Europe.

    In France, mobilisation is growing. In a departure from the past, the common front of the eight main unions, while still fragile, is not cracking. After a day of massive mobilisation against having to pay for the crisis (January 29), the eight main unions have issued a new appeal: on March 19, three million people took to the streets in new demonstrations against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s handling of the economic crisis. According to polls, the rallies are backed by 75% of the French population. They reflect growing disillusion. Rage extends to sectors that, until now, have not tended to react. Teacher-researchers are exceptionally well mobilised. Judges and psychiatrists are reacting to security-oriented imprisonment policies and threats to civil liberties. A “Call of Calls” has been issued to further the convergence of different movements. 

    The socially lowest strata, people historically enslaved and colonised, immigrant workers, also are waking up. In Martinique and Guadeloupe there have been historic mobilisations, lasting several weeks in early 2009, and spreading to the island of Reunion and to Guyana. In Guadeloupe, 100,000 people, nearly a quarter of the population, took to the streets to protest against “robbery and abusive profits.” Their demands extend across all segments of society. Undocumented workers also went on strike for many weeks in 2008 and, for the first time, received wide support from the population.

    These mobilisations are creating the conditions for a convergence of the struggles in Europe. In early March, the European Trade Unions Confederation (ETUC) launched a campaign for European protest against the crisis, refusing to see workers and citizens pick up the tab for a crisis that they did not create. This campaign will see a series of European demonstrations on May 14–16, 2009. ETUC calls for a social agenda that gives priority to the main concerns of European citizens: jobs, purchasing power and basic rights. The campaign is to remind different European governments of their responsibility in the crisis.

    The motivation behind the mobilisations

    No matter where you look, the motivation for mobilisation is the same: public freedom, rights and solidarity, austerity policies, public funds to bail out private finance and the wealthiest, while public services suffer and the people pay the cost of the crisis. No matter where you look, governments are on the line. The street holds them accountable.

    There is a lot to learn from what is happening, especially from the young Greek movement. Mobilisation developed outside traditional frameworks and structures, with new tools and new codes, often arousing the distrust of the traditional left. Horizontal lines of communication have allowed this revolt to spread with unprecedented speed. New technologies, text messages (SMS), blogs and e-mail are overtaking traditional pamphlets and posters as means of communication. Virtual meetings on the internet preceded and extended real assemblies.

    Classic and new, often more radical, forms co-exist in these mobilisations, which, probably explains their breadth. Spokespeople are not necessarily organised activists. This mobilisation is a phenomenon that is emerging from the true base of society. Unions often play an important role, but this role is changing. This was evident in Guadeloupe where the people came together to answer the call of a collective of 49 union, political, consumer and cultural associations.

    The ability of labour unions to take these new phenomena into consideration without trying to absorb the movement is critical to the social movement’s future development. This new dynamic challenges politicians of every stripe. If it is a clear condemnation of the liberal policies conducted by rightist and social-democratic governments, the new dynamic also is a challenge to the forces of the left who want an alternative to liberalism. The left should take a good look at what is in motion and emerging from society and work with the social movement to build, together, the responses needed today.