• Resistance and Struggles Against Austerity in Europe

  • By Elisabeth Gauthier | 09 Nov 10
  • A Round table was held in Paris on October 24 with the following participants:

    Elisabeth Gauthier, Espaces Marx (Paris)/Transform!, Alessandra Mecozzi, International Secretary FIOM-CGIL (Italy), Petre Damo, Romanian Social Forum, Mirek Prokes, Czech Social Forum, Yannis Almpanis, Network for Political and Social Rights, Greece, Jean-Michel Joubier, European/International Representative CGT, France, Christian Pilichowski, International Responsible FTM-CGT, Willy van Ooyen, Peace and Future Workshop (Germany)/Deputy to the Hessian State Parliament (Die Linke).


    Elisabeth: The second half of 2010 is marked by resistance movements against austerity in Europe. Please tell us something about the social situation in your country – and please focus on the new elements that are characteristic for today’s actions. What is the social basis of the movements? What is the content of the struggle? Is there any new content in it? What questions are mainly discussed? 

    Willy: In Germany, actions are mainly against the federal budget, since the government wants to cut social expenditures. These actions are being prepared with the trade unions. After September 29 we see there is a need for other actions at the national level, we will have these in Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Hanover, and so on. On November 26, there will be a day of manifestations against the anti-social budget in Berlin.

    Alessandra: The political and social situation in Italy is extremely difficult. There are general reasons for this: the violent impact of the crisis on employment and social conditions, the use of the crisis by employers to cut rights and the lack of adequate responses by government policies. On the contrary, they are trying to find a way out of the crisis through heavy social cuts. But there are also specific reasons, an Italian peculiarity! That is the “answer” of two of the big labour confederations to the crisis: they decided to sign separate agreements (without the CGIL) diverging from the national contract to accept lower conditions in cases of company crisis or when company investment is considered important. This means the disruption of the National Collective Contract and the collective bargaining system. And these agreements have been signed without consulting workers and letting them vote on them. What is new in Italy at this moment is the mobilisation of a strong alliance between the unions which did not sign these agreements and the social movements. The trade union of the metal workers (Fiom-Cgil) said no to Fiat’s blackmail proposal to lower the level of workers’ rights in compensation for new investments in Italy, a proposal which the other trade unions accepted, supporting in so doing Confindustria’s [the employers’ association] project aiming at dismantling the system of collective bargaining.

    This has been the start of a new resistance movement, with strikes in Fiat and other plants and the support of very diverse movements, also of those working for democracy and civil rights. A huge manifestation was organised on October 16, by Fiom, supported by the Cgil, with the strong slogan “work as a common good”. Workers from different sectors, precarious workers and students participated. And what is new, again, is that this alliance is also working with other altermondialist movements, like the ecologists, who are preparing the COP in Cancun, since we have to reflect also on how to change the current economic development model that failed. We have to prepare an exit from the crisis with good alternatives, including a new industrial policy, aiming also at some industrial reconversion.

    Petre: The context in Romania is one of neoliberal policies against public services, against civil society, lowering wages and pensions, dismantling education and health systems. It means that society, which is not responsible for the crisis, has to pay for it.

    In this movement, the basic democratic principles and values of the European Union are threatened. Our constitution is not respected. The situation is extremely difficult. The responses of the trade unions are coming late; they are not the result of a thought-out strategy, but are a reaction to proposals of the government. This is not the best way to handle this.

    Nevertheless, we did organise in Bucharest in September a Joint Social Conference with trade unions and civil society. This was a first step, and we tried to follow the Brussels model and turn this into a new process, but adapted to the Romanian context and realities. The objective is not to substitute the trade unions; the problem is that there is no culture of protest in our country, there is hardly any political culture in the democratic sense. There are, obviously, historical explanations for this, and that is why reactions come only after the government has taken the first steps.

    There will be an important demo organised by the trade union confederations in Bucharest on October 27 in front of the Parliament, because the need is very real. We launched a call to civil society and to the population, and we hope that there will be at least 100,000 people to participate. On October 27 a motion will be presented in the parliament, and there is a possibility that the government will fall. The demo will represent additional pressure on this neoliberal government. We do not know whether this can succeed, but it has to be done, and we will do it.

    Mirek: In the Czech Republic the situation is similar to the one in Romania. We have neoliberal policies since 2007, and today, with the crisis, the situation is even worse. People do not come to elections anymore. The crisis has created a huge number of unemployed and homeless people. The first trade union that called for a demo was the police union. But at the beginning of September, teachers, doctors and civil servants joined in. Their wages could be decreased by 10 %. About 40,000 people were in the streets and this was the strongest trade union demo since 1997. But we also have to see that the people in the private sector and the most precarious workers can neither strike nor protest. There is no culture of protest.

    Up to now, there is no change in politics. Activists now want a general strike, but the trade unions do not agree and want to negotiate with the government. There will be two elections in the coming months, for parliament and for municipalities, and it is probable the social-democrats will win. Unfortunately, they will have no absolute majority and the parliament will continue to have a rightwing majority, including in the big cities and in the government. The Communist Party is not seen as a partner for the social-democrats or for leftwing civil society members. There is room for a new leftwing party, with some social democrats, communists, greens and members of civil society. New civic platforms are being created for the protests.

    Let me also add a word on Slovakia: there the situation is even worse. There are no leftwing civil initiatives as there are in the Czech Republic. Instead, in both countries, nationalism and racism are on the rise, as a scapegoating mechanism.

    Yannis: Greece has a very violent and extremely difficult situation. We are facing a tremendous social regression related to a process of “internal devaluation”. Massive amounts of people are being laid off; soon there will be more than one million people unemployed. And the jobs that are created are mainly precarious and flexible. We are witnessing a Latin-Americanisation of the country; it is a real social catastrophe. You can compare it to Argentina at the moment of the collapse of 2001.

    We lost the first round of the resistance movement against the austerity plan. In November, there will be municipal elections, and the left, to the left of the social-democracy, will be present with six different lists, all against neoliberalism. The ruling parties do not concede anything, they will most probably lose these elections, but at the same time the left will not win.

    The actions of September 29 were very weak in Greece, as a consequence of the defeat of the first round of the resistance. Now our main duty is to build a real grassroots movement against the lay-offs and in defence of the unemployed. The situation is very difficult, and also very unstable. It is not excluded that in a couple of weeks or months the situation will explode.

    Jean-Michel: In France a very important movement is taking place against the proposed reform of the pension system. It is said that the system cannot be financed beyond 2018, and that the level of pensions will necessarily be lowered, as well as the unemployment allowances. Today more than 50% of people 60 years old or older are not on the labour market anymore.

    In fact it is the rating agencies that oblige our governments to impose these policies, and the pension reform, as well as the austerity policies, are coordinated at the level of the European Union, with the Green Paper on pensions and the new EU2020 agenda. Today, the new law has been adopted in the two chambers of our national parliament, but the fight will continue. According to the last surveys, 63% of public opinion supports the movement. Trade unions are still united, after six important days of mobilisations. This week is a week of school holidays, but there is another day of mobilisation on October 28 and then November 6.

    In our trade union, the CGT, talks are particularly strong on the public services, but there is a multitude of very different actions, with very different sectors from private enterprises. It is a real grassroots movement against the pension reform, but at the same time for better wages and against lay-offs. And we note that all of a sudden some companies are announcing new jobs.

    The government has already lost the battle of public opinion, and this is very positive for the future. It has been some time since we had a similarly strong movement. We had success with our actions against the CPE (separate and precarious labour contracts for youth) – the CPE was cancelled. This time, we have no formal success, the government is not conceding anything, but the action is much stronger and is really rooted in society. There are tokens of solidarity from other trade union movements, as from the DGB in Germany which has similar problems; and there are similar struggles in all countries. The response of the ETUC on the European Green paper on pensions has really been excellent.

    What is new in this French movement is the fact that young people are participating, and this is very important. There is real convergence; young people understand that the longer older people stay on the labour market, the fewer jobs there are for them, and they also understand that they will have fewer pensions later. So they are doubly concerned: for now and in the future.

    Christian: What is new in this current French situation is the articulation and the continuity with the fights of the past three years. We are fighting for our rights and for a real policy for industry, and we have already made some progress by saving some companies. There was a very long strike of 505 days in a shipyard; we were told that ship reparation had no future in France, but we continued our fight and now the company is working again. The same happened with SBFM in Brittany, a subsidiary company of an Italian corporation which went bankrupt.

    It is also a fight at the level of wages, and we are winning. Just one example, last week, a negotiation had to start in a company, and the employer immediately promised twice what he proposed last year – this is but one example. In fact, this fight against the pension reform is also a fight for wages and for employment, as you can clearly see in the demonstrations. We are fighting for an exit from the crisis with more jobs and better wages. The real new element in this struggle is the articulation with former struggles. But in our struggle for an industrial policy, we stand alone, the political dimension is inexistent, and this is the weakness of the movement.

    Elisabeth: My impression is that there is a real convergence in these various struggles in different countries. The fight is assuming new forms; there are new alliances and there is an increased general awareness of inequalities and injustices, and a consciousness-raising of social actors. In that framework, September 29 is but one moment of the expression of this new emerging combativeness and convergence at the European level.

    In France, there is a real resistance against President Sarkozy, and the balance of power is changing, with some successes. The conclusion is that the balance of power can indeed change with a strong mobilisation. But we also have to say that our governments persist, that the employers persist. A second question we have to answer is why our governments refuse so persistently to concede anything. The political risk for them is important. And finally, a last question, what are you expecting from the left?

    Petre: The common denominator in this crisis is the austerity policies. The governments are not stepping back. An example: we had in Romania a teacher form a trade union who was on his 56th day of hunger strike. The reaction of the Minister was: even if you are 22 million, we will not step back, we will not withdraw. This is no coincidence. Trust in the government and the president fell from 50 to 11%, and if elections were held, the government would lose. At the same time, the whole system is being questioned, but as long as the government is in power, it is in power. And they will not concede anything, because if they do, they have to recognise that the system has failed and they will have to pay the political price; their political capital is lost.

    There is also convergence in Europe, governments are in contact with each other and support each other. As for expectations, they are high, but there is no viable left; the only option is social-democracy, it calls itself leftwing but it is not credible and there is a serious mistrust. This is an opportunity for the extreme right. Expectations are high but there is a political emptiness on the left.

    Mirek: The problem is the same in all countries; all governments insist on the necessity of their reforms. What they say is: “If we do not cut social expenditure and privatise the commons, the rating agencies will lower the rating of the country and lending will become more expensive for our companies”. This is an open abdication and a confession that the government works for financial groups and not for the people.

    Our expectations concerning the left are very weak. If social-democrats can enter the governments, it will again be reforms and privatisation and deregulation. It is as if we were waiting for a new Messiah.

    Yannis: It is true that politics are not changing, but the system is not stable. The slightest change can lead to a total collapse. If the Greeks really block the Memorandum, the whole European banking system will be shaken. The Memorandum (the agreement between the Greek government, the EU and IMF) is such that the Greek debt, which was mainly to European banks, has now changed and is mainly to European states and European taxpayers.

    In our global world, all fights are international. The French movement is a sign of hope for the people in Greece. Their fight is our fight. If Sarkozy concedes something, this will be important for all other countries. But of course the ruling classes will do everything they can to avoid breaking the holy neoliberal alliance. The crisis has to be seen not only as an objective reality; the ruling classes are also using it as a pretext and as an opportunity to push their agenda: to make of flexibility the dominant form of labour and to dismantle social protection and collective labour agreements.

    As for the left, I want to be modest – we should just expect four things: 1. that the personal ambitions of left leaders become less important than the suffering of the people. 2. that the left stops conceiving of politics as representation, and becomes more active in building social resistance. 3. that the left stops conceiving political intervention only as media intervention. 4. that the left stops giving fragmented national responses to the crisis. There is no Greek or French answer to the crisis. Giving separate responses is to play with fire.

    Jean-Michel: We have been talking of proxy strikes, those who have social protection are allowed to strike while the others cannot. But we should take care: the French cannot strike for the rest of Europe. I am very happy with the messages of solidarity from other trade unions in other countries, but it would be better if there were also actions and mobilisations in other countries. This is what we need: concrete struggles in different countries, and this is the best way to help each other.

    It is also important to note that if the movements in France still have 63% of support from public opinion, this goes far beyond the right/left divide; it means these struggles respond to real social needs. What trade unions expect from political parties is real political support. At the personal level, I want to say that I think that the left, in the plural, is in a serious crisis, all leftwing parties in Europe are in crisis, and this is a real problem. With whom can we work in France? Some countries in Europe have leftwing governments, but this is no guarantee of better policies.

    Alessandra: The reason governments do not concede anything is that the neoliberal austerity project is a very authoritarian project for the whole of Europe. There is not one government which resists it. Spain has a leftwing government; all the same there had to be a general strike against economic and labour policies and the trade unions are far from being extremist. The governments feel strong and they support each other. It is very difficult to force them to change. More European mobilisations are needed, more mobilisations like that of September 29, but I think that we need a European strategy for labour and for changing current economic and productive model.

    Secondly, I agree with Jean-Michel: there is no European left. Italy has no leftwing party, the old radical left is divided and it is not represented in parliament anymore (neither nationally nor on the European level). It pays the price for its many errors, and (I think) these errors are not yet fully understood; on the contrary, my impression is that they are being repeated also in other European countries.. As for the PD, the centre-left party: our expectations are modest, though there is a demand for them to represent workers interests, protect their rights and push for democracy.

    In Italy, as in other countries, there is a serious democracy problem and people are increasingly dropping out of politics. So, the governments, and the Italian government in particular, can promote regressive laws concerning the freedom of press, the legal system, and civil rights, without facing a strong political opposition. We demand of the political left and centre-left that they support our struggle for democracy in the workplaces. Workers must have the right to vote on what concerns them and decide in the event there are different positions between trade unions.

    Willy: There are different discourses in different countries on the pension age. But all these discussions are on the national level. Some discuss pensions at 62, others at 65 and still others at 67 years of age. The situation is difficult for the governments. They do not want to change the slightest element in their proposals. It makes me think of 1984 and the discussions with Kohl on the Euromissiles. He said: we govern while they have demos. Today something similar is happening in all Europe. We need regulations on the social level; there is no room for any change in their proposals. Our leftwing parties are too “parliamentarian”, they are not present in movements.

    Christian: I expect a political dimension in every struggle. We need progress and we need to look at the meaning of progress and at the meaning of labour. Today, we live longer, and this life expectancy is a result of our fights of the past, of our education system and of poor health systems. And precisely this is questioned today. We need the benefit of these struggles; that is what progress is about. But today there are doubts on the meaning of progress. Our leisure time is being questioned. Since we live better when we are 60 years old, we are supposed to work more, whereas we should have the possibility to just live better and work less. That is progress and that is the political dimension of our fight.

    Elisabeth: Thanks for your contribution.