SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 129 - June 2009

European jobs fight

The mood for action grows

OVER 300,000 workers marched throughout Europe in mid-May demonstrations against rising unemployment following a call by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). Around 150,000 marched in Madrid, 100,000 in Berlin, 50,000 in Brussels and 30,000 in Prague. These official figures, which gradually rose as the date of the demonstrations neared, exceeded all expectations.

A look at the joblessness figures across Europe explains why. In the euro-zone, well over 20 million workers (8.9%) are out of work, 17% in Spain. Their numbers increased by 626,000 last March alone, 24% higher than in March 2008. Furthermore, it is estimated that the recession will destroy 8.5 million jobs by the end of 2010. No wonder that hundreds of thousands workers responded to the long overdue call of the ETUC.

In Belgium, the demo marked the first trade union mobilisation since the beginning of the recession. In June 2008, thousands of workers demonstrated for wage increases, following an earlier spontaneous outbreak of struggles in over 200 workplaces over wages in January 2008. This was never followed up, partly because of the outbreak of the economic crisis. The trade union leaders dropped wage demands and agreed a very minimal collective agreement. Since then, trade union activity has been on the defensive, mainly concentrated on limiting the damage of the attacks faced by workers. But the ETUC demo in Brussels illustrated that it is possible to mobilise also in times of crisis. It is true there were important international delegations, but the bulk of the demonstrators came from Belgium.

The ETUC correctly stated that demonstrators were demanding "ambitious action for employment". However, few workers think the ETUC demands are sufficiently ambitious to fit the ETUC claim to ‘Put People First’. Unfortunately, the demands are no more than copy-pasted proposals made earlier by the representatives of the main political parties, the same people who, until recently, declared the supremacy of the ‘self-regulating’ market system. The ETUC warns against protectionism, makes calls to "invest heavily in services and industry", and to "offer a future to the car industry and textiles". It argues for "stronger regulation of the financial markets", believes Europe should "construct social rights instead of destroying them", "aim for green growth and green jobs", "stop reducing the role of the state, non-profit and social economy", and fight tax fraud.

Most of those marching in Brussels, and elsewhere, have a different agenda. Their main message was: ‘We are not prepared to pay up for their crisis!’ ‘Socialism or Barbarity!’ read a banner of the DAF car workers. ‘United against capitalism’, read an Audi worker’s placard. ‘Let’s refuse to pay up for the capitalist crisis’, was the message carried by the Brussels public transport workers. The francophone socialist trade union campaign slogan, ‘Capitalism is bad for your health’, was a major success, including among many Flemish demonstrators. The official demonstration speakers had to reflect that mood and verbally attack ‘casino capitalism’. This expresses a growing anti-capitalist mood, which creates big possibilities for the left.

There are, however, not only opportunities but also dangers inherent in the situation. Anti-capitalist rhetoric unrelated to concrete action can stimulate an anti-political mood that aids the far-right and populist elements. The ETUC mobilisation should not be a one-off, covert support for the political ‘allies’ of the so-called left, but the beginning of a real European action plan aiming to culminate in a European general strike.

Such an action plan would need to be built on the basis of demands that can really offer solutions: a generalised reduction of working hours, without loss of pay, to combat unemployment; no participation in the stock market casino by companies active in key sectors such as energy supply, public transport, post, telecoms and finances, and their nationalisation under the control of workers and consumers; the re-nationalisation of former public services; and the introduction of public control over research for clean production.

Unfortunately, the ETUC demands are miles away from this. Not even a rejection of European Union’s programme for neo-liberalisation and privatisation, the Lisbon Treaty, was included in its demands. It is as if the ETUC does not know that the EU is primarily a bosses’ club which is against workers’ rights and has one main aim: to transform Europe into the world’s ‘most competitive region’.

Eric Byl

LSP/MAS – CWI Belgium:


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