European strikes unnerve powers-that-be

Madrid protest, November 14.

The European Day of Action and Solidarity involved a 24-hour general strike in Portugal and Spain, partial strikes in Italy, Greece, Belgium, Cyprus and Malta, and protests in 16 other European countries on November 14.

Despite the main action being confined to the Iberian peninsula, the day was a big success, with 40 union confederations and individual unions involved.

Proof of the success was the reaction of representatives of the ruling elites. Suddenly European Union economic commissioner Olli Rehn was declaring on November 14 that Spain would not need to take any extra cuts or tax hikes to meet its deficit reduction goals, although everyone knows the country is falling way behind target.

In Portugal, the November 15 Financial Times said: “Several business leaders, including figures close to the government, have joined unions and opposition parties in pressing [prime minister] Passos Coelho to ease austerity by asking international lenders for more time to meet deficit-reduction targets and to cut the interest rates Lisbon pays on rescue funds.”

Portugal

The Portuguese 24-hour strike, the third this year, was the most powerful. It was Portugal's biggest protest since the “Revolution of the Carnations” overthrew the Marcelo Caetano dictatorship in 1974.

The mood in the country is increasingly one of “what’s there to lose?”. Two huge nationwide protests had already occurred n September.

In Portugal, participation was between 80% to 100% according to sector, with unprecedented participation, even by “anti-union” small and family businesses.

Public transport, including Lisbon’s Metro, stopped completely. Hospitals and health clinics were limited to essential services. Nearly all government and municipal workers struck, as did 85% of postal workers. Schools and universities closed.

General Confederation of Portuguese Workers secretary Armenio Carlos said this was “one of the biggest strikes ever”. The country largely closed down for the day, as participation in private industry matched that in the public sector.

Even 40 Portuguese embassies and consulates closed for the day, while waterside workers from the centre and south of the country voted to extend their strike for another 24-hours in support of wage claims.

Protesters adopted a CGTP resolution setting November 27 as the next day of protest against the 2012 budget, the most draconian in Portuguese history.

Spain

The joint general strike with Portugal ― the first Iberian general strike ever ― attracted 77% support in Spain, slightly down on the last stoppage on March 29.

This was partly due to the decision of the Basque nationalist trade unions and main public service confederation to not support the action. But another factor was the rising pressure of unemployment and employer intimidation allowed under the Rajoy government’s “labour market reform”.

Nonetheless, union figures put participation at 96% in manufacturing, 95% in the chemical industry, 90% in transport except where a minimum service had been negotiated, 68% in commerce, 75% in education and 52% in public administration.

By contrast, there were more and bigger demonstrations accompanying the strike ― those who couldn’t afford to go outwere showing their support as best they could. The unions claimed a 1 million turnout in Madrid and Barcelona, and half a million in Galicia. The streets of all provincial capitals filled with tens of thousands.

As well its coordination with Portugal, this general strike marked an advance over March 29 in several ways:

• It was a citizen as well as a workplace strike, being called by the union-led Social Summit that groups together more than 150 professional, social, neighbourhood, religious and cultural organisations;

•It involved protest actions in 100 centres, the highest number ever.

• It had a clear focus, the demand that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy put his program of cuts and “reforms”, never mentioned during his winning election campaign, to a referendum. This he won’t do, further increasingly the government's isolation and illegitimacy.

Rest of Europe

In Italy, the General Italian Workers Confederation (CGIL) held a four-hour stoppage involving protests in more than 100 centres. Secondary and university students joined the action to protest the cuts to public education being carried out by the “technocratic” government of Mario Monti.

In Greece, which had just completed a 48-hour strike against new cuts decreed by the EU, the strike was restricted to the public sector, including a demonstration in Athens’ Syntagma square.

In Belgium, the strike call was strongly followed in the railways, leaving the entire south of the country without a service. In Brussels, a protest demonstration took place outside the headquarters of the European Commission.

In France, demonstrations were held in more than 130 centres. In Germany, the Confederation of German Unions (DGB) held a solidarity action at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate with the theme: “No to social division in Europe!”

Spain's Workers Commissions leader Ignacio Toxo said November 14 was only one step in a long struggle. He told the huge Madrid rally: “There are millions of us who refuse to surrender, who rebel and who say ‘so far, so good’. We are going to keep up a sustained fight until governments withdraw their suicidal policies.”

[Dick Nichols is Green Left's European correspondent based in Barcelona.]


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