Millions of workers in 23 countries across Europe took to the streets Nov. 14 as part of the “European Day of Action and Solidarity” against the endless austerity measures being imposed by governments across the continent. Portugal and Spain held full general strikes, while Italy, Greece and Belgium saw more “limited” strike actions that still involved millions of workers.
The day of action had been called by the European Trade Union Confederation. The ETUC leadership has a social-democratic orientation and has in fact supported many of the governments imposing austerity. Unfortunately, it only raised mild demands, and appealed to a ruling-class desire to maintain “social stability.”
Despite these problems of political leadership and orientation, the day of action was nevertheless a historic display of international class unity. It signaled the combined strength and power of the European working class once organized and mobilized. Even within the “mild” framework of the day of action, workers and students engaged in more militant actions than initially planned.
The workers are unfortunately not the only ones rising up. Under the circumstances of severe economic contraction, staggering national debt and ensuing austerity, sectors of the ruling classes in Europe are fanning the flames of nationalism, racism and scapegoating. The ultra right-wing and nascent fascist movements are developing throughout the continent. They are attempting to mobilize the working and middle classes around a racist, ultra-nationalist program. The day of international workers’ action was a vital counterpoint to these dangerous deceptions.
The strikes and demonstrations were an urgent response to the barrage of new measures many governments are now considering, particularly in southern Europe, where the capitalist debt crisis is especially severe.
The idea for a pan-European strike began when the largely Communist-led General Confederation of Portuguese Workers called a general strike following a giant mobilization in September that forced the government to back down on anti-worker social security reform.
Portuguese workers completely shut down the country in a day that included protests in 39 cities. A march in the capital city of Lisbon faced brutal attacks by riot police as it made its way to the parliament building in the evening. Four days prior to the strike, members of the military held a demonstration and issued a statement promising that they would refuse orders to repress the growing mass movement.
Enormous mobilizations characterized the general strike in Spain, with nine cities holding demonstrations of over 100,000 people. One in four workers in Spain are unemployed, according to official statistics. Poor and working people were especially eager to show their outrage at the coordinated capitalist assault, with the largest demonstration, held in Madrid, drawing more than 1 million people. In reaction, Spanish police arrested scores of protesters and beat a young boy until his face was bloodied.
In Italy, a four-hour work stoppage—extended to eight hours in some regions—was called to coincide with demonstrations in roughly 100 towns and cities. Workers at an aluminum plant forced the minister for economic development (a former bank CEO) to flee the factory by police helicopter the day before the Europe-wide strike.
The day saw massive participation of youth and students—numbering 50,000 in Rome alone. Riot police used tear gas, batons and other instruments of repression in battles with militant students, while outraged workers attempted to storm the tax office in Turin. All told, hundreds of thousands participated in protests, leading to a national strike of school workers and students on Nov. 24. Metalworkers will go on strike Dec. 5 and 6.
The two main union federations in Greece organized a three-hour strike and mass demonstration in downtown Athens. Turnout was lower due to demoralization after the passage of a new round of devastating austerity measures three days prior, and fatigue following a series of general strikes held in previous weeks in an attempt to stop the measures. With the stability of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ coalition government in question, it is only a matter of time before the well-organized and rapidly radicalizing Greek working class makes its presence felt once again.
Northern European workers in action
Challenging attempts by the capitalist class to pit “responsible” northern European workers against “lazy” southern Europeans, the labor movement in Belgium participated in the day of action with strikes and demonstrations. Metalworkers, public service workers and bus drivers in Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia region went on strike, joined by five regional units of the union federation affiliated with the Socialist Party. Transportation workers set off flares on railroad tracks to prevent their operation for the day. Despite an apparent absence of leadership in the Dutch-speaking Flanders region, several factories still spontaneously went out on strike.
Many other countries saw demonstrations that added to this huge display of solidarity, including France, where unions organized 130 protests across the country, and in Germany, where members of the Confederation of German Trade Unions held actions denouncing the austerity measures closely associated with their own capitalist class. The involvement of the German labor movement in this day of solidarity is noteworthy, because Germany is the continent’s dominant economic power and creditor and most responsible for pushing for pan-European austerity. In the face of the bankers’ internationally coordinated assaults on their livelihoods, workers in Europe set a historic precedent for an international fight back.
Poor and working people in the United States are facing the same kind of cutbacks to the social safety net in the so-called “Grand Bargain” to avert the “Fiscal Cliff.” As our working-class sisters and brothers across Europe have shown, the only way forward is struggle.