Saturday, September 10, 2011

European Revolt Against Austerity Picks Up Steam

Strikers in Italy resist austerity.
It seems apparent that European politicians somehow missed out the economics class where they explain how massive cuts to public spending in the middle of an economic contraction makes things worse. They also missed the one about how simultaneous across-the-board austerity can cause resistance to spread from sector to sector and country to country, leading to a generalized revolt that could further destabilize profit-making.

Well, if they missed those classes while they were working on their MBAs, they're certainly learning those lessons now.

From Greece to Italy to Spain to Britain, the resistance to austerity is heating up. With meetings and protests and flash mobs happening this month in Toronto to try and halt our own austerity-loving mayor, it's worth seeing that this struggle isn't one that's isolated to us but is global in scope. If they can win in one country, it can inspire people in another country, which can lead to a domino-effect of anti-austerity struggles.

Perhaps the highest point of anti-austerity struggle is in Greece, which has now been feeling the hammer blows of massive cuts and attacks on jobs and pensions for well over a year. After a recent series of general strikes and battles with the police the government managed to pass a second round of austerity cuts through parliament. It seemed like they had won but students clearly thought otherwise. There are now something like 200 universities under occupation against government plans to not only bring the private sector into public education but to also attack and limit democracy on campus. This is a very important symbol in Greece, where the campuses led the fight against the Greek dictatorship in the 1970s. Since that time police have not been allowed to enter campuses without special permission from elected councils on campus. There is a big demonstration on September 8 that will include teachers from primary and secondary schools who will join the occupations in solidarity.

In Italy, Berlusconi has just voted through a massive austerity package worth $70 billion. Some of the unions in Italy have accepted that "there is no alternative" but the largest union in the country, the CGIL, called a general strike on the day that the austerity package was voted on. Up to 3 million people took part with 70,000 demonstrating in Rome and tens of thousands more taking to the streets around the country.

On Tuesday in Spain there was a protest strike and a demonstration by up to 25,000 in Madrid against a constitutional amendment that forbids budget deficits except in "emergencies". Spain has seen a protest movement, called Los Indignados (the Indignant) that exploded onto the scene in early summer, taking over public squares across the country in imitation of the Arab Spring across the Mediterranean. That movement seems to have subsided somewhat but hopefully this protest action by unions signals that it has spread into the previously acquiescent union movement.

In Britain, things are moving slowly towards a boil. Last fall there was a huge explosion of student protests and strikes against the tripling of university fees. The energy and anger of that movement spurred the union leadership - which had organized nothing to resist the Tories - into action. First there was a protest by hundreds of thousands of trade unionists and supporters in March. Then a number of unions held a coordinated one day strike in the summer, involving up to 750,000 workers. Now this fall is set to see some big protests - in Scotland, and at the Tory and Lib Dem conventions (they govern together in a coalition) - followed by an even bigger coordinated strike in November. The issue that has galvanized industrial action has been pension and this round of strike action could involve up to three million workers. This will be the biggest industrial action in Britain in decades.

A breakthrough in any of these countries could easily spur the growth of struggles in other countries. And, as Greece shows, a temporary victory by the politicians and bankers doesn't necessarily spell the end of the struggle, merely shifting it to another terrain. Here at home, we have our own opportunity to take on "austerity flu" on September 26 at Nathan Phillips Square at 5pm. Make the effort to be there - be part of an international movement for a better world.

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