Striking across European borders

November 14, 2012

Unions in some of the countries of Southern Europe hardest hit by the debt crisis are planning coordinated transnational strike action for November 14, and labor organizations in other countries say they will take action, too. The strike will be a new step forward in the battle against austerity conditions that are plaguing countries across the continent.

Here, we are republishing an article by Sahra Wagenknecht, co-vice president of the German radical party Die Linke, describing the plans for coordinated action--and the strike call made by executive committee of the European Trade Union Confederation.

A STORM is brewing in southern Europe. In Greece, another general strike took place on November 6 and 7. And on November 14, Portuguese, Cypriot, Spanish and Italian trade unions intend to go on strike in opposition to the austerity policies of the European Union. Belgian and British trade unions, as well as the European and German trade union confederations, are also calling for action.

If the mobilization is successful, this transnational strike will be a milestone in the formation of a European protest movement desperately needed to prevent the final demolition of the European welfare states.

Unfortunately, the German contribution to this protest movement has thus far been rather meager. Tens of thousands of people have indeed taken to the streets in Germany this year, demonstrating against the dictates ordering cutbacks that are coming from the "troika" (the European Union (EU), European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) and in favor of the redistribution of social wealth.

Spanish workers on the march against cuts earlier this fall
Spanish workers on the march against cuts earlier this fall

The participation of the German trade unions, however, has left much to be desired in each case, to say nothing about strike action. The realization that German workers will ultimately also be affected if demand in our neighboring countries massively collapses appears to be asserting itself only slowly. And there are legal obstacles.

While political strikes are permitted in most European countries, German trade unions are legally permitted to strike only in pursuit of collective bargaining agreements. This absurd limitation of a fundamental democratic right must at long last be abolished. We, too, need the right to a political strike in Germany!

Events in Southern Europe show the political strike to be an indispensable tool for self-defense. What the EU and the International Monetary Fund are demanding of states such as Greece and Portugal has nothing to do with neutral crisis management, but is rather brutal class struggle executed from above. Cutbacks and elimination of government services are targeted only at ordinary people.

Only sales taxes are being increased, while high incomes and economic assets are spared, and corporations are relieved of tax obligations. But that's not all. In order to implement even more drastic reductions in wages, workers and their organizations are being weakened and deprived of rights. In such a situation, political strikes can serve as the last line of self-defense.

It would be a mistake to believe, though, that only the highly indebted states in crisis are being confronted with attacks on trade union, social and democratic rights. Indeed, the European Court of Justice has decreed in various cases that free collective bargaining, the national right to strike, employment laws, even freedom of expression and the protection of human dignity all encounter limits when confronted with the right of corporations to unrestricted freedom in the single market. A rectification of this scandalous judgment, which grants corporations the de facto right to wage dumping, has yet to be achieved.

We need a socially progressive clause added to European Union treaties clearly stating that basic social rights have priority over rules pertaining to competition and corporate freedoms. A socially just Europe can only exist if we succeed in turning the tables. We must be able to limit free trade in services, the freedom of corporations to establish operations, the free flow of capital, and competition policies in the interests of employees and trade unions.

First published in Neues Deutschland. Translation by Sam Putinja.

Declaration by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) Executive Committee

1. The ETUC Executive Committee meeting on October 17, 2012, calls for a day of action and solidarity on November 14, 2012, including strikes, demonstrations, rallies and other actions, mobilizing the European trade union movement behind ETUC policies as set down in the Social Compact for Europe.

2. The ETUC Executive Committee expresses its strong opposition to the austerity measures that are dragging Europe into economic stagnation, indeed recession, as well as the continuing dismantling of the European social model. These measures, far from reestablishing confidence, only serve to worsen imbalances and foster injustice.

3. While supporting the objective of sound accounting, the Executive Committee considers that the recession can only be stopped if budgetary constraints are loosened and imbalances eliminated, with a view to achieving sustainable economic growth, social cohesion, and respect for the values enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

4. Fiscal consolidation had a sharper effect than originally estimated by institutions, including the European Commission and the IMF. Indeed, the IMF now admits that it grossly miscalculated the impact that austerity measures have on growth. This miscalculation has had an immeasurable impact on the daily life of workers and citizens that the ETUC represents, and calls into question the whole basis of austerity policies advanced by the Fiscal Treaty and imposed by the Troika.

5. The Executive Committee notes mounting opposition among citizens and workers in the countries concerned and reaffirms its support for affiliated unions fighting for decent working and living conditions. This situation results from the lack of coordination of economic policies and the absence of minimum social standards throughout Europe. In the context of the free movement of capital, this has given free rein to competition between states, in particular in the field of taxation, labor costs and social conditions.

6. The Executive Committee reiterates that social dialogue and collective bargaining are central to the European social model. It strongly opposes the frontal attacks on these rights--at the national and European level. The ETUC Executive Committee urgently calls for immediate adoption and transposition of the European social partners agreements currently before Council.

7. The Executive Committee recalls that the European Union is treaty-bound to "work for the sustainable development of Europe based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress, and a high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment." It further recalls that the ETUC's support for the Lisbon Treaty was mainly predicated on the full application of those objectives.

8. The Executive Committee notes that discussions are currently under way among institutions and governments about the desirability of further treaty changes. A change of direction is necessary, and priority should be given to resolving the crisis in line with the three pillars of our proposed Social Compact for Europe, which is gathering increasing support. This is articulated around social dialogue and collective bargaining, economic governance for sustainable growth and employment, and economic, tax and social justice.

9. The Executive Committee insists that active solidarity, social progress and democratic accountability must be an integral part of the European project. It considers as essential that a social progress protocol be included as an integral and operative part of any new treaty. The ETUC will evaluate any new step in European integration on this basis.

First published on the ETUC website.

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