Europe’s Summer Of Discontent

With massive strikes hitting Germany and France in recent weeks, explains the rising militancy in Europe

The past few weeks have seen the biggest spate of Europe-wide industrial action in recent times. On the 13th May, a Tuesday, the unions of France stopped their country; on a midweek day workers walked out bringing transport networks to a complete standstill. Postal workers, civil servants, teachers, council workers and firefighters also joined the biggest strike since the mass public sector walkout of December 1995. Print workers also walked out, leaving France without printed newspapers for a day. Estimates suggest that up to two million people took action. In Germany, Gerhard Schroeder’s plans to cut his country's welfare provision and pensions, as well as proposing a national cut in working hours, have been met with vicious rejection by the unions. Sustained industrial unrest in Germany is imminent, workers at Volkswagen plants have already held brief ‘warning strikes'.

The common theme penetrating much of the industrial storm across Europe is pensions. The same issue caused strike action in the UK last year. The metal workers union ISTC, walked out of Caparo plants after the company closed their pension scheme. This was the first industrial action taken over the issue of pensions in British history.

Many other UK companies are facing pensions crises, with the post-9/11 global economic slowdown causing massive holes to appear in pension funds. The problems on the Continent are somewhat different, premised on outright cuts in state pension provision. However, the link to economic globaliztion is again evident. The upholder of fair global redistribution, The World Bank is applying pressure to European governments to reduce pension entitlements.

Forcing reductions in state pension coverage promotes an increase in private pension provision, which leaves working people worst off, yet floods money intothe stock market; supporting global capitalism. The current pensions crises' in the UK and mainland Europe is premised on a paradox that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Jobs are now dependent on global capitalism. Worst still, workers are now forced to depend on the uncontrollable advance of capitalism to provide for their retirements. The situations in the UK have proven that this neoliberal model, instigated by Thatcher, simply does not work and leaves workers with alarmingly low pension. Governments in central Europe are now being forced by the World Bank and the stock markets to adapt to this failing model.

The unions are naturally resisting it, rightfully seeing that the only people to benefit will be Chief Executives and others who skim the vast rewards of modern capitalism. Global capitalism is not stopped by geographical frontiers, nor should workers' solidarity. If workers' are to succeed this summer, in protecting their pensions and fighting for better rights then union action and solidarity has to span Europe with the same ferocious velocity and force as the global capital transactions that have created this mess.

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