Europe Faces a Multi-National General Strike Against Austerity

For the first time, continent-wide labor organizations are throwing their weight against austerity. Will it change the E.U.’s policies?

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Emilio Morenatti / AP

Workers from Telefonica phone company take part in a demonstration blocking the traffic and protesting against the unjustified dismissals at their company ahead of a general strike in Barcelona, Nov. 13, 2012.

Austerity has spawned general strikes in individual countries across the troubled European Union. But this week may see something to add to the union’s tensions: a coordinated, multi-national mega-strike. Organized labor plans a general strike against the E.U.’s austerity policies, borderless and spanning the south of the continent. With more than 25 million people out of work, Europe’s biggest unions have vowed to lead marches and demonstrations on Nov. 14 that unite opposition parties, activist movements like Spain’s M15 and a growing sea of unemployed to challenge their national governments, banking leaders, the IMF and EU policymakers to abandon austerity cuts ahead of a high-stakes budgetmeeting in Brussels later this month.

What makes Wednesday’s strike even more threatening to Europe’s managerial elite is the strong support it is receiving from traditional labor groups that rarely send their members into the streets—foremost, among them, the European Trade Union Confederation, representing 85 labor organizations from 36 countries, and totaling some 60 million members. “We have never seen an international strike with unions across borders fighting for the same thing—it’s not just Spain, not just Portugal, it’s many countries demanding that we change our structure,” says Alberto Garzón, a Spanish congressman with the United Left party which holds 7% of seats in the Spanish Congress. “It’s important to understand this is a new form of protest.”

(PHOTOSEurope Rises Up: Day of Anti-Austerity Rage Grips the Continent)

The strike is expected to cause near or total shutdowns of the four most debt-battered countries—Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece—as all major unions march to oppose devastating cuts in salaries, pensions, benefits and social services, meanwhile protesting tax hikes and harsh labor reforms. There will be solidarity marches elsewhere. Though not formally striking, France’s largest labor groups signaled support with dozens of demonstrations planned nationwide. Rail workers in Belgium are striking; so are labor groups in Malta and Cyprus. In Britain, organizer Andrew Burgin of the Coalition of Resistance said marches and demonstrations there would “forge links across Europe, showing Britain’s austerity struggles as part of a pan-European, international movement.” And from Germany and Switzerland to Turkey, eastern Europe and Scandinavia, workers and many organizations have promised to rally around the single message: No to austerity.

Fabian Zuleeg, a chief economist at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, sees the phenomenon as a “Europeanization of the debate,” where labor movements “now recognize that if they want to have an impact, they have to take their protests up to a higher level, a European level.” Just as capital moves freely across national boundaries, a new borderlessness of protest is now waiting there to meet it—which could be a game-changer, forcing nations and the continent as a whole to re-think taxation, government spending and other fiscal policies. Some, like Ben Tonra, a professor of international relations at University College Dublin, liken the continental strike to a creation of a new European public space.

“With a shift in political forces in lots of member states, a shift at the E.U. level away from austerity to a focus on jobs [will] occur,” says Tonra. The real question Wednesday, he adds, isn’t how much noise the southern countries make but whether there is “a new and enlarging cast of characters, [with] comparable demonstrations in Germany, in Austria, in Finland—E.U. countries that don’t have histories of mass mobilizations over austerity.”

(MORE: Why the Euro Crisis Is Nowhere Near Being Over)

Austerity opponents say the strike isn’t intended to grind down Europe’s already weakened economy, but to send a clear message to governments and the Troika—the European Commission, European Central Bank and the IMF—that austerity cuts aren’t working to solve the debt crisis, but instead are worsening the problem. “The situation is urgent: we have to stop this downward spiral and reverse the austerity measures, which even the IMF admits are wrong,” says Patricia Grillo, a spokesperson for the ETUC.

So what real impact will the strike have on policymakers heading to Brussels for a budgetary showdown Nov.22-23? It is potentially a turning point in the debate over austerity which has pitted Europe’s banking class against its citizens; it may also set up wider, more energized protests ahead. But, “it’s very unlikely that it will overturn the general direction in which we’re moving,” says Zuleeg of the European Policy Centre, although “it might signal to leaders that there are other things they must take into consideration, like unemployment.”

A wise wakeup, suggests Garzón of Spain. Because “it’s a beginning of mobilizations,” he says. “it’s not an end.”

MORE: Bailouts and Austerity Measures Aren’t Working: Is This the Euro’s Last Stand?

12 comments
rohal
rohal

Austerity is little more than the "Shock Doctrine" implimented against the 99 % by the agents of the corporatocracy and wealthy elites, otherwise known as governing conservatives.  It is a stupid and destructive policy in terms of fundamental economics.  As everyone should know - even in "Socialist Europe" economies are driven by consumption and credit.  When the purchassing power of disposable income for the 99% is reduced, and opportunities for credit are deprived, the economy slides into prolonged serious recession and GDP plunges.

It is the investment bankers, hedge fund managers, and corporate ceos who should be facing multiple austerities including income tax increases, and disallowance of their claims of capital gains on what should be treated as commissions.  These are the people who ruined the global economy, much of it through blatent fraud.  Why are they not in jail?

philippe.mtz
philippe.mtz

Completely unnecessary. These countries are already deep in trouble. No need to stall them even more and prevent their countrymen from using train, planes, post offices, etc. Compared to what the US workers get in terms of pensions, healthcare and benefits, Europeans have it great. They just don't realize it and think money can just magically appear in the hands of their governments. And they keep complaining. I left the EU for the US in part because I couldn't stand that mindset anymore.

RemmarGorpa
RemmarGorpa

@philippe.mtz Now why shouldn't we expect money to magically appear, when it has a tendency to magically disappear?  Into the pockets of banks, and private corporations, as dole outs and bailouts.  Into never ending wars, and an ever growing prison system.  Into usurious interest payments on loans.  

RobBear
RobBear

I guess the unemployed are tired of being blamed for their unemployment. Or something like that. And now governments are going to break their social contracts, letting people starve through "austerity budgeting." There are lots of Greek people, about whose lives I have heard, who have been working, unpaid, for months because of the "austerity" process. When does the nonsense ever end?

shanshayla
shanshayla

@RobBear It ends before it begins by way of parties not promising what they can never deliver in exchange for their votes. 

shanshayla
shanshayla

Margaret Thatcher was right when she said: "The trouble with Socialism is that sooner or later you run out of other people's money." A quick look at Europe, and in particular Greece should tell anyone that. We're not far behind. One day we'll run out of China's money.

zuchinno
zuchinno like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Good. Politicians should be public servants, bending to the will of the people, not corporate lap dogs making sweetheart deals that bleed the taxpayers dry. I'm sure the US will be having "fiscal cliff" austerity protests soon when all those tax breaks expire, no one can pay, and all the meager services we have locally and federally will be cut to lower taxes. Not a single person in the government is listening to their constituents, so give 'em hell for it!

Freilachsfang
Freilachsfang

So, they say 'austerity' isn't working but what else to do when national interest rates are in the death zone? Who is going to lend money to a nation which overspent (and where a housing bubble imploded) without corrective measures? It is irresponsible of the unions to mislead its members. Creditor nations are willing to help Spain to prevent bankruptcy but they can't afford to do that without behavioural changes and regulatory measures. The faster and harder the cut the faster the recovery. Break agreements and sabotage the cuts and your nation spirals down.

james316
james316 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@Freilachsfang - To begin with, out of pure principle why should workers be responsible for the problems such as the 'nations over spending and housing bubble when it was caused by the government and the elite in society (banking sectors, de- regulation etc.  It has been highlighted continually through history that Austerity measures do not work, you take money away from your lower and middle classes and know one is left to buy anything ( consumption of the masses) and as the article points out the IMF have said these cuts are going to adversely effect these countries. 

Signalier
Signalier

Labor unions.....hell on wheel.  They do not do anything and yet gain so much authority.  Stupid is as stupid does......now comes the strikes......too late my friends.

superjamespond
superjamespond like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

the working class can no longer close its eyes upon the army of unemployed people in europe, because sooner or later one might shift from one side to the other.!!!especially that european leaders don't care about the crying misery they are building with their austerity plans,because themselves are living a luxurious life they don't want to give up ,so these leaders close their eyes on what's happening. with a number of poor people in europe. their aim should be to help them ,to have new ideas, implement help and other programs,create and stimulate  job creation. It seems none of these leaders are capable of   launching one smart idea with the billions of euros available.But its understandable as most  of these leaders have ever spend one penny on creating a company or a job!they always lived on public money  and have no undderstanding of what should be done.tHerefor the total misconception of the european commission should be put under restructure and only people with strong leadership skills and strong economic understanding should be entitled to do the job and be measured ,not when they get hired, once a year if not more on real proposals made,real advancements realised just like in a bigger company where EVEN simple employees are measered upon their capabilities.It's to easy to claim money all the time whiel never having to justify they outcome.this luxurious way of behaving and doing with public money should  stop immedialtely and confidence in europe should be rebuild with the right leaders people can VOTE for and not a friendship policy where people out of a job in their own country are prososed without being choosen   or elected. this particratic model is over now and has been the basis for a lot of wrong doing.