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Lee Humber & Gareth Jenkins

Europe: between recession and revolt

(December 1993)

From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Workers’ struggles are erupting in some of the formerly most stable heartlands of Western Europe. Faced with recession and a major employers’ offensive, fightback is increasingly the only answer, report Lee Humber and Gareth Jenkins

France hadn’t seen anything like it for years. Thousands of angry workers at Air France burnt tyres, fought the police and shut down the company for over a week. In the end the bitter strike in late October both forced the government to abandon a planned layoff of 4,000 workers at the state owned airline, and also led to the departure of its chairman Bernard Attali.

As the American bosses’ magazine Business Week said in November, ‘The Air France strike may have done more than that... It could mark a troubling and costly turning point for Europe. All over the Continent, workers who have merely grumbled about snowballing layoffs and wage cuts ... suddenly are waxing militant.’

Behind this strike and the other examples of a new militancy stirring across Europe lies the worst recession since the Second World War. With no end to the crisis in sight and no clear strategy, weak and often divided governments are being forced into hesitant measures to try and reduce workers’ living standards and attack wages. Workers have responded wherever governments have attacked.

After the Air France strike, French unions called a massive Paris march on 18 November bringing out employees from many state owned companies targeted for privatisation like Groupe Bull, SNECMA and Aerospatiale. In Italy strikes are commonplace with, in the last months, cab drivers protesting against new taxes, Turin rail workers barricading their station and disrupting services across the breadth of northern Italy and a four hour general strike on 28 October involving 14 million workers.

In Germany too there were wildcat walkouts in mid-October in the Ruhr steel industry, with steel workers blocking motorways to protest at planned attacks on wages and conditions. The metal workers’ union, IG Metall, with 3.3 million members, has vowed to fight German bosses’ plans to end wage contracts without negotiation.

Faced with a situation where governments all over Europe are attempting at least to push through cuts in public spending and hold down wages, and at most attempting full blown austerity programmes, the role of the union leaders is very important. In Spain, where Felipe Gonzalez won a fourth general election in a row, his Socialist Party (PSOE) has been intent on incorporating union leaders from the main Socialist UGT union – traditional Gonzalez allies – and the Workers’ Commissions (CCOO) who were formerly Communist Party influenced, into negotiations for a social contract.

Last year in Italy leaders of the biggest trade union confederation, the CGIL, agreed to an austerity package enforcing a wage freeze and numerous attacks on union organisation. In Britain the TUC has consistently been key to holding back workers’ struggle. Their diffusion of the anger that exploded last October over plans to close down the coal industry is an example.

But over the last few months the situation has begun to change with increasing examples of independent rank and file activity winning victories and forcing the union leaderships to take a more radical stance. This is true where union organisation is strong, as events in Britain around the Timex dispute and the UCH occupation have demonstrated. But it is also true where union organisation is relatively weak. A recent Financial Times report pointed out that:

‘Weak unions are no guarantee of industrial harmony. France ... has the lowest rate of unionisation in the OECD, but Michel Giraud, labour minister ... says he would like to be able to consult with stronger unions, because they would be more receptive to compromise.’


The general strike of 28 October was fuelled by massive anger over cuts in pensions, education spending and funding for transport in the wake of mass privatisation plans.

Unemployment is rising. The big Fiat car company is planning to shed 20,000 jobs, the steel industry at least 12,000 and the chemical industry is closing many plants.

The four hour general strike reflected both this anger and disillusionment with the official trade union leaders.

They called the strike to defend the agreement they had struck with the government last year which froze wages, attacked public sector workers’ conditions, approved tax increases and decreased democracy inside the unions.

Although this was hated by most workers, many took the opportunity to express their anger against the government.

Sections of the left were divided over support for the strike and in some areas – including Milan, Turin and Genoa – Cobas, sections of the umbrella organisation for various rank and file movements, and the social centre movements held separate demonstrations. In other areas they called an alternative strike day to coincide with protests by teachers and students.

The left wing organisation Rifondazione Comunista was also divided. Although the leadership is with the rest of the trade union leaders, the rank and file often differ.

Many, especially the student membership, are drawn towards alternative trade unions, through impatience with the conservatism of the old leaders.

There is a danger with this lack of unifying leadership on the left of the right making ground.

The fascist CISNAL union has been on the streets with megaphones and leaflets talking about the government’s attacks on pensions and calling for the return of the Scala Mobile, a sliding scale wage agreement torn up by the government recently.

The first round of the mayoral elections showed a victory for the left PDS, but also a dramatic rise in the fascist MSI vote.

The most encouraging and exciting aspect of this increasingly volatile and unstable picture is the continued, angry and often quite spontaneous workers’ activity.

During the last few weeks pensioners, school students, teachers, public sector workers and agricultural workers have all taken to the streets.

As the article continues, and our eye witness reports demonstrate, ‘At local level, the vacuum left by weak unions is being filled by ad hoc, and often aggressive, “coordinations” – growing fast in Italy and France.’

The employers need the official leaderships to help them push through job cuts and austerity packages. The weakness and divisions in the unions in countries such as France and Italy make it harder for their leaders to contain the anger and bitterness that has welled up.

What worries the bosses deeply is that governments may be forced to try and push through the sort of large scale austerity programmes they hope will end the recession without the cooperation, or influence, of the official trade unions. In both Spain and Belgium leaders of the trade unions, under threat of protest from below, have consistently balked at agreeing far reaching austerity packages. As economic and political problems worsened throughout this year the government in Italy reneged on the austerity package it agreed with the unions in 1992, precipitating the general strike of 28 October. Attempting large scale attacks on workers without the cooperation of union leaders could be very risky for Europe’s ruling classes.

In Britain, in contrast, there has not yet been the level of confrontation seen in Europe. One reason why is because British Tories have not yet dared to try the all round offensive that the French and Spanish governments have initiated in response to the crisis. And the weight of the TUC inside the working class movement has meant that it has so far been able to prevent the action needed to stop attacks on workers. Apart from the one day civil service strike involving around 200,000 civil servants all over Britain, the struggle beginning to hit Europe has not so far been evident here. But the TUC cannot keep the lid on indefinitely.

Socialists cannot be complacent about the alienation from union leaders and official unions many workers in Europe feel. In the absence of a strong left alternative and faced with general attacks on their standards of living, workers can also look to the right. Many politicians are aware of this and have courted right wing parties and espoused right wing arguments. Chancellor Kohl’s proposal to appoint Steffan Heitmann as President of the Republic with his track record of racism and sexism was a conscious effort on the German leader’s part to keep the right wing vote as he approaches 19 federal, state and local elections in 1994.

This can open the way for the extreme right to grow as we have seen most obviously in France, where Le Pen’s fascist National Front is now well placed in local government. In Italy too, the far right has made gains. The Northern League is a real presence in the north, and the Norebe elections in Naples and Rome gave the open fascists over a third of the vote.

But the far right has little to offer once workers begin to take the sort of action they are taking. During the Air France strike, for example, Le Pen, the strongest of the Eurofascists, was completely marginalised. The workers’ struggle now beginning to erupt across the continent is the clearest sign yet that workers are not willing to pay the cost of the recession. The confidence gained from the victory at Air France can spread like wildfire across Europe igniting the anger that lies waiting in workplaces and in working class communities all over, and drive back the employers’ offensives.

Fear has changed sides

Talk of another May 1968 in France is more than just wishful thinking. The strike at Air France follows a number of strikes and demonstrations since the summer in response to the five year plan put forward by Edouard Balladur, leader of the right wing RPR-UDF government. The main features of this plan are that the bosses are to have their tax burdens cut, some 21 industries are to be privatised and there is to be a shake out of civil servants’ jobs. At the same time, workers are going to have to pay more contributions to sickness and unemployment benefit and to pensions.


The Belgian government, a coalition of Christian Democrats and Socialists, is pursuing similar objectives to the French. The Dehaene plan is to cut wage costs in order to improve competitiveness. In particular it aims to worsen the rights of young workers to holiday pay and job protection, to increase part time work and temporary contracts, to lower wages, to make the working year more flexible and to cut benefits.

The scale of this attack has forced the trade union bureaucracies to react. The FTGB (based in the French speaking south and linked to the Socialist Party) walked out of negotiations and called a weekday demonstration of some 70,000 people in Brussels. The more conservative CSC (based in Flanders and with links to the Christian Democrats) has been continuing negotiations but, under pressure from militant sections who have been urging the union to break away from the Christian Democrats, is now beginning to move into action.

The two federations have called for joint action and a campaign of strikes. A warning strike in November is to be followed by rolling strikes on three successive Fridays across the ten provinces. The climax will be a general strike across the whole country on 10 December, when the European council meets.

The ‘warning’ strike was hugely successful, particularly in the French speaking south of the country. This has increased tension between the coalition partners in the government, with the markets nervous about the stability of the franc if the plan does not go through.

Belgium has the highest level of unionisation in Europe. That gives the unions enormous power. At the same time the leaders can use these demonstrations and strikes simply to try to improve their bargaining position. Conflict between the trade union machines can also waste the potential.

But one should not conclude the trade union bureaucracies will ensure struggle goes down to defeat. There are other struggles hotting up in the steel and paper making industries. Mass trade union action has shaken the ruling class to its foundations before, as happened in the insurrectionary general strike of 1961 and the wave of strikes in 1982.

With the crisis in the 1990s that much deeper it does not require much bureaucratic mass action to tip society into a crisis in which ordinary workers can begin to take the initiative.


Top German economists are in no doubt about what Germany needs to get out of its recession. As one of the country’s so called ‘five wise men’, Professor Herbert Hax, put it, ‘Work is [only] in short supply at current wage rates ... We must make sure we do not price ourselves out of the world markets.’

Sections of the German ruling class are calling for a more determined government led general offensive against workers’ wages and living standards. With forecasts of no recovery before 1997 and unemployment predicted to rise to over four million by the end of the year, bosses are increasingly worried both about economic stagnation and social unrest as a recent report on Europe wide unemployment made clear. Some, most notably the opposition Social Democratic Party, are calling for the sort of social contract in cooperation with union leaders that other countries, such as Spain, are attempting. But this will prove very difficult given the prospect over the next months of state, federal and local elections, when political daggers will be drawn. In this atmosphere consensus will be difficult to achieve.

More importantly, German workers have already shown themselves willing to defend their wages and conditions with militant action, the recent strike by steel workers being the clearest example of this. Chancellor Kohl’s calls for belt tightening fall on deaf ears and are more likely to stoke up resistance than convince.

The government is out to attack working hours, making them more flexible. Instead of being calculated on a 39 hour week, length of work will be calculated in relation wholly or partly to the year. So that will allow Renault to enforce a 45 hour week in the winter without having to pay overtime and 36 hours in the summer on short time. The bosses can also demand weekend work and get rid of two consecutive rest days.

This shake up also allows the bosses to turn full time into part time work, enforce Sunday working for certain kinds of service jobs and restrict trade union rights of representation. The whole package, together with increased postal costs, fare and petrol rises, is a massive attack on workers’ income and conditions.

The government’s five year plan and its budget demanded ‘sacrifices from all’, but the effect has been to spread the anger to all. Ever since the end of the holidays there have been dozens of strikes and demonstrations against the bosses and the government, including workers in factories under threat of closure, bank workers and underground workers in Paris and post office workers in Toulouse who were out for four months.

This has forced the trade union leaderships into action, in particular the Communist led CGT and more surprisingly the right wing ‘moderate’ union, FO. In late September the CGT mobilised 45,000 workers for demonstrations across France, while 35,000 railway workers demonstrated in Paris early in October. Six days later the combined forces of the CGT and FO called out 100,000. Sections of the Socialist trade union, the CFDT, joined in and the CFDT itself was compelled to call out 20,000 workers, with 30,000 teachers demonstrating in Paris two days later.

Students too have been affected. In late November over 20,000 students marched through Paris protesting against the appalling facilities in French universities. Importantly, this was the first time since 1971 that the pro-Communist and pro-Socialist wings of the UNEF students’ union have joined forces.

White collar workers not normally associated with militant trade unionism (such as bank employees and shop workers), have routinely been involved which explains the role of the right wing union FO.

The strike at Air France came after 5,000 jobs had already gone without any resistance over the last two years at the state owned airline. The new restructuring plan of Air France boss, Bernard Attali, anticipated a further 4,000.

His plans have been destroyed. What made the strike victorious was the militant tactics and the spread of solidarity. The strike started with the freight workers and later spread to maintenance workers. Four thousand invaded the runways – something that had never happened before, even in 1968. The management thought that sending in the dreaded riot police would isolate and demoralise the strikers. The effect was the exact opposite. The strike spread like wild fire to other sections who might ordinarily be expected not to join in: white collar workers, pilots and air hostesses.

The strikers themselves made the point that the management had spent years dividing the workforce but that it only took a few days of struggle to recreate solidarity in one of the most hierarchical enterprises in Europe.

This kind of solidarity and militancy not only frightened the management and government into submission. With Attali ousted the role played by mass meetings (between 800 and 1,000 attended) produced a rank and file confidence and independence which scared the trade union leaders. The refusal to bow to the bureaucrats’ demand for a return to work after the government’s surrender was because the strikers wanted the restructuring plan to be not simply suspended but withdrawn altogether.

The Air France victory has upped the level of struggle generally. Further action at the domestic subsidiary of Air France, Air Inter, included runway invasions, sit-ins and blocking the departure lounge. And the long running disputes at the computer manufacturer Bull and the aluminium giant Pechiney are increasing in intensity. Elsewhere in Europe there have been ‘copycat’ strikes of airport workers.

Fear, as one Air France striker said, has changed sides. It is now the bosses who are terrified at what their austerity plans will do. A winter of discontent is setting in and it won’t just be France that is affected.

Thanks to: Pat Collins, Magdalena Collins, Nicki Sellars and Jackie Leeder


Following his record breaking fourth general election victory in a row, Felipe Gonzalez has immediately moved onto the offensive.

Gonzalez began a purge of the remnants of the left within his own party at the same time as he ruled out any collaboration with the United Left. Instead, he has sought alliances with the right wing Basque and Catalan nationalist parties in order to keep his minority government in office. Indeed, the PSOE has moved so far to the right that it has just recruited the former deputy leader of the Spanish Tory party.

A series of economic proposals introduced include a three year pay freeze for all public employees; encouragement to the private sector to keep wages below 1.5 percent; new laws to make it easier for employers to get rid of workers – including the relaxation of the rules for redundancy pay for those with permanent contracts; new, even tougher anti-trade union laws to weaken union activity; and the reduction of existing pensions and new regulations designed to make entitlement to a state pension more difficult.

Yet another round of privatisation is proposed, including what is left of the state run petrochemical industry and the telephone company. This will lead to heavy job losses.

However, the government cannot put through these proposals without the cooperation of the unions and it is for this reason that Gonzalez has resurrected the idea of a social contract between government, unions and the Spanish CBI.

So strong has been union opposition to the proposals that the government has been forced to back down on a number of the worst elements of the ‘contract’, including proposals to reduce pension rights and to cut back on unemployment benefit, which had met with the approval of the employers. Union leaders had promised an autumn of strife unless the proposals were dropped and, while this is a major victory on one front, it still leaves other areas of conflict to be resolved. Whatever the deals made by union leaders, they will still have to sell them to their members – by no means an easy feat, given the pressure from below and inter-regional rivalries between union leaders themselves.

This pressure has been manifested most vividly in the occupation of the SEAT factory in Barcelona which owners Volkswagen want to close. Nationwide demonstrations and protests over a range of issues also continue to harass the government.

Whether this sort of action turns into the PSOE’s ‘winter of discontent’, or into a successful campaign of resistance to government proposals, will depend very much on the levels of rank and file pressure.

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