Wednesday marks a breakthrough in the struggle against austerity in Europe. There will be co-ordinated general strikes in Portugal, Greece and Spain and significant strikes and solidarity actions in many other countries. The CGIL union in Italy, for example, an organisation of nearly six million, has announced a strike of all its members around the country.
This is a historic and crucial development. There have been other European days of action and joint protests in Brussels and elsewhere, but this will be the first time since the great anti-war protests nearly ten years ago that this level of co-ordination has taken place across borders. It is the first time that general strikes have been organised simultaneously.
The joint action arose originally from strike plans in Portugal, where the movement is gathering strength. It was taken up by the unions in Spain under popular pressure. Significantly the European Trade Union Confederation, normally hesitant to challenge the EU head on, has backed the action. Militants gathered in Florence for 'Firenze 10 + 10' are unanimously convinced of its importance.
For Ramon Gonzalez Boan from the union confederation in Galicia, Spain, "it is the first time there has been real co-operation among European workers. There have been some important European demonstrations, but for unions across Europe to overcome the differences in their cultures and outlooks and take strike action together is a very big step forward. In Spain this will be a real general strike with the exception of the Basque country where there have been two general strikes very recently. All the other confederations will be out." Accompanying the strike there will be demonstrations in most towns and cities around the country.
According to Natasha Theodorakopoulou from Syriza, the Greek unions have been pushing for this kind of co-ordinated action for some time: "the announcement was made at a time of heightened struggle in Greece with a 48 hour general strike just finished against the new budget. The unions have decided to call a three hour strike in solidarity anyway, because we all understand how important this joint action is. It is impossible to imagine that we can win our struggle without such co-operation and solidarity."
Action is spreading way beyond the three initiating countries. In Italy the CGIL, the biggest Union confederation, has called a four hour strike across the country. The National Secretary of the CGIL federation, Nicola Nicolosi, predicts that as well as the strike there will be one hundred demonstrations in city squares around the country:
"The day's significance lies first in the fact that this is the first time the ETUC has called action of this kind. It allows us to do what we need to do at last, which is to oppose our own government’s policy at the same time as challenging the whole European strategy of which it is a part, the neoliberal strategy of Brussels. But more than that it is a response to democracy in danger. In Italy we have a kind of suspension of democracy with the so called technicians' government. Those who strike are answering back by saying we will not stop participating. This is our democracy."
Pierre Khalfin, a militant from the Copernic Foundation in France, believes that although there will only be a few strikes there, the fact that all the unions have called for decentralised action will mean that there will be protests and rallies in many places: "This is vitally important because for the first time we have European action with real roots in various countries. It looks as if something is really starting to change. It will be a crucial test to see if it is possible to have effective common action. But it will only be a start -- this will need to be developed into coordinated action around agreed demands -- that will be the next step."
In Germany too the unions have issued a call for joint local actions, in many places there will be strikes, but there will probably be demonstrations in others. For Hugo Braun, German representative of the anti-globalisation network Attac, this is real progress. "It helps to give people confidence, it's a incredible achievement to start uniting the European labour movement, it breaks down the sense that each country has a different experience or different interests. It also strengthens the relationship between the movements and the unions. We already have very close relations between the movements and the public sector union Verdi in particular, including a broad coalition preparing a 'Congress for Redistribution.' What is very exciting is that this time all the unions have called on their regional bodies to organise action in association with the movements. This is something very important to build on for the future."
There is a similar situation in both Holland and Belgium, with the unions calling for decentralised actions, including strike action where possible. In all countries represented in Florence some kind of solidarity action will be taking place. There are specific plans too to undercut attempts to divide workers. A group of Greek trade unionists are travelling to Germany to head up the main demonstration there and German militants are heading to Athens to reciprocate.
A new phase in the struggle
In each country too there are of course difficulties to overcome. Victoria Montero, international secretary of the Spanish Workers' Commissions, has concerns about the turnout for the strike, "The level of unemployment means there is a climate of fear even in the unionised workplaces so we don't know about the level of take up of the strike. We are encouraging all citizens to do something on the day." In France there is a big political division between the unions, with the CGT and Sud moving on to the offensive against Socialist Party policies and the other unions much more supportive of Hollande. In Italy, the fact that only one out of the three main confederations is striking is a product of deeply ingrained sectionalism.
However, November 14th is being seen as a major breakthrough everywhere. It is not simply a question of solidarity, important though that idea is. Raising action to the European level opens up a new phase in the struggle by showing that our side is capable of mounting a defence symmetrical to the centralised assault of the Troika, and it will thereby strengthen the movement in each country. In Florence it has created impetus behind preparations for an 'Alter Summit' to take pace in early June in Athens, designed to be a meeting place for the unions and the movements across the continent to plan further co-ordinated action.
N14 in Britain
In Britain the Coalition of Resistance is organising with others a solidarity demonstration assembling outside the European Commission, which will be followed by a rally where we will be showing footage of the strikes and protests on the day at the Emmanuel Centre, Marsham St. UNITE, PCS, Greek Solidarity Campaign and PIIGS are involved -- and the TUC have tweeted support. There will also be actions in many cities around the country
Chris Nineham is a British activist and writer. This article was originally published by Counterfire and is reprinted here with permission.