May 27, 2010
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IT'S NEARLY 18 months since NUHW was established. How would you summarize what's been accomplished so far?
WE'RE APPROACHING 5,000 workers who have voted for NUHW. There are about 14,000 who are waiting to vote, as a result of petitions filed 15 months ago. And we're getting ready to file [union election petitions] for 47,000 Kaiser workers in June. Which is obviously a big deal.
On one hand, I never imagined it would take this long for people to be able to vote. On the other hand, it's so satisfying and inspiring to me how absolutely committed folks are despite all these months.
We have, every two months, leadership meetings, one in the North and one in the South. [May 15] we had one in the North, and it was the biggest meeting yet. There were almost 300 leaders from just Northern California, who obviously come on their own time, at their own expense. They are just as enthusiastic as they were on day one, as committed as on day one.
The SEIU's activity has been beyond my imagination as we experience new levels of lies, attacks and resources spent. They will do whatever it takes to prevent workers from leaving SEIU.
I'll just give you one example of what's become normal--at the University of Southern California hospital, where we have an election May 27.
USC Hospital is a very anti-union employer, one of the worst. And SEIU determined that it couldn't win the election there against NUWH. So Bob Callahan, a top national organizing director for SEIU, had a meeting with a management team, and they brought in a union-busting consultant from Ohio. And the three organizations put together a plan to get the SEIU members to vote "no union."
Included in the plan is the disciplining and/or firing of SEIU leaders who support NUHW. In fact, they suspended three of our stewards.
On May 14, we had three staff in there, in the cafeteria, as they had been doing for the past month, hanging out and talking to people. Two SEIU organizers came in with video cameras and directed hospital security to arrest the three staff members. They then had the LAPD come in and put them in jail overnight, and took all their belongings, including charts and organizing materials.
This is becoming normal to us. SEIU's collusion with employers to prevent SEIU members from having a fair vote and leaving the union is extreme. This includes having longtime shop stewards fired from their jobs. SEIU has removed over 2,000 stewards from their elected positions since this began, but now they're getting people fired from their jobs.
DESPITE THIS onslaught, NUHW keeps racking up the wins. How?
THE WORKERS are committed to controlling their union--to doing whatever it takes to control their relationship with their employer and to reject SEIU's takeover.
SEIU is making a lot of mistakes, too, which works in our favor. They're not representing workers. That's just not on their agenda. Their agenda is all about attacking--trying to kill NUHW.
That's what the $25 million lawsuit, with its huge costs in time and dollars, was about. They didn't succeed there. It's the historic dynamic that's been repeated time and time again throughout history. People are committed to being free, to being in control of their lives.
We recently won a vote at Salinas Memorial Hospital, and I was listening to one of the chief stewards with the press. She said things that I'd forgotten--like that she's been involved in organizing the union there since the late '70s. She was on SEIU Local 250's executive board in the late '80s and was a leader in fighting the SEIU trusteeship of the local in 1988.
She wanted to retire this year, but she's not going to retire until she's sure that the union that she helped build at her hospital is a democratic union in the control of the workers.
OBVIOUSLY, THIS kind of organization didn't come about overnight. Why has this been such a threat to SEIU?
BECAUSE SEIU, led by Andy Stern and Anna Berger, and now Mary Kay Henry, believe that its vision--and its control over resources--is the best way to grow the union.
There are two big reasons why we were put in trusteeship--the top-down deals with for-profit nursing home employers and the top-down deal with Tenant Healthcare Corp., which exchanged standards and a voice for workers in California in order to get growth opportunities in other states.
In California, the gold standard for private-sector health care workers is at Kaiser, because of the organization that has been built for 20-plus years. The Kaiser "partnership"--the Kaiser contract--exists because of struggle, not because Kaiser is some benevolent employer. There were huge strikes in the late '80s and early '90s that forced Kaiser to the brink. Then, some enlightened leaders in Kaiser sat down and said, "Okay, we've got to do something different or we're going to go out of business."
That was the birth of the labor-management partnership. Then, enlightened leaders in our union understood that the only way we were going to preserve that contract relationship was to organize Kaiser's competitors and bring them up to that standard. And that's what we did through the 1990s and the early part of this century--organize 65,000 hospital workers.
Local 250 had represented three hospitals that are now part of Catholic Healthcare West (CHW) for decades. But as CHW formed in the late '80s and early '90s, those three hospitals grew to 32, with the other 29 being nonunion. These thousands of workers had multiple strikes in the '90s over leveling the playing field for nonunion workers, who were organizing the rest of the system.
They got it. They were protecting the standards at Kaiser, and they knew they had to organize the whole CHW system. They sacrificed wages and other things to win organizing rights. And in the late '90s, over a five-year period, we organized 27 other hospitals throughout the state. In just two contract cycles, CHW is now the second-best hospital contract in the country, right behind Kaiser's, with a master agreement for 15,000 workers.
So there's an example of workers getting the fundamental need to organize and sacrificing to accomplish it, while at the same time accomplishing standards for themselves. There's actual proof that both can be done.
Well, that wasn't fast enough for SEIU. I point to the SEIU convention in 2004, when Stern got authority to withdraw from the AFL-CIO. We were celebrating this 65,000-member unprecedented growth in hospitals. And he said, yeah it's great, it's unprecedented, but it's incremental. You have to organize 150,000 people a year, not 65,000 hospital workers over four years.
When they pulled SEIU out of the AFL-CIO, the commitment and pressure was for growth, growth, growth. At every level of the organization, down to local unions, the pressure was to grow at all costs.
That's what led to the nursing home deal with Tenet. Also, there was the attempt, with the three-year contracts with Sodexho, Compass and Aramark, to gain 20,000 new members over three years. Unionization would be chosen by the employer, not the workers, with a pre-negotiated template contract that did little more than give folks a raise to pay their dues.
The result is workers who make little more than minimum wage, with almost no benefits and certainly no representation or rights. And they're working right next to hospital workers in the same union, doing the same kind of work--service workers making $20 an hour, with full health coverage for their kids, a pension plan, etc.
THE OTHER element of Stern's plan was to create large local unions with the resources to combat employers. Were these mergers necessarily undemocratic and unaccountable?
WE WERE absolutely in favor of that--creating bigger unions with common employers to have greater strength and an economy of scale. In the year 2000, Local 399's and Local 250's executive boards voted unanimously to seek merger, since we had common employers in California, such as Kaiser, nursing homes, etc.
Stern said no. He said that there were too many unorganized hospital workers in Southern California and said, "Local 250, use your power, resources to organize those workers, and we'll talk again." So that's what we did, and SEIU helped, too, in a three-way partnership. Locals 250 and 399 and SEIU organized Tenet workers, Healthcare Corporation of America (HCA) workers and cleaned up the CHW stuff.
In 2004, both Local 399 and Local 250 boards voted unanimously again to merge, and Stern said okay. We spent all of 2004 having hundreds and hundreds of meetings, integrating the different cultures of the unions, wrote a constitution, voted on the constitution, voted on leaders. The votes were separate, because Local 399 had 20,000 members and Local 250 had 70,000 members. It was democratic, and the votes were both 90-something percent in favor, and we merged.
Stern's method of merging was quite the opposite. It was top-down. He decided that "these 10 public-sector unions in Northern California will merge, they will now be called 1021, I'll appoint the leaders, and the votes will be pooled." So 10 counties merged into one union, with sizes ranging from 1,000 workers to 30,000 workers. Some of the locals with 1,000 or 2,000 members weren't bought into it and weren't organized. It caused great resentment, and it resulted in a horribly dysfunctional union.
Stern appointed the leaders for three years. The federal government says you have to have an election after three years. Stern got around that--if his leaders couldn't win, then he'd do another merger, and buy another three years.
In this particular case, he was secure that his leadership team would win. They lost. It was stunning. This inexperienced rank-and-file movement won every seat with 7 percent of the entire union voting--which is another tragedy. People are so disgusted that they don't even want to participate. So that's the difference in merger ideology--how it's done.
SO A larger size doesn't have to mean the mergers are undemocratic?
CORRECT. IN fact, it's the opposite. We struggled all the time to increase democracy in a statewide union in the state of California, with its huge geography and 150,000 members. It's a constant struggle to figure out how to have more democracy and to empower people. How do you have a Kaiser nurse in LA relate to one up in Santa Rosa? It's tough.
HOW MUCH money do you estimate the SEIU has spent in trying to stop NUHW?
HUNDREDS OF millions. We don't even know how to estimate it. They hide money, and so many different locals are sending in staff and resources. They sent 1,000 people just for the Fresno home-care workers election and spent $10 million for 10,000 workers.
As you can imagine, they effectively killed our ability to do home-care decerts in Sacramento and San Francisco--through deals with bosses and just totally overwhelming us with resources. We can't do home care now because it's so resource-intensive. You have to do mail and house calls, because there's no worksite. SEIU spent millions of dollars preventing those workers from having a fair election.
In the hospital campaigns, such as the RN campaign in Salinas--the one we just won--they would have 10 staff to our one, and do 10 mailings to our one. It's just David and Goliath everywhere. They also okayed $2 million for one month of mailings to Kaiser workers, where they use extreme lies to try and prevent workers from signing the petition we're circulating now.
HOW DID the SEIU lawsuit against you and other NUWH officials fit into this picture?
IT WAS intended to kill NUHW. At the pretrial conference, they said they'd drop everything--$25 million dollars worth of claims--if we'd just put NUHW out of business. That's the only reason.
There's no corruption here, no self-dealing. This is obviously all about the movement, work carried out by selfless people. We had 150 staff resign from their well-paid jobs to volunteer for NUHW.
SEIU spent tens of millions of dollars on the lawsuit. We counted 50 lawyers involved in it. Compare that to [ousted California SEIU official] Tyrone Freeman, who stole $2 million. He's under federal investigation, but SEIU has only two junior lawyers on that. There hasn't been a legal proceeding yet because they keep postponing it. And that happened nine months before our trusteeship.
WHAT'S YOUR interpretation of the outcome of the lawsuit?
THEY FAILED. They didn't put NUHW out of business. The $25 million came down to $740,000. The jury awarded this money, because the jury believed that during the second week of January 2009, SEIU's executive board voted to move our long-term care members out of UHW, and for the next two and half weeks, we continued to oppose this because of democratic votes of our members.
We disobeyed SEIU, which had the legal right to tell us what we had to do. So we had to pay back the overhead of the union that we spent opposing that. That's what the jury's verdict was, so we're being fined. For me personally, the fine is $70,400. It was my judgment that I was carrying out the will of the members. Well, that's who I'm accountable to. I have no regrets, I'd do it again.
WHAT'S the significance of this fight for the wider labor movement?
I THINK labor's at a crossroads.
To add to the negatives, obviously public-sector budgets across the country are in crisis. In California, the governor just put forth a budget that will cut in half the home care program--and he's very serious about this. SEIU threatened 10,000 home care workers in Fresno that "the only way you're going to keep your union and your benefits and your wages is to stay inside SEIU." Because the money is being cut, the board of supervisors just announced that on July 1, these 10,000 folks are going down to $8.50 an hour.
So in fact, once dues are taken out of their check, these 10,000 SEIU members will make below minimum wage. California has 300,000 home care workers in SEIU who are like those folks. They are organized top-down--there's no movement whatsoever. So their numbers might be reduced to half, and the other half will be making minimum wage or slightly over that in some counties. That's the future of SEIU, because of the way they've been organizing.
NUWH, UNITE HERE and a few other unions are on the cutting edge, committed to a bottom-up, social unionism--a union by workers, for workers, governed by workers, versus this corporate unionism of SEIU, where all authority and decision-making and resources are concentrated among a few folks in Washington, D.C.
Frankly, it's the reason why UNITE HERE is partnering with us and we're helping each other. Because I think that we have this common belief that if we don't win, the movement's not going to survive.
Certainly, all the dreams we have of establishing a progressive majority and dealing with all the other issues besides good-paying jobs and health care--all the other issues that are important to working people--are never going to be accomplished unless there's a bottom-up movement that forces government to level the playing field, just like the civil rights movement in the '60s.
Labor put so much money into electing the Democrats and Barack Obama, and look what the result is. It was a huge opportunity, at our position of greatest strength--theoretically. And we got no labor law reform and a shitty health care plan. And now the Democrats are going to lose it all.
So that doesn't work. The only way we're going to accomplish it is by forcing elected leaders to side with working people as opposed to corporate leaders.
WHAT CAN people do, both in California and outside, to support NUHW's efforts?
OUR TWO obstacles are money and organizers. Money is a huge problem, and contributions to the Fund for Union Democracy  help. It's paying all our legal expenses, not NUHW or anyone else. There are other unions that can contribute directly to NUHW. It's the only reason we're surviving right now.
We currently have about 75 full-time staff. Most of them are making extremely modest salaries and getting health coverage. A sizable number are still volunteering because they can afford it.
We need more staff. We could use twice the staff on the Kaiser campaign--and that's without doing anything else, like winning elections yesterday at Salinas and next week at USC. There are going to be 70 other elections scheduled over the coming months. We're not going to be able to do them all, because we don't have enough money or enough staff.
Friends across the country are actually organizing folks to take vacations this summer to come for two weeks or three weeks or a month to help on Kaiser. We welcome experienced people to come. And once the election's scheduled, we'll need hundreds of people to come, because it's 47,000 people over 300 sites.
The Kaiser dues to SEIU are $3.5 million a month. When we win, we'll have the resources and stability to do it all and to help other people. And it'll also mean the end of SEIU Healthcare [the union's national structure for the industry].
That's the reason why UHW is so important for SEIU to control. It's their vision to be a national health care union and organize other employers across the country. But SEIU's membership base is all in California, at Kaiser, Tenet, HCA, the Catholic hospitals and dozens of national for-profit nursing home chains. So to have any leverage with these employers, they have to control UHW.
That's why the stakes are so high. Once we win Kaiser and get them out of health care in California, they won't be able to organize health care workers across the country because they won't have that base. That's what at stake here.
Transcription by Meredith Reese
Monday, May 31, 2010
May 27, 2010
Monday, May 24, 2010
Olivier Besancenot and Pierre-François Grond
The B u l l e t Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 356
The events in Greece concern us all. The Greek people are paying for a crisis and a debt not of their making. Today it is the Greeks, tomorrow it will be others, for the same causes will produce the same effects if we allow it.
First and foremost, let us express our full and unwavering solidarity with those who must endure an unprecedented austerity plan, not to mention contempt and arrogance bordering on racism. The ongoing strikes and demonstrations are legitimate, and we support them. This is not the crisis of the Greek people; it is the crisis of the world capitalist system. The plight of the Greek people speaks volumes about the nature of capitalism today. The plan dictated by the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) rides roughshod over the most elementary rules of democracy.
If this plan is implemented, it will result in the worst collapse of the economy and of peoples’ incomes in Europe since the 1930s. Equally glaring is the collusion of markets, central banks and governments to make the people foot the bill for the vagaries of the system. French President Nicolas Sarkozy still dares to talk of the need to regulate the market, while implementing measures that are more neoliberal than ever. The response to the crisis has been framed by a deadening consensus of the Right and the Left. The EU-IMF plan has been drafted by European governments of the Right and Left – and by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the IMF, an institution that has been strangling the Third World for decades and is now attacking Europe. The plan is being implemented by the Socialist government of Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, while the French side of the deal has been adopted in unison by MPs of the governing centre-right UMP and the Socialist Party (SP).
Background to the Crisis
The Greek debt crisis is the third phase of a broader global crisis that began in the United States in the summer of 2008. The speculative activities of the major western banks led the world to the brink of the abyss and plunged the economy into recession. This has led to escalating unemployment, alongside flagging incomes and purchasing power. Governments have rescued financial capitalism, resuscitated the banks, and revived capitalism by handing out hundreds of billions of Euros and dollars. This has made debts and deficits skyrocket and put more fragile states like Greece in a difficult position.
Now that the markets have digested the crisis, they are attacking government debts and speculating on the future of the weakest. What an exemplary lesson on the amorality of a system that is able, in the space of one year, to survive thanks to the largesse of states and then punish these very states by speculating aggressively against them. These speculators are now attacking Spain and lie in wait for further victims.
When French Prime Minister François Fillon announced on May 5th that painful measures were in store to “avoid a level of indebtedness such as Greece's,” he also announced an austerity plan, of which scrapping the right to retire at age 60 is only one component. In fact, the three-year freeze on public spending will entail a freeze on civil servants' wages and job cuts in the hospitals, schools and other public services that people need in order to deal with the social catastrophe created by the crisis. In contrast, the government has announced it will continue to honour the Sarkozy tax cap – which has already generously awarded a thousand or so members of the super-rich with an average refund of 376,000 Euros apiece.
Two Weights, Two Measures
The Greek measures overwhelmingly approved by EU governments are an attack on social rights. According to the rules of globalized capitalism applied by these governments, Europe is losing ground in its global competition with the United States and emerging countries. Their solution is to regain competitiveness by attacking the standard of living and social protection won in Europe through decades of mobilization by the workers movement. This means a never-ending race to the bottom. And to think that they promoted the Maastricht Treaty, the EU Constitutional Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty as the building blocks of a Europe based on social justice and social welfare! What utter nonsense, when we compare this rhetoric to the bleeding imposed on the Greeks – at 5% interest, no less! The European banks can continue to grow rich on the Greek austerity plan, although they are the ones most responsible for the global economic chaos. There is nothing humanitarian about the “assistance plan” that has been adopted by the National Assembly. By supporting the government, the SP has lined up on the side of finance and not the oppressed.
Though incapable of organizing solidarity of any kind, the European Union certainly knows how to profit from a people's misery. Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have jointly declared that they will rescue the Euro zone by strengthening “budgetary oversight” of states that fail to meet the criteria of the EU Stability Pact. Apparently, in a neoliberal Europe, governments are only allowed to contravene the Stability Pact when they are pumping public money into the banks. Humanity will just have to wait.
Yet, never has there been such an urgent need for a social, ecological and anti-capitalist Europe based on solidarity. None of the current problems can be solved within national borders. We are all Greek workers subject to the same logic. Government debt is the product of 25 years of neoliberalism and tax cuts for the rich – on corporate incomes, capital and shareholder dividends. For 25 years these taxes have been constantly lowered, and yet we are still told that they represent an unbearable burden for employers and the well-heeled. No, this crisis is not ours. In Greece, as elsewhere in Europe, we shouldn't have to pay for it.
Our Demands, Our Alternatives
That is why we demand the cancellation of the Greek debt. To reject the austerity plans, to divest the banks of the control they exercise over the economy and society, to substitute a single European public banking service in place of the European Central Bank, with a monopoly over credit, and to demand the cancellation of the debts, is to fight for a genuine European project. This would be a Europe of the peoples and the workers, where their struggles for a social and ecological Europe based on solidarity converge. If we do not initiate this break towards building a different Europe, the sovereigntist and nationalist logic – and the xenophobia that goes along with it – will get the upper hand. The race is on.
In the 1990s, neoliberal governments of the Right and Left imposed harsh economic convergence criteria in order to pave the way for the single currency. The time has now come to secure social convergence criteria: a European minimum wage; the right of European workers and their organizations to veto layoffs; and social and democratic rights levelled upwards to match those of the best national legislation within EU member countries. Such a project must be taken up by a new political force that reaches beyond national borders – a European anti-capitalist Left that is built step by step. The entire radical Left has to carefully study the lessons of the Greek crisis.
In each country, the radical Left is torn between independence from Social Democracy and participation in government alongside the neoliberal Left. We all want to defeat the Right in Europe, as in France; and that means building up the basis for an alternative to the routine return to government in 2012 imagined by the French SP. The SP has christened this election plan “Gauche Solidaire.” Is it surprising that in the Greek crisis this “Left Solidarity” has gone to speculators and no one else? •
Olivier Besancenot and Pierre-François Grond are members of the executive committee of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) in France. The essay appeared in Le Monde, May 14, 2010
Translation from French: Richard Fidler and Nathan Rao.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
By Lisbeth Latham & Fox Smoulder
Ilham Moussaid, New Anti-Capitalist Party activist and Muslim, attacked for wearing hte hijab. Laws punishing women for wearing the burqa and the niqab in public were passed by the Belgian lower house of parliament on April 29. A similar law has been discussed by French President Nicholas Sarkozy, and the French National Assembly passed a non-binding resolution in favour of a ban on May 11.
These laws have been pushed by right-wing governments on the basis of security needs and protecting national identity, but the laws have also been justified as promoting equality for women. On this basis, the laws have received support from sections of the left and the feminist movement.
The Belgium legislation states no one can appear in public “with the face fully or partly covered so as to render them no longer recognisable”. The new law, which replaces existing bans under regional bylaws, would impose a fine of up to €25 Euros or one to seven days’ jail.
It was passed almost unanimously and just two members of the house abstained.
Its passage in the upper house has been held up by the collapse of the government, but is expected to pass once a new government is formed after June 13 elections.
Sarkozy told the French parliament in June 2009: “It will not be welcome on French soil. We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic's idea of women's dignity.”
The May 11 French National Assembly resolution was supported 434 to nil (there are 577 seats) — 30 Communist deputies walked out of the chamber prior to the vote in protest.
t is unclear what the legislation expected to go to the National Assembly in July will include. However, the April 30 Connexion reported that there would be a €150 fine for wearing a burqa and a fine of €15,000 and a year in jail for anyone who “imposes the burqa on someone through violence or threats”.
The move to ban the burqa is part of a wave of measures by European countries to “defend their national identity” against Islam.
These include the ban on minarets on mosques imposed in Switzerland in February, the ban on wearing the hijab in French public schools in 2004 and similar bans in several German states.
In 2004, the French parliament passed the Law on Secularity and Conspicuous Religious Symbols in Schools, which banned the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols in French public schools. This included yarmulkes worn by Jewish boys, turbans worn by Sikh boys and hijabs.
However, the ban primarily targets young women wearing hijabs. The legislation was passed by a large majority (494 for, 36 against, 31 abstentions). Support also came from sections of the French far-left.
The ban was justified on the grounds of both liberating women and defending the secular character of French society.
The impact of the law means women who refuse to stop wearing the hijab could be excluded from the French public education system. In the first semester of its operation, 48 students were expelled from public schools for not complying with the ban. All were expelled for wearing the hijab, except for three Sikh boys, and a Muslim woman who refused to stop wearing a bandana she wore for aesthetic reasons, but which was deemed a religious symbol.
The decision of the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) in Vaucluse to stand Ilham Moussaid, a 21-year-old feminist activist who wears a hijab, as a candidate in the 2010 regional elections caused a major controversy across the whole spectrum of French politics.
The NPA was accused by the right seeking to cause a controversy to obtain publicity during the election campaign. Criticisms also came from other left parties and from within the NPA itself.
Left Party leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said: “You can’t call yourself a feminist while showing off a sign of submission to the patriarchy.”
Moussaid told the March Socialist Review: “These feminists say that it’s a symbol of oppression, of submission. For my part, I’m not submissive: it’s a personal choice. I'm a feminist. I fight for women's rights with my women comrades.
“I fight for equality between men and women. I fight for the right to abortion, the right to contraception. It’s true they see it as a symbol of oppression, but unfortunately they forget that there are women who wear it out of choice.
“A certain number of women are obliged to wear it, of course, I don’t deny that, and I’ll fight for these women.”
In locating the decision to wear a burqa entirely in the domain of men, proponents of the ban strip women of all agency and pose the solution in terms of who should have the right to control what women wear, their “patriarchal husbands, fathers or brothers” or an enlightened state.
Moreover the focus on banning the burqa also tends to promote racism and undermine the struggle for women’s oppression.
The focus on the burqa as a source of oppression results in the broader oppression faced by migrant women in France — oppression with its roots in the poverty pf the communities in which they live — being ignored. Furthermore, attributing sexism to Islam allows the sexism of French society to be ignored.
This article was published in Green Left Weekly #837
Green Left Weekly #837
The conventional wisdom is that the world has largely survived the great financial crisis. Journalists and economists talk about recovery, while politicians claim to have averted catastrophe.
However, the bailouts of banks and financial stimulus packages that governments used to “solve” the crisis merely turned banks’ debt into public debt. The problem has simply been shifted to the public sphere and potential catastrophe merely delayed.
The United States, Britain and the “eurozone” (the European countries with the Euro as their common currency) have collectively given the banks more than US$14 trillion since the crisis struck in 2008.
The resulting “sovereign debt crisis” (governments going deeper into debt) raises the question: who will pay for this debt?
For the pro-corporate politicians and experts, whose outlook dominates the corporate media, the answer is obvious: public debt must be paid by cuts to public spending.
Social infrastructure, welfare and public sector wages must be cut, while handouts to business and expenditure on the police and military are exempted as “necessary expenditure”.
However in Greece, an alternative answer has been given by millions of striking workers and hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets. The Greek people see no reason why they should pay for a crisis they didn’t cause, to save the profits of the big banks and financial speculators.
International financial institutions have singled out Greece as a test case in the sovereign debt crisis.
The government of the social democratic PASOK party agreed to a €45 billion “rescue package” from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Central Bank (ECB), which comes with the requisite harsh austerity measures.
Through the general strikes and militant mass protests against the “rescue package”, workers in Greece have responded that those responsible for the debt should pay. Workers and the public should not pay back money they never borrowed in the first place.
Contrary to media claims, high public debt is not the result of unproductive, over-paid workers or bludgers living off welfare.
At the core of the global financial crisis (of which the sovereign debt crisis is a continuation) is, in fact, the fall in real wages that has occurred throughout the developed world since the 1970s.
A lower wage bill benefits capitalists in the short term, but for profits to be realised workers have to be able to buy things. The result was a debt-fuelled economy — with consumption levels maintained through access to cheap credit.
The multi-trillion-dollar bailout of banks was justified with the claim that the finance industry drives the productive economy, but another key cause of the crisis was that banks found investment in production considerably less profitable than speculating on debt.
Deregulation of the financial system (in line with neoliberal ideology) meant banks could combine and repackage mortgage, credit card and commercial debts, and sell them as “financial products” or “derivatives”.
Debts could be insured against default, and more complicated “derivatives” allowed bankers to bet on which debts would be honoured.
This casino economy collapsed with the “sub-prime mortgage” crisis in the US. Falling wages, skyrocketing house prices and high-interest mortgages granted regardless of likely ability for repayment led to large numbers of US households defaulting on their mortgages.
Suddenly, the market was gripped with a panic that billions of dollars worth of “derivatives” could prove worthless.
The banks were bailed out, but those made homeless by mortgage foreclosures were not. US banks are reporting rising profits again, but a further 7.8 million US householders are facing foreclosure, the March 17 US Socialist Worker said.
On April 29, 15,000 people marched through Wall Street chanting, “You got bailed out, we got sold out!”. The protest, organised by the AFL-CIO trade union federation and a coalition of community organisations, demanded “a tax on Wall Street profits, better regulation of the big banks, help for struggling homeowners and a jobs program for the unemployed”, the May 5 SW said.
The Obama administration has responded with some timid proposals to regulate the finance industry (fiercely opposed by the Republicans) and the prosecution of bankers who engaged in blatantly fraudulent practices.
However, the first case to be prosecuted, involving a hedge fund manager and several bankers from the huge, and deeply unpopular, Goldman Sachs bank, threatens to open a can of worms. This is because blatantly fraudulent practices were the basis of the casino economy.
One of the charges levelled by European Union politicians against Greece is that it hid the true size of its debt since entering the eurozone in 2001.
Ironically, Goldman Sachs helped it achieve this by turning its debt into tradable “derivatives”. Public debt is as good to the casino economy as household or commercial debt.
Moreover, Italy, France and Germany did the same.
By turning Greece’s debt into “derivatives”, Goldman Sachs was able to bet on Greece defaulting in the same way it and other banks had bet on sub-prime mortgage holders defaulting.
Speculation drove a “loss of market confidence” in Greece. Ratings agencies — whose endorsement of dubious banking products helped bring about the 2008 crisis — declared Greece a risk for investors.
Despite its sovereign debt being of comparable size to Britain’s, this “no confidence” vote meant Greece was only able to borrow at above market interest rates.
The PASOK government has insisted it has no alternative to accepting the IMF-ECB “rescue”.
The austerity measures include wage freezes, de facto wage cuts, a 23% goods and services tax rise, increasing the age of retirement and prohibition of early retirement, a €3 billion cut to health and education expenditure and public investment, removing unfair dismissal safeguards for workers, a new minimum wage for youth and the long-term unemployed, and privatisation of state-owned sectors such as transport and energy.
On May 5, with the entire country shut down by a general strike, half–a-million people marched through Athens. Heavy-handed policing led to rioting — which was not reported in Greece because media workers were on strike too.
On May 6, the government passed the austerity package through parliament. The strikes and protests have not abated.
Ordinary people in Greece have decided that, as they did not enjoy the bankers’ winnings in the casino economy, they should not pay for the losses.
Antonis Davenellos, a member of the Greek socialist group International Workers Left, wrote in the May 5 SW: “Tens of thousands of workers thundered, ‘Today and tomorrow, and for as long its needed, we are all strikers’.
“This fury explains the incredible resilience of the demonstrators, who flooded the centre of Athens despite the unprecedented rain of tear gas fired against them by the police ...
“The chants of the revolutionary left were taken up by the overwhelming majority of the demonstrators — for example, ‘Robbers, robbers, capitalists: Your profits cost human lives’.
“Moreover, the social base of social democracy itself — the thousands and thousands of workers who had voted for PASOK — was there ... angrily attacking a government in which they had illusions only a few months before.
“Now they chanted ... ‘Self-illusions are over — either with the capitalists or with the workers’.”
Sunday, May 9, 2010
Green Left Weekly #836
The proposed “bail-out” of the Greek economy by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Union (EU) has set off a huge struggle with worldwide implications.
On May 5, as Greek parliament debated the IMF-EU package, half a million people took over the streets of Athens as part of a nation-wide general strike. It was Greece’s largest demonstration in 30 years.
Police brutally attacked the protests, firing tear gas that “transformed Athens into a huge gas chamber”, as a May 5 statement by the Communist Organisation of Greece put it. Predictably, some anarchist youth fought back with molotov cocktails, providing the pretext for further assaults on the crowd.
Outside the office of Marfin Bank in Athens, a molotov cocktail thrown by an unknown person set the building alight. Three bank workers died in the blaze.
The Greek PASOK government tried to exploit the deaths to diffuse the protests, but the anger was too great.
The bank workers’ union released a statement that, while condemning the burning of the bank, placed the blame for the deaths at the feet of the government, police and bank managers (who not only had failed to provide basic fire safety for the building, but threatened workers who wished to go home with the sack). The union called bank workers out on strike.
Protesters marched again in huge numbers on May 6, as the Greek parliament voted to adopt the austerity package. It is clear the union movement will continue to resist its implementation, and further strikes and confrontations are inevitable.
Behind the footage of street fighting and interviews with nervous financial analysts lies a struggle around the key question: who will pay for the global economic crisis — working people or the bankers and capitalists who caused it?
Rarely mentioned in the media is the role of Goldman Sachs in recent years in helping the Greek government (behind the backs of the Greek people now being punished) to hide its real national debt levels by using the sort of dodgy financial practices that helped set off the 2008 financial meltdown.
Also, while Greece’s fiscal deficit is well over EU limits, so are other European nations. Greece’s deficit is a similar percentage of GDP (about 11%) as the US’s. Like so much of the international financial system, the “Greek crisis” has little connection to the real world, but has been manufactured at the gambling tables of high finance.
A May 6 British Morning Star editorial explained: “The latest episode in the Greek crisis was precipitated by yet another capitalist edifice, the ratings agency structure that downgraded Greek debt to junk status — those same ratings agencies that gave AAA ratings to billions of dollars of residential mortgage-backed securities which precipitated the near collapse of the world economy.”
In other words, financial institutions, with a bad track record, declare they are not confident the Greek economy is not in crisis and this lack of confidence causes a crisis in the Greek economy.
You begin to understand why the Greek workers are so unwilling to “take one for the team” when that is how the game is played.
The more powerful European nations are seeking to shift the burden for the crisis onto the weaker ones — starting with Greece.
If the austerity measures are successfully implemented in Greece, workers in other European countries (such as Portugal and Spain) will be the next to have the gun put to their temple.
Understanding this, there have been protests and statements of solidarity with the Greek people fighting the austerity measures by left-wing groups across Europe.
Below, is a slightly abridged May 5 statement by the Committee of the Abolition of Third World Debt (CADTM) international. It has been translated by Christine Pignolle and is reprinted from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.
* * *
Support to the Greek people’s resistance to the dictatorship of creditors!
The new austerity plan, released on May 2 is a disaster for the Greek population: for workers in the private as well as public sector, retired people, or the unemployed. It involves:
• Freezing of wages and retirement pensions in the public sector for five years;
• Suppression of the equivalent of two months of wages for civil servants;
• The main goods and services tax rate to rise to 23%;
• Taxes on fuel, spirits and tobacco have been raised by 10% for the second time within a month;
• Early retirements are prohibited for those under 60;
• The legal age for women’s retirement will be raised from 60 to 65 by 2013;
• The legal age for men’s retirement will depend on life expectancy;
• Forty full years at work (up from 37) will be required to be entitled to a full retirement pension;
• The government will reduce its operating expenditures by €1.5 billion (which means less money for education and health care);
• Public investments will also be reduced by €1.5 billion;
• A new minimum salary for youth and long-term unemployed is set up (the equivalent of the “CPE” rejected by the people of France).
Some measures the financial markets will benefit from include:
• Transport, energy and some services will be opened to privatisation;
• The financial sector will benefit from a fund set up with the help of the EU and the IMF;
• Flexibility of work will be increased;
• Layoffs will become easier;
• The Greek economy is now controlled by the IMF.
Since Greece is part of the euro zone, it can neither devalue its currency nor play on interest rates. Its debt cannot be restructured either since European financial institutions hold two-thirds of it.
These same banks will further borrow from the European Central Bank (ECB) at a 1% rate in order to make loans to governments. Euro zone countries will lend on an individual basis to Greece at a rate of 5%.
Rich countries and banks will thus make money off the Greek people. This will increase the public debt of the Greek state so that it can pay back its speculating creditors!
The Greek crisis is an illustration of the danger represented by the IMF, EU and financial markets.
Rightly disparaged for its disastrous structural adjustment programs, the IMF resurfaces in the euro zone after wrecking the economy of several Eastern European countries in the past two years. It uses the same methods as before, adapted to the same partners: financial markets and transnational corporations.
The EU and ECB do not serve the peoples of Europe, but banks and financial institutions. After precipitating the Greek crisis via rating agencies paid by major US banks, the financial markets try to make even larger profits from their speculative strategies.
The PASOK government, the European Union and the IMF provide them with a golden opportunity.
Behind the financial industry we find manufacturing, trading and services transnational companies.
This financial industry is part of a greater whole. This unbridled speculation that chokes deprived populations has only been possible for two major reasons: successive deregulation of financial markets since the 1980s and the choice made by the management of large companies to “invest” their profits in speculation instead of production and employment.
Over 25 years, wage earners’ respective share of gross domestic product in developed countries has diminished by an average of about 10%. This trend is the main cause of the economic and financial crisis we experience today.
Successive Greek governments, like others in the developed world, also bear a heavy part of responsibility in the increasing public debts. Tax policies favourable to the rich and corporations have significantly reduced budget revenues and increased public deficits, leading states to gather more debt.
Those who organised the crisis are spared while the people must pay the bill.
In the PASOK-EU-IMF austerity plan imposed on the Greek people, there is no measure whatsoever to counter corporate tax evasion. The so-called solutions set forward by PASOK, the EU and the IMF push Greece towards an ever-deeper crisis.
A minimal recession has already been predicted for 2010. Small craftspeople and traders as well as small companies will be faced with bankruptcy. Unemployment will explode, and the purchasing power of lower-and middle-classes will plummet.
Inequalities will increase and basic human rights (access to water, energy, health care, education) are under threat for the more deprived portion of the population.
The Greek people’s anger is ours too. CADTM fully supports all protests against the austerity plan.
Alternative solutions are possible!
• The repayment of Greece’s public debt must be immediately suspended and a public audit must be organised to determine whether it is legitimate.
• Cancellation measures must be taken and the financial return on the debt must be taxed at the maximum income tax rate.
• Tax measures must be taken immediately to restore tax justice and fight tax evasion.
Almost all Greek corporations declare their benefits in countries with a more favourable tax system (such as Cyprus) or hide them in tax havens. The Orthodox Church still benefits from exorbitant tax cuts on its movable and immovable property.
There is money in Greece, but not where the austerity plan wants to find it!
CADTM declares its solidarity with the Greek people. Solidarity demonstrations are needed throughout Europe. Greece is under attack today, but tomorrow it will be Portugal, Ireland or Spain, and the day after maybe all the euro zone will be affected — including its “richer” countries.
We rejoice at the first protests that have occurred outside Greek embassies. We must go further!
The whole European social movement must stand next to the Greek people! European populations can only win from a common protest!
Thursday, May 6, 2010
Tens of thousands of people joined counter protests against a marches by members of the far right across Germany on May 1.
Sozialistische Alternative report on their website that in Berlin 15, 000 people blockaded the Prenzlauer Berg district, restricting the march by 400 neo-nazis to just 350 metres of their intended 6 km march route.
In Bavaria, more than 15,000 people protested against Nazi marching on the road, with nearly 10,000 in Schweinfurt and 5000 in Würzburg. In Zwickau around 2000 people demonstrated under the slogan "Our city has tired of Nazis" against a march of 300 Nazis. In Erfurt 1,500 people prevented 400 Nazis from marching more than 500 meters.
The Revolutionary Socialist League reports on their website that in Duisburg, 300 members of the far right National Democratic Party of Germany marched in support of legislation against minarets on Mosques. The march, which was met with a counter demonstration of 1000 anti-fascist activists, was allowed to march under the protection of 3000 police. Despite the heavy police presence the length of the NDP’s march was restricted.
In addition to these anti-fascist protests, traditional May Day mobilisations also occurred with the German Confederation of Trade Unions estimating that 484, 000 people attended protests across Germany.
Statement on the European crisis
40 anticapitalist groups plan European solidarity with Greek struggle
From International Viewpoint
1. The global economic crisis continues. Massive amounts of money have been injected into the financial system – $14 trillion in bailouts in the United States, Britain, and the eurozone, $1.4 trillion new bank loans in China last year – in an effort to restabilize the world economy. But it remains an open question whether or not these efforts will be enough to produce a sustainable recovery. Growth remains very sluggish in the advanced economies, while unemployment continues to rise. There are fears that a new financial bubble centred this time on China is developing. The protracted character of the crisis – which is the most severe since the Great Depression – reflects its roots in the very nature of capitalism as a system.
2. After a harsh wave of job cuts, in Europe the focus on the crisis is now on the public sector and social welfare system. The very financial markets that have been rescued thanks to the bailouts are now up in arms about the increase in government borrowing this has involved. They are demanding massive cuts in public expenditure. This amounts to a class attempt to shift the costs of the crisis from those who precipitated it – above all, the banks – to working people – not just those employed in the public sector but also all those who consume public services. The demands for austerity and public sector ‘reform’ are the clearest sign that neoliberalism, intellectually discredited by the crisis, nevertheless continues to dominate policy-making.
3. Greece is currently in the eye of the storm. It is one of several European economies that are particularly vulnerable, partly because of a buildup of debt during the boom, partly because they find it hard to compete with Germany, the giant of the eurozone. Under pressure from the financial markets, the European Commission, and the German government, the government of George Papandreou has torn up its election promises and announced cuts amounting to four per cent of national income.
4. Fortunately Greece has a magnificent history of social resistance running back to the 1970s. Following on from the youth revolt of December 2008, the Greek workers’ movement has responded to the government’s cuts packages with a wave of strikes and demonstrations. We also welcome the example of the Iceland referendum in which people rejected debt refunding imposed by the banks.
5. Greek workers need the solidarity of socialists, trade unionists, and anti-capitalists everywhere. Greece is simply the first European country to have been targeted by the financial markets, but they have plenty of others in their sights, first of all, Spain and Portugal.
6. We need a programme of measures that can lift the economy out of crisis on the basis of giving priority to people’s needs rather than profits and imposing democratic control over the market We need to stand for an anti capitalist answer: our life, our health, our jobs before profits.
- All cuts in domestic public expenditure to be halted or reversed: stop pensions ‘reform’; health and education are not for sale;
- A guaranteed right to work and a programme of public investment in green jobs – public transport, renewable energy industries, and adapting private and public buildings to reduce carbon dioxide emissions;
- For a public banking service and financial system under public control!
- No scapegoating of immigrants and refugees: legalize them!
- No to military expenditure: Withdrawal of Western troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, drastic cuts in military spending, and the dissolution of NATO
7. We resolve to organize European solidarity activities again cuts and capitalist attacks. A victory for Greek workers will strengthen resistance to the cuts elsewhere.
Greece : Aristeri Anasynthesi, Aristeri Antikapitalistiki Syspirosi, Organosi Kommuniston Diethniston Elladas-Spartakos, Sosialistiko Ergatiko Komma, Synaspismos Rizospastikis Aristeras (Syriza) ;
Portugal : Bloco de Esquerda ;
Austria : Linkswende ;
Belgium : Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire - Socialistische arbeiderspartij ;
Britain : Socialist Resistance, Socialist Workers Party ;
Croatia : Radnička borba ;
Czech Republic : Socialistická Solidarita ;
Cyprus : Ergatiki Dimokratia, Yeni Kibris Partisi ;
Denmark : Socialistisk Arbejderparti ;
Euskadi : Gogoa ;
France : Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste ;
Germany : Internationale Sozialistische Linke, Marx21, Revolutionär Sozialistischen Bund ;
Italy : Sinistra Critica ;
Ireland : People Before Profit Alliance, Socialist Workers Party ;
Netherlands : Internationale Socialisten, Grenzeloos ;
Poland : Polska Partia Pracy, Pracownicza Demokracja ;
Russia : Vpered ;
Scotland : Scottish Socialist Party ;
Serbia : marks21 ;
Spanish State : En lucha/En lluita, Izquierda Anticapitalista, Partido Obrero Revolucionario ;
Sweden : Socialistiska Partiet, Internationella Socialister ;
Switzerland : Gauche anticapitaliste, Mouvement pour le socialisme /Bewegung für Sozialismus, solidaritéS ;
Turkey : Devrimci Sosyalist İşçi Partisi, Özgürlük ve Dayanışma Partisi.