Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Austerity-mongers rattled by huge protest in Brussels

Derek Kotz
Morning Star
September 29 2010

The halls of EU power in Brussels trembled to the footsteps of more than 100,000 workers on Wednesday as they converged from across Europe to reject crippling austerity cuts.

Trade unions and activists representing 24 countries brought the city to a standstill as they snaked their way through the streets with a thunderous march that ended in a rally at the Esplanade du Cinquantenaire park.

As Spanish workers staged a general strike and Greek rail staff walked out over privatisation, the common call in a multitude of languages was for co-ordinated action against the biggest attack on Europe's working class since the 1930s.

A sea of banners proclaimed that workers would not be forced to pay with their jobs and services for a crisis caused by the unmitigated greed of bankers.

Banners and flags from RMT, PCS, NUT, TSSA, CWU, Napo, Unite and Usdaw were prominent among a noisy British contingent.

Brussels police were out in force, barricading the entrance of every bank in the city as well as the European Commission headquarters. But the massive event passed peacefully.

As the day of action - called by trade union umbrella organisation ETUC - took place outside, the EU Commission announced a package of proposals to crack down on hard-pressed member states, threatening them with huge fines if they failed to run their economies "efficiently."

Speaking to the Star from the rally, RMT leader Bob Crow condemned dangerous EU moves to impose centralised caps on public-sector pay and sanctions against member states deemed not to be cutting deep or fast enough.

"Workers across Europe face the same threat to jobs, public services and pensions, and that threat originates from exactly the same source - the centralised banks and the political elite who do their bidding," he explained.

Twinings Usdaw convenor Pete Millward emphasised the importance of public and private sector workers struggling together against the cuts, warning that the British government's plans to cut 600,000 public sector jobs would also mean "700,000 private sector job losses."

And he rubbished government claims that there was no alternative.

Unison youth delegate Gerry Cowell, a musician outreach worker from Colchester, was proud to be on the march alongside other workers and pensioners.

"It is important for us all to unite to oppose cuts wherever and to make our protest locally, nationally and across Europe," she told the Star.

FBU national officer Dave Green hailed the "fantastic turnout" saying that it showed "the enormous level of resistance to austerity measures that governments will face."

He added: "Economies across Europe have been brought to the verge of collapse by the out-of-control greed of bankers."

Portuguese union UGT international officer Wanda Guimaraes made the point that workers "draw their strength from unity.

"Today's demonstration shows the trade union movement is a huge family that is united against cuts and poverty and against non-inclusive societies."

She stressed that unions had a responsibility to lead the fight to save services and jobs across the continent.

Organised pensioners across the continent also joined the march, with Dot Gibson of the British-based National Pensioners Convention stressing: "It is important for pensioners to link up with the union movement in opposing the cuts and attacks on workers pensions."

She said she was looking forward to a meeting next week with French, Italian and Spanish pensioners' organisations held in Paris to discuss their united response to the cuts.

Cedric Mahu of France's CGT union, which had 10,000 delegates on the march, said he would be on strike again on October 12 in his country's national strike against attempts by the Sarkozy government to take the hatchet to French workers' pensions.


Friday, September 24, 2010

France: Millions protests to defend pensions

Lisbeth Latham

More than three million participated in the day of strikes and protests, in France on September 23, demanding the withdrawal of legislation that will dramatically reduce the right of workers to access pensions. The mobilisation, which had been called by the a coalition of seven of France’s union confederations demonstrated that passage of the Pension Bill through France’s lower house of parliament had done nothing to diminish opposition to the attack on pensions. With the President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon determined to increase in minimum retirement age, the question is increasingly being posed regarding the nature of the movement necessary for workers to achieve victory.

The protests reflected an important rise in the level of support for the movement, with numbers up from the 2.7 million estimated to have participated in the last National Strike on September 7. This growth was also reflected in the number of protests being held across France, with 232 separate actions in cities and towns across France, compared to 200 on September 7. According to a statement issued b by the Confédération générale du travail (General Confederation of Workers – CGT) the growth in size reflected an increased number of workers from the private sector, particularly small and medium sized employers, as well as a larger participation by women and young people than on September 7.

The growth in the mobilization was important has the government and other conservative commentator had been hoping for a decline in the movement signally that people would accept the pension changes as inevitable following the vote in the National Assembly on September 15.. The interior ministry is claiming that mobilisations were smaller. Labour Minister Eric Woerth, told France 2 Television that "There is a clear deceleration in the protest movement. The reform will be voted and it will be applied”. Reuters reported on September 24 Fillon was reported "Government in France also means knowing how to say No". We will not withdraw this reform because it's necessary and reasonable".

Despite the claims of the government most media are reporting protest sizes consistent with the union estimates. The growing mobilizations signal a willingness of working people to continue the fight to defend the right to retire at 60, and to stop the increase from 40 to 41.5 years, the period of time workers must work to qualify for the full pension. Demand s that employers foot more of the bill are gaining traction, based on the reality that 84% the €30 billion to invested in the pension system by 2020 will paid by workers, while employers will provide 7%.

Despite the growing support the movement the question is posed how can the unions defeat the austerity measures being pushed by Sarkozy, Fillon and their supporters in the Movement of French Enterprises (MEDEF). The Union Coalition, which is dominated by the CGT and the Confédération française démocratique du travail (French Confederation of Democratic Workers) has called for further mobilisations on October 2 and October 12, some of the Confederations will also be using the Europe wide mobilisation against austerity called by the European Confederation of Trade Unions. The Union Coalition has indicated that it will meet again on October 4, the day before the Senate begins its debate over the Pension Bill, to determine additional action.
In addition to this action, the militant union confederation Solidaires, which is participating in the Union Coalition, along with the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (New Anti-Capitalist Party) continues to urge workers to demand that an indefinite strike be called, similar to the strike movement in November and December 1995 that defeated conservative attacks on Pensions.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Flights and trains cancelled as French Workers Strike to Defend Pensions

Lisbeth Latham

Early reports indicate the national strike in France today is as large as the September 7 strike and if anything bigger at least in transport. AP reports that the civil aviation authority has directed that 50% of flights at Paris’s Orley Airport, which 40% of flights at Charles de Gaul Airport have also been cancelled compared with 25% on September 7. Half of Paris RATP metro-rail services have been cancelled along with 50% of SNCF’s (France national rail network) services.

The French government expectedly is playing down the size of protests. The interior ministry has put out an estimate of street protests mid-day indicating that numbers are down to 410, 000 compared to 450, 000 on September 7. There was a gap of more than 1.5 million between the governement and union estimates of the numbers. Given that polls continue to show high levels of opposition to the attacks on pensions and support for the strikes. A poll in the Left-wing daily Liberation 63% of respondents supported the strikers, while 29% supported the government.

Strikes have also been held in Romania, Poland and Greece against Austerity Measures. The European Confederation of Trade Unions has called a Europe wide mobilisation against austerity to be held in Brussels on September 29.

More details on the French strikes once reports go up on union and left websites and I get home from work tomorrow.

Below is a video of a contigent of members of the Force Ouvriere (Workers Force) Confederation at the protests.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

France: Workers mobilise Against Vote on Pension Bill

Lisbeth Latham

As expected France’s National Assembly, on September 15, passed the Pensions Bill that will reduce workers access to pensions. The National Assembly debate and vote was met with small protests and other actions by workers. With the Bill set to go to the Senate, France’s unions are looking to expand the campaign to defend workers’ pension rights.

The Bill was passed by 329 to 233, reflecting the large majority which the Union for a Popular Movement of President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon have in the National Assembly. If the Bill is passed by the Senate it will increase the minimum age at which workers can retire from 60 to 62 years and increase the period that workers must work to qualify for the full pension from 40 to 41.5 years.

During the session, thousands of activists protested Place de la Concorde — across the Seine River from the Assembly – calling on the government to scrap the legislation. Other protests were held across France. These protests followed protests and strikes involving close to 3 million workers on September 7.

On September 9, the coalition of seven union confederations that is leading the campaign had issued an open letter to the President, Government, and Parliamentarians. In the letter they argued that bill would increase inequalities within French society, without addressing the long term challenges facing France and that workers should not be made to pay the price of a financial and economic crisis which they were not responsible for.

Following the September 7 mobilisations unions called a national strike to coincide with start of the Senate debate. The Senate debate has postponed until October 5, the strike will go ahead, with the Union Coalition calling on September 16, for workers to strengthen the mobilisation which had been called for September 23. A further meeting of Confederations is scheduled for September 24 to set the next stages in the struggle.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

France’s Burqa Ban – A Sexist and Racist Law

Lisbeth Latham

The French Senate on September 14 passed the legislation that will make the wearing of either a Burqa or Niqab in public illegal. The ban was motivated by President Nicolas Sarkozy as an important step in the equality of women. The ban has accused of being racist, but equally importantly it is fundamentally sexist.

The legislation, which will go to the Constitutional Council for a final determination, will come into effect in six months time. Once in effect, any women wearing a Burqa, Niqab or other full faced veil in a public place will face a fine of €150 and the possibility of having to attend an education course in Republican values. Any individual found to have forced a woman to wear a veil will face a €30, 000 fine and up to a year in prison.

The legislation was passed overwhelmingly with a vote of 246 to 1 against. The only senator to vote against was Anne-Marie Payet from the Centrist Union. The senators of the Socialist Party (PS), Communist Party (PCF), predominantly abstained on the vote with 46 of the PS’s 116 senators voting in favour. The Left Party’s two senators voted in favour of the ban, with Agnes Marie La Barre, explaining in an article on the PG’s website on September 16 that “nobody is fooled by the xenophobic context in which the law is passed. However our senators felt that the struggle for women’s rights requires the passing of the law”. The decision by the majority of PS and the PCF to abstain reflects that both parties support restrictions on the Burqa, with PS supporting a ban that would be limited to public services and shopping centres. The PCF have raised concerns that a specific law would further stigmatise Muslims and that the law is an attempt by Sarkozy to win the support of the far-right.

The Sarkozy government, and supporters of the ban have argued that the legislation is necessary to free women form what Sarkozy labelled as “a sign of subjugation, of the submission of women” and to defend republican values. At the same time Sarkozy has argued that the ban is not attack on Islam, he told a cabinet meeting in May “I’m thinking in particular of our Muslim compatriots, who have their place in the republic and should feel respected".

The ban is obviously is clearly about Islam. While only immediately affecting a small group of France’s Islamic community – less than 1900 women, out of an estimated 5 million Muslims living in France, the law is aimed at targeting the insecurity felt by many in France over the economic situation and directing this fear at a scapegoat other than the government. Just as Sarkozy has also done with proposals to strip migrants of their citizenship if they are convicted of deliberately endangering the life of a public official or police officer.

The ban is clearly sexist on a number of levels. First it robs women of agency, by saying that the state can determine what women cannot wear; women are stripped of the right to say what they want to wear. While it is undoubtedly true that women are forced to wear Burqas and Niqabs as a result of threats of violence or exclusion by their fathers, husbands, brothers or other members of their communities, it ignores that some women would freely choose to wear it (a fact that is actually anticipated by the law in that it is women who are the primary target of as they are the ones who will be fined in the first instance). Thirdly, the law which is supposedly aimed at the liberation and integration of women is likely to result in greater levels of exclusion of a section of the women who wear it. Finally the law is both sexist and racist as it locates sexist behaviour within a small marginal section French society, hiding the broader experience of sexism by women in France, and also the extent to which women in France’s Islamic community experience oppression as a consequence of the sexist and racist character of broader French society – which results in higher levels of poverty and unemployment throughout the community.

With the passage of the legislation through the Senate, other countries are set to pass similar legislation. Beligium’s lower passed a similar bill in April, while in July, the Lower Chamber of Spain rejected a resolution banning Burqa (the Senate subsequently passed a motion calling for a ban of the Burqa). With similar debates likely to develop in other countries, it is important that opponents of sexism in supporting the right of women to not wear the Burqa recognise the broader sexist character of the society in which we live and that the struggle against racist scapegoating of migrant communities, particularly Islamic community is essential to that struggle.


Friday, September 10, 2010

Millions of Workers March to Defend Pensions in France

Lisbeth Latham

More than 2.7 million workers joined protests across France on September 7. The strikes and protests marked the start of parliamentary debate over the new pension bill that will dramatically reduce the workers’ pensions. The day was called by coalition of six of Frances Union Confederations.

More than 200 hundred marches were held across France. The largest was in Paris where 270, 000 people attended. Striking transport workers caused significant disruption to services with only 40% of high speed train services running across France, a quarter of flights from Paris airports cancelled or delayed. The Sarkozy government has attempted to play down the size of the mobilisations claiming that only 1.1 million workers attended the protests.

There are four key changes that have been proposed by the government of Nicolas Sarkozy:

  • Lifting the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 years
  • Raising the age at which workers can retire on a full pension from 65 to 67 years of age
  • Increasing the period that workers must work to qualify for the full pension from 40 to 41.5 years
  • Increasing the proportion of their salaries which public sector workers contribute to the pension system from 7.85% to the 10.55%, the same amount that private sector pay
The proposed changes would have a considerable impact across French society. Workers who enter the workforce at 18 years or younger – according to the Confédération française démocratique du travail (French Democratic Confederation of Labour) more than 100, 000 people aged between 14 and 18 years-old enter the workforce each year – will face working for more than 44 years. Workers who experience any break in employment will increasingly struggle to qualify for the full pension; three quarters of women already receive 40% of the pensions that men receive.

The French government has sort to justify the cuts based on projected shortfalls in the current system of up to $150 billion by 2050. A position that has been rejected by France’s unions who reject the idea that workers should be made to pay for the funding shortfall. The Solidaires and Force Ouvriere (Workers Force) union confederations are calling for the pensions to be funded through a redistribution of wealth targeting company profits. Public opposition to the reform can be seen not just through the size of the mobilisations, but opinion polls that suggest that two thirds of the population oppose the reform.

The government’s initial response to the mobilisation has been to insist that the changes will go ahead. On September 9, The Independent reported Sarkozy saying "There is no question of going back on this. Working a little longer is the most reasonable path." However the government has indicated that it would include amendments that will allow workers to retire at 60 if they started work before they turned 18 or if they suffer from a partial physical incapacity. The National Assembly, which is dominated by Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement, is expected to pass the bill on September 15.

In the wake of September 7, Solidaires issued a statement that “A showdown is underway. Given the government's determination we must show even greater determination. To the Trade Union Solidarity, the challenge today is to force the government to yield. We must therefore provide the means. Employees must discuss and arrange the renewal of the strike wherever possible and it is the responsibility of the inter-union deciding on a response to the challenges at September 7, continued to be held in the days come”.

On September 8, the inter-union coordinating committee met and announced to further days of action. The first will be on September 15, to apply pressure to the deputies. A further day of strikes and demonstrations has been called for September 23 in the lead up to debate on the bill in the Senate. These actions alone are unlikely to be sufficient to force the Sarkozy government to back down, particularly given the fact that the assault on pensions by the Government of Alain Juppé was only defeated as a consequence of a general strike that occurred over November and December 1995, but they are an important step towards a campaign that could defeat Sarkozy’s assault on pensions.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Solidaires video Calling for General Strike on September 7

Below is the video produced by the Militant French Union Confederation Solidaires to support a general strike on September 7 against Sarkozy's assault on pensions.

It was shown on French TV:
- On Tuesday, August 24 at 13.50 on France 2
- On Friday, August 27 to 22:30 on France 5
- On Saturday, August 28 at 17:00 on France 3

Grève générale le 7 septembre
Uploaded by Solidairesnational. - Watch the latest news videos.


Monday, September 6, 2010

French Unions to Strike as Parliamentary Debate Over Pensions Begins

Lisbeth Latham

Hundreds of thousands of French workers are expected to join strikes to mark the beginning of parliamentary debates over a bill to reduce workers’ pension rights. The strikes have been called by an inter-union coordinating committee. Strikes in transport were scheduled to begin late on September 6, with workers in education, the Postal service and civil servants beginning their strikes on September 7.

Under the bill the workers retirement age will be increased from 60 to 62. The period that workers will need to work in order to qualify for a full pension will be increased from 40 to 41.5 years. While the amount that workers will have to pay into the scheme will be increased from 7.85% to 10.55% - enforcing an effective pay cut on all workers.

The mobilisations against pension reform have widespread support, with a weekend poll indicating that 63% of people believing the strikes were justified. The Sarkozy government has committed itself to pushing through the attack on the rights of retirees; however they have attempted to blunt resistance by delaying the implementation of the increase in retirement age until 2018, while the increase to the period of qualification will come into effect in 2020.

France’s pension scheme operates on a pay as you go system, which means that the payments of currently active workers fund the payments that are made to retired workers. As a consequence of shifts in France’s demographics with an aging population and long-life expectancies, government forecasts have estimated that there will be a short fall in the pension system of €100 billion ($140 billion) by 2050 and is using this drive push reduce pension rights and make French workers pay for maintaining the profitability of capital.

The militant confederation Solidaires argues that the pensions should be funded by reducing the dividends received by company shareholders, particularly France’s largest companies – who received €36 billion in dividends in 2009.

The inter-union coordinating committee will meet on September 8 to access the September 7 mobilizations and determine the next steps in the campaign.


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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