A Global Crisis Will Have to be Fought Globally

It is now three years since the capitalist speculative bubble burst. At the time many revolutionaries assumed that the consequences of this new stage in the crisis would be the revival of extensive working class resistance to a further erosion in living standards. This was the thinking (for example) behind the Midlands Discussion Forum invitation to revolutionary organisations to attend a common meeting to discuss differences and possibilities of common work (see Revolutionary Perspectives 50 or leftcom.org). Three years later the expected revival of class struggle, not only in Britain but in much of Europe and North America, has not taken place to the extent that many expected.

More Greek Resistance

There are a number of reasons for this. Leaving aside the universally true factors, such as the fact that there is no mechanical link between crisis and class struggle, we also need to look at the contingent factors that have operated since the financial bubble burst. The first is that the international bourgeoisie recognised that they would have to hang together if they were not to be hanged separately. Despite the usual capitalist competitive tensions (which still exist and increase with every passing day) the shape of the bale-out of the world’s financial institutions was roughly the same everywhere. The next question was then how to pay for the huge state debt which was created to pay for the salvation of the banks. This process is taking some time to evolve as the ruling class everywhere is aware that attacks on the working class have to be managed carefully. The one place where this could not happen was Greece. Greece’s debt problems (at 116% of GDP) were no worse than many other states but its Government bonds were mainly short-term and it was the speculation by financial institutions that they were about to lose 30 -50% of their holdings in them that led to the ratings agencies relegating Greek government bonds to BB+ (i.e. junk) status. This forced the Papandreou government to go begging to the EU and IMF. A new loan was agreed but with draconian conditions. On 3 March “Socialist” Prime Minister Papandreou announced further austerity measures on top of the freeze on pensions (70% of Greek pensioners exist on less than €600 a month) and cuts in public sector pay which had already been announced. The new cuts amount to €4.8 billion and include the following:

  • A 2% increase in value added tax, which is now at 19%
  • A further increase in fuel tax
  • Increase of 20% in alcohol taxes
  • A 6% increase on cigarette taxes
  • A new tax on luxury goods
  • A 12% cut in add-ons to civil servant wages
  • A 30% reduction in bonuses given to civil servants

Not surprisingly then Greece has seen the widest resistance to the cuts. Throughout the spring and early summer there were continuous strikes but these were sectional with one group striking one day for 24 hours and another the next. There has been no concerted effort of the class as a whole that would have forced the Government to rein in the attacks. True, there have been three more general strikes but the demonstrations accompanying them had a disappointing turnout which peaked in Athens on May 5 at 50,000 people. This was also the day when three workers died in a firebomb attack on a Greek bank. After this, turnout fell until the beginning of July, when 12,000 was the normal figure on demonstrations. The only major confrontation in the traditional summer holiday period was the week-long truckers fight which ended on August 1st. This was a much more serious and bitter confrontation than earlier ones. At stake is the truckers living standards since the government plans to issue licences to many more truckers to break up what they call a closed shop. It is one of the demands of the EU and IMF for the €110 billion loan that they open up 70 of these closed shops to new entrants. In practice it will give big corporations the chance to push down wage rates. The Papandreou Government has responded to the strike (which was very effective) by threatening to revoke licences, by subjecting the strikers to martial law (thus making strikers liable to imprisonment) and by bringing in the Armed Forces to maintain supplies. Even at this point the truckers did not at first give in, but eventually they split with the younger workers, who had recently paid fortunes for their licences, wanting to carry on until they got compensation from the Government. This is unlikely, and it is likely that the strike could break out again in conjunction with other sectors after the summer when austerity measures bite harder.

For the moment though the resistance has not been on par with previous Greek strikes. According to Reuters;

Far more people demonstrated in 2001, for instance, forcing the government to withdraw a previous welfare reform. Riots in December 2008 caused wide damage in Athens. Massive student protests helped topple a right-wing military junta in 1974.

Many Greek workers seem to have bought the Government line that “we are all responsible” for this crisis (as if workers had lied about the budget deficit or indulged in speculation!). There is also the sense that Greece is an isolated case because it has the worst state finances. Greek workers need to know that they are not alone. With unemployment in Greece now officially over 16% (and set to go higher when the tourist season is over) a key factor this autumn will be to see how far austerity measures adopted elsewhere lead to wider strikes in other countries so that the Greek workers feel less isolated.

More than a Million Workers Strike in South Africa

They might take heart from the militancy of South African public sector workers. Just a month after the World Cup, and the national orgy of self-congratulation, more than a million public workers (including teachers, nurses and civil servants) went on strike on August 18th. They are demanding a doubling of housing allowance to 1000 rand and a pay rise of 8.6%. The ANC Government of Jacob Zuma has only raised its offer 7.5% and a 650 rand housing allowance. Since then the public sector workers have been joined by miners and petrol pump workers in a strike which has not only paralysed the country but become extremely bitter. The bitterness is not hard to fathom and the current struggles are exactly what we predicted would happen with the ANC victory 15 years ago (in our pamphlet South Africa – A Revolutionary Perspective on the Last 15 Years [now out of print]). Black capitalists have simply joined white capitalists and today’s strikes are not about race but about class. The ANC ruling elite have feathered their own nests in an orgy of nepotism and corruption to the point where the gulf between rich and poor has actually widened. Half of all South African’s earn less than £30 a month (for more on this background see South Africa: Class Struggle Explodes Once More in Revolutionary Perspectives 51 or online at leftcom.org).

The Zuma Government was recently elected with 66% of the vote but the expectation by many workers that he would reverse the pro-business agenda of Thabo Mbeki was seriously misplaced. Now when the government talks of its debts and the need to rein in public spending no-one believes them. After all during the World Cup South Africans saw that there were no worries about state spending when it came to organising junkets for Government ministers who also send their children abroad for education. What is more worrying for the ruling élite is the fact that this is a struggle for real with workers enforcing solidarity against scabs. This has led to the drafting in of the military to try to break up picketing etc (with accusations of violence by strikers). An even more worrying aspect for the state is that the police have also joined the strikers, and some sections of the Army are threatening to follow suit. A breakdown of the government’s capacity to enforce its will by force could have serious consequences especially as the anger amongst workers is so great that COSATU (the trades union federation) is being forced to disaffiliate itself from the ANC. With its main institutions in turmoil and the depth of poverty so great in this, the richest of all African countries, the situation is becoming one of growing threat for the Zuma Government. Zuma has ordered his ministers to begin re-negotiating with the striking workers’ unions but only a total capitulation to their demands seems likely to stave off a wider movement. What is lacking at the moment are signs of the workers creating their own alternatives to the existing order. In the petrol pump workers strike, for example, there is no coordinated organisation and no discussion about the nature of the strike. Mass assemblies and strike committees are largely missing as union leaders are left to organise, or disorganise as they choose fit, the actual course of the struggle. Until a more conscious movement emerges governments may fall but the capitalist state will survive.


After the Tekel Strike - Self-Organisation of the Struggle?

Whilst not on anything like the same numerical scale as the South African strikes developments in Turkey may be more significant for the development of independent workers organisations. At least that is a possibility if the evidence provided by the Turkish section of the International Communist Current is to be understood. The comrades have reported at great length and detail on this struggle, which they have become involved in, in a series of articles which can be found on line at en.internationalism.org. We obviously don’t want to repeat the entire saga here but simply comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the struggle so far. The bare context is that the strike of the workers in the old state tobacco and alcohol monopoly (Tekel for short) began last January when they were subject to the “4-C” policy of the Turkish state. The comrades explain it thus:

The Tekel workers are struggling against the 4-C policy of the Turkish state. The state has been employing tens of thousands of workers other than the Tekel workers under the 4-C conditions. These conditions are what is coming to tens of thousands of workers soon, the sugar factory workers being among the first future victims. Besides, lots of sectors of the working class have been experiencing similar attacks under different names, and such attacks are waiting for those who haven't been hit by them yet. What is this 4-C then? This practice was actually a ‘blessing' put forward by the Turkish state when the number of workers who were to lose their jobs due to privatisations increased. It includes, aside from a serious pay-cut, public workers being shifted to different sectors within the state under horrible conditions. The worst of the conditions introduced by the 4-C policy is that it gives the bosses of the state an absolute power over the workers. Thus, the wage, which is determined by the state and is already a massive pay-cut for the workers, is merely a maximum price. It can be reduced by the state enterprise managers arbitrarily. Also, working hours are completely abolished for those who are to work under the 4-C conditions and the bosses of the state enterprises gain the right to arbitrarily make the workers stay at work for as long as they want, until the workers "finish the task assigned to them". The workers get no money whatsoever in return for this "extra" work after regular public employees' working hours or during holidays. Under this policy, the bosses have the power to fire the workers arbitrarily, without being obliged to pay them any compensation. Besides, the period workers can work in a year is between three months and ten months, nothing being paid to the workers in the months they aren't asked to work and the duration of their work again being arbitrarily determined by the bosses. Despite this, the workers are forbidden to find a second job even if they are not working at a certain period. The social security payments of the workers are not made anymore under the 4-C policy, and all health benefits are taken away. The privatisations, just like the 4-C policy started long before. In the Tekel enterprises, initially the cigarette and alchohol departments were privatised, and then the process led to the leaf tobacco factories being closed. We are of the opinion that today, it is clear that the problem here is not just the privatisations. We think it is obvious that the private capital which is taking the workers' jobs, and the state, that is the state capital, wanting to exploit the workers by condemning them to the most unimaginable conditions are jointly making the attack. In this sense we can say the fight of the Tekel workers is born out of the class interests of all workers and represents a struggle against the capitalist order as a whole.

This is part of a restructuring of Turkish capital to make it a production power house of the world based on relatively low wages, an increasingly sophisticated infrastructure and an ideal geographical base for global export of commodities. It is no accident that public sector workers will be amongst the first to pay the price and we endorse the comrades’ comment that the Tekel struggle is “a struggle against the capitalist order as a whole”.

In order to carry out the struggle the Tekel workers from all over Turkey descended on Ankara and set up camp in the city centre to try to force the government to back down. In what should have been an opportunity to organise their own mass assembly the workers organised themselves in tents from each city. However these tents tended to keep the workers from each area apart since, as the ICC report,

they have not been able to establish an organ, like a mass assembly. Partly this was because a majority of the workers for the most part did not want to establish an alternative to the trade-union.

Despite this, the practical experience of the struggle began to reveal to at least some of the workers the true nature of the unions. As the ICC comrades make clear the unions carried out various manoeuvres to bring the struggle to an end (such as sabotaging demonstrations and the general strike they were forced to call under pressure from the Tekel workers). The Tekel strike last from January to March 3rd during which time the demonstrators were subject to baton charges, water cannon and tear gas. However it ended when a court decision declared the government’s imposition of a one month deadline on the 4-C conditions illegal. This gave the unions the excuse to call off the strike claiming a spurious victory. In fact the 4-C conditions will now be rolled out further to other Turkish workers. Only a small minority refused to leave Ankara and by now they were aware of the role the unions were playing. When the strike was over they began to organise a further demonstration in Ankara against 4-C. The unions tried to limit this to 50 people from each city (so that only 1000 would take part) but the militant Tekel workers organised bigger delegations so that 2,500 went to Ankara. The first target of protest was the HQ of the Turk-Is union but when they got there

… we had to make a lot of effort to get to the street in front of Turk-Is, because 15 thousand policemen guarded the building. What were all these policemen doing in front of us and the trade-union? Now, we have to ask those who stand against us even when we talk about the union bosses, even when we say the unions should be questioned: if there is a 15 thousand-strong police barricade in front of us and the trade-union, why do the trade-unions exist? If you ask me, it is quite natural for the police to protect the union and the union bosses, because don't the union and the trade-unionists protect the government and capital? Don't the trade-unions exist only in order to keep the workers under control on behalf of capital?

This insight of a single worker was shared by many others and has led to the establishment of the “Platform of Struggling Workers”. The ICC announced it thus.

A number of militant workers from recent workers' struggles in Turkey, including National Tobacco and Alcohol Monopoly (TEKEL) workers, Istanbul Water and Sewers Department (ISKI) workers, firemen, Sinter metal workers, Esenyurt municipality workers, Marmaray building workers, dustmen, workers from the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK) and workers from the ATV-Sabah News Corporation, have come together and established a workers' group called the Platform of Struggling Workers. A group of TEKEL workers themselves had been working towards setting up a committee in order to try to draw the lessons from the struggle that they were involved in and the Platform of Struggling Workers is an important step in their efforts towards making links with other workers, particularly those fighting against the recently introduced 4-C terms and conditions, which are basically a generalized attack on all public sector workers, cutting wages, allowing workers to be transferred, compelling unpaid overtime, giving the management the right to temporarily lay off workers, and allowing arbitrary sackings.

We have not yet seen any documents of this Platform although we did have the chance to listen to a worker associated with them on a speaking tour to raise funds for the Platform amongst workers in Germany in early summer (1). It is not yet clear to us (and probably not even to the Platform of Struggling Workers) what direction they will take. Are they another rank and file trade union or do they represent something new in the current period of rising class struggle? The courageous concentration on uniting the struggle against 4-C is a positive first step and will be a difficult one against the unions and their friends in the state apparatus. At some point though the question will be posed of what political direction the struggle will have to take and an inevitable political decantation will take place. Those who see that the struggle is about more than 4-C but the nature of the system will have to find means by which they can keep in touch with the ones who wish to struggle but only in a more immediate sense against the unions and the government. Such activity helps to take the memory of this struggle into the next fight however distant it might be. The left communists in Turkey could yet have an even more important role to play here

The fact is that today’s workers also have little in the way of experience of struggle on which to base themselves. This is a historical deficit which revolutionaries inside the working class have to attempt to overcome. After the crushing of the revolutionary wave of 1917-21, after capitalism survived the mass struggles that broke out when the post-war boom ended (1968-74) the working class has been economically and ideologically on the retreat. Even the great episode of the Polish mass strikes thirty years ago when a struggle controlled by assemblies of workers themselves took place ended up under the ideology of the Catholic Church given that there was no independent class programme inside that movement. It was a movement too which occurred in virtual isolation and only underlines one lesson, which all the examples above give, that no struggle in any country can “win” on its own. This appears also to be the lesson of the Greek case (at least so far). On the other hand one exemplary struggle in a single country can have an inspiring effect on workers everywhere (as happened in 1848 and 1917-19).

And in Western Europe …

In our last issue (see “Chinese Workers Show their Class” or go to leftcom.org) we reported that Chinese workers are not prepared to put up with same level of exploitation as the generation before them. Wildcat strikes are spreading and independent organisation is developing. Now that these strikes have been relatively successful these are unlikely to go away and more struggles are on the cards. When a leading BA manager told the striking BA workers in July to “think Chinese” he meant to accept the increased exploitation the company was trying to impose. Thinking Chinese could come to have an entirely different meaning in the near future!

At the moment the full force of the austerity measures of global capitalism have not been felt everywhere and not been felt evenly but the situation is constantly changing. But even in the old capitalist centres like Western Europe the experience of more cuts at the expense of the working class is beginning to provoke a response.

In France the Sarkozy Government proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 (by 2018) has brought widespread condemnation. It led to a massive series of strikes and demonstrations involving perhaps 2 million workers on 7 September. However as most of those who took part are well aware this will not be enough to make a difference. The Sarkozy Government has made this “reform” its key measure and in any case the deficit in the pensions fund said to be about €42.3 billion. The CGT union led the demonstrations with the slogans “Together, Solidarity throughout Europe”, “Reject the Austerity Plan” and “Let’s demand another division of wealth”. The first would be welcome if it were to be carried out in more than words; the second is obvious and the third demonstrates the depth of the crisis. Demanding a new division of wealth does nothing to attack the roots of the crisis which is the system of wealth production itself. Today even the unions cannot avoid raising the question of who creates the wealth for whom but they cannot answer it so tied up with the management of the capitalist enterprise have they become. Even if the retirement age change was withdrawn the government will come back in one way or another to demand more flesh from the working class. The stage is now set for a battle over more than just this or that austerity measure. Workers will need to beware of the unions crying victory when the next deal is negotiated.

Even in Britain where the Con-Dem coalition keep postponing the final announcement of the real cuts (see article this issue) there are already signs that after thirty years of declining living standards workers have had enough. In the last month strikes or the threat of them have been issued by BAA staff (see article on page X of this issue). They have been followed by ambulance workers, firefighters and underground workers in London, Stagecoach buses in Liverpool, bin men in West Lothian, and even librarians in Southampton, who have all taken action or a preparing to take action. At the same time the BA dispute has still not been resolved either (see Class War at BA: Solidarity not Legality in Revolutionary Perspectives 54 or leftcom.org ). These may not be disputes that threaten, or even question the system, as yet but after years of passivity they are the first signs that something is now stirring, even before the full force of the austerity measures hit us. Without such signs we would have little hope for the future. The problems though are that workers everywhere will have to re-learn forms of struggle from the past. Mass meetings, elected and recallable strike committees outside of the control of union bosses are the most basic forms of an independent class movement but so too is the idea that that a struggle of one sector is a struggle of all sectors. Back in 1972 this was understood when 5 dockers leaders were arrested and a mass strike threatened. As group after group of workers declared (sometimes via the unions, sometimes not) their solidarity, as a massive demonstration outside Pentonville prison threatened to become something more, the government capitulated and found an obscure official, the “Official Solicitor” (never heard of before or since) to order the release of the dockers. This movement was one of the high points of the resistance to the early consequences of the crisis. Today capitalism is still in that crisis but has been existing on borrowed money and borrowed time for too long. The end is not yet nigh for the system. It can only come about when the working class world wide (and it has to be a global movement) can not only no longer put up with it but have also given themselves the means to overthrow it. This includes not only the forms of struggle mentioned above but also an international political body with a programme for a new society, for a world without states, commodity exchange and money, and national frontiers.


(1) And the ICT sister group, the GIS, helped to organise a meeting in Berlin for them despite the fact that the German ICC, it seems, preferred to organise most meetings with the anarcho-syndicalists of the FAU without informing us. A bizarre way to obtain solidarity for struggling workers. There is a Paypal button still open on the ICC site for anyone able to make a donation to the work of the Platform of Struggling Workers.

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