Working my way backwards, this the second of four talks I attended that I'll be reporting on.
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The most important internationalist event in decades
In November, I heard Nikos Loudos of the Socialist Workers Party in Greece (by Skype) and Canadian activist and organizer Carolyn Egan speak about the recent general strike in Europe, and the fight against austerity at home and abroad.
It was after 1:00 a.m. in Greece, but Nikos was full of energy. He reminded us, "I cannot complain, there are people who have bigger problems". In Brussels, the Eurogroup was staying up all night discussing "the Greek problem". Greece was supposed to get $30 billion in aid - "which all goes to the bankers," Nikos reminded us - but the money was still not forthcoming, because Germany, the Eurogroup, and the IMF were not able to come to terms.
These problems from the other side, the ruling class, are behind the general strike of November 14, which Nikos called "the most important internationalist event in decades". It was the first time that organizers in four countries acted together: Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece. It also marked the first time ever that workers in Spain and Portugal, countries that are very differently politically, were able to coordinate actions. You should not be surprised to learn the short version of how this happened: rank and file organizing - ordinary workers pushing union leadership to act.
In all, there were actions and events in 23 countries. Some were one-day strikes, some were partial strikes in specific sectors, some were demonstrations and rallies. The greatest participation was in Spain, were there were massive strikes and demos.
You can keep the lights on, but we all know no one is home
Nikos noted that local governments kept the lights on in their (empty) buildings, so it would appear that people were working, and they could claim the strike was less successful than it was. The conservative media said the strike was a disaster, of course, but the media could report on nothing else - and therefore, the strike was a success.
Events in Italy were also very important. Unions there were under pressure for months to call a general strike, with union "leadership" avoided it. But under pressure from the European-wide event, the largest union in Italy called a four-hour strike, and more militant unions went on 24-hour strike. There were occupations of railway stations, tram and metro stations, and huge contingents of students organized blockades and pickets. (What's that you say? You didn't read about this in the Canadian media?)
Even in countries where there weren't general strikes, there were still actions on November 14. In Belgium, there were railroad strikes. In France, there were 130 demonstrations nationwide. France's newly elected government said it would not impose the neoliberal austerity agenda, and many people who believed their lies now feel betrayed. The Europe-wide event gave them hope, gave them confidence to get out in the streets and demonstrate against austerity.
Workers were able to use the General Strike as a way to highlight their specific, local battles. For example, Turkish transit workers have been fighting huge cuts. The European General Strike gave them the confidence to go on a 24-hour strike.
Betrayal, anger, action
Many people thought November 14 might not be success. Then, one week earlier, there was a 48-hour strike. So many people participated, it was such a success, that it gave the workers so much confidence, and people threw themselves into organizing - even without union leadership.
That first 48-hour strike was borne of yet more betrayal. The Greek government had said that if the draconian austerity measures don't pass, Greece will not get EU aid. The austerity measures did pass - albeit barely - yet Greece still did not get aid.
The austerity measures were written up in a 700-page document, which lawmakers were given two days to read, and which had to be voted in an all-or-nothing, thumbs-up or thumbs-down, vote. The yes votes formed a very limited majority: 153 out of 300 votes. And with that the Greek people are plunged into even higher unemployment and the complete destruction of whatever social safety net remained after the last austerity cuts.
Nikos said, "It was a disgrace and the people felt it." That disgrace led to the 48-hour strike... which led to mass participation in the November 14 General Strike. Referring to that 153-member majority, Nikos asked, "What is the real majority here? The majority is outside, on strike, organizing. Inside, 153 people are passing this, saying, 'We must pass it, or tomorrow we won't have food.' Then the money didn't come, and the people were left with nothing."
Workers occupied 200 city halls around Greece. Mass meetings were held everywhere. The federal government demanded mayors make a list of workers who would be laid off immediately. Only 30 mayors provided a list. The rest said: "None."
Even with this excellent resistance from municipal governments, the workers didn't rely on the town elected leaders. Instead, they occupied town halls - especially the offices tasked providing the lists!
Despite how the government tried to frame this as a "battle with Brussels for Greece," the reality is that the government is very weak in parliamentary terms and even weaker in true political terms of leading the people.
"Yes, we just occupied, and you should do the same!"
Nikos told stories of administrative employees occupying a central building in their university. Again (and again and again) union leadership wanted to do nothing, but rank-and-file held mass meetings and led the way. This spread to other universities, other workers, with students striking in solidarity. Nikos recalled with amusement overhearing a nicely-dressed woman on her mobile saying, "Yes, we just occupied, and you should do the same."
Nikos told us that the November 14 date of the General Strike had great resonance in Greece, as November 17 is the anniversary of the uprising that brought down a dictatorship in 1973. Some Greek activists have suggested that they should stop marking this anniversary, as it's been almost 40 years. But, Nikos said, every year more young people participate, and people find new ways to connect that anniversary with present-day concerns. They usually march to the US embassy, because in 1973, the US (of course) supported the dictatorship. This year, they went beyond that, marching to the Israeli embassy to protest the massacre in Gaza. This is a sign of the austerity struggles generating more a general politicization, and a sign of solidarity across countries and across struggles.
On the other side, the governments' approach also leads to more political radicalization - on the right. The government uses the language of anti-immigrant racism and fascism to scare workers. Police have murdered migrant workers coming from Turkey, by damaging their boats. Nazi gangs try to control neighbourhoods, and the government warns that "this the alternative": it's us or fascism.
Fascism, racism, and the austerity agenda: resistance to all
Nikos said, despite the publicity the Greek Nazi party garners in mainstream press, the truth is, they have not succeeded in organizing a public presence anywhere, even in the neighbourhoods they claim to control. Trade unions are kicking out Nazi organizers in factories and from the unions. The fascists had gone into factories, trying to stir hatred and resentment towards migrant workers. Nikos said with a smile, "I won't give you the details, but I assure you, they won't try to do that again."
More people, he said, understand that the fight against fascism and racism cannot be separated from the fight against austerity, and the fight for workers.
An organizer in the room mentioned that Canadians fear the Greek fascist group Golden Dawn - which recently opened a chapter in Montreal. "It's heartening," he said, "to hear that people are fighting the growing threat of fascism along with the fight against austerity."
Nikos said that in Greece, all polls show that if an election was held now, the left would form the government. This, he said, is an ideological victory - a reflection of the struggle. The biggest political parties in Greece used to represent 40% of the political vote. Now they are taking 5% or less. Hundreds of thousands of people who used to vote for the neoliberal centrist parties have abandoned those parties for more grassroots, people-powered parties. Some have gone to the right, some to the left. So the Nazis may have gotten some votes. But they don't dare go into the streets.
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People on the local level, taking steps
Carolyn Egan thanked Nikos for his first-hand reports, noting that in North America, we don't get reports of these workers movements. That absence feeds people's pessimism about the prospect of fighting back. It also feeds the "North American exceptionalism" that we labour under.
Carolyn noted that what happened in Greece and throughout Europe was not an event, it was a process. There was no "big night of the barricades". There were, and are, workers building rank-and-file consciousness, smaller actions even in smaller unions, making strides forward, and pushing leadership to move forward.
It comes down to the actions of people on the local level, people taking steps in their own workplaces, bringing fellow workers out to actions. This puts pressure on leadership.
Carolyn ticked off the depressing series of setbacks labour has endured - the terrible, protracted Vale Inco strike in Sudbury, where workers were finally forced to go back, the Caterpillar lockout in London, Ontario, the Illinois Caterpillar strike where the union caved and settled, among others.
But, Carolyn reminded us, there have been many signs of hope: the Occupy Movement, the organizing in Wisconsin, and the ongoing struggle of the Quebec students, which has been massive and sustained.
There were potential strikes in Toronto as the city and workers faced municipal cuts, and both CUPE unions settled. This is demoralizing to workers, as people ask themselves, if our unions won't strike, what can we do?
What went right?
For an answer, we can look at areas where there's been forward movement. In Toronto, library workers didn't settle; their strike lasted 2-1/2 weeks. They didn't win everything, but they succeeded in pushing back the worst of the concessions. The library workers' union worked hard to build connections with other library workers and especially with the community who uses the library. Those links gave the workers confidence that a strike would have public. It gave them the strength and confidence to fight back.
Steelworkers in Alma, Quebec - a small Northern community, isolated from the political struggles of Montreal and Toronto - were locked out last December 31 when the mining giant Rio Tinto demanded huge concessions. Union members felt that union "leadership" was not providing enough support. They demanded the union give them energy and resources, and thet self-organized through the rank-and-file.
Steelworkers from Ontario traveled by bus to Alma to show solidarity - twice. Big solidarity rallies gave the Alma workers the confidence to stand strong and mount fightbacks. Other Rio Tinto workers followed suit, pushed back extreme concessions, and won good contracts - actually winning increases in salaries and benefits. (Don't cry for Rio Tinto, they're the third largest multinational corporation on the planet.) This all happened because workers took control, launching their own strike and demanding leadership follow.
In Wisconsin, labour had been battered. Unon "leadership" was aligned with the Democrats and partisan politics. But new leadership - real leadership without the quotes - came up through the rank-and-file. It started with the teachers' wildcat walkout, built through the firefighters union and the construction trades.
Typically, when people run for union office, they leave the workplace for a union office, and become separated from their sister and brother workers, beginning the symbolic and eventually political divide. In Wisconsin, one man broke that pattern, continuing to work in the workplace, determined to remain part of the rank-and-file. It worked. Pockets of resistance developed - and when things came to a head, they pushed it.
Rank-and-file, leading the way
Time and again, Carolyn showed, when workers are able to win lockouts and strikes, it's when rank-and-file were organized, and militant, and had the confidence to override complacent union leadership.
The best recent example of this must be the Chicago teachers' strike. Against all leadership advice, against the advice of Democrats who said it "the wrong time," that it would "hurt the election", the Chicago teachers fought back against public schools being closed and replaced with privatized, for-profit schools (so-called "charter" schools).
Rank-and-file educators linked up with the people they taught and their parents. The struggle wasn't framed and viewed as teachers fighting for their jobs. It was about teachers fighting for good education for their communities.
Rank-and-file in each school formed "contract action committees," then these real leaders ran for union leadership. They swept. And they brought this militancy to their workplace: 90% showed up for the strike vote and gave a full 97% strike mandate. On the picket lines, there were huge turnouts of students, parents, and other members of the community.
Time and again, Carolyn reminded us, we see the same thing. Union leadership tries to mute the struggle and get concessions. Only rank-and-file pressure will push them, then they'll run to the front to try to get ahead of it.
Right now we're seeing the slow return of rank-and-file militancy. Here in Canada and the US, we're not at the same same stage of struggle as our sisters and brothers in Greece and Spain. But we have opportunities, you never know when things will erupt.
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A related piece by Carolyn Egan: How workers can win.
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During the discussion period, we talked about the (then upcoming) Walmart actions on the day after US Thanksgiving. Stay tuned for a future post on other non-union workers organizing against oppressive conditions.