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Fighting the credit crunch –lessons from Greece

John McAnulty

17 August 2010

The article below was penned by John McAnulty following a visit to Greece and discussions with sections of the Greek socialist movement.

Across Europe the pattern of working class response has been strikingly similar - shock and anger, demonstrations, strikes and then a gradual decline in the size and number of demonstrations.

The first part of the pattern - the anger - is easy to understand. But why do the demonstrations decline? 

There are a number of reasons. Overwhelmingly the traditional leaderships of the trade unions and the social democratic parties support the necessity for the workers to bail out the banks and take the pain of the cuts, restricting their opposition to calls for greater fairness and more time to pay. As a result the demonstrations are designed to get the bureaucrats a deal with the government or to simply placate the workers and give the appearance of opposition. Their ability to demobilise the protests was made easier by a long period when workers struggles were defeated and the idea of a socialist alternative discredited, meaning that the demonstrations do not present an overall alternative.

That's the overall pattern, but it is modified strongly by history and locality, something clearly demonstrated by contrasting Greece and Ireland. 

Greek workers have a long history of political struggle against the native capitalist class, an anti-imperialist sentiment expressing itself in hatred of the IMF, strong rank and file organization and a suspicion of and independence from the union bureaucracy. Because of this the demonstrations and strikes were on a scale never before seen in Greek history.  A whole series of general strikes culminated on May 5th with the country at a standstill, 500 000 marching in Athens and attempts to seize the parliament buildings.  Further strikes were delayed by the union leaders but when they gradually declined there was no question of acceptance, so when the government moved on to phase 2 and began to implement IMF demands for the privatization of lorry transport, they were met by the total mobilization of the lorry drivers, an all-out strike and hand-to-hand fighting with the police. 

The six-day nationwide strike by 33,000 truck drivers was halted on the 1stAugust when the union leadership won a narrow majority to call off further action. The strikes were only demobilized by the union leadership against the background of government steps to mobilize the army and declare elements of martial law and conscript the drivers. So, in the first months of a struggle that will last for years the Greek government, leading a country that was recently under military dictatorship, is already preparing martial law and civil war against the working class, with all the implications for class struggle in Europe as a whole.

In sharp contrast in Ireland the trade union bureaucracy has been in a formal "Social Partnership" with the Government and bosses for two decades. Each agreement has included a no-strike agreement and the result has been a collapse of independent rank and file organization in the unions. Some elements of the working class were in sympathy with the Irish republicans and their struggle against the British, but the collapse of republicanism then deepened the retreat and the atomisation of the working class.

When the economic collapse came there were big demonstrations, with 150000 marching in Dublin in February 2009, but they were firmly under the control of the bureaucracy, who immediately put forward a program offering working class support for bailing out the banks. By November the numbers in Dublin had shrunk to 70,000.  One day of strike action on November 24th 2009 attracted the support of 330000 public workers, but the strike was restricted to the public sector and promised further strikes never materialized. The demonstrations took place alongside a revolving door policy of the bureaucracy moving in and out of talks while the attacks on the working class deepened and public sector pay slashed by up to 20%. 

This summer saw public service workers asked to vote acceptance of the austerity and a no-strike deal in return for an assurance that their pay would be frozen for four years and there would be no further cuts (if the government could avoid them). A combined drive by the government, bosses and bureaucrats managed to force a majority agreement, ratified by ICTU on 15th June, whereupon the left of the bureaucracy, who had called for a no vote, indicated that they also would say yes "to avoid victimization".

So the relative weakness of the working class in Ireland means that they have suffered a defeat that the rest of the working class in Europe has not. As the history of Social Partnership shows, there is no defeat more complete than that advocated, supported and led by your own leadership and which wins the status of policy agreed by the workers themselves. It is hardly surprising that, for the time being, the majority of protest activity has ended. What remains is led by the union bureaucracy speaking out of both sides of their mouth – for example protesting health cuts that they have effectively agreed by signing up to the new agreement.

These different national outcomes do not mean that capitalism will be victorious in Ireland and defeated in Greece. The crisis of capitalism is internal to itself. It was not caused by the workers nor will this or that defeat of workers ensure its survival and a return of stability. In any case the protracted battles that lie ahead will not be contained within any national boundary. Workers are fighting for survival and that fight will be fought on national, European and Global stages.

To win the coming battles workers in all of Europe and across the globe will need new structures, new leaderships and a new political program. Combativity will not be enough but, as the Greek example shows, it is a great deal. It can give workers in other countries the hope and conviction that resistance is possible. It can give the space and time for new policies and forms of organization to emerge and it can provide the élan and morale needed to widen a struggle and draw in new groups of workers.

Workers in Ireland have been told that the pain will be short-lived and that there will be a full recovery. Both statements are untrue. We will fight because we must and the example of Greece will serve us well.


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