Massive strikes are sweeping Europe – here’s a little roundup

Union members go on strike in Germany
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Strikes are sweeping across Europe – just as some UK trade unions try to bow-down to bosses. From France to Germany via Greece, working-class people are up in arms about greedy corporations, dodgy politicians, and the repressive state – with the French rebellion leading the charge.

France: vive la révolution

French president Emmanuel Macron’s pensions reform was officially made law on Saturday 15 April. Spontaneous, and sometimes violent, demonstrations erupted in several cities after the court’s verdict on the new law was announced.

However, unions have vowed to oppose the controversial changes, including raising the retirement age from 62 to 64. They warned that they were calling for mass Labour Day protests on May 1.

The nine-member Constitutional Council ruled in favour of key provisions of the reform. These included raising the retirement age to 64 and extending the years of work required for a full pension. The Council stated that the legislation was in accordance with French law.

However, it rejected six minor proposals. Among them was one forcing large companies to publish how many over-55s they employ, and the creation of a special contract for older workers.

The constitutional court’s decision could prove a pyrrhic victory for Macron. Analysts say it has come at a major personal cost for the current president. His approval ratings are near their lowest levels ever, and many voters have been outraged by his decision to ram the pensions law through parliament without a vote.

‘Tidal wave’

Bikes, e-scooters, and rubbish were set on fire in the capital as riot police stopped protesters from advancing further, Agence France-Press (AFP) correspondents said. Protests rallying hundreds erupted in other cities, including Marseille and Toulouse. In Lyon, police used tear gas against demonstrators. In the western city of Rennes, protesters set fire to the entrance of a police station and a conference centre.

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Some 380,000 people took to the streets nationwide on Thursday in the latest day of union-led action, according to the interior ministry.

Unions issued a joint statement urging Macron not to sign the legislation into law, saying the issue was “not finished”. The general secretary of the CGT (General Confederation of Labour) union, Sophie Binet, called for a “popular and historic tidal wave” of people on the streets to oppose the reforms on May 1.

Communist Party leader Fabien Roussel said signing the law:

would not be pouring oil on the fire, but a jerrycan full of petrol.

“I fear an outpouring of anger,” he told BFM Television.

Last month, a strike by Paris refuse workers left the capital strewn with 10,000 tonnes of uncollected rubbish. Train services, oil refineries, and schools have seen stoppages since January.

Meanwhile, in Germany

Meanwhile, in Germany, the EVG (rail and transport) union on 19 April called for a rail strike. The workers are demanding higher wages to cope with high rates of inflation. Rail workers across the country will walk out on Friday 21 April between 3:00 am and 11:00 am.

Separately, on 18 April, Germany’s second largest union Verdi called on employees working in security at the airports in Duesseldorf, Cologne-Bonn, and Hamburg to strike through Thursday and Friday.

EVG’s deputy chairwoman Cosima Ingenschay talked to journalists outside Berlin’s main station. She said the short “warning strike” should “encourage employers to bring reasonable offers” to pay talks. She added that:

If that does not happen then we will have to think about even bigger strikes.

EVG represents 230,000 workers across some 50 transport companies. Notably, these include national rail operator Deutsche Bahn. The union’s industrial action would have a “massive” impact across the rail network, Deutsche Bahn said in a statement. The walkout will halt urban, regional and long-distance train services.

EVG’s demands

EVG is demanding a 12% pay rise over one year for the workers it represents. It also wants a minimum increase of 650 euros a month. The union rejected Deutsche Bahn’s first offer of a 5% increase in two steps, covering 27 months, plus an “inflation bonus” of 2,500 euros.

The pay increase demanded by the union would help employees cope with “financial burdens that have increased sharply”, EVG said in a statement. Inflation in Germany stood at 7.4% in March. It has remained very elevated despite having fallen from a peak of 8.8% in October.

The strong increases in consumer prices has been driven by rising costs of energy in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the beginning of 2022. Over the last few months, workers in different sectors – including healthcare, childcare, and transport – have gone on strike to demand better conditions. The rail system was largely brought to a halt in a major strike at the end of March led by EVG and Verdi.

Finally, in Greece

Finally, in Greece, a major strike hit the EMFI food and dairy factory. The National Federation of Workers in Food and Beverage Industries called for it because of dangerous working conditions. Recently, a 51-year-old worker, Vangelis Tsambas, was killed in a fatal accident on the job. He was reportedly exhausted from working the 12-hour shifts imposed by his employer.

The strike began on the night of 17 April. Students from the Agricultural University joined in – it’s nearby the factory, and usually offers solidarity with the workers’ strikes.

The EMFI workers won out in their battle against the employers. EMFI recruited top executives, legal advisers, prosecutors, and riot police as a strike-breaking mechanism.

When the police arrived, the workers denounced them:

The day when we mourned our colleague, nowhere did we see either company officials or police. Only the union and workers were here. Today that we are on strike we see riot police, company legal advisers and so on… Their only concern is to break the strike, that’s all they care about: Their production and their profitability! They don’t give a damn about our lives!

Even days after Tsambas’ death, the Labour Inspectorate had not carried out an inspection of the EMFI factory. It is the Inspectorate’s role to check “whether and to what extent the necessary measures for Health and Safety at Work are observed”. However, strikers noted that the police turned up on time “to protect the “right to work to death”.

As the strike took place, the workers hosted a General Assembly. In it, they determined their demands for transfers from fixed-term to indefinite contracts. Along with wage increases, they also stated that:

The company should be responsible for training seminars on fire, earthquake and first aid in coordination with the fire brigade, ambulance, safety technician and occupational physician. 

UK trade unions: maybe look to the continent?

In contrast, several UK trade unions have tried to bow-down to bosses in recent weeks. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is a prime example. It told it’s members to accept the UK government’s dire pay offer. Thankfully, frontline nurses were having none of it – and rejected their union bosses’ demands. It would be good to see some of Europe’s workers’ unrelenting spirit across more of the UK trade union movement. On the continent, they don’t mess around when it comes to the capitalist state and corporate bosses. So, maybe we should take a leaf out of their book.

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse

Featured image via Youtube screenshot/The Independent

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