The French economy is the second largest in Europe, after Germany’s, and Greece’s economy has been on the verge of default for some months. Capitalists in both France and Greece are trying to solve their economic problems by laying off workers, cutting their salaries and retirement benefits, raising taxes and slashing social services.
The bosses in France have taken a piecemeal approach — for example, projecting over 7,600 layoffs in the national railroad system in the next two years and trying to outsource some auto parts plants to India or Brazil.
The financial crisis has severely impacted Greece’s tourism and shipping, two main sectors of its economy. The Greek government had also bet big on cheap, easy credit to stimulate its economy.
When credit became scarce, the economy went into a tailspin and the government could just barely borrow enough to cover the debts that were coming due. The European Central Bank and the German and French governments have told the Greek government to raise funds by imposing austerity on the workers.
But workers in both countries have opened a counteroffensive, in Greece holding four one-day general strikes since February and planning to expand those actions.
The first Greek general strike in February demanded that the rich pay for the crisis since they were the ones who really benefited from the government spending. There were three general strikes in March, as the government attempted to squeeze the workers harder.
The austerity measures are harsh, cutting public service workers’ salaries by nearly 15 percent and raising workers’ retirement age by two years.
When the Greek government passed additional cuts on April 9, the main trade union confederations called separate demonstrations opposing the legislation. The unions are discussing whether to call a two-day general strike April 21 and 22, or just go out for one day. (AFP, April 9). They are also considering possible actions in May.
When European Union Economic and Monetary Commissioner Olli Rehn announced a 45-billion-euro package of loan guarantees for Greece April 11, he hailed the government for implementing “a very bold and ambitious program.” (Bloomberg News, April 11) Rehn’s praise was an acknowledgement of the strength of the Greek workers’ resistance. If Rehn didn’t ask for tougher measures, it might be because he knew the Greek government would fail to impose them.
France and its unions
France’s national railroad system (SNCF), which is responsible for long-distance and short-haul passenger and freight service throughout the country, has laid off 20,000 workers since 2002 and cut way back on investing in and maintaining its system. Even its world-renowned high-speed trains called the TGV have become less reliable.
Its freight service does the work of 300,000 trucks on French roads, but the SNCF management, with the full backing of France’s right-wing government, wants to shut down freight because it is not clearly profitable. Most SNCF layoffs have been from freight service.
The April 6-8 strike there was the third that some of the trade unions representing SNCF workers have called this year. The unions intend to push their demands until they get serious bargaining and concessions.
Sodimatex at Crépy-en-Valois is a small auto parts factory in a rust belt northeast of Paris, where management announced a closing on April 10. The workers wanted a severance bonus of 21,000 euros, while management was offering 3,200. When the 92 affected workers, who were unhappy with management’s offer, held an April 1 demonstration, cops fired tear gas to disperse them.
Workers then seized the plant, wired a gas tank so they could blow the plant up and started burning six-foot-high piles of pallets and tires with gas canisters at night so the cops would know they were serious. (Le Monde, April 4.) This spectacle of workers inside a plant protecting themselves with a burning barricade was all over French television.
After the right-wing mayor of Crépy-en-Valois, with tears in his eyes, begged management to stop dillydallying and bargain, management increased its offer to 13,000 euros. Negotiations should resume April 12.
One worker pointed out that the company has spent in each month since April 2009 the total of what the workers are demanding, “They would rather lose money than give us some.” Another worker added that they are obviously planning on closing more plants and don’t want to set a precedent. (L’Humanité, April 9)
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