Strikes in Western Europe

Hinrich Kuhls kls at
Sun May 19 14:22:57 MDT 1996

Strikes in Western Europe: Review of the French December 1995 events.

Fellow list members of the *elder generation* of this list certainly
remember the exchanges on the French strike and social protest movement at
the turn of the year.

As Ken Campbell recently mentioned to this list the May 96 issue of the New
York based Monthly Review has an article on these events - a broad movement
of strikers and protesters indeed, but not a general strike. At present this
article is on the web at

I think it is a politically very important article as Raghu Krishnan - its
author - attempts to develop the new quality of this movement in the
international context of the crisis of neo-liberal politics in advanced
capitalist countries.

It is a very comprehensive and condensed article. Below I reproduce what I
think is its central part. Perhaps the newly arrived list members from
France could jump in into list discussion by commenting on this article. For
Krishnan's full report and his further political conclusions please see the
complete original article.

Hinrich Kuhls





This article was previously published by our friends at the outstanding
Bombay-based Economic and Political Weekly.


Among the most lasting impressions of "December '95" will undoubtedly be the
way it has opened up some breathing space in the suffocating right-wing
ideological climate that has characterized France and most of the world
since the early 1980s. The overriding message of the strike and social
movement is that the right-wing offensive of cutbacks and layoffs is not the
"only possible economic policy" as the French and most everyone else have
been told ad nauseam in recent times.

It was a stiff rebuke for those who say there is "no other solution" in the
richest, most productive, and developed countries in the world than mass
unemployment, growing homelessness, declining quality of and access to basic
utilities, inequality between regions, environmental degradation, and

In a front-page headline, the daily Le Monde called the protest "the first
revolt against globalization." It could be argued that the Zapatista
uprising in southern Mexico in January 1994 timed to coincide with the
implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement was the first such
revolt, but let's not quibble. In both cases, it wasn't so much a revolt
against the idea of globalization as against the steamroller character of
the "globalization" currently underway: a "globalization" characterized
primarily by the thirst for markets and profit of a small number of
multinational corporations and financial institutions based overwhelmingly
in the rich Western countries and Japan.

The stakes are particularly high in Western Europe, where governments and
big business have thrown their weight behind a European Union seen first and
foremost as a freeing up of borders for capital, goods, and services. Social
programs and public services are to be levelled downwards within the Union
rather than upwards, with the most lucrative parts of national public
services and programs (health, pensions, transport, postal service,
telecommunications, electricity and so on) being privatized tumbling from
the hands of the "public monopolies" into those of even larger private
utility, pension fund, mutual fund, and insurance monopolies.

Strikers and protestors made a direct link between the government's agenda
and the demands of the European Union project. The infamous "Maastricht
criteria" (named after the Dutch city where the agreement was signed)
require high interest rates, a slashing of government deficits, the
dismantling of public services, and an alignment of central bank policies
all in the interests of a single currency and a "level playing field." Yet
the very same Maastricht Treaty was approved only by a very slim margin in
France in a September 1992 referendum. This in spite of the fact that nearly
all of the major political forces and media outlets called for a Yes vote,
going so far as to predict catastrophe in the event of a referendum defeat.

Along with Germany, France and its big companies form the centerpiece of the
European Union project. If it can't be pushed through against the will of
the French people, then the whole scheme is in for a very rough ride. No
surprise that the social explosion in France provoked a lot of panic and
disdain in West European capitals and among the editorial teams of the
leading European daily newspapers. Not to mention a lot of similar strikes
and protests in other Western European countries, including Belgium,
Luxembourg, and Italy.

Participants in December's strikes and protests in France sent an important
message to the world: yes, the working class does in fact exist. From the
1980s onwards, we have been treated to all sorts of ideological nonsense
about how the working class in the industrialized countries was no more. We
were headed into a "new age" where work would be done by computers and
everyone else would simply have to figure out what to do with their "leisure
time." "Surfing" the Internet? "Eco-tourism" in Brazil? "Virtual reality"
video games and sex? "Cyber-shopping" from home? The choices would be
endless and available to all in the "new age of prosperity." However, it
turns out that ordinary people continue to do the work, and that those with
excess "leisure time" are usually the millions who have been unceremoniously
kicked out of the labor force, who have never even been in it, or who have
low-wage, part-time, unstable jobs.

Politics and culture in this luckless era of ours have effectively
"forgotten" that the majority of people's adult lives are spent at work or
in search of it, as the case may be. In addition to being stuck doing
boring, tiring, and repetitive tasks, working people must also put up with
an insufferably authoritarian climate of fear and suspicion on the job made
all the worse by the constant threat of unemployment.

One observer noted that the December events in France signaled not only the
existence of a classical working class defined as those who must sell their
labor power to survive but also that this working class occupies a clear
majority position within French society. The protest movement underlined the
basic unity and mass character of labor in the country. Out of the movement
emerged a working-class identity and a sense that workers in France are at a
crossroads, as were U.S. workers at the time of the air traffic controllers
strike under Ronald Reagan and British workers at the time of the miners
strike under Margaret Thatcher.

One thing is certain. The events in France show that a movement based on the
workplace and its relation to society will be a key component of any
democratic regeneration and any re-emergence of passion and creativity in
our societies.   [omitted]


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