(Presentation at the Detroit Workers' Voice Discussion Group meeting
of March 8, 2009)
. The present economic crisis came upon us at a time of ebb in the working class movement. Strikes and other protest movements have been at a very low level for a number of years. And now workers are being told that there's nothing can be done except grin and bear the layoffs, the cutbacks in social services, and the handing out of hundreds of billions of tax dollars to the bankers, auto executives, loan sharks and speculators who have gambled and lost their own, and other people's, private funds. So far the crisis has not generated any large protest movements in the U.S., although there have been small protests, and there are rumblings on the horizon. One thing that might encourage this is to look around the world and see how working people in other countries are responding to the crisis.
. An outstanding feature of the present economic crisis is that it's worldwide. This is a result of the globalization that took place in recent decades. The world capitalist economy is now much more tightly interwoven than it was before. Another reason is that the crisis began in the U.S., which is the largest single national economy. So repercussions are large, and because of globalization they spread quickly and far. World capitalism has in recent decades been beset by an ongoing series of shocks, but they have tended to hit just one or a few sectors and just one or a few countries at a time. But the present shock is deep, broad, and quickly enveloping many or most countries.
. The crisis began as a collapse of the housing market bubble in the U.S. This was followed by a financial crisis which spread to all sections of the American economy, which went into recession beginning in December 2007. Layoffs spread around the world, and now the ILO predicts that a staggering 50 million jobs will be lost, worldwide, by the end of 2009. Unemployment is nearing double digits in Germany, England, and other European countries. High unemployment rates have led to protests in many countries. European governments are responding to the crisis in ways similar to the U. S. , bailing out banks and auto companies. They have already spent $380 billion in bank recapitalization and put up over $3 trillion to guarantee bank loans. But these efforts only anger ordinary working people who are left out of the bail-outs.
. Last month the government of Iceland, whose economy is going through a 10% contraction, collapsed after weeks of protests by Icelanders angered by soaring unemployment and rising prices. When Iceland's three major banks collapsed last fall, the government nationalized their domestic branches but could not afford to nationalize their foreign branches, because the banks' assets were actually worth much more than Iceland's entire GDP. The banks held all of Iceland's government pensions among their deposits, so their collapse has decimated the future of Iceland's public sector employees.
. There was a one-day general strike in France on January 29. Millions of workers shut down the country to protest the cutbacks in public services and the giveaway of public funds to bail out the banks and speculators. On February 8 there was a demonstration of 4,000 leftists opposing any layoffs.
. In Ireland, nearly 100,000 people marched through Dublin on February 21 to protest
government cutbacks in the face of a deepening recession and bailouts for the banks. The prime
minister is trying to cut the budget by squeezing public sector workers' pay and pensions. People
in the march had signs saying "We won't pay for the greed of the super rich" and "You [the rich]
made the most; Pay the most." The march preceded the expiration of public sector workers'
contracts in February and March, which will probably bring strikes. The government has
nationalized Ireland's third largest bank, but this exposed taxpayers to billions of bad debt owned
by the bank.
. Eastern Europe has been especially hard hit by the crisis. In the last few months, Poland's currency has declined 48% against the euro, and Hungary's has fallen by 30%. General Motors's sales in the Baltic countries fell off by 57% in the last few months of 2008. Governments have been cutting spending on public services to try and shore up their currencies. In response, working people have taken to the streets to protest. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in Poland, Latvia, and Bulgaria, expressing anger that their social safety net has been shattered. Like Iceland, Latvia is bankrupt, and on February 18 the government of Latvia collapsed. At the same time, demonstrators took to the streets of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, as depositors rushed to pull their money out of local banks. The banks imposed a limit on withdrawals, so protesters set up a tent city in the center of Kiev surrounding the parliament building, demanding the government's resignation with the slogan, "Everyone out." Truck drivers began parking their rigs and blocking roads to protest their indebtedness, for which they blame Ukraine's falling currency.
. Workers at the IKhMZ metallurgical plant in the city of Pervomalski, Kazakhstan, were laid off without notice on December 10 when it was announced that the plant was closed. At that time the workers were owed back wages amounting to over $300,000. In response the workers organized a strike committee, and 13 of the workers began a hunger strike. Some weeks later, the strike gained national publicity when one of the hunger strikers was hospitalized and 200 more workers announced they were joining the hunger strike. As a result, management agreed to pay the workers the back wages they were owed.
. Teachers in Portugal staged two one-day strikes in the last two months to oppose the government's plan to cut back funding for education.
. In Romania, 7,000 auto workers demonstrated in January to protest the plans of Dacia auto company management to lay off 3-4,000 workers.
. The crisis has also hit workers in Asia, where banks and corporations are generally not tied into
the subprime real estate mess of the U.S. But they have been hurt by falling exports as Americans
and Europeans cancel orders. For example, Pioneer of Japan has now stopped making flat-screen
TVs and is laying off 10,000 factory workers. Small factories all over China are shutting down,
causing millions of migrant workers to begin traveling again in search of work. There have been
dozens of protests in China and Indonesia by workers laid off with little or no notice.
General strike in Guadeloupe
. Guadeloupe is a French-owned island in the Caribbean. A general strike began there on January 20. The strike was led by a coalition of all the trade unions and popular organizations on the island called "Campaign Against Profitation" ("profitation" is a combination word from "profiteering" and "exploitation"). The Campaign issued 146 demands, the main ones being: an increase in the monthly minimum wage of 1,321 Euros by 200 Euros; an increase in social welfare benefits; lower prices for basic staples and gasoline (which costs 50% more than in metropolitan France); lower prices for bus service and water; a freeze on rents; more job security for temporary workers; greater educational opportunities for youths; and an end to racism in employment practices.
. Note that the minimum wage is 1,321 Euros per month; this is 8.25 Euros per hour, or a little over $10 per hour. That's high compared to the U.S. , but that's what it is in France. The strike is demanding a raise of 200 Euros per month; that would be an additional $1.50 per hour, bringing the minimum wage up close to $12 per hour.
. The general strike shut down the island. There was no bus circulation; the port, utilities, schools, department stores and most businesses and shops are closed. A demonstration of more than 65,000 roughly 15% of the entire population of Guadeloupe was held on January 30, 2009, in the streets of Pointe-a-Pitre (the capital). This was the largest demonstration in Guadeloupe's history. Meanwhile roadblocks were set up around the island.
. Solidarity actions were organized in mainland France. On February 19 in Paris some 30,000 people gathered to express support for the strike. In French opinion surveys over 75% of the people questioned expressed sympathy for the Campaign in Guadeloupe and felt that its demands were justified. Leftist politicians from France traveled to Guadeloupe to express support. Sympathy was especially strong in the suburbs of Paris inhabited by minority communities -- people from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. The suburbs have experienced periodic rebellions since 2005. Workers in France are seething with anger over the bank bail-outs, and another one-day general strike is scheduled for March 19. The French government is worried about "contagion" spreading to mainland France, and worked hard to get a settlement in Guadeloupe before March 19.
. France sent its Overseas Minister to Guadeloupe to negotiate, but also sent 5,000 riot police. On February 16, they launched an attack against picket lines and barricades set up around Guadeloupe. Troops forced open gas stations and supermarkets. Seventy trade union leaders were arrested. They were taken to court to be arraigned, but the authorities did not know what to do with them. Thousands of people gathered outside the courthouse demanding their release, and there were mass protests in France also. So they were released.
. Afterwards the strike resumed. Barricades went up again, and soup kitchens were set up to feed
the striking population.
The revolt spreads to Martinique and Reunion
. Martinique is another French department in the Antilles Islands of the Caribbean, very similar to Guadeloupe. Working people there followed the example of Guadeloupe and declared a general strike on February 5. A march of 25,000 people took place in Martinique's capital city, Fort-de-France, on February 9. As in Guadeloupe, the economy was mostly brought to a standstill. Trade unions are demanding a 30% reduction in prices. The strike in Martinique quickly developed into violent standoffs between youths and police, with youths throwing firebombs at police who tried to force open markets and gas stations.
. The revolt also spread to Reunion, a French department in the Indian Ocean. Like Guadeloupe and Martinique, the population in Reunion is mostly descendants of black slaves brought to till the plantations. Over the last several months there have been numerous demonstrations in Reunion against the rising unemployment and the cost of food and fuel. On February 11 a coalition of trade unions, political parties and mass organizations was formed, and it put forward demands for a raise in wages, increased social benefits, increases in scholarships for students, and reductions in rents, fuel costs and food.
. The movement in Guadeloupe also had repercussions in other French possessions in the Pacific,
the Indian Ocean, and in French Guyana (South America), where mass protests were organized.
Background to the struggle in Guadeloupe
. Guadeloupe is populated mostly by descendants of black slaves brought there to work sugar plantations in the colonial era. After World War II, in the era of decolonization, there was a large agitation for independence, reaching its peak in the 1960s. In 1967 riots in Guadeloupe ended with 87 dead, gunned down by French gendarmes. Afterwards the French government refused to allow independence, but instead offered to integrate Guadeloupe into mainland France as a department (roughly equal to a state of the U.S. ). The people of Guadeloupe, as French citizens, were given freedom to travel to and live in mainland France; were given social welfare benefits equal to those in France; were allowed to participate in French elections and send parliamentary representatives to France.
. Many young people took advantage of this in the 1970s and 80s, moving away from their impoverished lives in Guadeloupe and establishing residence in France. The population of Guadeloupe actually declined for a while during this period. But in the 1980s and 90s tourism began to become the mainstay of the island; the economy recovered somewhat, and the population has now grown to over 400,000. Today tourism accounts for about 65% of all jobs in Guadeloupe.
. But outside of tourism the economy has not developed. Agriculture has actually declined, and residents are now forced to import much of their food. They also must import 90% of their fuel supplies. Aside from the cost of shipping things from France, residents are also forced to pay exorbitant prices because imports are monopolized by a few firms owned by "bekes" (descendants of white slave-owners). So a favored class has gotten richer while the masses have only gotten poorer. Most government employees are actually appointees from mainland France; when posted to Guadeloupe they are given a 40% increase in pay to take care of the increased cost of living there, while residents of Guadeloupe are forced to pay the high prices without subsidy. In Guadeloupe unemployment is 23%, compared to 8% in mainland France; in Guadeloupe 12% of the population is poor, compared to 6% in France. The per capita GDP in Guadeloupe is only half that of France, while the cost of living is much higher.
. This was the situation in Guadeloupe before the latest crisis hit, accelerating impoverishment
with new layoffs and cuts in social programs.
Settlement of the strike
. The strike in Guadeloupe was settled on March 4, after 44 days, with a resounding victory for the strikers. The strike's 20 immediate demands were agreed upon, completely. The settlement also provides for continued negotiations on the coalition's remaining 126 demands, both mid-term and long-term. Here are some provisions of the agreement:
. WAGES: workers will get a 200 Euro increase in monthly pay. For minimum-wage workers, those making 1,321 Euros a month, this amounts to a 15% raise. For those making more, of course, the percentage is less; but even the higher paid workers will get a 3% raise.
. PRICE CUTS: The price of 100 basic staples and commodities and for utilities (water, oil, gasoline, electricity) will be lowered by 5-10%. The price of meals in student cafeterias is cut by 20%, and the government promises to increase by 50% the produce of local farmers in the meals provided by student cafeterias. Family canteens will receive subsidies for their meal plans. Public transportation costs will be lowered by 20%. The government also will fund 40,000 round-trip tickets between Paris and Guadeloupe every year, to allow family visits for low-income families. Banking fees will be cut. Small transport owners will be compensated for the reorganization of urban and inter-city transit.
. HOUSING: Moratorium on all foreclosures, evictions and utility cutoffs. A special fund of three million Euros is created to provide subsidized housing for senior citizens and handicapped persons. All rents are frozen and there is a 9% tax cut for renters. The agreement also calls for an end to speculation in land for hotels and resorts by non-local hotel chains and banking interests, and financial assistance to local businesses involved in tourism.
. EMPLOYMENT: a stimulus plan to provide jobs for 8,000 youths and the creation of a Bill of Rights for Employment for all Working People in Guadeloupe.
. EDUCATION: All students on waiting lists for education at all levels will be admitted into a
school. The government agrees to consider hiring more teachers, and talks on this will continue.
. There are also provisions for protections and subsidies for local agriculture and fishing, and further recognition of trade union rights. There are also provisions on protection of the environment and on culture -- Creole is recognized as an official language alongside of French.
. Meanwhile the strike in Martinique was still going on, and a general strike in Reunion was scheduled to begin the second week of March. But the French minister for overseas territories says that the settlement in Guadeloupe will be extended to all the other territories, so France may be able to avoid similar movements there.
. In France itself, the government is trying to prevent another general strike by offering trade
unions a raise in family allowances, reduced income tax for low-paid workers, and a boost in
unemployment insurance. But the unions are also demanding a higher minimum wage similar to
the increase won in Guadeloupe, a cut in sales taxes and an end to cuts in civil-service jobs.
President Sarkozy's popularity is sinking in opinion polls, so he may face popular rebellion at
home. The contagion may very well spread.
Conclusion: protest against austerity!
. A survey of countries around the globe shows that workers everywhere are getting organized
and launching struggles to try and stave off the worst features of the present capitalist economic
crisis. Workers in Eastern Europe, the Baltics, Iceland, Ireland, etc. realize that public protests
are not only possible, they are absolutely necessary for survival in these difficult times. And the
example of Guadeloupe shows that by persisting in large-scale organized struggle the workers
can win really dramatic gains, even at a time when the governments say they are strapped for
cash. Now is not a time for workers to hang their heads and meekly accept whatever crumbs the
capitalists and the government are willing to hand them; now, when the capitalists are in
disarray, is a time to organize and win. <>
Last changed on March 12, 2009.