European Workers' Fightback

The dust had barely settled from the rebellions of 2005 in France that the streets again started to reverberate with songs and speeches from new protests and strikes. In the May 29, 2005 referendum the French electorate rejected the new European constitution. Later in the year the poor and super-exploited suburbs of France , especially where people of North African and Sub-Saharan origin live in dilapidated housing projects (la cites), went up in flames. Nevertheless, the French elite continued to be on an offensive and passed a new law in March 2006 called the CPE (First Job Contract). What ensued is history.

The internationalization of production in concert with the neo-liberal offensive of liberalization, deregulation and privatization is of course not limited to France but is the latest offensive against the working people of the world. This article will cover the attacks on workers and their resistance in Europe and for brevity it is limited to Britain , France and Germany .

From ‘Social Pact' to ‘Social Dialogue'

Globalization has made the workers vulnerable worldwide. The Multinational Corporations (MNCs), IMF and World Bank – the guardians of structural adjustment programs – European Union and the state power structures are making profound changes to affect the workers through neo-liberal policies. This ongoing attack on workers in the past few decades has accelerated since the downfall of the Soviet Union . The European elite is solidly united behind its neo-liberal agenda and presents it as Thatcher's infamous “There is no alternative” (TINA).

The condition of the workers in Europe has been worsening for a number of years. One out of every six French worker earns a minimum wage and 7 million people in France live in poverty [5]. The proportion of organized workers has also been falling over the last several decades. In Britain it has plummeted by almost 50% and in France it is now in the single digits. The rest of Europe also portrays a grim picture (Table 1). The European elite proudly boast that “in the medium term, the average level of unionisation across the EU will fall even further – from 26.3% today to just under 20% by 2010” [3]. No wonder the major trade unions are allied formally or informally with the social democratic parties. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) with 6.7 million members is affiliated to the British Labour Party and French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) with 800,000 members is affiliated to the French Socialist Party, and German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB) with 7.3 million members is affiliated to the Social Democratic Party.

Table 1: Organized Workers as a Percentage of the Workforce


1985 1995


59 (1979) 31


15 9


35 29 (1993)


48 44 (1994)


27 (1980) 19 (1994)
Source: (10)

Militant workers' struggles in the early part of the twentieth century, subsequent socialist revolutions and anti-colonial struggles was the context that gave the European ‘social pact', its pseudo welfare state. Social democratic parties in the European countries were for a short period the keepers of the ‘social pact.' Now the social democratic parties have been at the forefront of dismantling the pact. For workers this means falling real wages, worsening working conditions, disappearing union jobs and social services. Instead of intensifying the struggle against the capitalists, the traditional trade union bureaucracy has adopted the policy of ‘social dialogue.' The dialogue has mostly been traditional dealmaking with the workers getting the short end of the stick. For example, the German trade union movement's struggle for “unity for work” during the mid 1990s is an example of an ‘alliance' with capitalists [10].

Recent Workers' Struggle in Germany

In the first week of April, more than 80,000 engineering workers in over 300 corporations organised work stoppages or “warning strikes.” Germany 's most populous state, North Rhine Westphalia, where 33,000 workers at 181 corporations joined in the work stoppages, was the centre of the first wave of strikes. Without seriously curtailing production, brief “warning strikes” are a common tactic to facilitate pay negotiations. IG Metall union, an affiliate of the DGB and whose leadership is closely allied to the Social Democratic Party (SPD), is demanding a 5 per cent wage raise for 3.4 million workers employed in the engineering and electrical industries [7].

Germany 's largest service union Verdi ended one of the longest strike in years after two months. The strike involved trash workers, kindergarten teachers, librarians, hospital workers in 10 of the Germany 's 16 states. The deal will extend the workweek from 38.5 hours to 39 hours without additional pay. Real wages in Germany have fallen in the last several years. Franz Müntefering, a former SPD chairman and now employment minister in the Grand Coalition government with the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is enabler of these reforms. This grand coalition government soon after it took office passed a law worse than the CPE that allows dismissal without cause in the probationary period [4]. The president of the Employers' Association disagrees with the government that this deal does not go far enough!

Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), a one-time defender of the pseudo welfare state, has since 1998 pushed the neo-liberal reforms in Germany that made the Christian Democratic Party, a conservative party, look humane. Unions have had a long-standing relationship with the SPD. The pseudo welfare state has been in the process of being dismantled for decades but the recent accelerated implementation of neo-liberal policies has shaken the unions. Until recently the unions would demand higher wages and shorter hours but now the employers demand lower wages and longer hours. With factory closures and outsourcing as their weapon, the capitalists have been able to negotiate worse working conditions and wages [9]. Most unions in Germany have focused on economic demands and not political strikes, and have stayed in the SPD fold.

Recent Workers' Struggle in Britain

About one million council, education and police workers, all Unison members, staged a national 24-hour walk-out over pensions reforms on March 28, 2006 . It was not only estimated to be one of the biggest strikes in Britain in 80 years but also the largest ever strike of women workers in Scotland. More than 200,000 workers – almost 10% of the entire working population of Scotland – were on strike. The strike was against the local government pension scheme reforms. Unions in Britain have traditionally been allied with the social democratic Labour Party. To the loud applaud of the audience, a Unison national executive member said at one of the rallies that the union had frozen financial contributions to the Labour Party during this dispute and had cancelled pro-Labour electoral work for the municipal elections in May. This posturing by the leadership is a reflection of the depth of resentment amongst workers.

The neo-liberal attacks are also taking place in education and about 25,000 further (higher) education lecturers at 220 colleges around Britain are set to strike on 2 and 3 May over pay. The lecturers have been ready to take action since November 2005 when Natfhe union members voted by 71 percent for strike action. Factory closings in Britain are quite common e.g. Car maker Peugeot-Citroen announced a plant closing on April 18, 2006 in the same city where automakers Jaguar and Rover had recently closed plants. The ‘dialogue' between the union leadership and the ruling elite continues. They usually plead with the Labour Party and the MNCs to let them keep the jobs. They almost always lose.

Workers' and Students' Struggles in France

The ruling elite had just recovered from the rebellion in the poor working class suburbs of the cities, when the rallies and strikes started all over France . This time it was the First Job Contract (CPE – Contrat de première embauche), which applied to young workers – less than 26 years – who could be fired without justification for the first two years of a work contract. The employers were also relieved from making social benefit contributions. This anti-CPE struggle was portrayed in the commercial media as a test of Prime Minister Villepin's ‘leadership' as he contemplates his Presidential candidacy running against the Gaullist party president Sarkozy. This was a smokescreen.

The French elite have made their position clear. European Central Bank president and former Bank of France Governor, said “ France , like others in Europe , is implementing reforms too slowly.” The real reason for the CPE according to the elite was to reduce unemployment by reforming the rigid labour market. France 's unemployment rate is 9.6% and youth unemployment is 23% but much higher in the poverty-stricken minority suburbs. On the other hand, France 's MNCs are not poor by any stretch. The profit of top 40 companies in 2005 was up 50% on 2004. Last year, French MNCs were the world's third-biggest source of global cross-border takeovers. No wonder the students and workers did not fall for this old trick.

When the bill came up for discussion in the parliament, half of France 's 84 universities had been either completely blocked by sit-ins or disrupted by student protests. Youths replaced the French flag atop the flag pole in Marseille's City Hall with a banner reading “Anti-Capitalism” [1]. All student organisations along with five main trade union confederations [CGT (General Confederation of Labour), CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labour), FO (Workers Power) and two management unions] participated. CGT is affiliated with the Communist Party and CFDT with the Socialist party. University and high school students demonstrated together with workers from both the public and private sector, including transport workers, air traffic controllers, education workers, and employees of France Telecom, Renault, and the oil company Total [6].

The elite started to feel the heat when the protests started to be compared with May 1968. It was partly true. The deep barricades blocked the entrance to Paris 's Sorbonne University . Graffiti read “We will get only what we know how to take” [1]. Before the government gave in to the streets, the students occupied campuses and staged spontaneous invasions of many roads, airports and mainline railway stations. Many universities were closed for more than a month [2]. Race and gender diversity was very visible. On several occasions the strikes and protest marches drew more than 3 million people on to the streets [2]. They only stopped when CPE was eventually scrapped. This was a humiliating defeat inflicted by the youth and workers on the ruling class.


The attack on workers is old news. In Europe , the recent neo-liberal push is part of EU's 2000 Lisbon Strategy. As part of the 2010 Lisbon strategy economic targets, in early 2005, the EU required member states to formulate “National Reform Programmes” (NRP) that set yearly monitored country-specific reform targets [4]. ‘Reforms' a la CPE, both in France and Germany , are part of this strategy.

Despite this the trade union leadership continues to cling to the European social democrats. The EU trade union leadership, an important constituent of international trade union bureaucrats, issued a statement at the 2003 World Social Forum (WSF) stating that “We will press World Economic Forum (WEF) to address the need to globalise social justice. At the same time, we will contribute in the WSF to finding constructive approaches to democratising globalisation in the interests of all working people.” [10] Things do seem to be changing slowly as some unions in Germany have now started to think about a new party, namely Electoral alternative for Jobs and Social Justice (WASG) which are aligning with the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the new version of the old Socialist Unity party of East Germany .

The strikes and other recent actions in Europe is a manifestation of the grassroots pressure that is building in traditional trade unions. The workers' are resisting the deteriorating working and living conditions across Europe . Hopefully, new leadership will emerge which will not limit itself to economic demands and also not toe the line of the social democratic parties. The workers and soon to be workers – students and youth – are realizing that the ‘social pact' struck in the twentieth century between the unions and capitalists is over. There is no going back. One of the lessons of the twentieth century is that class compromise does not work. Progress is only possible through class struggle.

– PB


1. Economist , France 's student protests: Les évènements, encore une fois, The Economist, March 16, 2006 .

2. Economist , A victory for the streets, The Economist, April 11, 2006 .

3. Federation of European Employers, Trade Unions, 2006. []

4. Henning, D., CPE à la Merkel: Job protection laws to be gutted in Germany , World Socialist Website, April 4, 2006 .

5. Herrera, R. Impact of the French ‘no' vote Part 1: A look at the EU referendum, Workers World , July 15, 2005 .

6. Higgins, A., French Unions Threaten to Strike; Alliance of Labor, Students May Raise Stakes in Battle Over Job-Market Overhauls, Wall Street Journal , March 20, 2006.

7. Rippert, U., German engineering workers stage warning strikes, World Socialist Website, April 5, 2006 .

8. Socialist, “The most solid strike ever,” The Socialist , 6 -12, April 2006.

9. Schmidt, I. , German Labor: New Challenges, New Initiatives, Monthly Review , September 2005.

10. Wahl, A., European Labor: The Ideological Legacy of the Social Pact, Monthly Review , January 2004.