International solidarity with workers is growing. Image of striking mental health workers. International solidarity with workers is growing. Image of striking mental health workers. Photo: Jason-Lewishamderamer - Flickr / cropped from original / used under license CC BY-NC 2.0 / license linked below

Two general strikes across Europe this week can give inspiration to the growing number fighting low pay and austerity here in Britain, says Kevin Ovenden

General strikes in Belgium and Greece on Wednesday were strongly supported and indicated a returning militancy by workers that is echoed elsewhere in Europe.

The central issues were over pay and the crisis facing domestic energy consumers – in other words, the big majority of people. In Greece a further demand was the restoration of trade union collective bargaining that was savaged during the years of the austerity memorandums. That meant fewer workers covered by national or sectoral agreements, thus a weakening of union strength to deliver directly for workers and undermining the purpose of being in a union.

In turn, right-wing and governing forces latched onto that to claim that the unions were privileged organisations of vested interests and antagonistic to those casually or self-employed, who constitute a large part of the labour force in Greece.

But Wednesday’s strike saw more than the usual groups of well-organised workers taking action. The strike rallies and demonstrations were large in every city. The national strike across the union federations drew in sections of the less or unorganised. There has been a successful struggle by food delivery workers in the gig economy to unionise and to win the status of employed workers, with the rights that come with that.

The police say the strike demonstration in Athens was 20,000 strong. That means it was much bigger and all sorts of observers said it felt like tens of thousands. It would have been bigger still if the mass transport workers – bus and metro – had been allowed to limit their action so people could travel to the centre. They wanted to keep the transport system running between 9am and 5pm so other strikers and workers could attend the demonstration.

The government decided to go to court to declare such selective working illegal. The court agreed. So the transport workers used the private sector union federation’s authority for a strike to walk out for 24 hours. The right-wing government managed to limit the numbers on a demonstration, but at the cost of significantly increasing the impact in Athens of the national strike action. People not on strike could not get to work.

Next week sees the annual commemoration on 17 November of the Polytechnic Uprising which began the numbering of the days of the Greek military dictatorship in 1973. There will be calls there for escalation of the strikes.  And there is growing sentiment over the scandal of government phone tapping of opposition politician phones and the use of the Predator spyware developed by an Israeli company. The story is now percolating through the major European papers after an EU investigating committee visited Athens and came away with unanswered questions.

Compromise strained

The 24-hour national strike in Belgium also saw high levels of support across the public and private sectors. The huge port of Antwerp was closed. Almost all flights out of Brussels airport were cancelled. Hospital workers struck. Nurseries were shut. There were big demonstrations.

The central demand is for capping prices and raising wages. As in Greece, there was little sign of striking workers giving credence to their government’s line that all of this is to do with the Ukraine war and that workers in the EU must be prepared to sacrifice to pursue a proxy war against Russia.

There is a tradition of well supported, often one-off national strikes in Belgium. Another side of that tradition has been a bargaining system that has given the unions wider coverage but has also tied them into a pro-capitalist mechanism that often led to horrible compromises and collaboration.

It is telling that a key demand in this strike and agitation is to abandon the system of wage indexing that was adopted in 1996. It sounds good and has been sold for 25 years as linking wages to inflation. But it doesn’t do that. Last year it meant wage rises of 0.4 percent. This year it would mean the government saying workers have to accept 0 percent in real terms.

The rapid rise in inflation, with profits up across major sectors of industry, is also calling into question the mechanisms of social incorporation and relative peace in Belgium from the neo-liberal period to today.

From Brussels to Athens similar questions are being raised and common processes as working class people, whether in a union or not, are being hammered by this crisis. Those in Britain striking, voting to strike, organising, protesting and agitating should know that similar is happening elsewhere.

International solidarity in that process, and learning from one another, has precious little to do with how the British, Belgian or Greek governments are getting along with each other or with trade negotiations.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.