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As Britain mourns (or celebrates) the death of former PM Margaret Thatcher, it’s also finding itself on the verge of a whole new national battle between labour and employers. For the first time since 1982 when workers walked off the job en-mass to protest Thatcher’s cuts, and before that 1926, there is serious talk of a general strike amongst some of Britain’s largest unions.

Nothing is certain yet and there isn’t so much as a date announced, but Unite has now acknowledged that talks are underway. This confirms months of rumours that British unions had been considering escalating their battle against austerity and adopting a tactic now common in countries like Spain and Italy. The proposal still has a lot of opposition to overcome, it may not even be legal and certainly doesn’t have a consensus behind it (yet), but now that discussions are official, there’s no doubt that organizing efforts will begin.

With this return to more traditional and confrontational union politics, Unite and others are hoping to rejuvenate the beleaguered labour movement and reclaim its role in broader society. Whether one action could accomplish such ambitious goals is certainly up for debate, but after the colossal failure that has resulted from coalition politics, it’s hard to fault them for wanting a more direct approach.

For those who don’t follow British politics, a little background: among the European nations which implemented “austerity” policies in the wake of the EU’s debt crisis, Britain adopted some of the strongest measures of any wealthy nation. These are now widely acknowledged to have been a colossal failure and actually plunged the country back into recession. Like most, this hasn’t deterred the government which continues to pursue even more cuts in an attempt to dig their way out of the hole they’re in. In the wake of these cuts, British society is now more unequal than any point since the Second World War. The simmering rage over this state of affairs has already lead to massive and rowdy protests and viscious rioting and promises to continue even if a general strike doesn’t materialize.

The UK’s woes are only one part of the never-ending financial crisis which is gripping Europe. Even though austerity has been acknowledged for years now as failing to “stimulate the economy” or lower interest on national debts, it continues to be the only solution offered by Angela Merkel and the central bankers. These policies led back to recession in Britain, Spain and Italy and brought on full-blown disaster in Greece. With recent events in Cyprus, it’s clear that even personal bank accounts are no longer considered safe if the need to bail out banks arises.

Those of us in Canada should pay close attention to how this struggle unfolds. As our government pushes it’s own austerity agenda, we may soon find ourselves in a similar situation and considering similar measures. It’s only through such militant tactics that the labour movement was able to establish itself in either country, and as the use of wildcat and general strike dwindled, so did the movement’s influence. For decades now, we’ve witnessed a stagnation of real wages, the widespread growth of precarious employment and the devastation of our manufacturing sectors. If the experience of nations like Britain and Spain is any indication, austerity stands to make this much, much worse. “Playing nice”, making concessions and “not rocking the boat” have failed, completely and utterly, to stop these trends. It’s time to try something else.

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Right now, in what might be the largest coordinated actions yet, the people of Southern Europe are engaged in an international general strike against ongoing austerity measures. Action today centred on a near-total shut-down of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) along with several-hour national shut-downs in Greece and Italy. Workers in France, Belgium, Germany and others are also supporting and participating. Air travel, trains, industry and services have all been affected by actions, and massive demonstrations have taken to the streets of countless cities. Clashes with police have been reported in Spain (81 reported arrested in Madrid so far) and several Italian cities.

Guardian – Live Coverage
BBC Coverage
Democracy Now Coverage
Libcom – Live Updates
europeanstrike.org/

Since last year, Europe has been gripped by an enduring debt crisis. With southern nations like Spain and Greece failing to recover from the collapse of 2008, they’re requiring large bailouts to keep making their payments on national debt to wealthier (northern) nations. In exchange central bankers have demanded harsh spending cuts (“austerity”). Unfortunately, the cuts have only further devastated economies while bailout uncertainty during bargaining sessions has driven interest rates on their debt far higher, driving a cycle of more cuts, bailouts and recessions which has infuriated the continent.

In response, Europe has been witnessing some of the largest and most intense protests in a generation. Town squares were occupied, hundreds of thousands took to the streets and pitched battles were fought with riot police. There’s been several general strikes now in each of the nations afflicted by the crisis and a growing list of fallen governments. Last week’s two-day general strike in Greece, for instance, saw 80 000 in the streets of Athens and a particularly fierce battle outside the parliament, awaiting the latest austerity vote.

Today’s actions are a landmark for organizing across borders, and for the participation of large traditional labour groups like the European Trade Union Confederation who don’t usually get involved in such actions. An accurate number of participants isn’t available, but it’s likely to be in the millions. Today’s actions show a growing rejection of austerity which is beginning to connect across the continent.

This issue isn’t going away, and the protests are only getting larger.

Later this month, officials meet in Brussels to attempt (again) to sort out this mess. As the consensus grows, even in capitalist circles, that austerity has failed, Europe is starting to run out of options. Greece has been pushed the brink of total economic, social and political collapse, with Spain and Italy not far behind. More cuts, at this point, only invite disaster. Millions of people sent a message today, and unless it’s received soon, we’re going to witness a much larger, longer shut-down.

It’s Mayday, and this year is shaping up to be one to remember. So far 2012 is turning out to be just as tumultuous as 2011 with Canada now witnessing the international battles over debt and austerity first hand. If last year was characterized by 21st century radicalism, though, this year seems to be more focused on reconnecting with the 19th and 20th century roots of those ideas. As far as radical history goes, no other day of the year matches the First of May as a celebration of struggle, both in terms of what’s been gained and as a reminder of what it’s cost us. Across the continent and around the globe, today’s plans are some of the most ambitious in at least a generation. Given everything we’ve seen in the past few years, it’s about time.

Mayday strikes, protests and celebrations date back to at least 1889, out of international outrage over the deaths of a group of Chicago anarchists now known as the Haymarket Martyrs. At the dawn of the North American labour movement, in the struggle to shorten the workday to eight hours, demonstrations were held in May of 1886. After a number of “incendiary” speeches from organizers calling for revolution, police charged and opened fire. A bloody battle ensued leaving dozens wounded on both sides as some demonstrators shot back and somebody threw a bomb into police lines. The bomber’s identity was never discovered, and debates continue today over who it really was (some suggest one of the anarchists, others like Howard Zinn suspect an agent provocateur). Despite not having a bomber, a group of organizers and speakers were brought to trial on “conspiracy” charges on the basis of their anarchist views. Four men (August Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel and Adolph Fischer) were hung, two had their sentences “commuted” to life in prison (Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab) and another committed suicide on the eve of his execution (Louis Lingg). The backlash that followed saw a massive rise in popular support for the labour movement and radical ideas in general, seeing the first strikes by 1890, commemorated yearly and soon spreading around the globe.

Why is this relevant today? Aside from the fact that these kinds of “conspiracy” trials continue to this day (as Toronto’s G20 showed us), struggles like the fight for the eight hour workday are far from over. Now, like then, battles over “simple” issues like hours, wages and pensions reflected far larger questions about society and the economy. Through strikes, protests and often deadly conflicts, these movements slowly won most of the rights we know today (pensions, weekends, the right to vote etc) in conflicts that never really ended.

What makes this May such a turning point isn’t just how widespread austerity is at this point (as Canadians now know all too well), it’s the way cracks are now appearing in the armour of this global behemoth. In recent weeks “austerity” plans have began to fall apart as Sarkozy lost the first round of French elections and the Dutch government fell apart over budget talks. France and Greece are both holding elections later this week, with a significant chance that despised pro-austerity incumbents will be tossed. Britain and Spain have now both slipped back into official “recession” status. Even Canada is now witnessing a shrinking GDP. The ugly, ultimate unspoken truth of austerity is that it has no mandate, either politically or economically, and both are now becoming clear.

Austerity draws a line in the sand. Harper did this in a very public way with his last budget, placing students and pensioners, workers, environmentalists, First Nations and northerners directly in the line of fire. There was a time when it wasn’t so easy to explain how all these issues were connected, but this recent offensive makes things very clear.. Couple it with Harper’s other recent initiatives, to expand prisons, arrest immigrants, monitor the internet and very possibly to rig the last election, and most of the Canadian populace has some serious reasons to fear him. This is happening at all levels with Premiers like McGuinty and Charest and Mayors like Rob Ford, and it’s happening from coast to coast. Canada, of course, is only the latest victim, along with many others like America and most of Europe. Austerity may be everywhere, but so is the fightback.

Today’s protests have already begun. New York and London already have large crowds in the streets, soon to be followed by Washington, Los Angeles, Toronto and many others. A large part of the continent has called for a general strike today by local Occupy groups and others. Hamilton is holding marches both downtown and in the the industrial sector, with food and festivities afterward. Downtown, people will be gathering in Beasley Park starting at 2pm, with a march through the core leaving then returning for food and music in the park around four or five. The Steelworkers’ 1005 local (Stelco) is marching from their hall in a loop to plants like Stelco and Steelcar then returning to their hall for a BBQ. Both have been planned in solidarity, and there ought to be a fair bit of traffic between the two from most I’ve talked to.

M1 Committee Homepage – organizers of today’s downtown actions
USW 1005 Homepage
International live coverage – Guardian.co.uk

Happy May Day everyone. See ya in the streets.

Over the past two days, large, dramatic and unconventional strike actions have dominated the news…

Student Strike Still Growing
On Thursday, depending on estimates, a hundred thousand or so demonstrators converged on downtown Montreal in opposition to rising tuition fees. Around three hundred thousand students are now on strike, representing the, latest escalation in this weeks-long battle, in which neither side shows any sign of backing down. Since this began, students have marched, occupied buildings and blocked bridges in their attempt to keep Canada’s lowest tuition rates.

Return of the Wildcat!
Thursday night Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt caused a bit of a stir when she walked off an plane at Pearson airport in Toronto, where Air Canada workers began to heckle, showing their displeasure at recent legislation away their right to strike. Three workers were suspended as a result, a move which quickly inflamed tensions. Support workers began to walk off the job in an illegal wildcat strike which spread to Montreal, Vancouver and elsewhere, leading to the cancellation of around 80 flights and causing enormous damage to the company’s “brand image“. After about thirteen hours, strikers were forced back to work by a court injunction along with promises that nobody would be punished.

While all this happened, a group of Toronto anarchists and others took the opportunity to occupy Minister Raitt’s office.

Air Canada has been battling several unions for over a month now, and has resorted to help from the Harper government to legally block strikes by pilots and support workers (baggage handlers, ground crews etc). Air Canada has also earned scorn regarding the mass-termination of Aveos employees, a major Air Canada contractor, provoked a conflict with the union representing is laid off workers Tuesday when a few hundred former workers, blocking the road to Aveos and Air Canada offices, ended up clashing with riot police.

Another General Strike
Thursday also meant a General Strike in Portugal, one of the many poorer EU nations now grappling with a debt crisis, mass unemployment and harsh austerity measures. Large parts of the small country were brought to a standstill as ports, schools, roads, trains and public transit were brought to a halt by strikers. Small clashes with police were reported, with two reporters from the state news service among those injured by cops.

Strikes Everywhere
It’s not just the number of strikes that’s remarkable here, or how far they’re reaching. The return wildcat, student and general strikes shows how the tactics and movements themselves are changing. Actions like these haven’t been seen on a scale like this since the revolutionary tumults of the 1960s. Autonomous direct actions like these were once the norm, in the days of the “Wobblies” and other radical, grassroots unions which fought for worker’s rights before such organizations were protected by law.

The wave of austerity programs which are now sweeping the western world are provoking a powerful backlash. While many took to the streets and occupied parks last fall, the drive to cut wages and jobs has only intensified. In response, people are taking their resistance to the next level. While these corporations and governments may be massive and powerful, they could never function without huge networks of workers and willing participants. When even a few groups decide to stop participating, it can disrupt the entire system, especially when it threatens to inspire others to do the same. It’s no coincidence that revolutions are often associated with student and general strikes, as they threaten the functioning of society in ways no simple “protest” ever could.

Within another few days Canada is expecting a Federal “austerity” budget, and Spain is due for the next general strike. As news of these actions and others spreads, we can only expect many more conflicts like these in the coming months, both here and abroad. Major demonstrations at parliament and wide-ranging strikes across the continent are now being planned for early May. Some are even beginning to call it the “Maple Spring”. It may still be too early to tell whether this will be enough to reverse the impending cuts, but it now seems certain that little else can.

India just passed a historic milestone – its first General Strike. A coalition of eleven unions called the 24-hour action which shut down government offices, businesses, banks and transport services in cities across the country. Strikers denounced the government and demanded, among other things, improved labour laws and a minimum wage.

Some areas were harder hit than others. Kolkatta, according to reports, was almost entirely shut down, while much of Bengal saw ‘business-as-usual’. At least a hundred people have been arrested, according to one union, but there have not been any reports of serious violence (though one party office was ransacked). In general, English-language coverage has been spotty and fairly slanted.

This makes a dramatic statement about the spread of discontent around the world. Mass action on this scale in the world’s second most populous country says a lot. India has been “developing” rapidly in the past two decades, with an enormous number of First World jobs flowing in to take advantage of their low wages and relatively skilled workers, but large parts of the population have suffered in the upheavals. If this trend continues, we may be forced to offer the Indians who do so much of our work a tiny fraction more of what we used to receive for it. Is a minimum wage really so much to ask?

Solidarity, India.

As predicted, the protests in France have only gotten far more interesting. Many parts of the country are now paralysed by fuel shortages, road blockades, strikes and riots. Almost 1500 people have been arrested so far. The crisis has resulted in global fuel price spikes and now even solidarity riots in Brooklyn, New York.

Leading the charge are many striking high school students, many very young, willing to battle the police in the streets. Reminiscent of the near-revolution of 1968 – the young are fighting hard in a battle large (and ostensibly) about the rights of their grandparents (pension reforms and raising the retirement age), yet in reality about far larger issues. In the last month we’ve seen a General Strike against these austerity measures in Spain, coupled with massive demos in nations like Greece, Ireland and Belgium. We’ve seen years of prolonged rioting in Athens, as well as Paris, and many other major European cities. Millions of people, at a time, have been marching in the streets.

With all the elections brewing of late, it’s easy to forget the most simple of stone-aged voting technologies; the rock. Consider it the cutting edge of European direct democracy, or simply an angry and frustrated outburst at a sadly unsustainable social system, things are only going to get more intense from here. Even without the temporary collapse of a major European nation, the world’s economy is not in great shape. And the worse things get for ordinary people (through the recession and resulting cuts), while they watch rich corporations get handed trillions in bailout funds, the angrier people are going to become.

P.S. Am I the only person annoyed that it took over a week of serious nationwide action for France to arrest more people than Toronto did during the G20 Weekend?

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