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MAY DAY: Europeans Begin to See Red

Julio Godoy

ATHENS, Apr 30 2009 (IPS) - European unions are facing a difficult choice this May Day between holding protests to protect workers’ interests, or holding off to avoid a further deepening of the economic recession.

The dilemma is before all European unions, but their national histories and their structures are leading them to act differently despite efforts to coordinate responses to the economic crisis.

In Athens, graffiti calling for May Day protests is all over the city’s walls. Athens has been seeing violent demonstrations since December, when a 15- year-old was shot dead by police officers in the course of a demonstration.

The riots marked the build-up to a general strike called against privatisation, tax increases and pension cutbacks imposed on instructions from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Now, more violent protests are expected May Day in Athens and other Greek cities. Police and union leaders in Germany and France are also warning of violent protests.

“On May Day evening, there will be leftist extremists who will violently attack police forces and private property,” Berlin police chief Dieter Glietsch warned at a press conference earlier this week.

“What is happening in Greece since December could happen in France,” Georges Martin, spokesperson for the French Workers’ General Union told IPS. “A social bomb is waiting to explode in France.”

There have been explosions before. Immigrant youth have carried out violent demonstrations during the Christmas and New Year season for years now, burning private automobiles and attacking police patrols.

“All these explosions waiting to happen in Europe have a common reason: the social consequences of globalisation,” says Jean Techau from the German Foundation for Foreign Policy in Berlin.

“The global economic crisis is affecting all European states at the same time,” Techau told IPS. “This has never happened before.”

Techau says Spain and France are seeing a dramatic rise in unemployment, a sharp economic downturn, ethnic segregation of immigrants, and public finances eroded by large deficits.

“The risk of social revolt is in both countries very large,” Techau said.

In Spain, May Day unions will protest jointly against de-localisation of industries, mass layouts and reduction of salaries. “To face the crisis, more employment, more public investment and more social protection” goes one slogan.

Michael Sommer, president of the German Unions’ Federation, has warned that “if business corporations react to the crisis with mass layoff of workers, it is very likely that social revolt take place.” Sommer said this was not a threat, but a comment on the prevailing atmosphere.

Mathias Platzeck from the Social Democratic Party, governor of the federal state of Brandenburg, has warned of “a widespread sense of injustice among the German population.”

This has been provoked by state packages amounting to some 500 billion euros (650 billion dollars) to rescue large banks from insolvency. Banks are seen as having provoked the crisis in the first place due to irresponsible lending and investment.

The government has also approved two programmes to stimulate domestic demand, amounting to some 100 billion euros, but has refused unions’ calls to reduce tax on low-income classes and to raise salaries.

On the contrary the government, facing a debt of well over 1,600 billion euros, may have to freeze public servants’ salaries and pensions, and increase tax in the near future – measures likely to affect middle and low income people.

This sense of injustice has been expressed in large demonstrations. In the financial capital Frankfurt, where most national and international banks maintain large offices, a large demonstration was held Mar. 28 under the banner: ‘We do not pay for your crisis’.

Platzeck, formerly the SPD president, said in a radio interview that the financial crisis had shattered Germans’ confidence in capitalism.

“More than half the (formerly communist-ruled) East German population do not trust the market economy,” Platzeck told the public radio Deutschland Funk. “Forty percent of East Germans even believe that a state-ruled economy is needed.”

Others say people are still willing to give their governments more time. “Yes, there is widespread social discontent, but it is accompanied by a sense of patience,” Dieter Rucht from the group ‘Civil society, citizenry and political mobilisation in Europe’ told IPS.

German workers are giving government plans to stimulate domestic demand time to deliver, Rucht said. “Most people are willing to wait and see how these programmes work.” But if unemployment rises dramatically and people see their savings affected by the crisis, “then social revolt might be inevitable.”

Germany is facing the sharpest economic recession in modern history. The government admitted Apr. 23 that its economic output will fall at least 6 percent this year. Some economic forecasts suggest that unemployment might rise to five million by next year – 10 percent of the labour force.

In France, unions have a long tradition of violent demonstrations and strikes. This year they have so far called two one-day general strikes, that were supported by the majority of workers. For May Day, the eight largest French unions have joined forces to hold massive demonstrations in the largest cities, especially in Paris.

“For workers, it is better to collectively express our anger with the social situation rather than leave room for individual, desperate actions,” Annick Coupé, spokesperson of the union Solidaires told IPS.

Since March this year, workers have been kidnapping managers and CEOs in what has been dubbed “bossnapping”, in protest against mass layoffs or the shutting down of industrial facilities. Top executives from corporations such as Sony, Caterpillar, 3M and Scapa have been temporarily kidnapped by their workers.

Several opinion polls suggest that more than half the people consulted support such actions.

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