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Europe’s workers say ‘no’ to top-down ‘austerity’

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Strikes in EU, September 2010. Photo: Socialist WorldAfter ordering drastic ‘austerity’ programmes in Hungary, Romania, Greece, Spain and Portugal, pressure is now being increased on other countries to significantly reduce the living standards of broad social layers. This is what ‘austerity’ in the EU, and particularly western Europe, actually means. It does not mean the ruling parties and their agencies do with smaller salaries. It means that the massive deficits in public finances resulting from the economic crisis and bank bailouts be countered by slashing wages and social spending.

The German government, acting on behalf of the German export industry, is calling the tune for western EU. This spells continuing trouble for Europe’s working classes for it has been clear for several years that the ruling coalition in Berlin is acting in concert with the most powerful European financial and business circles, in particular the German export industry which claims to have led Germany into a new phase of ‘growth’.

There is no lack of voices saying these policies are short-sighted. On Monday, four leading European economists warned in the Financial Times that such harsh measures were “necessary but risky”. They threaten to trigger a depression affecting the whole eurozone. The resulting economic, financial and social stresses could destroy the eurozone. They suggested, therefore, a European solution: the European Financial Stability Facility established in the spring should become a permanent instrument that can be used to support highly indebted countries.

But this week Europeans marched on the streets in protest against the impacts of ‘austerity’. Up to 100,000 took part in a march on Wednesday on the European Union buildings in Brussels, Belgium, organised by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), reported the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS). The march in the Belgian capital was the official centre-piece of Europe-wide demonstrations against austerity and cuts, though a general strike in Spain was by far the most significant expression of workers rising anger at the attack on their livelihoods.

Nearly 70% of Spanish workers — 10 million — took part in Wednesday’s general strike. In some sectors, such as mining, metal, auto manufacture, electronic, fishing and other industries, participation was nearly total. The movement also encompassed many self-employed workers and small businesses. Although the government tried to downplay the effects of the strike, the national grid operator Red Electrica Corp. said that electricity consumption was down by 20%.

The strike dealt a blow to business leaders, politicians and the media who claimed it would not be well supported. But without the minimum service levels agreed by the unions, which allowed the government and local authorities to determine how many airplanes, trains and buses had to be provided, the country would have ground to a complete halt.

[There’s more in Deutsch on the strikes from Die Tageszeitung of Berlin, which reported on the strikes in France, the protest against the pension ‘reform’ and the social impacts of ‘austerity’. The Liberation of France reported on the massive Spanish strikes, and Socialist World has reportage of the Brussels strike.]

Greece’s main union federations, representing about 2.5 million workers, did not strike on Wednesday and only organised a march to parliament in the evening. Only a few of the smaller unions called strike action, with hospital doctors stopping work for 24 hours. There was strike action by bus and trolley drivers for several hours and the Athens’ metro system and trams were shut down for a period at noon.

A demonstrator reacts after being hit by anti-riot police in central Barcelona during the general strike held in Spain. (Guardian) Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

In Ireland, there were rallies hundreds strong in Belfast and Derry. A man drove a cement mixer covered with anti-bank slogans into the gates of the Irish parliament in Dublin to protest the bailout of the banks. In Portugal, there were protests in Lisbon and Porto. According to trade unions sources some 20,000 people took part in the evening demonstration in Lisbon.

Most of the other protests were in eastern Europe. In Poland, thousands marched in Warsaw against government plans to freeze wages and raise some taxes. They demanded the government guarantee job security and scrap plans to raise taxes. In Lithuania, some 400 protesters held an illegal demonstration in Vilnius. In Slovenia, around half of all public service workers continued a third day of an indefinite strike to protest at the government’s plan to freeze salaries for two years.

The Guardian reported that in Portugal, unions said 50,000 protesters joined a march in Lisbon and 20,000 in Porto. “It’s a crucial day for Europe,” said John Monks, general secretary of the European Trades Union Confederation, which orchestrated the events. “This is the start of the fight, not the end. That our voice be heard is our major demand today – against austerity and for jobs and growth. There is a great danger that the workers are going to be paying the price for the reckless speculation that took place in financial markets. You’ve really got to reschedule these debts so that they are not a huge burden on the next few years and cause Europe to plunge down into recession.”

In Brussels marchers from across Europe waved union flags and carried banners saying “No to austerity” and “Priority to jobs and growth”, bringing parts of the city to a halt. The protest was led by a group dressed in black suits and masks and carrying umbrellas and briefcases to represent financial speculators, acting as the head of a funeral cortege mourning the death of Europe.

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US Census poverty data: more poor today than 50 years ago

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Outside a community centre, Los Angeles

Outside a community centre, Los Angeles

A finding of great importance was released this week, of the number of people living in poverty in the United States of America (USA). The data was released by the US Census Bureau, which is carrying out the 2010 census of the USA.

The message is a stark indicator of the acute ill-health of the current global economic system and needs to be treated as such. The number of people living in poverty in the USA rose to 43.6 million in 2009 – this is the largest number since the agency began making such estimates 50 years ago and represents an increase of 3.8 million compared to 2008. As of last year, one in every seven Americans was poor, according to the government’s definition of poverty. The official poverty rate of 14.3% is the highest since 1994.

Handicapped man begging at a traffic light, Los Angeles

Handicapped man begging at a traffic light, Los Angeles

The poverty rate jumped more than a full percentage point, from 13.2% in 2008. There were 8.8 million families living in poverty in 2009, including one child in every five. This is the same rate of child poverty that existed nearly five decades ago, when President Lyndon Johnson announced his “War on Poverty”. With this data, the government of the USA is advised to cease and call off all the other wars it is waging and renew the war on poverty within its own boundaries.

Reflecting the impact of the economic slump and mass layoffs and wage-cutting, the increase in poverty was concentrated among working-age adults and their children – the poverty rate for working-age adults rose from 11.9% to 12.7% percent, for children the poverty rate rose from 19.4% to 20.7%, and the poverty rate for those 65 and older fell from 9.7% to 8.9%.

The new figures on poverty in the USA have powerfully shown that what passes for contemporary economic theory, such as the efficient markets hypothesis, has nothing whatsoever to do with human development. The ‘efficiency’ of markets are a direct expression of the needs of finance capital which has assumed such a powerful role in the world economy over the past three decades.

Food stamps in USAWhy has such devious and destructive theory been turned into policy for so long? Because it serves definite financial interests. Because, without such hypotheses and the support given them by the system we call ‘globalisation’, most of the trading and risk models used by major financial institutions would have to be thrown out.. These figures from the USA – amplified a thousand times in the figures from less industrialised countries – show why the system is choking every species on the planet including our own.

For readers from the USA, there is an objective commentary of the new poverty data here. The actual US Census Bureau data, analysis and supporting information is available here.

The Economic Policy Institute commented: “For the first time on record, the nominal (non-inflation adjusted) income of the median, or typical, household actually fell, from $50,303 in 2008 to $49,777 in 2009. Inflation was negative from 2008 to 2009, dropping by 0.4%, so real (inflation-adjusted) income did slightly better. Real median income declined by $335 from $50,112 in 2008 to $49,777 in 2009, a decline of 0.7%. The real median income of working-age households declined even more, falling by $754 from $56,575 to $55,821. African Americans were hit particularly hard in 2009, with the median African American household income dropping by 4.4%.”

The retail price of fuel advertised at a petrol pump (gas station)

The retail price of fuel advertised at a petrol pump (gas station)

The EPI said the 4.7 million drop in the number of earners working full-time, full-year, was “particularly astonishing”. A disproportionate amount of this decline was among men — the number of men working full-time, full-year dropped by 3.8 million, while there was a 900,000 drop in the number of women working full-time, full-year. The job loss and hours reductions of 2009 meant there was a 3.7 million drop in the number of workers with any earnings at all in 2009, and a 1.1 million increase in the number of workers working part-time and/or part-year.

That’s not all, said the Urban Institute. “This 15-year high still understates the dire straits of many Americans today.” The current recession began in December 2007, and the unemployment rate doubled (from 5 to 10%) between December 2007 and December 2009. The Census poverty estimates are based on family income received during the 2009 calendar year. Since the unemployment rate rose during the year, the 2009 poverty rate understates deprivation at the end of the year.