The centre of Madrid became a sea of people when millions of workers walked out on strike last week. Estimates put one demonstration outside the city’s congress building at 360,000—more than ten times the official figure.
There were similar scenes in cities across Spain at the end of a day that shook Europe’s leaders. Workers in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece walked out together on general strikes for the first time. Strikes, demonstrations and other actions took place in many more countries too.
“It’s fantastic that workers everywhere are striking today,” said postal worker Paolo, who was keeping warm with bonfires and barbecues at Lisbon’s central depot. It’s a wonderful struggle like I haven’t seen for decades. I was three years old during the revolution, and this is just like it.”
In Spain this was the second general strike in a year—but it hit much harder. Unions say up to 80 percent of workers took part. Regional TV stations went blank, and the strike registered on the power grid with a drop in consumption of between 15 and 20 percent.
Jesus Castillo, a lecturer at Seville University, told Socialist Worker, “It was the first time the cleaners had a picket line. We all picketed with them from 5.30am then for the teachers and administrative workers from 7am.
“We marched from campus to campus, going into the few classes that were taking place and explaining to people why they should strike.”
Greek unions called a three-hour general strike on the day. Workers there had walked out for 48 hours the week before.
Getting to this level of struggle hasn’t been easy. Less than a year ago, the Portuguese government was bragging that workers there would never fight austerity.
Barely a year before that, Spanish unions signed a rotten deal on pensions after a one-day general strike. There was huge disillusionment with them because of this.
In Spain everything changed on 15 May last year. Hundreds of thousands of protesters—mostly young and unemployed—occupied town squares.
“It took us completely by surprise,” said Miguel Sanz Alcantara, an activist in the SAT union. “It was four and a half years into the economic crisis. The radical left felt very isolated ideologically and, in some cases, demoralised.”
Suddenly it became much easier to put forward militant tactics and radical demands. At first many in this new 15M movement were suspicious of unions. But the general strike brought the two strands together.
“It was almost what you could call a social general strike,” continued Miguel. “More people were involved then ever before. Activists from the 15M movement got a taste of the power of workers. It’s a taste they never forgot.”
Miguel described how previous struggles are still affecting the fight today. “The core of the 15M movement was activists who came out of struggles over housing or university privatisation,” he said. “Rank and file workers have been way ahead of union leaders who refused to link up the struggles.
“During a miners’ strike earlier this year there was such an outpouring of solidarity across the working class. But the union leaders did nothing with it.”
In countries like Spain, France, Italy and Portugal unions are divided more by politics than by sector. Last week’s strike was marked by larger demonstrations than ever of the more militant “alternative unions”.
Some of these are linked to anarchists or other radical traditions, such as Miguel’s SAT union that led occupations of supermarkets over the summer.
There has also been a growth of workplace organisation that owes more to the 15M movement than the main unions.
The fighting spirit among Spain’s workers has made each general strike a bigger success than the last. Now the day of action has shown the thirst for an alternative across the continent.
But the longest fight remains ahead. The eurozone slipped back into recession last week for the first time in three years. Neither German chancellor Angela Merkel nor the “troika” of austerity institutions that surround her has yet conceded any ground.
Many workers hope to see more days of international solidarity like last week. But they also want to deepen the struggles in each country and indeed each workplace.
“So many workers want to see a more serious fight, not just one day at a time but a serious medium term strategy,” said Miguel. “The next step for the radical left is to win that kind of combative attitude inside the unions.”
Out at night
For some workers the strike began at 10pm on Tuesday night. “I was at a picket line of 100,” said Michel Abdissi of the Belgian train workers’ union. “We didn’t want to leave our colleagues in central Europe to fight alone.”
Around 30 pickets joined one Lisbon bin depot from 10pm. Workers chanted, “Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal—the struggle is international”.
“We have to be stubborn or else we lose,” said refuse worker Joao Lucas. Over at the bus depot, riot police had to fight their way through hundreds of pickets.
It was a similar story at the Alcorcon bus station near Madrid. Police had to fire rubber bullets into the air to get even a small number of buses out.
‘People are rising up all over’
Some of the most dramatic scenes were in Italy. Students poured into joint demonstrations with workers. In Turin they occupied the central station and local government offices.
In Rome protesters battled police. Protesters in Naples lay on the railway tracks and Metro workers walked out, bringing the city to a halt.
“There are many common points between students and workers,” said Leopoldo Tartaglia of the CGIL union. “There’s the lack of funding for education, high youth unemployment and the teachers are on strike.”
There were also protests in other countries—including Poland, Germany and Britain. Across France tens of thousands of people demonstrated in 130 towns and cities. Workers marching in Lyon chanted, “If you’re against capital, clap your hands.”
“This could have been more if trade unions had called for a general strike,” said Sellouma of the New Anticapitalist Party in Paris.
“But some sectors did strike and mobilise their forces. The most vibrant were from factories which have had long struggles against mass sackings, such as Peugeot and Sanofi.
“And at a time when nationalism is poisoning French politics, there were banners reaffirming a solidarity that knows no borders.”
Unions in other countries marked the day with conferences, workplace meetings and leafleting, or “political and media actions”. These, with protests planned later in the month, brought the official total of countries taking part to 24.
It didn’t end on Wednesday. Major demonstrations took place in Greece, Slovenia and the Czech Republic last Saturday. More are planned in Ireland and Portugal this week.
Workers and unemployed activists laying siege to the Portuguese parliament in Lisbon summed up the feelings of many. “This can’t go on for any longer,” said Diana. “We want jobs with dignity. We want pensions when we retire and pensions for our parents.”
Kyria added, “We need to follow the example of Greece, and get more action after today. The people of the world are rising up.”
Occupation is a way forwards
In Spain and Greece hundreds of people occupied their workplaces. Javier Cordon is a secretarial worker at Ramon y Cajal hospital. It is one of several in the Madrid region under occupation to stop privatisation.
“We went in after an assembly of about 400 workers, patients and citizens,” he told Socialist Worker. “The assemblies are decision-making bodies for each hospital—it’s an attempt to overcome the brake put on the struggle by the union bureaucracy.
“The demonstrations on the day of the strike were huge. We marched in a bloc of 5,000 health workers.”
In Greece a cuts package voted through two weeks ago has brought new attacks on education and local government workers.
One of the liveliest contingents on the strike demonstration was of the workers occupying the senate of Athens University. Local government workers mostly went to protest at their town halls. Around 200 have been occupied or closed by workers.
Costas Fininis is a local government worker in Vrilisia, Greater Athens. “The aim is to stop the authorities getting hold of the lists of workers to be made redundant,” he said.
For Costas, the stakes could not be higher. “We need to be more aggressive in our solidarity—it’s a historic time for us to all come together in one fist against the government.”
Austria: actions of solidarity
Belgium: trains, factories, power stations strike
Britain: solidarity protests
Czech Republic: anti-cuts protest
Finland: unions lobby politicians
France: protests in 130 cities and some factory strikes
Germany: demonstrations in Berlin and other cities
Greece: three hour stoppage, workers in occupation, protests on Saturday
Ireland: national demonstration next week
Italy: general strike and fighting between students and cops
Lithuania: transport strike in the capital Vilnius
Poland: demonstrations in four cities and workplace meetings
Portugal: 24-hour general strike and call for new protests
Romania: protests demand collective bargaining
Slovenia: demonstration on Saturday
Spain: historic turnout for general strike and evening protests
Switzerland: demonstrations at embassies
Turkey: transport strike and solidarity demonstrations
Thanks to Jonathan Collier, Mark Bergfeld, Sam Robson, Panos Garganas and everyone who sent reports, quotes and pictures