There is a lot resting on the outcome of the pensions fight in Britain and the uprising in France against the new labour code.
If local government workers lose their fight pension schemes will be ripped up across the private and public sector. We will all face a hike in the retirement age.
The pensions issue is a cross-European one. The grand coalition government of the centre right and centre left in Germany is pushing through retirement at 67. Once Germany goes down that road every other European Union (EU) state will follow.
Soon some east European country will set the pension age at 70 to try to compete with its more powerful neighbours. Then the race to the bottom will plunge to new depths. Meanwhile the financial media in both Britain and the US are semi-hysterical about the dangers of the Villepin government being beaten in France.
One US journalist described France as, “the coal miner’s canary of modern European society”. By which he meant that France has been the key indicator as to how the European neo-liberal drive is progressing.
The French lower orders blew a hole in that project by voting out the proposed EU constitution last year. If New Labour and Villepin carry the day it is not difficult to see where our rulers would want to go. Already there is a clamour for wages to be held down.
It would give the green light to the privatisation of Royal Mail and the replacement of existing delivery staff with part-time workers on the minimum wage. It would encourage more privatisation in schools and hospitals.
A victory in France would open up the possibility of an alternative to all this.
A victory over pensions here could revive the whole working class movement, hasten Blair’s exit from Downing Street and lay down a clear marker that the world’s fourth richest country can afford to pay decent pensions to its citizens.
The crux of the issue on both sides of the channel will be whether we can develop this fight beyond one day strikes into the all-out action that can deliver speedy victories.
The Irish socialist, James Connolly, was fond of quoting the French revolutionary Camile Desmoulins:
“The great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise.”
Tony Blair entered this year talking tough about his “radical” third term. Gordon Brown started talking tough this week about standing up to the unions over pensions.
We don’t know how long Tony will wait before vacating Downing Street to make way for Gordon.
But one day of effective action has left both of them looking like bullies who are all bluster and no muscle.
Within hours of the pensions strike biting, the government asked for talks. Whatever the final outcome of this, there is a simple lesson here.
For too long the trade unions have bowed down before the tough talk of free market Tories and New Labour.
Now hundreds of thousands of workers have tasted action and millions more can see it gets results. We need more days like Tuesday – days of solidarity.