Firemen on strike in Nice, France, on September 7, 2010. (Photo: Bex.Walton)
Americans should take a page from activists throughout the rest of the world if they're seriously interested in resisting the massive budget cuts afflicting this country. Effective social change only comes about through mass action - a lesson that has emerged after years of grassroots uprisings in the U.S. and throughout the world. Consider some of the evidence from various cases below.
The French: Don't Call Them Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys
Over a million French workers turned out in the streets this month to protest proposed government budget cutbacks by President Nicolas Sarkozy. The rallies were part of a 24-hour strike that shut down flights and railway services, in addition to closing schools throughout the country. Government plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 motivated these protests, even though France already has one of the lower retirement rates throughout Europe. The opposition is also driven by resistance to plans to fire 7,000 teachers, the proposed lengthening of pay periods for public employees, and plans to cut pension benefits.
The mass turnout of a million people in France is the functional equivalent (after controlling for population differences) of seeing more than 4.5 million organize throughout the United States to protest state budget cuts and mass layoffs. Such a movement has not been seen among public sector workers, despite the fact that this segment of the economy traditionally benefits from the strongest worker organization through its continued reliance on mass unionization.
This is not the first protest in France either in recent years. Last June, nearly 1 million turned out nationwide to protest proposed budget cuts - a sign of a sustained national activist campaign that will not relent until the government backs down on its austerity measures. The case of France demonstrates that necessity doesn't have to be the mother of invention. Well-off people can organize to protect hard fought wage gains and other benefits, and we don't need to wait until we're on the verge of destitution (as Americans are doing) to be engaged in activism and protest. Of course, France's strong history of labor unionism has helped spur sustained rounds of resistance to budget cuts, whereas the American public has become increasingly divorced from working class unionism in recent decades (unions represent less than 15 percent of all American workers today).
Sweatshops are NOT Inevitable: The Case of Bangladesh
The people of Bangladesh most strikingly put to shame the elitist apathy that is sapping the collective will of the American people. With radically less, the poor people of Bangladesh have achieved so much more than Americans (at least in the last two years) in the areas of popular activism and protesting economic injustice. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party is leading a mass movement to protest the terrible working conditions and pay levels in sweatshops throughout the country. Demonstrations that took place this summer just outside of the country's capital of Dhaka protested the refusal of the national government to improve power and gas supplies, and the unwillingness to ease the suffering of those who are enduring increased food prices. 50,000 garment workers came together to demand the equivalent of $70 per month, a major increase from the estimated $14-23 per month they were receiving. The lower rates of pay they receive are below the national poverty line, and contribute to great unrest and instability among Bangladesh's workers.
The demand for increased pay represents a major challenge to the unimpeded profits of American companies (operating in country) such as Wal-Mart, Levi Strauss, and H&M, which have been happy to subjugate an entire nation to wage slavery. The protests were highly effective in drawing national and international attention to the plight of Bangladesh's working poor. At least 76 factories were forcibly shut down, in retaliation against the government's reneging on a promise to increase wages for the country's 2.5 million garment workers. The case of Bangladesh should be inspiring for all those throughout the world dealing with austerity measures, as it shows that even in the direst of circumstances, there is no such thing as "inevitability" of low pay. All workers retain the right to a living wage, and many are willing to fight for it. Of course, it also helps to have a political party (as those in Bangladesh do) which will fight for popular change.
Protests on the Forgotten Continent: Increasing Desperation in Mozambique and South Africa
Many Americans would be hard pressed to demonstrate any sort of knowledge of African politics. The continent is traditionally seen as outside of citizens' interests, as attention to global politics is a low priority for the American public (outside of following events in countries the U.S. is bombing). Still, increasing desperation throughout Africa has been accompanied by serious action on the part of the disadvantaged and desperate. Violent protests and riots in Mozambique this month were the result of increasing global food prices. Food costs increased dramatically in light of deteriorating global environmental conditions - most specifically the severe droughts in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Northern and Western Africa, which have exacted a terrible toll on global crop yields.
Prices for bread, electricity, and water have gone up by nearly a third in Mozambique, and were accompanied by looting throughout the nation's capital of Maputo. Public anger was further stoked by the government's refusal to intervene to help the poor deal with major increases in food and energy costs.
Strikes in South Africa are driven by public sector workers, who are demanding better benefits from the government. Strikes throughout the country this summer went on for weeks, and were accompanied by the forced closing of schools and the short-staffing of hospitals, as more than a million public servants refused to return to work until their demands for a 8.6 percent pay raise were met. Union activism succeeded in forcing the South African government to the negotiation table, in an effort to end the nation-paralyzing strikes.
Europe in Decline: Protesting the Decline of Living Standards in the U.K., Spain, and Greece
While Americans are overwhelmingly sitting back and accepting the "necessity" of massive budget cuts and mass layoffs that will inevitably make the economic crisis worse, union activists in Europe are taking the initiative in rejecting comparable efforts in their countries. This June saw the emergence of a national rebellion in Spain, where a day-long strike protested a 5 percent pay cut across the board directed against public sector teachers, firefighters, hospital workers, and other local government positions. The cuts were undertaken in the name of balancing budgets and protecting the prosperity of future children, ironically while assaulting the living standards of the parents and children of today. The rebellion in Spain was truly massive, with an estimated 75 to 80 percent of public workers - or more than 2.5 million people - taking part.
The Spanish government wants further cuts, with salaries frozen in 2011 and future pension funding that will not be adjusted for inflation. Spain's workers are sending the message that they won't go down without a fight. At a time when national unemployment is over 20 percent (with total unemployment at 4 million and underemployment reaching 40 percent of the population), Spain's workers are standing up and saying "no more!"
Summer protests in Greece were designed to draw attention to increasing national desperation. One in five now live below the poverty line, and the situation is certain to get worse as proposed austerity measures - including tax hikes, pay cuts, and pension freezes - are undertaken. By July 2010, Greece's public service workers had engaged in a half dozen strikes, forcing a shutdown of public transportation and closing down schools, courts, hospitals, and newspapers. The protests galvanized tens of thousands to turn out in cities across the country, prompting chants of "hands off our pensions" in opposition to draconian cuts directed against the country's working class.
In the United Kingdom, students, staff, and faculty across 100 universities came together to organize on-campus protests in June to resist planned government layoffs, salary cuts, and reductions in courses. The public was not fooled over the incremental nature of the cuts, which will be implemented over a number of years, but will affect three-quarters of the country's schools. The cuts are quite significant in scale - approximately 200 million pounds (or $300 million in U.S. dollars) across the country.
Protests in the U.S.: What are We Waiting For?
The United States is suffering under its own economic calamity over the last few years, too. Unemployment is consistently increasing, while massive state budget cuts are succeeding in throwing out countless public servants across the states in recent years. Underemployment is currently at over 20 percent, while unemployment benefits were barely extended in a bitter national debate between both parties this summer. To make matters worse, the economy is limping along, showing little sign of a real recovery, while the specter of future bank and financial failures loom in the background.
Many will wonder, why is there so much activism throughout the rest of the world, but comparatively much less in the United States in resisting neoliberalism and austerity-based budget cuts? Part of the explanation in the cases of resistance in Greece, Spain, Mozambique, South Africa, and Bangladesh is the fact that workers in those countries are comparatively much worse off than Americans when it comes to deteriorating pay, benefits, and other worker protections. Unemployment levels are often much higher than in the U.S., while pay levels have long been comparative lower. This explanation, however, is partial at best. The U.K. is characterized in many ways by a relatively stronger social welfare state (especially in relation to health care) than that seen in the U.S., and less extreme conditions for workers, with 7.8 percent unemployment compared to the United States' 9.6 percent official unemployment. Yet, British public sector workers are far more organized and intolerant of the gutting of public education. France has a similar level of unemployment to the U.S. at 10 percent and a far more advanced social welfare state, yet its workers have responded with a coordinated national campaign to protest budget cuts. In contrast, American protests against far larger austerity measures (in the form of mass layoffs and talk of serious pension cuts) are being met by scattered local protests at best. No salient national campaign is emerging across localities in this country, nor does it appear that one is on the horizon in the near future.
The relatively stronger position of labor unions throughout Western Europe also doesn't fully explain the weak level of protests in the U.S. Most of the strikes and protests discussed above were led by public sector workers, an area of the U.S. economy that has traditionally been characterized by strong unionization and organization. While only 7.2 percent of U.S. private sector workers are part of a union, the figure is at nearly 40 percent of public workers, and that figure actually grew from 2008 to 2009.
A major cause of U.S. apathy is likely the depoliticization of the American electorate and the lack of a collective working class consciousness. A majority of Americans distrust their political officials, while a growing number feel that they cannot rely upon the national government to improve their living standards. This latter trend should be particularly disturbing for those on the left who see the national government as the primary medium for promoting the improvement of living standards for the masses and for establishing and promoting collective goods. Establishing universal health care and universal funding for higher education, in addition to the strengthening of food stamps, head start, job training, Social Security, and a slew of other welfare programs will only be accomplished by increasing our support for, and reliance on the national government. These progressive victories will not emerge by "getting government out of our lives," or by turning our back on national politics.
Americans are incessantly bombarded by conservative propaganda stressing the theme that government is the problem, rather than part of the solution in terms of promoting American prosperity. Diversionary mass media direct public attention toward fashionable consumption and meaningless celebrity news, rather than toward important political and economic issues, such as whether Americans will have a job tomorrow as a result of massive budget cuts and a weakening economy. American educational institutions do a pitiful job in informing the young about the importance of social movements in bringing about positive social change. Finally, structural changes in the economy force Americans to work longer hours for less pay, leaving less time for political education and activism.
All of these forces come together to wreak havoc on the prospects for renewed progressive activism among the American public. Progressive change is further hindered by the emergence of faux "social movements" like the Tea Party, supplemented by "grassroots uprisings" in the form of birtherism and anti-Muslim racism. These "movements" are largely media-induced, fueled by right-wing Republican and punditry-based hatred, which seeks to take advantage of the very real economic grievances of Middle America. There is more than a bit of Nazi-esque race-baiting and scapegoating involved in this process, especially when looking at the equation of Muslims with Nazism (seen among many protesting the Manhattan Muslim Community Center).
Until we begin to address the structural problems that plague American society, we will see little progress in organizing the masses to oppose the reactionary assault on the populace. Without action, there will be little support for a progressive agenda for real change. Americans must realize that the only way forward is through a direct confrontation with political and economic elites. Positive progressive change is never willingly given up by elites - it must be forcibly taken from below. This is the most important lesson to take from the global backlash against neoliberalism.