European strike wave against austerity


WORKERS throughout Europe are taking strike actions against austerity measures in defence of their jobs, pay, pensions and public services.

Following last month’s rail, metro and Air France strikes by French workers, German train drivers launched a four-day strike on Wednesday, their longest in 20 years, over a long-running pay dispute.

The walkout was called by the German Train Drivers’ Union, GDL (Gewerkschaft Deutscher Lokomotivführer), after closed-door negotiations between the union and German rail operator, Deutsche Bahn, collapsed on Monday.

The GDL accused Deutsche Bahn of stonewalling in negotiations over workers’ demands for a five per cent pay rise for 20,000 drivers and a two-hour reduction of working hours per week.

The union has also demanded wage deals for nearly 17,000 train guards and other personnel.

The drivers’ industrial action started with a halt in cargo services on Wednesday and then spread to passenger trains on Thursday.

The stoppage is scheduled to end next Monday.

In a statement issued last Tuesday, GDL said the strike would start from 15:00 local time (14:00 GMT) on Wednesday for freight trains and from 02:00 (01:00 GMT) on Thursday for passenger trains.

The union had earlier warned that its members would launch a 91-hour walkout if its demands were not met.

On Monday, Deutsche Bahn said the closed-door negotiations with the GDL ended in failure.

The strike, the sixth since September, disrupted the travel plans of millions of people during celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this weekend.

The weekend’s Bundesliga football matches are also hit by the 100-hour stoppage.

Traffic jams were reported on many key roads across Germany on Thursday, with a 30km (18-mile) jam on the A81 motorway between Heilbronn and Stuttgart in the south-western state of Baden-Wuerttemberg described as the worst.

Deutsche Bahn management slammed the walkout as ‘pure bullying’ and accused the GDL of ‘paralysing public life’ in the country.

The company warned that major delays could be expected during the four days of protest.

In mid-October, GDL called for a 50-hour strike, halting two thirds of long-distance trains and leaving millions stranded at the beginning of weekend holidays.

Following GDL’s industrial action in October, pilots at German airline Lufthansa staged a two-day strike, causing flight disruptions for hundreds of thousands of travellers.

• Some 100,000 Belgian demonstrators took to the streets of the capital, Brussels, on Thursday to protest against the new government’s austerity measures.

Protesters turned out for a mass demonstration, waving flares and holding banners against the economic and social reforms announced by the administration of the newly-elected prime minister, Charles Michel.

Thursday’s march was one of Belgium’s biggest labour demonstrations since World War Two. Steelworkers, dockers and teachers were among the thousands who took part, protesting against government austerity policies.

For two hours, the demonstrators peacefully marched down the main thoroughfares of central Brussels to protest against government policies that will raise the pension age, freeze wages and cut into public services.

Belgian police then blasted the crowds with water cannon and used tear gas against the anti-austerity protesters.

Several vehicles were set alight by protesters who responded to the police attack by throwing stones and flares at police. About 50 people were hurt and 30 arrested, officials said.

‘They are hitting the workers, the unemployed,’ said Philippe Dubois, who came from the industrial region of Liege.

The march marked the start of a month-long campaign by trade unions and is to be capped with a general strike on 15 December.

Unions as well as the Socialist, Green and left parties decried the government decisions to cancel the customary cost-of-living increases and raise the retirement age from 65 to 66 from 2025 and to 67 in 2030.

The new government also plans to reduce costs in the civil service as well as in the fields of culture and scientific research.

Marie-Helene Ska, the secretary general of the leading Belgian union, CSC, said: ‘The government tells us and all of the parties tell us that there’s no alternative.

‘We don’t contest that they have to find 11bn euros (£8.6bn; $13.6bn) but we’ve been saying for a long time that it’s possible to find this money elsewhere, rather than in the pockets of the workers.’

She warned: ‘The whole raft of government measures creates a potentially explosive cocktail.’

Despite the opening of government-led talks with employers and unions, Socialist trade union leader Rudy De Leeuw vowed to continue the protests for weeks on end.

Thursday’s protest created disruptions to metro trains, trams and buses throughout the capital, where the European Union headquarters is based.

Thursday’s march signals more strikes in the future against the austerity policies. Workers at steel firms, the ports of Antwerp and Zeebrugge, and the post office are also planning to launch a work slowdown.

• Tens of thousands of Serbian doctors, nurses, pharmacists and medical staff took part in a one-day strike on Wednesday against the Belgrade government’s austerity measures.

Medical unions representing some 80 per cent of more than 160,000 employees called the strike in protest at the planned ten per cent cut in all wages paid from the state budget.

The stoppage wreaked havoc in already overcrowded hospitals and overstretched ambulance services. Paediatric and emergency care as well as pre-scheduled surgeries were spared.

Union leader Dragan Cvetic said on Wednesday: ‘Everything else will have to wait for tomorrow.’

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s cabinet last week passed a bill with a ten per cent cut in all public sector wages and pensions higher than 25,000 dinars ($263 a month), in a first step towards balancing the budget.

Spending cuts are a key condition for the renewal of a credit arrangement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). An IMF delegation arrived in Belgrade last Monday to review the country’s economic policy, possibly paving the way for the new loan.

The last credit arrangement Serbia had with the IMF was agreed to in late 2011, but suspended in February 2012 because of government overspending.

The health workers’ strike followed a one-day work stoppage by education workers on the first day of school in September over planned salary cuts.

Lawyers have been striking for weeks over the introduction of a notary system within a justice system restructuring plan.

The notaries assumed the service that generated income for the lawyers.

Trains in Belgrade were delayed for several hours on Tuesday as a railroad company had one station blockaded over the payment of wages.

The workers have threatened to hold strikes every week until they are paid.