Finally, after hundreds of strikes and nearly 800 deaths a day, the Italian government decided to suspend all non-essential productive activities. While in Spain, Portugal, France and Germany, governments are still adamantly opposed to carrying out a truly effective confinement in the midst of the largest wave of strikes and the worst epidemic in a century.
Since Friday’s last count, Telegram’s @huelga [«on strike»] channel has been picking up more and more strikes all over Italy: workers at Lidl, Unes, Iper, Amazon, Hydro Alluminio… went on strike with a visibility that made a media blockade impossible. The Italian bourgeoisie was facing a real outburst of workers who were pushing for the only way to put a stop to the increasingly outrageous number of deaths and new infections. And the bourgeoisie was forced into a retreat.
It’s a bittersweet victory. Sweet because it comes after a spontaneous strike extension that broke the containment measures of the employer-trade union alliance in a relatively short time. But it is also bitter because it has left behind hundreds of new infections and deaths that would have been perfectly avoidable from the confinement’s declaration until today if confinement had not been subordinated to extending the companies’ profits by two more weeks. In any case, this victory is extremely important: it concludes a phase and prepares a way out of the epidemic with much less leeway for governments using their strategies to impoverish the workers in order to revive investment and capital. In fact, Conte is now clearly telling Germany and the Netherlands that post-coronavirus Italy will not be a new Greece. Merkel and her Northern allies in the EU are reluctant, and the result, for the time being, is deferred.
German “toughness” is actually a sinister gamble. With its borders closed, Germany expects the bourgeoisies of the southern countries to bear the brunt of the economic cost of the epidemic, staving off closures and market losses to gain even more relative weight in the post-epidemic world. If the bet was that there would be no community contagion within the country… They lost it long ago. Now we know that if the figures show an incredible absence of mortality it is because in Germany there are serious recounting problems, like a suspected lack of post-mortem tests for coronavirus.
Thus, with statistical silence, only the most affected lander begin, in an uncoordinated way, to impose partial measures of confinement, while Merkel interprets a theatrical play of “normality” by going shopping in a convenience store in Berlin to reaffirm an illusion of normality that keeps the streets full of children and community life at normal levels, without anyone considering that going to work is a danger for everyone.
Spain and Portugal
In Spain, Sánchez was on the defensive yesterday on television, visibly nervous and giving his “best”, that is, resorting to his most cynical discursive traps. When the newspaper “El Pais” asked him if he was going to extend the confinement to non-essential production, he dodged the question by asking the journalists if they wanted to forbid the mother of an autistic child to take her son for a walk or to buy bread. He couldn’t think of anything better.
The image of a Sánchez with a bad face, wrapped up by a government full of generals and hammering out a nervous discourse of “national anti-viral union” is significant of the degree of contradictions in which the Spanish bourgeoisie finds itself at this point. At the moment, the information blockade is going relatively well, although a part of the petty bourgeoisie is already getting out of hand and hitting its pots with passion in Madrid’s damp nights.
However, unlike in Italy, the media have established a cordon sanitaire around workers’ protests and strikes to such an extent that in order to discover the strike by the workers of Vesta, one of the largest industrial companies in La Mancha… it has been necessary to visit the European corporate press in English for days; the first news in Spanish was not published until yesterday and in a lost corner on the website of a regional grassroots union. This is by no means the only case. The business shutdowns achieved by workers’ strikes are presented in the press, if at all, as measures at the initiative of the owners.
But this strategy seems to be failing, and that is why the main message of a cynical, condescending and tense Sánchez was that we should not believe any news that does not come from “authorized channels” and that we should call our friends to encourage them… instead of going around the Internet and the factories subverting order, of course. The whole scene did not fail to reveal the increasing degree of the contradictions that strain the national capital.
In Portugal, the situation may evolve in a very similar way due to the foreseeable extension of the epidemic. The response of the government in a country where the bourgeoisie never faced a mass strike or workers’ revolution and always felt stronger in resorting to direct repression is something else. In fact, the declaration of a state of emergency suspends the right to strike and has already served to impose civil requisitioning in the port of Lisbon where the dockers already came from a strike dynamic that overlapped with the epidemic.
This urge to turn the restrictions of confinement into a lever with which to push through the agenda of national capital under threat of repression is the most authentic expression of the meaning of the “anti-viral national union”. And, of course, it has had its spearhead in France: Macron has not missed the opportunity of the emergency laws to pass a permanent reform of the workers’ statute, imposing limits on paid leave and holidays as well as attacking the 35-hour week.
But the focus of the efforts of the French state and bourgeoisie is on attacking the “right of dissent”. This legal right gives workers the possibility to leave their jobs when it becomes a danger to their own lives. Needless to say, tens of thousands of workers across the country are exercising it. Hundreds on Amazon alone. Others, like workers at waste-recycling centers, are also using their right to dissent to paralyze activities.
The extent of the power and potential of the strike and dissent movement becomes clear as the state tries to avoid direct confrontations and tries to find a certain level of concessions that would prevent total workplace closures. For example, the French government now proposes that companies be allowed to send workers home on paid holidays… However, in the usual style of Macronism, it is not clear whether these days are deducted from the annual total or not. It is part of a game of ambiguities that started with the announcement that the government would use 100% paid temporary layoffs as a tool. In the first twenty days, almost 26,000 companies requested this formula, affecting 560,000 workers. When the accounts were drawn up, the total budget required grew and the government moderated the promise from 100 to 70% of the salary. But when it reached 1.7 billion euros… it simply began to reject paid temporary layoffs.
What is to be done?
Merkel in Germany misleads with numbers and forces an extended “normality” by risking the lives of thousands of people and permanent injuries for hundreds of thousands. Macron in France plays at keeping production going by making promises he doesn’t intend to keep with one hand and imposing attacks by taking advantage of the state of siege, with the other hand. Sánchez in Spain is evading as best he can the growing pressure to close down non-essential jobs. In Italy alone they have had to back down and accept it after the pressure of hundreds of strikes all over the country.
There is no other way if the goal is to save lives, not investments. What is more, the conditions of the post-epidemic will depend on the ability to impose it: whether or not they will be able to freely organize a new massive transfer of resources from the workers to capital. To strike now to force the closure of workplaces during the epidemic is to affirm the priority of saving lives today and not letting them destroy those of two more generations tomorrow.