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Slovenian workers strike against austerity

Darren Edgar

April 18, 2012

An estimated 90,000 public sector workers in Slovenia walked off the job on April 18 in what is described as the largest labour strike in the nation’s history, since it gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.
Teachers, health care workers, civil servants and even some police and customs officers participated in a general strike, leaving all schools and universities closed, as well as most public offices. While hospitals offered reduced services, police could only respond to emergencies and there were delays at the country’s borders.
A week in advance of the parliamentary session beginning, thousands marched in the streets of the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, as well as in other towns, carrying banners and placards and chanting slogans to protest against the new centre-right government’s announced plans for budget cuts in the form of public service worker layoffs and wage and benefit cuts. Anticipating most of the spending cuts to be made at the expense of public education, teachers and other education workers comprised the most significant contingent with approximately 85 per cent of their workforce striking.
The numbers
Before the global economic crisis of 2008, Slovenia had the euro zone’s fastest growing economy but due to the country’s small size—it has a population of just two million—and its dependence on exports, its economy has suffered significant reversals amidst the spreading euro debt crisis, shrinking by eight per cent in 2009 alone. National debt has more than doubled in just a few years, growing from 21.9 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2008 to 47.6 per cent in 2011. Over the same period, unemployment has soared from about seven per cent to 12.4 per cent.
With a budget deficit of 6.4 per cent of GDP in 2011, which is well over the three per cent cap allowed by the European Union (EU)’s Stability and Growth Pact, designed to safeguard the euro, Prime Minister Janez Jansa’s government is planning to reduce the deficit to 3.5 per cent of GDP in 2012 by slashing government spending.
Cuts of between seven and ten per cent to public sector workers’ salaries are expected as part of a much larger austerity program, confirmed by Slovenia’s Labour Minister, Andrej Vizjak, when he said, “The government must make cuts and reduce public spending by one billion euros in 2012.” This while Prime Minister Jansa says his government plans to take on new debt of up to 1.5 billion euros this year to cover the deficit, of which 700 million euros will be spent on interest on its previous debts.
There is no sign the government has any plans to back down from its austerity agenda even though it claims to be willing to negotiate a compromise with the public sector unions. On state television Prime Minister Jansa said, “It is time for the public sector to accept reality.”
The response
Slovenia’s working class, however, has something else in mind. Instead of accepting the “wisdom” of European bankers and their own country’s ruling class, Slovenian workers are taking inspiration from the impressive examples of resistance to austerity shown by workers in Greece and across the EU. This was expressed well by Dusan Semolic, President of the Alliance of Independent Unions: “We have to resist the measures coming from the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Those measures which our politicians so blindly copy.”
But still Prime Minister Jansa sticks to the script of capitalists in crisis, first crying poor by saying on state television, “The Slovenian economy is on the edge,” and then denouncing the strike even before it started, saying, “The strike will not solve anything, it will just increase our problems.”
Speaking more truthfully than he intended, Jansa is correct, of course: the strike will increase the problems of the ruling class. After all, it was only organized to last a single day—a mere stretching of the workers’ muscles in anticipation of greater struggles in the future—but after building workers’ confidence it might last longer and still could bring in large sections of the working class, including some public sector workers yet to take part, such as transportation workers, as well as private sector workers.
And with workers like Domeik Densa recognizing just where their power lies and refusing to bear the brunt of austerity, saying, “We have to take to the streets or things won’t get any better,” there is good reason to think this was only the beginning.

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