Big union mobilisations stalled attempts by European governments in the 1990s to cut public pensions.
There was a mass strike wave in France in 1995 [see below]. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi’s first government, in 1994–5, fell after its attempts to cut pensions brought strikes and street demonstrations.
>Berlusconi eventually regained office, and in July 2004 pushed through measures that require employees to pay 40 years of contributions before retirement or, if they pay only 35 years, to retire at 60 rather than 57 as at present. That was less than he wanted, and he got it through only after huge protests.
In Germany, opposition to Helmut Kohl’s plans to cut pensions was a major element in his downfall in 1998. His Social Democratic successor Gerhard Schroeder has also gone for cuts — the latest bringing big demonstrations and prompting a chunk of trade-union activists to split away from the Social Democratic Party and discuss forming a new electoral alternative.
France 1995: all for one, and one for all
It is nearly 10 years since France’s huge strike wave of 1995.
Action began in October against the plans of the new prime minister Alain Juppé to “reform” social security by levying new social security contributions, and cutting pension rights.
Students struck for more money for universities. Transport workers went on all-out strike, paralysing the cities. The railworkers were particularly strong, and opposed a new “company plan” aimed long term at privatising the railways.
Workers struck in other sectors: 63% in education; 40% in power; 22% in the post.
The movement peaked in early December. On 12 December there were demonstrations throughout France, with 2.2 million people on the streets. Then the strike wave receded. Workers in the private sector were not confident enough to join public sector workers and spread the action into new areas.
The movement ended also because Juppé climbed down partially: he would consult with the unions before bringing in his plans; he gave a bit more money to universities.
Crucially, on 10 December Juppé dropped his specific plans for railworkers: he would not change their especially favourable pension arrangements; he dropped the company plan.
Then came the most inspiring chapter in this story: railworkers stayed on strike. They didn’t need to, but they did. First, in their sectional interest, because they knew that, when they felt stronger, the ruling class would attack them after all. Second, in the interests of their whole class, the working class. The railworkers wanted to use their strength to benefit other workers.