Strikes flare in Europe as cost of living spirals

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Europe is acutely affected by the fall-out from the war in Ukraine, which is exacerbating a global energy crisis, inflation and a scarcity of some food products…reports Asian Lite News

European workers squeezed by the soaring cost of living went on strike in Belgium and Greece, with more stoppages threatening to paralyse parts of Britain, France and Spain in coming days.

Spreading industrial unrest poses a problem for governments which are already spending billions trying to blunt the worst effects of rising prices, at least for the most vulnerable.

Europe is acutely affected by the fall-out from the war in Ukraine, which is exacerbating a global energy crisis, inflation and a scarcity of some food products.

The onset of winter, when energy bills spike, and repeated predictions of a continent-wide recession are souring the labour mood even further.

Belgium and Greece saw general strikes on Wednesday, disrupting transport in their respective capitals, impacting businesses.

In Brussels, home to the European Commission and other EU institutions, workers were protesting inflation running higher than 12 percent — well above the 10.7 percent average across the eurozone.

The country’s biggest union, the FGTB, is demanding greater leeway to negotiate pay rises.

But the Belgian government counters that Belgian salaries are already indexed to inflation — an arrangement not seen in most other countries.

The strike cut train services by 75 percent and closed the airport in the southern city of Charleroi, the main hub in the country for Europe’s leading airline Ryanair.

In Greece, ferries serving its many islands were among the transport lines halted by a general strike, the second to hit the country since September.

Brief clashes erupted in Athens and Thessaloniki when hooded youths threw firebombs at police, who responded with tear gas.

In the capital, red paint was splashed at the entrance to Greece’s central bank, and a firebomb was thrown at a car in front of the finance ministry.

In the northern city of Thessaloniki, a banner said: “We choose life, not survival.”

Greek unions are insisting on salary rises to cope with inflation which nationally has risen to 12 percent.

Nurses across Britain to go on strike

Tens of thousands of British nurses will go on strike for the first time over demands for better pay, their trade union said on Wednesday, adding to pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during an economic crisis.

Nurses at the majority of state-run National Health Service (NHS) employers across Britain have voted to strike, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said in action that threatens major disruption to an already strained health system.

The RCN, which has more than 300,000 members, said industrial action would begin before the end of the year following the first ever strike vote in its 106-year-old history.

“Anger has become action – our members are saying enough is enough,” RCN General Secretary Pat Cullen said in a statement. “This action will be as much for patients as it is for nurses. Standards are falling too low.”

NHS nurses have seen their salaries cut by up to 20% in real terms over the last ten years, the RCN has said. The union is asking for a pay hike of 5% over inflation.

In Britain, where inflation is above 10 percent, worker protests over not being able to make ends meet are coming to a crescendo.

Britain has seen a wave of industrial unrest this year across a range of professions as pay rises fail to keep up with inflation running at 10%.

Sunak’s spokesperson told reporters earlier on Wednesday the government wanted to strike a balance between the “crucial role” played by nurses and its fiscal challenges.

The RCN’s demands would amount to combined pay rises costing 9 billion pounds ($10.25 billion) which would be “simply not deliverable,” the spokesperson said, adding there were contingency plans in place for any “staff impact”.

Strike in France

Stoppages were to be felt on Thursday in France, with the underground urban rail networks and buses in Paris to be severely affected.

A French union leader, Celine Verzeletti of the CGT confederation, predicted up to 200 “demonstration points”, roughly the same as the last national strike in France, on October 18, when more than 100,000 people protested.

France is not as badly affected by inflation as its European peers, as the state holds stakes in the main energy companies and has minimised how far energy bills can rise.

Inflation in France is just over six percent — better than elsewhere — but with economic activity across the eurozone nosediving, hatches are being battened for what looks like a period of stagflation.

EU energy moves

On top of Thursday’s stoppage in London’s Underground, British nurses are to hold the first strike in the 106-year history of their RCN union at a date yet to be announced.

Late next week, hundreds of workers at Heathrow airport are to down tools for three days, between November 18 and 21, to demand better pay.

Their action could force the cancellation of flights to Qatar, which is to host the World Cup football tournament that kicks off on November 20.

British dockers, university staff, postal employees and the legal profession have all held, or threaten to continue strikes over pay eaten away by inflation.

In Spain, truck drivers have called an indefinite strike from next Monday. Their last stoppage, in March, led to empty supermarket shelves.

Brussels: Flags of the European Union fly outside the EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, May 21, 2021. (Xinhua/Zheng Huansong/IANS)

With labour protests mounting, the EU is looking at ways to take some of the sting out of energy prices.

The European Commission and member states are working on proposals to promote the joint purchase of gas and possibly impose a mechanism to cap the price of wholesale gas within the EU.

Details are not expected to be finalised until late this month, but the steps — and unseasonably warm weather last month – contributed to a fall in gas prices, though they are expected to rise again as winter bites.

The head of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, said last week a “mild” eurozone recession looked likely – but warned it would not be enough to bring down record-high inflation.

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