As austerity in southern Europe worsens, workers in three countries have staged general strikes. Workers in Portugal and Spain began strikes on Wednesday of this week, while Greece had its general strike on Tuesday of last week—on what was Election Day for the United States.
Greek, French, Belgian and Italian workers also protested on Wednesday, but none of those countries saw a general strike that day. A general strike is a strike which is not limited to one workplace or union in a particular region. It usually includes workers from most unions in the area, and often a substantial quantity of non-union employees.
The general strikes are a reaction against the European Union debt crisis policy. As Ezra Klein explained on a June episode of The Rachel Maddow Show, the European Central Bank has insisted that it will only help to bail out the four protesting countries out of their massive debts if their governments enact harsh austerity cuts.
Greece’s most recent general strike was in protest of the latest round of austerity: On the day of the strike, the country’s parliament narrowly passed $23 billion in budget cuts demanded by the European Central Bank. This in a country where more than a quarter of the population is already unemployed, and those who still have jobs have seen their wages and pensions go into free fall as a result of austerity.
In Spain, the picture is equally grim—perhaps even grimmer, according to the Wall Street Journal. The country has an unemployment rate to match Greece’s (including over 50% youth unemployment). However, there might be a ray of hope in Spain: as its strike raged on Wednesday, shutting down key industries and leading to 32 arrests, European Union officials suggested that further austerity there might not be necessary.
It’s worth keeping an eye on whether worker uprisings can halt the ruthless budget cuts which the European Union continues to impose on southern nations. Further economic instability on that continent could have global implications—it could be a sign of things to come in the United States.
Because America has its own central bank, the U.S. is unlikely to have austerity forced on it by an international body such as the EU. However, despite its monetary flexibility, the American government has recently pursued a path of de facto austerity, refusing aid to cash-strapped state governments and prioritizing deficit reduction over economic recovery. If so-called “fiscal cliff” negotiations prevent further economic stimulus, then it will mean another round of austerity, America-style.