Hot Topics

Hundreds of Thousands of Greek and British Workers Stage Strikes as Governments Push Austerity Cuts

StoryJuly 01, 2011
Watch iconWatch Full Show

Paul Mason

economics editor for BBC Newsnight. His books include Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed and Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global.

David Graeber

teaches anthropology at Goldsmiths College at the University of London. He is the author of several books. His newest book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House), comes out later this month.

More than 750,000 British public sector workers staged a 24-hour strike Thursday in a standoff with the government’s plans to reform public sector pensions. The reforms come as the government tries to trim its deficit and would require public workers to work longer, pay more toward their pension, and receive less upon retirement. Meanwhile, in Greece, thousands of workers staged a 48-hour strike, and many took to the streets after the Greek Parliament approved a raft of austerity measures that include spending cuts, tax increases and privatizations as a condition for a massive bailout to avert the eurozone’s first default. "There is a common theme to the protests that are taking place across Europe, and that is not just the public sector workers defending their pension rights, but also a generation of young people for whom quite a stark picture is being painted of their future," says our guest Paul Mason, an economics editor for BBC Newsnight who just returned from reporting in Greece. We also speak with David Graeber, author of "Debt: The First 5,000 Years." “Most revolutions in our history have been about debt,” says Graeber. “It is a perennial tool by those who are powerful to make the victims of structural inequalities feel that it is somehow their fault.” [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: More than 750,000 British public sector workers staged a 24-hour strike Thursday in a standoff with the government’s plans to reform public sector pensions. The reforms come as the government tries to trim its deficit and would require public workers to work longer, pay more toward their pensions, and receive less upon retirement. But union members say they’re bearing the brunt of a financial crisis caused by rich bankers.

Across the U.K., tens of thousands of striking teachers and civil servants joined with students to protest the cuts. In London, the march culminated in a rally outside the houses of Parliament in Westminster. Among them was Andrew Baisley, a member of the National Union of Teachers.

ANDREW BAISLEY: I understand that the public will—you know, there’s a common argument that everyone’s got to pitch in towards the deficit. We’re saying, though, that we’re being unfairly made to pay the price of the deficit and that we—that we didn’t cause, and that the people who did cause it are having their taxes cut at the same time as our pensions are being really, really cut very dramatically.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Thursday’s work stoppage forced two-thirds of schools to close across England. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the action was unjustified because, quote, "talks were ongoing between the government and the unions." Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband also spoke out against the strike.

ED MILIBAND: These strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are still going on, but parents and the public have been let down by both sides, because the government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner. After today’s disruption, I urge both sides to put aside the rhetoric, get around the negotiating table, and stop it happening again.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The U.K. strike echos protests across continental Europe against austerity measures aimed at reducing debt. This week in Greece, thousands of workers staged a 48-hour strike and many took to the streets, after the Greek parliament approved a raft of austerity measures that included spending cuts, tax increases and privatizations as a condition for a massive bailout to avert the eurozone’s first default. Several thousand protesters in front of Parliament refused to leave unless the measures were changed or early elections were called.

CHRISTOS REPAS: [translated] We believe these measures have no possibility of being implemented in practice, because the people do not consciously accept them as law. The government is politically dead.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests with me in our London studio. Paul Mason is economics editor for BBC Newsnight. His books include Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed and Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global. He has just returned from Greece, where he was reporting on the economic situation.

And we’re joined by David Graeber, who teaches anthropology at Goldsmiths College at the University of London, author of several books. His newest, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, is coming out in July. He was at the protests all day here in London.

Let’s start with you, David. Describe what happened, 750,000 people out in the streets right here.

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, 750,000 people didn’t show up for work. About 20,000 people were actually in the march. I mean, there were actions, pickets, solitary actions all over London in the morning, and then there was a march. And we were expecting about 10,000. Twenty thousand people showed up for the march itself. So, that was pretty—it was pretty impressive. It was a lot more than we expected. And a lot of the student movement people showed up in solidarity. We did a sit-in in front of the Department of Work and Pensions. But it was more of a festive attitude, it wasn’t a militant action.

AMY GOODMAN: So three-quarters of a million people don’t go to work. Why?

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, because of what they’re calling "pension reform." I think the word "pension reform" is a misnomer. It’s basically a pay cut. It’s a massive pay cut. And the way laws work here in the U.K., it’s very difficult to have a massive strike like that. It has to be something on that kind of national scale, because solidarity strikes are actually illegal here. But this affected so many people that it was possible for massive—basically all public workers to go out, or almost all. I mean, even 90 percent of the people who take police calls didn’t show up for work yesterday.


JUAN GONZALEZ: This issue of attacks on pensions is not just occurring in Europe. It’s occurring in the United States, throughout the industrialized world, as increasingly people are feeling that the workers are being made to pay for the deficits created by the bankers. Your sense of how much this is taking root throughout the rest of Europe?

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, I mean, it’s happening everywhere, because we’re facing the same sort of challenges. Essentially, they think that people have an extremely short memory, that we’ve all forgotten 2008 and the reason that we have this crisis. There was a brief moment where they were talking about reforming the system. That went by, and now they’ve pretty much decided that the money is going to be taken out of the pockets of working people. And the surprising thing is that it’s starting to rebound. People really aren’t accepting the arguments about shared sacrifice, because it’s so clear that the shared sacrifice is going to be shared by some people and not others.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Paul Mason into this discussion. So this must be unusual for you. You are in Greece. You’ve been doing some remarkable reports from the streets of Greece. You come home the day there’s this massive protest in Britain. Greece, one of your latest pieces, "Greece: What’s Burning is Consent."

PAUL MASON: Yeah, I mean, there is a common theme to the protests that are taking place across Europe, and that is not just the public sector workers, as we saw here, defending their pension rights, but also a generation of young people for whom quite a stark picture is being painted of their future. They thought that their future would sort of—it might—their life might start off as a twenty-something worker, but in the end there would be something decent. The curve would go upwards. When they see their own parents, people in their forties and fifties, looking at working three, four, five years longer, and their pension pot being reduced, then the curve of their life for the next 40 years, for these young people, seems suddenly to have turned down. This actually is what they’ve got in common with a lot of the people who were on the streets in Tunisia and Egypt. It’s the sudden down curve of your future that turns people—I think makes them go to the streets. Of course, in Greece, it’s at the extreme of what we’re seeing everywhere else.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, Juan, and also to our guests here, I’m holding The Independent. They gave it to us on the plane. And it’s very interesting, the cover of The Independent. In Britain, it’s talking about the average pension, 7,900 pounds for armed forces; civil servant pension, 5,000 pounds; health worker—and can someone translate quickly from pounds to dollars? Sorry, I can’t do it.

DAVID GRAEBER: One-fifty-five, yeah, so just multiply by one-and-a-half, and it’s slightly more than that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, health worker average pension is $4,000. That would be—

PAUL MASON: Let’s call it five-and-a-half.

AMY GOODMAN: Five-and-a-half thousand dollars. Fire service average pension, 13,000. Teacher average, 10,000. And then it goes to the MPs, the members of Parliament. Average pension, more than 21,000 pounds.

DAVID GRAEBER: Right, which is a great scandal—

AMY GOODMAN: David Graeber.

DAVID GRAEBER: —because they’re saying we have these gold-plated pensions, but they’re talking about themselves.


AMY GOODMAN: Paul Mason.

PAUL MASON: The interesting thing here is—I mean, in Britain, we saw yesterday—and I think that there are debates to be had about how effective that strike was. It was big, but maybe not as big as it could have been. Large parts of the public sector didn’t strike, let’s remember that. But we’re seeing there the beginning of this kind of detachment between people on the streets, people workforce, people who—with these real core, concrete issues, and the parliamentarians, because, of course, both main parties—all three main parties—

DAVID GRAEBER: All three, yeah.

PAUL MASON: —said the strikes were wrong. Now, as you say, I’ve just come back from Greece, where if you are—it’s not just the public sector workers. It’s the middle class. It’s people with small businesses. It’s, of course, the unemployed youth. If you want to reject the medicine that’s being offered, there are virtually no parties you can support, only at the extremes of the left and the right—and even, to be honest, not there. You get the expression of the anger. That is why the Greeks—that’s why I say "consent is burning," because if it were just the labor unions in Greece, as it was, say, a year ago, that’s one kind of problem for a government, for a social democratic government. Now you’ve got middle-class people, apolitical people, youth, pensioners on the streets. You can’t sort it out—I saw it—you can’t sort it out with tons of tear gas.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Paul Mason, I’d like to ask you about Greece. Could you give us some of the concrete examples of what this is meaning to the daily lives of Greeks? We hear here austerity measures, but very few of the details of what it means in terms of the average livelihood of most Greeks. Could you talk about that?

PAUL MASON: Well, the most obvious example—and I think it’s something that will strike anybody who goes to Athens, the capital of Greece—is the way that vagrancy and sort of low-level living is suddenly in your face on the streets of Greece. This has always been true for the large number of migrants, single male migrants, who have ended up in Greece, trying to get into Europe. But now it’s true of ordinary Greeks. There are non-governmental organizations, who specialize in providing free healthcare to migrants on the streets, who now face queues of ordinary Greeks. And when the medicine runs out mid-morning, they shut the door. So that’s what’s happening to healthcare for Greek people.

You could say a lot of people of public sector have effectively, through the combination of rising pension payments that they have to make and falling wages and rising taxes that are taken out of the pay packet, lost something in excess of 30 percent of their actual real wages. So those are just two examples. And this is before you talk to the youth on the streets who are unemployed. They just want to leave the country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Paul Mason, the irony that it’s a socialist government that, in essence, has been forced to institute these reforms, and what it means in terms of the left in Greece?

PAUL MASON: Well, it’s an irony, but it’s also quite interesting that PASOK, the social democratic party which runs Greece, was the first party that really told Greek people how bad things were going to have to be. So, they came into power. They found that Greece was effectively bust, that the previous government and the European Union had connived to cook the books. And they said, "We are going to have to have a really tough austerity package. People are going to have to lose money out of their pay package."

And what happened a year later, they had to come back, because the European Union, many people argue, mishandled this, and they had to come back and say, "You know what? We need another bailout, exactly the same size. And the recession we’ve just been through, four percent of GDP, minus four, we’re going to have to vote to double that to something like eight percent next year." We’re going to see a deep recession in Greece, and the problem is, for a country that has no money to pay its debts, you know, having another recession isn’t going to help it to pay its debts. That’s why the international financial community is so worried about the problem now.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring David Graeber back in. Your book that’s just coming out this next week is called Debt: The First 5,000 years. What do you mean?

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, I was involved in the alter-globalization for years, alter-globalization movement for years. And it occurred to me that almost everything that we were facing had to do—was framed as a debt crisis. And we had to think about debt and debt moratoriums, where I was—work of Jubilee 2000, various groups that were arguing for debt cancellation on a global scale. And I became fascinated. What is debt? Because we talk about it all the time, and it has an incredible moral power over us. But I realized that no one has ever written a history of debt. They’ve written a history of just about anything else you can possibly think of—you know, cod, toilets—but no one’s ever written a history of debt, even though it affects every aspect of our lives.

So I started looking into it, and I discovered these political conflicts over debt are not a new thing. In fact, most revolutions, more revolts in human history, have been about debt. It’s the most perennial tool that’s been used by people who are powerful to make the victims of structural inequalities feel that it’s somehow their fault. So I wanted to unveil that and show that we’re actually part of a very, very long history.

But there’s also a lot of hope in it, because the other thing I realized is that much of the world religions grew out of social movements, which were exactly about problematizing debt, basically saying who owes what to who. And that made me think that we’re actually at a very strange historical moment, because they’ve managed to convince people around the world that debt is somehow something sacred. I mean, a debt is just a promise, right? It has no greater moral standard than any other promise that you would make. Yet, here we have people accepting that it’s perfectly reasonable to say that, "Well, we can’t possibly keep our promise to the public," politicians say, "to give you healthcare, because it’s absolutely unthinkable we could break our sacred promises to bankers to give them a certain percentage of interest every year." How did that become a convincing argument? It’s utterly odd, if you think about it in terms of any kind of principle of democracy. And if you—as I say, if you look at the history of world religions, of social movements, what you find is that, for much of world history, what was sacred was not debt, but the ability to make debt disappear, to forgive it. I mean, that’s where concepts of redemption, for example, originally come from.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And David Graeber, in this long history, is there a qualitative difference in our era, where you have essentially financial institutions that are far more powerful than any governments, and where you had a situation where, during the 2008 crisis, the United States government was bailing out banks in Europe that had been involved in investments here, as well as its own banks, that this concept of too-big-to-fail for banks, but not for countries or not for populations, that end up having to suffer?

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, I think that actually marks a really significant break in world history. I think when we look back at this, we’re going to think of 2008—1972, when the U.S. went off the gold standard, was the first moment we sort of moved towards a system of virtual money, where we realized that money is not a thing, it’s an arrangement between people. But 2008, where it became clear that the whole global financial system is something that’s created politically and has to be periodically recreated—it doesn’t maintain itself, like they want us to believe—I mean, that really marks a break. The question is, now that we understand that money is a political construct—they really do just print it as a promise that people make to each other—well, who has control over that process of making promises? Who gets to make them, and to whom?

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Mason, last comment?

PAUL MASON: Well, you’re absolutely right that the situation we’re in is unprecedented. The whole "what is debt?" is the other side of credit. Credit is what makes capitalism go.


PAUL MASON: It’s what makes it possible to invest without having first accumulated the money. And we’re into a situation where the entire system seems incapable of recognizing bad debt. The bad debt has been flowing around the system since Lehman. It was accumulated in 10 years. What is debt? What is bad debt? It’s accumulated stupidity. And we don’t know how stupid we’ve been, until somebody recognizes how bad the debts are, and we’re not prepared to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you, Paul Mason. His latest book is called Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global. He also wrote Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed. And thanks so much to David Graeber. His new book is called Debt: The First 5,000 Years. We’re broadcasting from London.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

"We Have Come Together": Inspired by Occupy Wall Street, Unions Join Activists for Historic March

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.

Make a donation