Friday, March 27, 2015

Germany: Blockupy protests target Europe's financial hypocrisy

Tens of thousands protested in Frankfurt on March 18
The protests that met the official opening of the new European Central Bank (ECB) headquarters in Frankfurt on March 18 were largely symbolic – not only because bank staff had already moved in last November, but also because the building itself represents the ugly hypocrisy lying at the heart of the European project.

Over 20,000 anti-capitalist protesters took to the streets of Frankfurt last week to coincide with the heavily-policed opening, taking part in mostly peaceful protests in the German financial capital to oppose the ECB’s “asphyxiating” economic policies.

Included in the ranks of the protesters were representatives of Germany’s main opposition party, the left-wing Die Linke, German trade union Verdi, the Greek ruling party SYRIZA, and Podemos from Spain, as well as unions, NGOs and grass-roots activists from 39 European countries.

Across the Eurozone, the ECB – part of the “Troika”, along with the International Monetary Fund and the Eurogroup – is playing a central role in forcing national governments to cut public spending, privatise infrastructure and push down wages while unemployment and poverty continue to increase.

These policies have caused untold misery and suffering for millions of Europeans in order to maintain a system of corporate profits and a false sense of economic order in the name of “austerity” and “growth”, but have also given rise to powerful popular resistance movements across Europe – particularly in Greece, Spain and Ireland.

The main flashpoint in this struggle is currently the ongoing stoush between the ECB, IMF and the Eurogroup and the new SYRIZA government in Greece, which is struggling to meet a humanitarian crisis caused by austerity.

Demonstration organiser, Ulrich Wilken, a member of the Hessen state parliament for Die Linke told Reuters:

“Our protest is against the ECB, as a member of the Troika, that, despite the fact that it is not democratically elected, hinders the work of the Greek government. We want the austerity politics to end.”

Italian MEP Eleonora Forenza, from the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) group in European parliament, pointed out: "The cost of the ECB skyscraper is equal to the total amount for the EU's youth guarantee spending for Spain."

"More than ever, we must put an end to austerity policies, not only for the sake of the Greek people, but for Europe as a whole. As part of the Troika, the ECB is actively working to prolong the European crisis, blackmailing democratically elected governments with toxic austerity policies."

An expensive glass elephant

The new ECB tower in Frankfurt
While the Blockupy protests targeted the ECB building primarily because of the organisation’s role in imposing austerity across the Eurozone, the exorbitant cost of its construction made it a perfect symbol of the double standard of Europe’s financial elite.

After several budget blowouts and significant delays, the final ledger entry for the 45-storey shining glass tower in Frankfurt’s Ostend designed to house the ECB’s staff puts the bill at an outrageous €1.3 billion.

An original budget of €500 million, floated during the tender process, was abandoned due to the housing bubble that preceded the global financial crisis. By late 2013, the revised cost of €850 million had blown out a further €300 million, a figure which would increase further before completion.

With a total surface area of 185,000 square metres, this gives a building cost of more than of €7,000 per square metre – an island of arrogant and arrant luxury in a turbulent sea of austerity and unrest, and an obscene manifestation of financial capital in modern Europe.

Denying workers’ rights

When it comes to workers’ rights, on the other hand, the ECB is as consistent as an atomic clock.

A central plank of ECB-driven “austerity” measures across Europe is the implementation of “labour market reforms”, designed to cut wages and remove collective bargaining and other workplace rights in order to drive up profits.

A March 20 article in the left-wing German newspaper Neues Deutschland (ND), shows that this unhealthy attitude towards workers’ rights is nowhere more plain than within the ECB itself, where most of its employees are denied basic workplace rights.

According to ND, as many as two thirds of the workforce are employed on an “atypical”, precarious basis. The International and European Public Services Organisation (IPSO), the union covering 42 percent of ECB staff, says that of the ECB’s approximately 3,800 employees, only about 1,200 were on permanent contracts at the end of 2014.

Over 1,100 were on fixed term contracts, 290 of which were less than a year in duration, and of the others, 270 were temporary or agency workers, while a further 810 were “consultants” and 340 were trainees or secondees from other central banks.

Core labour standards recognised by virtually every democratic state, the United Nations, the International Labour Organisation and the European Union are denied to employees of the ECB, which claims that it is exempt.

Despite being located in Frankfurt, workplace conflicts in the ECB must be taken directly to the European Court of Justice – if they survive a lopsided internal review process – rather than to the German courts.

In April 2009, IPSO led approximately 400 ECB workers on strike to demand collective bargaining rights, in the lead up to European elections.

Nonetheless, collective bargaining and collective agreements remain virtually unknown at the ECB, which also denies casuals the right to apply for internally advertised positions guaranteed them by European labour law.

“It took me ten years to get the ECB to recognise IPSO at all”, ECB workers council chairman Carlos Bowles told ND, pointing out that his speaking to the press about workplace matters at the bank was a right only acceded to by the bank’s management late last year.

At the moment, the ECB is engaged in another round of “quantative easing” – little more than putting a new bucket of cash in the hands of European banks – while continuing to enforce strict austerity measures in Greece and other countries across the Eurozone.

Expansive monetary policy serves the financial markets and the wealthy first and foremost,” Die Linke MP Sahra Wagenknecht pointed out before the rally in Frankfurt. “The money doesn’t reach the real economy as investment.

Alongside these anti-social, profit-centred policies, the ECB’s workplace practices and its new glass monolith in Frankfurt are symptomatic of the greed and hypocrisy of the European Union today – where there is a law of plenty for the new pharaohs of Capital, and an enforced poverty for the rest.

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