US and World Politics

French Strike Movement Continues

Up against Macron and his world, no shortage of surprises!

Editorial of the January/February 2020 Issue of Convergences Revolutionnaires Magazine

On Sunday, January 19, the UNSA (National Union of Autonomous Unions)-RATP (Autonomous Parisian Transportation Administration) union, main leader of the metro workers’ unions, announced the suspension of the strike in the Paris metro, with a call nevertheless to strike again on Friday, January 24. The SNCF (French National Railway Company), the CGT (General Confederation of Labor) and the Sud-Rail (South-Rail) unions, the most influential ones in many stations and yards, were so insistent on announcing upcoming “days of intense struggle” that it was difficult not to deduce that they were encouraging a light struggle for the present! Already on January 13 and 14, these union leaderships no longer supported a continuation of the renewable strike, but instead proposed “targeted” days of demonstrations, and in particular, “the next interprofessional day of struggle on January 24, 2020, day on which the Council of Ministers” must decide on the pension reform project.

The chicken or the egg? Are these union choices imposed by the pressure of tired strikers who have been wiped out financially by 46 days of strike—a record for decades—as the unionists claim? Or did the inter-union organization get tired before the strikers? Had it not displayed its “fatigue” already before the Christmas holidays, by calling for nothing after the huge day of national strike on December 17 aside from another day on January 9, almost three weeks later? At the RATP (metro) as at the SNCF (trains), the most determined strikers took this actual disappearance of the leaders during the Christmas holidays as cowardice, and organized themselves, unionized and non-unionized rank and file workers together, so that there would be no truce. And there was none.

Continuing the strike in order to support others

At the time of this writing, the 46th day of the strike, January 19, 2020, exhaustion—especially financial exhaustion—is evident. Subways, trains and buses are starting to roll again. This is happening, but not without difficulties, because the hardcore of strikers at the SNCF just as at RATP, around the whole the country as well as in Paris area, have decided to continue striking and meeting to renew this, daily.

The goal is not to “shame” colleagues who go back to work on this or that day (few are those who actually did not do this at some point, so as not to see their holiday completely upended,) but to give the movement the best chance of continuing and being reinforced, even tipping it toward further generalization, through actions organized especially by the SNCF and the RATP strikers toward milieus outside their own sector.

The plan thus is to continue the strike and to campaign, shoulder to shoulder with those who have stepped up, in particular with the teachers whose anger all around the country seems to be growing, against both the pension reform, which penalizes them in particular, and against the start of a reform of the baccalaureate exam (exit exam from high school) which will formalize social segregation at school. Railroad workers and RATP metro agents have signed up for actions with teachers and high school students who are preparing to put an end to this à la carte baccalaureate exam. Many of the transportation workers have had striking teachers join their general assemblies and picket lines, coming to their rescue during the strikes of the last period. So, it’s time to return the favor! Though the SNCF and the RATP workers were obviously the leading sectors of this strike by their numbers, by the paralysis they caused in transportation as well as in the economy, and also by the duration of their movement, the teachers were involved nevertheless from the start, before their Christmas holidays. And at the start of the 2020 school year, these mobilized teacher nuclei seem to be swarming; the striking teaching sector is in a position to take the lead. These teachers are encouraged in turn by the continuation of the transportation strike, for another good week still, for sure, and for this reason the determination of the railway workers and RATP agents remains important.

“The strikers must control the strike” at the bottom, but how about at the top?

What all transport activists who remain fiercely on strike observe and report is that not one of their colleagues has resumed work—whether temporarily or not—approving Macron and his government’s pension reform project. Everyone continues to be repulsed by it.

The railroad workers didn’t let themselves be taken in by the first dirty trick, the proposal of the “pivotal age” as an acceptable compromise (their response was a play on words, calling the “âge pivot” “âge pipeau”—or “BS age” (“That’s pipeau” means it lacks seriousness or has no value)—and this compromise was accepted only by the leader of the CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labor) union which opposed the strikes to begin with!) nor were they appeased by the latest semantic twist consisting in replacing “pivotal age” by the “age of balance” in a text.

The game between the state power and the chief of the CFDT was, in its own way, a great moment and a great lesson in this movement. On the one hand, we have a powerful strike movement, with the emergence of assemblies or lively picket lines, strike committees or mobilization committees, more numerous than in the past, or even the coordination of strikers and “interprofessional assemblies (abbreviated ‘interpros’,)” that take the initiative to engage in an abundance of actions in connection with and toward other sectors and companies to discuss with them, and try to rally them—not to mention the parties, rallies and multiple surprises reserved for the employers and “Macronist” authorities. In short on the one side we have a strike in which the strikers are the principle craftspeople, a “strike that belongs to the strikers.”

On the other hand, however—and what a paradox—we have a president and a prime minister who have set themselves up to engage in discussions with the leader of a trade union that is not even on strike. But Laurent Berger (the general secretary of the CFDT union) did the job! He’s been decorated and awarded the medal of “Class A reformist” by the government. This has helped revolutionaries explain the “camps” and the class struggle to the workers, even though we still need to be nuanced, because the class struggle is more complex, and the “reformism” of the union leaders much more widely and subtly shared than what Macron and his minister Philippe would have us believe.

Union leadership, and how about us?

But we learn through the struggle, and what rich experiences it offers! You have to organize at the bottom, come together and decide at the bottom, develop a myriad of democratic and active structures at the bottom, and this movement remains extremely rich, but we must or should also seek to give ourselves representation at a higher level, at the national level, to the point of forcing Macron and his henchmen to speak to the strikers, and not to be robbed of the monopoly of representation by Laurent Berger, Philippe Martinez or some other union leader, especially since it is certain that none of them, each with his different style, defends the general interests of workers in struggle.

Because for each of these “leaders,” it is always their personal petty interests that prevail, they are always motivated by the competition for their personal place and rank as representatives and negotiators with the powers that be—even if to get there, they have to hoist themselves to that top spot by spouting some radical demagoguery—at least for a while. It should be remembered that the leaders of the CGT have scored as many meetings in high places with representatives of the state and employers on this damn false pension problem (which would not exist if wages were good and if there was no unemployment,) than those of the CFDT. They can chant in unison with the strikers, “Withdrawal of the project,” “Neither amendments nor negotiations”—and then nevertheless go systematically to negotiate! That’s another lesson that has not fallen on deaf ears. Again, we learn quickly and well in and through the struggle.

Such a long strike involves a lot of action, but not only action

This struggle involves also a lot of thinking, of discussion, of awareness. Social awareness is developing, with the distinction between the “sides” becoming clearer. This awareness grows through the experience of solidarity in the struggle, the convergence between various sectors among the workers who have met each other, discovered each other in the fight, but have no desire to be distinguished from each other, because of the common general interest in the fight against an unequal system that attacks everyone.

Political awareness, in the face of clubs, police custody, tear gas and sometimes unfortunately worse, sheds light on the role of the state and its police. Throughout this movement, which is not over, the strikers experienced great moments of jubilation and emotion, and of adversity too. It comes to them like a big whiff of wishing to keep it up, whatever happens, to continue on the political front, in search of milestones for the construction of a party which would be that of the working class, all “for the honor of the workers and for a better world,” a slogan that has become a program in the course of these fights over the past few years. It is perhaps still vague but is heavy in meaning.

Yes, the clear scent of a better future

What continues to weld the strikers—whether still active or in reserve!—and allows us to hope for new developments, it is the emergence of struggles in many sectors other than railways, metros, buses and schools, even if these struggles—notable in the cultural, performing arts sector or among lawyers—have not affected the large battalions of private industry, whose participation would obviously be decisive.

But who knows? And what also continues to unite the strikers is the avalanche of what we could call “Macron welcoming parties”—the welcome committees which are reserved for his ministers and other officials under his boot during their travels, and for himself when he goes to the theater, peaceably, while others are fighting for their survival. If you don’t have bread, eat cake! That’s Macron’s policy.

A sign that this pension policy has crossed the limits certainly obvious in the way that entertainment workers—the artists who are on stage as well as the many more workers who are behind them—have taken to organizing spectacular demonstrations, repeatedly already. They have organized public shows outside the walls of operas, in Paris on the esplanade in front of the worthy institution of the Garnier Palace and the Bastille Opera, as well as here and there in the provinces. These shows say two things. On the one hand, the determination against the policy of Macron and his boss friends is strong and contagious. On the other hand, that another kind of life is possible, with operas and theaters, transportation and health establishments, schools and universities, and the multiple areas that have been open and free for all. Like a taste for a socialism and communism that is quite different than the socialism and communism of the political parties that disgusted us when they took a seat in bourgeois institutions.

This is what strikers—workers in transportation, hospitals, schools, museums and theaters—put forward, although confusedly, when they express that they are fed up with a policy drawn up against them all, but also in particular against the users of the services they hoped to offer in their work, in which their bosses present users as “clients” to be favored according to the state of their fortune: mistreating the overwhelming majority, and pampering only the rich, even super-rich.

After the long struggle of the Yellow Vests, this strike, which is not over and probably has some surprises in store for us, is the expression of how fed up people are with a system of exploitation and inequality that has overstayed its welcome. Out with this system! Yes, this strike is decidedly very political. Just as many other, even more intense social movements around the world at this time.

As of our publication date, strikes are still going on in France—French protests at planned labor reforms hit the ski resorts on Saturday, February 15, 2020.1

Published by the Etincelle (Spark) Fraction of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA)—translated from the French

1 “French ski slopes hit by new wave of strikes”