Struggles in France: Government and unions hand-in-hand against the working class

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The strike of transport workers (SNCF and RATP) which ended November 22 (and which unfolded simultaneously with the struggle of students against the law of "autonomy of the universities" aiming to accentuate the inequalities between working class students and those from the bourgeoisie) constituted the first significant response of the working class in France against the attacks of the government of Sarkozy/Fillon/Pecresse and associates. The dismantling of the special pension schemes was only a beginning since the government clearly announced that the perspective was to lengthen the period of contributions for all workers. In this sense, and the press was quite clear about it, it was of prime importance that the bourgeoisie succeeded in getting this first attack through under pain of compromising the success of those to follow. It's for that reason that transport workers rejected this "reform" by demanding not only the maintenance of their own pension arrangements but also the abolition of this "privilege" which only puts workers into competition with each other. The slogan of the rail workers and the workers of the RATP (suburban networks) was thus: "37.5 years of instalments FOR ALL!"

The preparation of the bourgeoisie

The attack against the special pension schemes was based on a consensus of all the forces of capital. The PS (Socialist Party) didn't hide away from it; it clearly affirmed that it favoured the reform. The sole "divergence" with the government related to the form (how to get it through) and not the basics. In order to implement this attack and prepare the terrain for those to come, the bourgeoisie had to mount a gigantic manoeuvre to break the back of the working class and make it understand that "struggle doesn't pay". To get this message across, the dominant class also gave itself the objective of wiping from the consciousness of the proletariat the lessons of the struggles of the younger generation against the CPE (laws to make it easier to sack young workers) in spring, 2006.

The bourgeoisie knew that forcing this measure through would come up against the resistance of the working class. That was confirmed with the day of action of October 18 (used by the government and the unions in order to "take the temperature") in which a very strong combativity was manifested: record participation in the transport strikes and despite that, an important participation of workers from all sectors in the demonstrations. They came on foot, bikes and car sharing, showing their rejection of the government's measures.

In order to break this combativity the bourgeoisie took two steps:

Faced with the will of the workers to continue the strike after October 18, the CGT union stopped the strike in its tracks saying: "One day and no more", and programmed a second day of action for November 13. The object of October 18, as well as gauging temperature was to "let off steam", in order to avoid an explosion of the pressure building up. From this, the strike of November 13, despite strong participation, had less following than October 18.

To break the workers' back and prevent future struggles, the bourgeoisie used a classic strategy, whose efficacy had been proved in the 1980s and 90s: it targeted a sector to develop its manoeuvre, that of transport and notably the SNCF. A numerically small sector and whose strike could only be an annoyance for other workers (the "customers"). The objective was to make the strike unpopular so as to put the "customers" against the strikers, divide the working class and break the solidarity inside it, preventing all attempts to enlarge the struggle and make the strikers feel guilty. The second reason that the bourgeoisie decided to specifically attack the sectors with a "special pension arrangement" is that, in the latter, the unions (and notably the CGT) are particularly strong, thus allowing a guarantee of a greater control of combativity and avoiding any "overflowing". Finally, a third reason justifying the choice of these "targeted" sectors resides in the fact that a strong corporatist traditionally marks them (notably through the SNCF) which has been nourished by the unions.

The sharing out of tasks between government and unions

The bourgeoisie had to be very cautious about carrying out its attacks simultaneously against all sectors of the working class (increasing medical costs, the Hortefeux law, the law on "university autonomy", special retirement schemes, price increases, job losses in the public sector and notably in education, etc.). The dominant class was thus prepared to face up to the danger of a simultaneity of struggles in several sectors. In particular, students were already mobilised when transport workers started their struggle.

The manoeuvre of dividing and slicing up the struggles had thus to unfold under a very precise timescale:

- The public sector workers' day of action of November 20 not only had the objective of acting as a "safety valve" faced with the growing discontent among their ranks, but was also to serve as a day for burying the strike of the train workers and of the RATP; a "national funeral" of some sort.

- It was necessary for each union to play its own role in this concert. In the first place, up to the 18th of October, it was necessary to give a feeling of "strength" to the rail workers by playing the card of unity of all the unions. After this date, the unions began to play their cards of division. The FGAAC (a minority, strictly corporatist driver's union) took the first step: it signed a separate agreement with the bosses for its drivers and called for a return to work. The aim was to sow confusion among the rail workers. In some depots, other drivers were angry about this, crying, "the others have betrayed us". This first blow was evidently well relayed through the media.

- The second blow was struck on the eve of the strike that started on November 13. Whereas the rail workers and those of RATP began to understand the manoeuvre of division (and demanded "37.5 years' contributions FOR ALL!), Bernard Thibault, Secretary General of the CGT, announced that he was giving up on general negotiations for all the sectors concerned with special schemes and proposed to negotiate enterprise by enterprise. This blow could only weaken the response of the rail workers.

- The third act could then unfold: the union front began to unravel, particularly with the call for the return to work launched by the CFDT, but also with the cleavage between the CGT, which accepted (without shouting about it) the principle of moving towards 40 years of pension contributions, and the "radical", Sud and FO, who continued to demand the withdrawal of this measure. At the same time, Prime Minister Fillon affirmed that it was out of the question to retreat on the question of 40 years contributions, posing it as a precondition for the opening of negotiations for a return to work. This policy of a master blackmailer isn't new: strikers are first of all called to lay down their arms (and accept the law of "the strongest") before "negotiating" some crumbs. It was unacceptable for workers in struggle but that would have allowed the unions to present "the opening of negotiations" as a first victory. Here is the "great classic" of the sharing out of tasks between bosses and unions. In reality, it's a trick: unions and bosses do not wait for official "negotiations" because they permanently discuss behind the backs of the workers. Mainly, it's a question of the unions giving the bosses an account of the "temperature" so as to define in what sense it's necessary to manoeuvre. At the time of this latest struggle, these manoeuvres became as plain as the nose on your face, to the point where they were related in detail by certain newspapers of the bourgeoisie! (1).

That's why the opening of "negotiations" reported on November 21, after the day of the strike by public sector workers, was totally empty. If the CGT and the government had put off the beginning of official discussions, it was not only that this day of action could serve to bury the strike of rail workers and Parisian tram drivers, but also to drag out the movement so as to "addle" it by mounting the workers one against the others, and all this on top of a media campaign of criminalisation of the strikers so as to make the strike unpopular.

From this table of "negotiations", the CGT came out and announced "important advances" with a timetable of negotiations put into place up to... December 20, which would prolong the dispute for a month. The rail workers were evidently not disposed to continue their movement for 4 extra weeks. The CGT, the majority union among the rail workers, announced that it was "letting" the assemblies "decide for themselves" It didn't officially call for a return to work but it might as well have done (2).

On their side, Sud and FO called for a continuation of the strike on the basis of the main claim of 37.5 years contributions.

But the return to work was proceeding depot by depot at the SNCF and line by line at the RATP.

This opposition between "moderate" and "radical" unions wasn't improvised and is nothing new. It's an old tactic that has shown itself to be effective in all workers' struggles since the end of the 1960s. A tactic that was already used in 1968 (and of which the "old sage" Chirac, as well as the ex-Maoist Kouchner, remembered perfectly well). Thus at the end of the movement of the working class of 1968, the majority union, the CGT, was already playing the role of "moderate" in calling for a return to work. And it's the minority union, the CFDT, who took on the role of the "radical" by opposing a return to work. The experience of the workers of the older generation shows that because a union is more "radical", it doesn't mean that it's not involved in manoeuvres of division and sabotage. It doesn't mean that those that want "to fight to the end" defend the interests of the working class. Because the strength of the working class is not in prolonged minority movements in which energy and wages are uselessly expended, while strengthening divisions (between those who work and those who don't) and provoking the feeling that the others have "betrayed" the struggle. The strength of the working class is first of all and before everything its unity. It's in the size and extension of the movement and not in the "fight to the end" approach of a minority (which can lead some workers into acts of despair, such as sabotage of the tools of production, opening the door to the criminalisation of the strikers). In every sector, public as well as private (same for the students) proletarians will be necessarily led to understand that the "radicalism" of minority unions who advocate isolated actions has no more substance than the "real defenders of the working class", the major unions that call for a return to work.

November 20, burial day

This massive manoeuvre aimed at breaking the back of the working class was to be crowned by the plan of the demonstration-funeral of November 20, which brought together 750,000 workers. The strategy of the union leaders consisted of calling the workers of the public sector to come onto the streets (notably to protest against the loss of jobs and price increases) while sabotaging their demonstration. Thus, the unions launched appeals to participate in this manifestation in leaflets that arrived in places of work after... November 20! In the majority of hospitals, they didn't even take the trouble to give the time or venue of the rendezvous. In order to find out if the demonstration was going to take place as indicated, workers had to find out themselves (on the internet, in the newspapers or by word of mouth) Why such a sabotage? Because the thermometer indicated that the temperature in the public sector was rising. The strike of the rail workers and RATP, far from being unpopular (despite all the campaigns relayed by TV) on the contrary gained more and more sympathy from numerous "customers". The media and the government (with its "strong arm" declarations), as well as the university presidents, who accused the striking students of being "Khmer Rouges", were going over the top. The more the government brandished the stick against the strikers, the more the strike aroused sympathy (and even the feeling of "solidarity", of not letting it "get carved up by the media in the pay of Sarkozy"). On the other hand, the contortions of Thibault were so evident that he appeared everywhere a "collaborator", a "traitor" (3). If the unions had to sabotage the mobilisation of public workers, it was to avoid them finding themselves side by side united on the streets. On the other hand, all the unions of the national police had mobilised their troops (4) to the maximum: November 20 was the first time that we saw so many cops demonstrating in Paris (5). Further, the union leaders (who organised this demonstration with the prefecture of police) took care to place the police contingent right in the middle of the demonstration. Thus, many workers and students didn't want to march behind the forces of repression; they preferred not to join this masquerade and remained on the pavements. In particular, it was a good means to dissuade the students, obliged to kick their heels on the kerbs for three hours in the rain, from making their "junction" with the workers.

At the time of his televised intervention of November 29, "omnipresident" Sarkozy rendered "homage to all social partners" saluting ALL the unions for "their sense of responsibility" and specifying that he "had need of them for the reforms" (6) (or, more to the point, he had need of them in order to facilitate all the attacks foreseen for 2008). He knows what he's talking about and, for once, let's say that he wasn't lying.

The strike of transport workers of November 2007 has confirmed once again what revolutionaries have affirmed for numerous decades: ALL the unions are not organs for the defence of the interests of the working class, but instruments of the bourgeoisie.

Sofiane (November 30)

(1) Particularly see Marianne no. 553, "Why Sarkozy wants to save the CGT, itself giving the game away: "There is a form of co-production between the government and the CGT to show its muscles". It's true that its own troops took it badly that it had played the role of "traitor".

(2) One of the reasons that the movement was "suspended" (as Bernard Thibault said), resided in the fact that the CGT had "negotiated" some "advances" regarding the arduous nature of this particular work, allowing some crumbs to be thrown: increases of wages at the end of a lifetime's work. That don't butter the parsnips: everyone knows that wages and buying power will be much lower by then! Another trick in order to justify the return to work and try to keep things intact because the bourgeoisie still had need of the CGT. If the government hadn't foreseen "giving" this charity, the boss of the CGT wouldn't have been able to say: "there have been some advances". And this pittance had equally been discussed in advance, through telephone calls destined to sharpen and adjust measures to allow the CGT to continue its work of undermining. Thus, well before the meeting of the CGT and the government, Thibault had already announced the return to work. This shows clearly that the announcements made by the bosses and the government in the "negotiations" were only a snare.

(3) Some delegations of students went around Paris and in the provinces to appeal for what they called the "junction" with workers, "a convergence of struggles".

(4) In fact, the students did not send any delegations into the commissariats or the other services of the Ministry of the Interior to make any "junction" with the cops because they themselves had been able to see in practice that these functionaries of the police were not on their side.

(5) Even the right-wing union, "Alliance", close to the UMP (and which had struck up La Marseillaise at the beginning of the demonstration) was massively present at the side of the UNSA union (close to the Socialist Party).

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