Guadeloupe, Martinique, La Réunion: Why did the bourgeoisie give way?

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Faced with the strike movement that shook Guadeloupe, Martinique, and, to a lesser extent, La Réunion, the French state finally stepped back and gave in to nearly all the workers' demands.

In Guadeloupe, the ‘Jacques Bino' accord (named after the trade unionist murdered during the riots at the end of February) and signed 26 February, and the general text published on 5 March, containing a 200 euro increase in wages for the low paid and integrating the 146 demands of the LKP[1] on buying power (bread prices, employment of teachers...). In Martinique, a similar agreement was signed on 10 March, containing a rise in wages for the low paid and recognition of the 62 demands of the ‘February 5 Collective'[2]. In La Réunion, the situation is more fluid. At the time of writing, the accord proposed by the state (150 euros for the low paid and nothing very precise regarding the 62 other demands) has not yet been signed by COSPAR[3]. Discussions are still underway. But even if these negotiations don't fully bear fruit, they still indicate a certain retreat by the French bourgeoisie.

Why did the bourgeoisie give in? What was it afraid of? How did the workers manage to win these demands? What was the strength of the movement? Replying to these questions will help us prepare for the struggles of the future.

The strength of the movement in the Antilles

Without doubt, the main strength of the struggle in the Antilles was the breadth of the movement. For 44 days in Guadeloupe and 38 days in Martinique, the working class mobilised itself massively, paralysing the whole economy. Enterprises, ports, shops...everything was blocked[4].

If such a long and intense struggle was possible, it is not only because it was carried forward by enormous anger against growing pauperisation, but also by a profound feeling of solidarity. The first demonstration in Guadeloupe, on 20 January, brought 15,000 people together. Three weeks later, there were over 100,000 demonstrators - nearly a quarter of the population! This growing force was to a large extent the result of the workers' permanent quest for solidarity. The strikers did all they could to extend the struggle as rapidly as possible: from 29 January, roaming groups of strikers regularly went around Point-à-Pitre and its environs, street to street, business to business, in order to draw a growing part of the working class and the population behind the movement.  

The second source of strength was the tendency for the workers to take the struggle into their own hands. It is true that the LKP played an important role, that it drew up the platform of demands and that it led all the negotiations. But this said, in the media, everything was presented as if the working class was blindly obeying the LKP and doing nothing but following Elie Domota, the LKP's charismatic leader. But this was quite false! The LKP was set up to control and channel the discontent and prevent the self-organisation of the struggle by the workers from going too far. Thus, one of the crucial elements of the movement in Guadeloupe was the broadcasting of the negotiations between the LKP and the state on radio and TV. In the chronology of events written by the LKP[5], we can read: "Saturday 24 January: a big surge in the streets of Pointe-à-Pitre - 25,000 demonstrators. Invitation to all parties to attend the negotiations at 16:30 at the World Trade Centre...open discussion on the accord. Exceptional presence of Channel 10 who recorded and then broadcast the proceedings" (our emphasis). The next day, another "big surge" pulled in 40,000 people! The broadcasting of the negotiations mobilised so many people because they felt that this was their struggle and it should not just be in the hands of a few ‘trade union experts' negotiating in secret in the offices of the state. The direct public broadcasting of the negotiations (on Channel 10, RFO and Radyo Tambou) was systematised in the week that followed, up until 5 February. On that day, the secretary of state Yves Jégo, seeing with his own eyes how the struggle was unfolding, demanded that the broadcasts stop right away. The LKP only protested very feebly because this ‘collective' was, due to its trade union nature, much more at ease with secret negotiations among ‘experts' (which proves that it only originally accepted the broadcasting of the talks under the pressure of the workers).

This movement therefore had a very considerable intrinsic strength; but this alone doesn't explain why the French state gave in and accepted a 200 euro increase for the lower paid. What's more, the bourgeoisie also made concessions on La Réunion even though the movement there was much weaker. In fact, the unions, via the COSPAR collective, had partly managed to sabotage the movement by calling for the demonstration on 5 March, the day the general strike on Guadeloupe ended, insisting that it was not following the model of the "Antilles movement" (le Point, 4 March). The Collective thus made sure that the strike would be isolated. And in fact without the locomotive of the struggle in Guadeloupe, the demonstrations of 5 and 10 March on La Réunion were semi-failures, with a much smaller participation than expected (around 20,000 and 10,000 people respectively). And yet, as we have said, here too the French state gave in. Why?

Workers' anger and militancy is developing in all countries

In fact, the mobilisations in the Antilles and La Réunion took place in a general context of rising workers' militancy.

In Britain, for example, there were the strikes in the oil refineries at the end of January. Despite all the efforts to create divisions between ‘British' and ‘foreign' workers, the beginnings of a tendency towards unity between the two (for example, the joining of the strike by Polish workers at Langage and the raising of internationalist banners in opposition to the nationalist ones that had predominated at the beginning) convinced the ruling class that it should bring the strike to an end quickly, announcing the creation of 102 new jobs[6].

The bourgeoisie, at the international level, has no desire to see a struggle taking on a real breadth and giving ideas to workers in other countries. Especially when the struggle uses methods like massive delegations going from workplace to workplace, control of the struggle by the workers themselves, using the radio to keep an eye on negotiations, etc....

And this was also the case in France. The French state quickly gave ground in La Réunion because a big demonstration was about to take place in France on 19 March. It was vital for the ruling class to put a stop to this whole general strike business in the Antilles in order to prevent it having a bad influence on the workers in France itself. The paper Libération clearly expressed this fear of the French bourgeoisie in an article written on 6 March: "Contagion. In Paris, this ‘revolt' which has seized hold the overseas départments was poorly understood by the power. Except for Yves Jégo who very quickly got the point. But out of fear of contagion, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Fillon, who after shilly-shallying and hoping the movement would run out of steam, ended up opening the state's coffers"[7].

The real victory is the struggle itself

So the struggle in the islands was victorious. The 200 euro raise for the low paid was not negligible. But there's no room for illusions. The living conditions of the working class in the islands, as everywhere else, are inevitably going to worsen.

Already the bourgeoisie is trying to claw back some of what it's given away. Of the 200 euro increase, 100 will come from the central state, 50 from regional authorities and 50 from the bosses. But the Medef (bosses' organisation) has already announced that it will only give part of the increases, if at all (and even then according to different branches and sectors). The same goes for the regional authorities. As for the central state, it's commitment is only for two years. As Charles Pasqua put it, "the promises were only made to those who were listening": the cynicism and hypocrisy of the ruling class could hardly be more naked.

Under the blows of the crisis, pauperisation is going to increase. Wage increases, even if they make a difference in the short term, will be rapidly wiped out by price rises. And already, in Martinique, 10,000 jobs are about to be cut.

The real victory of the movement is the struggle itself! These experience are so many lessons for the struggles of the future. They show the exploited where their strength really lies: in their unity, solidarity, and confidence, in their ability to take control of their own struggles.

Pawel 26.3.09

 

 



[1] The LKP (Lyannaj kont profitasyon - United against Superexploitation) was the collective regrouping 49 trade union, political, cultural and other organisations, which on 20 January drew up a platform of demands.

[2] A collective set up on the model of the LKP at the beginning of the movement in Martinique, on the 5 February. It regrouped 25 union, political and cultural organisations

 

[3]COSPAR: a similar collective on La Réunion

[4] see our article ‘Massive struggle shows us the way: solidarity with the workers of the Antilles', http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/2009/02/strikes-antilles

 

[5] Source : http://www.lkp-gwa.org/chronologie.htm

[6] See our article ‘Oil refinery and power station strikes: Workers begin to challenge nationalism' http://en.internationalism.org/wr/2009/321/solidarity

[7] Source : http ://www.liberation.fr/politiques/0101513929-la-societe-guadeloupeenne-entre-dans-l-apres-greve

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