France: Refinery blockades are a double-edged sword

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20% of the pumps are running dry and there are endless queues. So says one of the media outlets regarding the economic paralysis of the country. Workers are combative and determined while the President of the Republic bangs his fist on the table and threatens the “hooligans” with the worst reprisals. This strong image is about to make its way around the world.

The workers encamped in front of the refineries do so in the name of workers’ solidarity. If they have the courage to expose themselves to the blows of police repression and the discipline of their bosses (at the Grandpuits refinery in the Paris region, the bosses threatened to close the site once and for all and sack everyone) it’s because they’re conscious of struggling for a just cause which has overtaken them: against the retirement reforms which will hit us all and against the pensions of misery which comes out of them. They are fighting for their whole class.

The paralysis of the transport system provoked by the refinery blockades also shows that the working class runs everything on a daily basis. It’s the workers who produce wealth. In the final analysis, the capitalists are only parasites who live off our backs and take for themselves the fruits of our labour. And it’s enough for one sector, a strategic one to be sure, to stop working normally for the whole national economy to be affected.

But this weapon of the blockade is a double-edged sword.

Who is most inconvenienced by the blockades?

The blockades of the refineries have the aim of paralysing the economy in order to put pressure on capital. It’s true that there’s nothing dearer to the eyes of capital than to see the accounts of its profit margins. That being said, who is most inconvenienced by the oil shortages? Who suffers the greatest economic pressures: capital or labour? Concretely, the largest enterprises of the country (Carrefour, L’Oreal, Paribas, the Societe Generale, or Danone, etc. ) are not in any danger. They have the solid backing and support (including financial) of the state. On the other hand, the workers are suffering daily from the difficulties of finding fuel to get to work, the reprimands of their bosses for being late, etc. And those on rolling strikes for several weeks will have to prepare to tighten their belts for many long months to come.

“Disrupting the economy in order to put pressure on capital” is moreover a myth inherited from the 19th century. A hundred years ago, workers could block their factories and thus force the boss to give way. In fact, on the one hand, solidarity funds allowed the strikers to hold out, while on the other the boss saw his competitors profit from the situation by pinching his customers. The threat of bankruptcy was serious for the firm and, often, the workers were triumphant. Today the context is totally different. There can still be solidarity funds. Indeed, there are some in place for the refinery pickets. But the bosses, faced with a social movement, no longer roll over. They stand together with each other. And they even have their own “black” funds to face up to such a situation. The refinery workers thus do not confront “their” boss but CAPITAL and, above all, all the power of its state. The economic balance of force is no longer, as it was a century ago, in favour of strikers.

And this is not the only pitfall.

The danger of isolation and “unpopularity”

The rolling strike is not generally well-followed today, with only some sectors engaged in permanent struggle: transport (above all SNCF), the port and cleaning services of Marseille and the refineries. Thus isolated, the most combative workers take the risk of exhausting themselves or becoming demoralised faced with defeat and of being violently repressed. It’s for this reason that numerous workers across the board have had the reflex to go to the lines of the blockades and occupations in order to physically express their solidarity.

But there’s an even greater risk: of making this struggle “unpopular”. For the moment, the greater part of the working class and of the wider population supports the struggle against the retirement reforms. Since the first day of action on March 23, there’s been more and more proletarians (and even small traders, liberal professions, artisans and peasants) joining up with the movement. Its strength is really drawing in growing numbers: workers in the public sector and little by little joining up with the private sector, workers’ families (particularly the Saturday demonstrations), precarious workers and unemployed, then students and schoolchildren... The struggle against the retirement reforms has become for everyone a struggle against the degradations of our living conditions and against poverty.

But the paralysis of transport, by affecting precisely those who in the final analysis share this struggle, risks dividing and breaking this dynamic, of going against the necessary massive extension of the struggles. For the present, a great number of proletarians support the blockages but, if the situation persists, this tendency can only turn around.

Moreover, very concretely, the total paralysis of transport makes it impossible for a massive coming together on the days of demonstrations. Wouldn’t making trains run free for example facilitate the greatest number joining in and be a more efficient way to strengthen the movement?

Establish relations of political force

Are we saying that the blockades and occupations are not methods beneficial to the struggle? Evidently not. Simply put, these actions shouldn’t have the first aim of establishing an economic balance of force (because that would be ineffectual), but a political balance of force. Any actions must be animated by attempts to extend the struggle. Our strength is our massive unity and our solidarity in combat.

For example, at the time of the movement against the CPE in 2006, the strike of the universities began by blockades. The most conscious and combative of the students drew in a maximum of their comrades towards the General Assemblies where a considerable number of those who hadn’t understood the significance of the attacks of the government or the necessity to fight them were convinced by the debates and arguments.

The blockade or the occupation of an industrial site, an education establishment or an administration centre, also allows this coming together, allows debates where the most hesitant are convinced and drawn into the struggle. This is the dynamic of extension which alone strikes fear in the heart of the bourgeoisie. And, in the final account, beyond the role that an occupation of a factory or a blockade at a given moment of a strike can play, it is in the street that the workers, the retired and unemployed, workers’ families... will be able to meet up in massive numbers!

ICC, 22/10/10.