Union ‘radicalism’ helps impose attacks
“A trial of strength”! A “War of attrition”! “Rising tensions”!
These are the kind of terms the media has been using in the last few weeks to describe the apparent confrontation between the governments and the unions over the “El Khomri” labour law. The conflict has been presented in a spectacular way by the media. It even reached the point where, for a few hours, the government banned a union demo prior to allowing it after all – something that hasn’t been seen for 50 years.
There has been real discontent against this attack on the working conditions of the entire working class. It has given rise to a relatively significant level of mobilisation and militancy during certain days of action. However, contrary to what the media would have us believe, this militancy has not drawn in the majority of wage earners. Despite the images of blockades, of tyres burning on the roads, the strikes have very often been restricted to a minority and there has been little in the way of a growth of confidence, unity and consciousness in the ranks of the working class. On the contrary: “these union parades, which consist of people tramping the streets and being bombarded with slogans like ‘The workers are in the street, El Khomri you are screwed’, or ‘Strike, strike, general strike!’,without being able to discuss or build anything together , serve only to demoralise people and spread feelings of powerlessness”.
Many wage earners, high school and university students, and precarious or unemployed workers have asked questions about this, feeling that the omnipresence of the unions and their sterile days of action are not leading anywhere. But they have not been able to break out of the union manacles or develop an open, collective critique of union methods. And the Nuit Debout movement, which claims to offer a “space” for deeper reflection, “is leading them into a dead end and strengthening the most conformist outlooks. Worse than that, Nuit Debout is a vehicle for the most nauseating ideas, like the personalisation of the evils of society, blaming them on a few representatives like bankers and oligarchs”. 
Among the youngest participants, there is the illusion that all this is an expression of the class war and that we are heading towards a new May 68, a mobilisation of the proletariat on a scale we haven’t seen for many years. But the government has shown no signs of retreating in the face of pressure from the streets, as it did in 2006 at the time of the fight against the CPE. Even if the Socialist government has not been a picture of unity and coherence, the government and the unions, led by the CGT, have managed to work together to set up this confrontation, with the aim of manipulating the working class and reinforcing its disorientation.
The focus of this strategy has been the growing “radicalisation” of the CGT. Over several months the social movement has not disappeared, and in response the two main actors, government and unions, have fuelled the appearance of a major confrontation. The CGT through the blockading of oil refineries and motorways, through rolling strikes in public transport and the energy sector. The government, especially Manuel Valls, has come out with more and more provocative declarations, culminating in this momentary, but still gob-smacking decision to ban a union demonstration. All this on the basis of the heavy media publicity given to the violence of the rioting “casseurs”. If we were to believe the bourgeoisie and its press, you’d think the country was on a war footing, with everything being dramatised to an almost surreal level, until you stop watching the TV or the computer screen and go and out and look at what’s really been happening.
The conflict, we are told, reached a culminating point with the operations aimed at “blockading the economy”, in particular the ports and oil refineries. Blocking the oil refineries, as in 2010 with the struggle against the pension reforms, is presented as the ultimate weapon against the bourgeoisie, a way of hitting it where it really hurts. But not only was the real level of paralysis on the oil sector even more pathetic than in 2010, it has functioned as a powerful factor of division within the working class.
On the one hand you have some of the most militant workers trapped behind makeshift barricades, cut off from the rest of their class and at the mercy of police repression; on the other hand, you have many workers who are feeling discontented but are waiting to see what will happen, hardly involved in the social movement and sometimes exasperated by the endless transport strikes and the petrol shortages.
The CGT and all the “combative” unions have not suddenly become “revolutionary” any more than they are fighting for the basic interests of the workers. With the decadence of the capitalist system, the trade unions, whose original reason for existence (the reduction of capitalist exploitation) was already quite conservative, have become an essential cog of the state apparatus, with the task of imprisoning the working class in the logic of negotiations, of sabotaging workers’ struggles and smothering the growth of a revolutionary consciousness. Their role is to divide the workers and undermine any mass movement which could lead to questioning the capitalist order. The current radicalism of the unions is aimed at making us forget their direct complicity in the attacks that have been carried out by successive governments, and their involvement in the day-to-day management of exploitation in the factories and offices.
The essential complicity of the unions and the government doesn’t mean that there are no struggles for influence between various cliques. The government’s efforts to restore credibility to the union apparatus have involved downgrading the hegemonic status of the CGT and giving a more central role to more “tolerant” and “cooperative” unions like the CFDT. Article 2 of the new labour law aims to give accords reached at enterprise level priority over those worked out at branch level, which would mean undermining the financial organisational and strength of the CGT in favour of the more “reformist” unions, especially at the level of the small and medium enterprises which are in the majority in France. This is what to a large extent lies behind the radicalism of the CGT: keeping its place at the table of the state, maintaining its position in the apparatus of exploitation.
From the point of the view of the interests of the working class, the CGT is anything but radical. While the working class draws its strength from its capacity to unite, to extend its struggles beyond sectional and national frontiers, the CGT demands that everyone must march in their particular work clothes behind “their own” union banner, raising demands specific to each sector. If they do raise the slogan “everyone together”, this is still within the limits of each union boutique. It has nothing to do with the search for the extension of the struggle, with raising proposals that will draw all sectors into a common fight regardless of union membership, as was the case for several weeks during the struggle in 2006.
Similarly, the general assemblies, which should be the lungs of the movement, have been replaced by simulated assemblies which only bring together a minority of wage earners and where the unions decide on practically everything in advance. This has nothing to with assemblies that are open to all, young and old, without consideration to profession, union or political membership; assemblies which elect and can recall strike committees, and where you can openly discuss the conduct of the struggle, how to spread it and establish a balance of forces in the face of the state. The anti-CPE struggle of 2006, whose lessons the state and its unions want us to forget, was exemplary at this level and resulted in a real loss of credibility by the unions.
This division of labour on the part of the different wings of the state, government and unions, is exploiting to the maximum the current weakness of the working class, with the object of manipulating it, dividing it, demoralising it and pushing through the attacks, all the while giving the impression that only militant unions like the CGT and FO are capable of standing up to an arrogant Socialist government that is even worse than the right.
The working class needs to make the deepest and most lucid analysis possible of the present social movement, in order to identify its enemies and prepare the real struggles of the future.
. The CGT is the union linked to the Stalinist French Communist Party; the CFDT is closer to the Socialist Party while FO has come under a strong Trotksyist influence.