France, Britain, Tunisia: The future lies in the international development of the class struggle
The strikes and demonstrations of September, October and November in France, which took place following the reform of pensions, demonstrated a real fighting spirit in the ranks of the proletariat, even if they didn’t succeed in pushing back the attacks of the bourgeoisie.
This movement is taking place in the context of a renewed dynamic of our class as it gradually returns to the path of struggle internationally, following a course marked in 2009 and 2010 by the revolt of new generations of proletarians fighting poverty in Greece and by the determination of the Tekel workers in Turkey to extend their struggle against the sabotage of the unions.
Thus, students have mobilised in large numbers against the unemployment and job insecurity that capitalism has in store for them, as in Great Britain, Italy or the Netherlands. In the United States, despite being confined by the union straitjacket, several major strikes have broken out in various parts of the country since Spring 2010 in opposition to attacks: education workers in California, nurses in Philadelphia and Minneapolis-St-Louis, construction workers in Chicago, workers in the food industry in New York State, teachers in Illinois, workers at Boeing and in a Coca-Cola plant in Bellevue (Washington state), and dockers in New Jersey and Philadelphia.
At the time of going to press, in the Maghreb, and particularly in Tunisia, workers’ anger that has built up over decades spread like wildfire after 17th December when a young unemployed graduate set himself on fire in public after the fruit and vegetable stall that was his livelihood, was confiscated by the municipal police of Sidi Bouzid in the centre of Tunisia. Spontaneous demonstrations of solidarity spread throughout the country, where the population faces high unemployment and sharp increases in prices of basic foodstuffs. A fierce and brutal repression of this social movement led to dozens being killed, with police firing live ammunition at unarmed demonstrators. This only strengthened the outrage and resolve of the proletariat, firstly to demand work, bread and a little dignity and then the departure of President Ben Ali. “We are no longer afraid”, chanted the demonstrators in Tunisia. The children of proletarians took the lead and used the Internet or their mobile phones not only as weapons to broadcast and denounce the repression and to exchange information between themselves, but also to communicate with their family or friends outside the country, particularly in Europe, thus partially breaking the conspiracy of silence of all the bourgeoisies and their media. Everywhere our exploiters have tried to hide the class nature of this social movement, seeking to distort it by sometimes showing it to be like the riots that occurred in France in 2005 or as the work of vandals and looters, or sometimes presenting it as a “heroic and patriotic struggle of the Tunisian people” for “democracy” led by educated graduates and the “middle classes”.
The economic crisis and the bourgeoisie are striking blows all over the world. In Algeria, Jordan and China, similar social movements faced with sinking into poverty have been brutally repressed. This situation should push the more experienced proletarians of the central countries into seeing the impasse and bankruptcy into which the capitalist system is leading the whole of humanity, and into extending solidarity to their class brothers by developing their own struggles. And workers are indeed beginning to react gradually and are refusing to accept austerity, impoverishment and the “sacrifices” being imposed.
At present, this response clearly falls below the level of the attacks we are all being subjected to. That is undeniable. But there is a momentum under way and workers’ reflections and militancy will continue to grow. As proof we are again seeing minorities seeking to organise themselves, to actively contribute to the development of large-scale struggles and to escape the grip of the unions.
The mobilisation against pension reform in France
The social movement in France last autumn provides clear confirmation of the same dynamic as the previous movement that developed against the CPE.
Millions of workers and employees from every sector routinely took to the streets of France. Alongside this, strikes broke out in various places from the beginning of September, some more radical than others, expressing a deep and growing discontent. This mobilisation is the first large-scale struggle in France since the crisis that shook the world financial system in 2007-2008. It is not only a response to pension reform itself but, in its scale and profundity, it is clearly a response to the violent attacks suffered in recent years. Behind this reform and other simultaneous or planned attacks, there is the growing refusal of all proletarians and other layers of the population to accept greater poverty, insecurity and destitution. And with the inexorable deepening of the economic crisis, these attacks are not about to stop. It is clear that this struggle foreshadows others to come, just as it follows closely on those that developed in Greece and Spain against drastic austerity measures there.
However, despite the massive response in France, the government did not give way. Instead, it was uncompromising, repeatedly affirming despite relentless pressure from the streets its firm intention to carry out this attack on pensions, quite cynically repeating the claim that this measure was “necessary” in the name of “solidarity” between the generations.
Why was this measure, which strikes at the heart of all our living and working conditions, passed at all? The whole population fully and strongly expressed its indignation and opposition to it. Why did this massive mobilisation fail to get the government to back down? It’s because the government was assured of the control of the situation by the unions, who have always accepted, along with the left parties, the principle of the “necessary reform” of pensions! We can compare this with the movement in 2006 against the CPE. This movement, which the media initially treated with the utmost contempt as a short-lived “student revolt”, eventually ended with the government forced to retreat faced with no other recourse than withdrawing the CPE.
Where is the difference? Primarily that the students had organised general assemblies (GAs) open to all without distinction of category or sector, public or private, employed or unemployed, casual workers, etc. This burst of confidence in the abilities of the working class and its power, and the profound solidarity inside the struggle, created a dynamic of extension in the movement giving it a massive scale involving all generations. Furthermore, while on the one hand wide-ranging debates and discussions took place in the general assemblies, not confined to the problems of students alone, on the other hand we saw a growing presence of workers on demonstrations alongside the college and high school students.
But it’s also because in their determination and spirit of openness, while leading sections of the working class towards open struggle, the students did not let themselves be intimidated by the manoeuvres of the unions.
Instead, while the latter, especially the CGT, tried to be at the head of the demonstrations to take control, the college and high-school students got in front of the union banners on several occasions to make clear that they did not want to be lost in the background of the movement they had launched. But above all, they affirmed their desire to keep control of the struggle themselves, along with the working class, and not let themselves be conned by the union leaderships.
In fact, one of the greatest concerns of the bourgeoisie was that the forms of organisation adopted by the students in struggle – sovereign general assemblies, electing co-ordinating committees and open to all, where the student unions often had a low profile – did not spread to employed workers if they should come out on strike. It is, moreover, no coincidence that during this movement, Thibault repeatedly stated that workers could learn no lessons from the students on how to organise. So, while the latter have their general assemblies and coordinations, the workers themselves should have confidence in the unions. With no resolution in sight, and with the danger that the unions could lose control, the French government had to climb down because as the last bulwark of the bourgeoisie against the explosion of massive struggles, it was at risk of being demolished.
In the movement against pension reform, the unions, actively supported by the police and the media, sensing what lay ahead, took the measures necessary to be at the centre of things and made the appropriate preparations.
Moreover, the unions’ slogan was not “withdraw the attack on pensions” but “improve the reform”. They called for a fight for renewed negotiations between the unions and the state to make the reforms more “just”, more “humane”. Despite the apparent unity of the Intersyndicale (joint union body), we saw them exploit divisions from the start, clearly intending to reduce the “risks” of things getting out of control; at the beginning of the demonstrations the FO union organised in its own corner, while the Intersyndicale, which organised the day of action on March 23, prepared to “tie up a deal” on reform following negotiations with the government, announcing two more days of action on May 26th and, above all, June 24th, the eve of the summer holidays. We know that a “day of action” at this time of year usually signals the final blow for the working class when it comes to implementing a major attack. However, the final day of action produced an unexpected turnout, with more than twice as many workers, unemployed, casual workers, etc., in the streets. And, while the first two days of action had been very downbeat, as highlighted by the press, anger and unrest were evident on the 24th June when the successful mobilisation boosted the morale of the proletariat. The idea that widespread struggle is possible gained ground. Evidently the unions also felt a change in the wind; they knew that the question of “how to struggle?” was running through people’s heads. So they decided to immediately take charge of the situation and to give a lead; there was no question for them of the workers beginning to think and act for themselves, and getting out of their control. They decided on a new day of action called for 7th September, after the summer holidays. And to be quite sure of holding back the process of reflection, they went as far as sponsoring flights over the beaches in the middle of the summer displaying publicity banners calling people to the demo on the 7th.
For their part, the left parties, which fully supported the pressing need to attack working class pensions, still came and joined in the mobilisation so they wouldn’t be completely discredited.
But another event, a news story, came out during the summer and fuelled workers’ anger: “The Woerth Case” (the politicians currently in office and the richest heiress of French capital, Ms. Bettencourt, boss of L’Oreal group, connived over tax evasion and all kinds of illegal dodges). Eric Woerth is none other than the minister in charge of pension reform. The sense of injustice was total: the working class must tighten its belt while the rich and powerful carry on with “their unseemly affairs”. So under the pressure of this open discontent and growing consciousness of the implications of this reform for our living conditions, the day of action on September 7th was announced, with the unions obliged on this occasion to espouse a belief in united action. Since then, not one union has failed to call for days of action that have brought together about three million workers on demonstrations on several occasions. Pension reform has become symbolic of the sharp deterioration in living standards.
But this unity of the “Intersyndicale” was a trap for the working class. It was intended to give the impression that the unions were committed to organising a broad offensive against the reform and were providing the means for this with repeated days of action in which they could see and hear their leaders ad-nauseum, arm in arm, churning out speeches on “sustaining” the movement and other lies. What frightened the unions most of all was the workers breaking from the union straitjacket and organising themselves. That is what Thibault, secretary general of the CGT, was trying to say when he “sent the government a message” in an interview with Le Monde on 10th September: “We can launch a blockade, with the possibility of a massive social crisis. It is possible. But it’s not us who are taking a risk”, and hegave the following example to better underline the high stakes facing the unions: “We’ve even found a small non-union firm where 40 out of 44 employees came out on strike. It’s a pointer. The more intransigent the government is, the more support for rolling strikes is going to grow.”
Clearly, when the unions aren’t there, the workers organise themselves and not only decide what they want to do but risk doing it massively. So to address this concern the big unions, particularly the CGT and SUD, have applied themselves with exemplary zeal: occupying the social stage and the media while with the same determination preventing any real expression of workers’ solidarity. In short, on the one hand a lot of hype, and on the other, action aimed at sterilising the movement with false choices, to create division, confusion, and better lead it to defeat.
Blockading the oil refineries is one of the most obvious examples of this. While the workers in this sector, whose fighting spirit was already very strong, were increasingly keen on showing their solidarity with the whole working class against the pension reform – workers moreover facing particularly drastic reductions in their own ranks - the CGT set about transforming this spirit of solidarity with a pre-emptive strike. Hence, the blockade of the refineries was never decided in real general assemblies where the workers could really express their views, but by union leaders, experts in manoeuvring who by stifling discussion adopted a sterilising action. Despite the strict confinement imposed by the unions, however, some workers in this sector did try to make contacts and links with workers in other sectors. But, being generally taken in by a strategy of “laying siege”, most of the refinery workers found themselves trapped by the union logic inside the factory, a real poison for broadening the struggle. Indeed, although the objective of the refinery workers was to strengthen the movement, to be a “strong arm” to make the government retreat, as it unfolded under union leadership the blockading of the depots was above all revealed to be a weapon of the bourgeoisie and its unions against the workers. Not only to isolate the refinery workers but also to make their strike unpopular, creating panic and raising the threat of widespread fuel shortages, the press generously spread its venom against these “hostage-takers, preventing people from going to work or going on holiday.” But the workers in this sector were also cut off physically; even though they wanted to offer their solidarity in the struggle, to create a balance of power to get the reforms withdrawn; this particular blockade has in fact been turned against them and the objective they originally set themselves.
There were many similar union actions, in certain sectors like transport, and preferably in areas with few workers, because at all costs the unions had to minimise the risk of extension and active solidarity. They had to pretend, to their audience, that they were orchestrating the most radical struggles and calling for union unity in the demonstrations, all the while sabotaging the situation.
Everywhere one could see the unions uniting in an “Intersyndicale” to better promote the semblance of unity, creating the appearance of general assemblies, without any real debate, confining topics to more corporatist issues, pretending in public to be fighting “for everyone” and “everyone together”... but with each sector organised in its own corner behind its small union boss, doing everything to prevent the creation of mass delegations that would seek solidarity with enterprises in the nearby area.
And the unions have not been alone in obstructing the possibility of such a mobilisation, because Sarkozy’s police, known for their alleged stupidity and anti-leftism, have provided the unions with indispensable support on several occasions through their provocations. Example: the events in Place Bellecour in Lyon, where the presence of a few “hooligans” (probably manipulated by the cops) was used as a pretext for a violent police crackdown against hundreds of young students, most of whom had only come to discuss with the workers at the end of a demonstration.
A movement full of potential
However, there have been no reports in the media of the many inter-professional committees or general assemblies (“AG interpros”) formed during this period; committees and assemblies whose stated aim was and is to organise outside the unions and to develop discussions completely open to all workers. These assemblies are the place where the working class can not only recognise itself, but above all where it can get massively involved.
This is what scares the bourgeoisie the most: that contacts are forming and growing extensively inside the working class, between young and old, between those in work, and those out of work.
We must draw the lessons from the failure of this movement.
The first observation is that it was the union apparatus that made the attack on the proletariat possible and that the failure of the movement is not at all something that was inevitable. The truth is that the unions did their dirty work and all the sociologists and other specialists, as well as the government and Sarkozy in person, saluted their “sense of responsibility”. Yes, without doubt, the bourgeoisie is fortunate to have “responsible” unions capable of breaking up a movement of this scale while being able at the same time to make everyone believe that they did everything possible to assist its development. Again it’s the same union apparatus that has succeeded in stifling and marginalising real expressions of autonomous struggle of the working class and of all workers.
However, this failure still bears much fruit because all the efforts made by all the bourgeoisie’s forces have not succeeded in inflicting a crushing defeat, as was the case in 2003 with the fight against the reform of public sector pensions when the country’s education sector workers had to make a bitter retreat after several weeks on strike.
Hence, this movement has led to the appearance in several places of a growth of minorities expressing a clear understanding of the real needs of the struggle for the whole proletariat: the need to take the struggle into its own hands to extend and strengthen it, showing that a profound reflection is taking place, that the development of the struggle is only just beginning, and demonstrating a willingness to learn from what has happened and to stay mobilised for the future.
As one of the leaflets of the “AG interpro” of the Gare de l’Est in Paris dated 6 November said: “We should have supported the sectors on strike at the start, not restricting ourselves to the single demand on pensions when redundancies, job cuts, the destruction of public services and low wages were being fought. This could have helped to bring other workers into struggle and extended and unified the strike movement. Only a mass strike which is organised locally and co-ordinated nationally through strike committees, inter-professional general assemblies, struggle committees, where we decide our demands and actions ourselves and we are in control, can have a chance of winning.”
“The power of workers lies not only in shutting down an oil depot or a factory, here or there. The power of workers lies in uniting at their workplaces, across occupations, plants, companies and categories and taking decisions together”, because“the attacks are just beginning. We have lost a battle, we have not lost the war. The bourgeoisie has declared class war on us and we still have the means of fighting it” (leaflet entitled “Nobody can struggle, take decisions and succeed on our behalf”, signed by the full-time and temporary workers of the “AG interpro” of the Gare de l’Est and Ile-de-France, cited above). We must defend ourselves by extending and developing our struggles massively and thus take control into our own hands.
This was made particularly clear with:
the real “AG interpros” that emerged in the struggle, albeit as small minorities and were determined to remain mobilised in preparing future combats;
the holding or attempted holding of street assemblies or people’s assemblies at the end of demonstrations, as happened particularly in Toulouse.
This willingness to take control of the struggle by some minorities shows that the class as a whole is beginning to question the unions’ strategy, without yet daring to draw all the consequences from its doubts and questionings. In all the GAs (whether union ones or not), most debates in their various forms have centred around essential questions about “How to struggle?”, “How to help other workers?”, “How to express solidarity?”, “Which other inter-professional GAs can we meet up with?”, “How do we combat isolation and reach out to as many workers as possible to discuss how to struggle together?” ... And in fact, a few dozen workers from all sectors, the unemployed, temporary workers and pensioners have regularly turned up each day in front of the gates of the 12 paralysed refineries, to “make up the numbers” facing the CRS riot police, to bring packed lunches for the strikers, to provide moral support.
This spirit of solidarity is an important element, revealing once again the profound nature of the working class.
“Having confidence in our own forces” must be the watchword for the future.
This struggle has the appearance of a defeat; the government did not back down. But in fact it constitutes a new step forward for our class. The minorities that emerged and tried to regroup, to discuss in the “AG interpros” or the people’s street assemblies, the minorities who have tried to take control of their struggles, totally distrusting the unions, reveal the questioning that is taking place in the heads of all the workers. This reflection will continue to develop and will eventually bear fruit. It is not a case of standing by, with arms folded, waiting for the ripe fruit to fall from the tree. All those who are conscious that the only thing the future holds is growing pauperisation and the need to fight the vile attacks of capital must help prepare the future struggles. We must continue to debate, to discuss, to draw the lessons of this movement and to spread them as widely as possible. Those who have begun to build relationships of trust and fraternity in this movement, on the marches and in the GAs, must try and continue their participation (in discussion circles, struggle committees, people’s assemblies or “public platforms”) because there are still questions that need answers, such as:
What role does the “economic blockade” have in the class struggle?
What is the difference between the violence of the state and that of struggling workers?
How do we respond to repression?
How do we take control of our struggles? How do we organise them?
What is the difference between a union GA and a sovereign GA? etc.
This movement is already rich in lessons for the world proletariat. In a different way, the student mobilisations that took place in Great Britain also provide evidence of the promise of the struggles that lie ahead.
Great Britain: the younger generation returns to the struggle
On Saturday October 23rd,following the announcement of the government austerity plan to drastically cut public spending, there were many demonstrations throughout the country called by various unions. The number of people that turned out (it was quite varied, with up to 15,000 in Belfast and 25,000 in Edinburgh) revealed the depth of anger. Another expression of widespread discontent was the student rebellion against university tuition fees being increased by 300%.
Young people are already left heavily in debt with astronomical sums to pay off (as much as £80,000!) after they graduate. Not surprisingly, these new increases provoked a whole series of demonstrations from the north of the country to the south (5 mobilisations in less than a month: 10th, 24th and 30th November and 4th and 9th December). This increase has all the same been passed into law by the House of Commons on December 8th.
The centres of struggle have been widespread: in further education, in high schools and colleges, the occupations of a long list of universities, numerous meetings on campus or in the street to discuss the way forward ... students received support and solidarity from many teachers, who closed their eyes to the absence of the protesters from their classes (attendance at classes is strictly monitored) or went along to discuss with their students. The strikes, demonstrations and occupations were anything but the tame events that unions and the left-wing “officials” usually try to organise. This spiralling spirit of resistance worried the government. A clear sign of its concern was the level of police repression at the demonstrations. Most gatherings ended in violent clashes with armed police adopting a strategy of “kettling” (confining demonstrators inside police cordons), backed up with physical attacks on demonstrators, which resulted in many injured and numerous arrests, mostly in London. Meanwhile occupations took place in fifteen universities with support from teachers. On November 10th, students stormed the headquarters of the Conservative Party and on December 8th, they tried to enter the Treasury building and the High Court, and demonstrators attacked the Rolls-Royce carrying Prince Charles and his wife Camilla. The students and their supporters attended the demonstrations in high spirits, with their own banners and slogans, with some of them participating in a protest movement for the first time. Spontaneous walkouts, the taking of Conservative Party HQ at Millbank, the defiance or creative avoidance of police lines, the invasion of town halls and other public spaces are just some of the expressions of this openly rebellious attitude. The students were sickened and outraged by the attitude of Aaron Porter, president of the NUS (national union of students) who condemned the occupation of the Conservative Party headquarters, attributing it to the violence of a small minority. On 24th November in London, thousands of demonstrators were “kettled” by the police within minutes of setting off from Trafalgar Square, and despite some attempts to break through police lines, the forces of order detained thousands of them for hours in the cold. At one point, the mounted police rode directly at the crowd. In Manchester, at Lewisham Town Hall in south London, and elsewhere, we have seen similar scenes of brute force. The newspapers are playing their usual role as well, printing photographs of alleged “wreckers” after Millbank, running scare stories about revolutionary groups targeting the nation’s youth with their evil propaganda. All this shows the real nature of the “democracy” we live under.
The student revolt in the UK is the best answer to the idea that the working class in the UK remains passive faced with a torrent of attacks by the government on every aspect of our living standards: jobs, wages, health, unemployment, disability benefits as well as education.
A whole new generation of the exploited class does not accept the logic of sacrifice and austerity that the bourgeoisie and its unions are imposing. It’s only by taking control of its struggles, developing its solidarity and international unity that the working class, especially in the most industrialised, “democratic” countries, will be able to offer society a real future. It’s only by refusing to shoulder the burden of a bankrupt capitalism all over the world that the exploited class can put an end to the misery and terror of the exploiting class by overthrowing capitalism and building a new society based on satisfying the needs of the whole of humanity and not on profit and exploitation.
. Read the article in International Review n° 125,“Theses on the Spring 2006 student movement in France".
. General Secretary of the CGT, the main body of affiliated trade unions in France and associated with the French Communist Party.
. FO: "Force ouvrière". This union came out of a split with the CGT in 1947 at the start of the Cold War and was supported and financed by the American unions of the AFL-CIO. Up until the 1990s, this organisation was known for its "moderation" but thereafter it adopted a more "radical" stance by trying to "outflank" the CGT on the left.
. SUD: "Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques". Small union on the far left of the spectrum of the forces that supervise the working class, and largely influenced by leftist groups.