France: Coordinations in the vanguard of sabotaging the struggle

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The social movements in almost every branch of the state sector, which have shaken France for several months, are a striking illustration of the perspectives that the ICC has been putting for­ward for years: faced with increasingly brutal and widespread attacks on the part of a capital up to its neck in an insurmountable crisis (see the article on the economic crisis in this issue), the world working class is far from giving up the fight. An accumulation of profound discon­tent is now being transformed into an immense combativity which is forcing the bourgeoisie to deploy more and more subtle and large-scale maneuvers, to avoid losing control altogether. And so, in France, it has set in motion a highly elaborate plan making use not only of different forms of trade unionism (both "traditional" and "rank-and-file"), but also and above all of or­gans claiming to be still more "rank-and-file" (because they are supposedly based on the mass meetings of workers in struggle): the "coordinations" whose use in sabotaging strug­gles has only just begun.

Not for years has France seen so explosive a return from the traditional summer break as in autumn 88. It had been clear since the spring that large-scale social confrontations were brewing. The struggles which took place be­tween March and May 1988 at Chausson (trucks) and the SNECMA (aircraft motors) proved that the period of relative working class passivity since the defeat of the December 86/January 87 rail strike had come to an end. The fact that these movements broke out during the presi­dential and parliamentary elections (no less than four elections in two months), was especially significant in a country where such periods are traditionally synonymous with social peace. And this time, when the Socialist Party (PS) re­turned to power, it could not hope for any "state of grace" as in 1981.

Firstly, the workers had already learnt be­tween 1981 and 1986 that "left" austerity is no better than the "right" variety. Secondly, as soon as it was installed the new government made it clear that there could be no question of calling into question the economic policies ap­plied by the right during the two previous years. And it made the most of the two summer months to make this policy still worse.

This is why the working class combativity, partially paralyzed during the spring by the electoral circus, could not help exploding into massive struggles in autumn, especially in the state sector where wages had fallen by almost 10% in a few years. The situation was all the more threatening for the bourgeoisie in that ever since the 1981-84 coalition government of the "Communist" and "Socialist" parties, the trade unions had been considerably discredited and in many branches were no longer in a po­sition to control explosions of working class anger by themselves. And this is why they set up an apparatus aimed at splitting and dis­persing the class' combats, where the trade unions would obviously have their place but where the leading role throughout the initial phase would be played by "new", "non-union", "really democratic" organisms: the "coordinations".

The term "coordination" has already been em­ployed on many occasions during recent years in many European countries. In the mid-80's, we have seen in Spain the "Coordinadora de Estibadores" (Dockers' Coordination)[1], whose radical language and great openness (in partic­ular in allowing revolutionaries to intervene in its mass meetings) were deceptive, but which in fact was nothing other than a permanent rank­-and-file trade union structure. Similarly during the summer of 1987 a "Coordinamento di Macchinisti" (Drivers' Coordination) was formed on the Italian railways, only to reveal itself as being of the same variety. But the country most favored by the "coordinations" today is undoubtedly France, where all the important workers' struggles since winter 1986-87 have witnessed the appearance of organs bearing this name:

-- a "drivers' coordination" (known as the Paris-Nord) and an "inter-trades coordination" (known as Paris Sud-Est) during the rail strike of December ‘86[2];

-- a "teachers' coordination" during their strike in February ‘87;

-- the "inter-SNECMA coordination" during the strike in this company in the spring of 1988[3].

Some of these "coordinations" were merely unions, in other words permanent structures claiming to represent the workers in the de­fense of their economic interests. By contrast, others do not at first sight aim at becoming permanent structures. They come into being, or emerge into the light of day, when the working class mobilizes in one branch, only to disappear again. This was the case with the coordinations that appeared during the rail strike in France at the end of 1986 for example. And it is pre­cisely this "ephemeral" character which gives the impression that they have been set up by the class specifically for and in the struggle that makes them all the more pernicious.

In reality, experience has shown us that this kind of organism, even when it has not been prepared months in advance by specific bour­geois political forces, has been "parachuted in" to a movement of struggle in order to sabotage it. Already in the French rail strike, we had seen how the "drivers' coordination", by refusing to allow anyone other than drivers into its mass meetings, made an important contribution to isolating and then defeating this movement. This "coordination" was formed on the basis of delegates elected by mass meetings in the depots. And yet, it immediately fell under the control of militants of the "Ligue Communiste" (a section of the Trotskyist IVth International), who then obviously took charge of sabotaging the struggle, as it is their role to do. In the case of the other "coordinations" which ap­peared later, however, both with the "railwaymen's inter-trades coordination" (which claimed to combat corporatist isolation) and still more with the "teachers' coordination" which appeared a few weeks later, it became clear that these organisms had been formed preventively, before any mass meetings could send delegates to them. And always, behind the formation of these "coordinations" was to be found a left or leftist force of the ruling class: a sure proof that the bourgeoisie had understood how much use it could make of these organisms.

But the clearest illustration of this policy of the bourgeoisie has been given by the formation and activity of the "Nurses' Coordination", to which the ruling class has entrusted the leading role in the first phase of its maneuver: spark­ing off the hospital strike in October 88. In fact, this "coordination" had already been cre­ated in March 1988, in the offices of the CFDT (the union more or less controlled by the PS) and by its militants. It is thus the Socialist Party, preparing for its return to power, which officiated at the baptism of this so-called organization of workers' struggle. The outbreak of the strike itself bears the mark of an action by the PS, and therefore by the government. The ruling class aimed (and we are not talking here of its reserves like the Trotskyists, but of its dominant forces which control the summit of the state) to launch a movement of struggle in a particularly backward sector politically, in order to defuse the discontent which had been accu­mulating for years within the working class. Clearly, the nurses, who were to be the cannon ­fodder in this bourgeois maneuver also had real reasons for discontent (appalling and wors­ening working conditions, and wretched wages). But all the events which took place over a pe­riod of a month allow us to highlight the reality of the bourgeoisie's plan designed to counter the rising discontent within the working class.

How the "Coordinations" behaved in the French hospital strike

The bourgeoisie knew what it was doing when it chose the nurses for its maneuver. The branch is a heavily corporatist one, where the level of qualifications required for entry has allowed the introduction of powerful prejudices and a certain contempt for other hospital work­ers (nursing aids, ancillary workers etc), con­sidered as "subaltern". All these elements con­stituted a guarantee for the bourgeoisie that it would be able to control the movement, without there being any risk of it getting seriously out of hand, and especially that the nurses would be quite incapable of acting as a spearhead to extend the struggle.

This guarantee was strengthened by the na­ture and form of the demands put forward by the "Nurses' Coordination". Amongst these, the demand for "improved professional status" in fact concealed the desire to put forward the nurses' "specificity" and "special qualifications" in relation to other hospital workers. Moreover, this claim contained within it the disgusting de­mand to accept into nursing colleges only pupils who had passed the baccalaureate. Finally, with the same elitist approach, the demand for a wage increase of 2,000 francs per month (about 20-30%) was attached to the nurses' level of qualification (baccalaureate plus three years of university studies), which meant that other less qualified, and still worse paid, hospital workers would have no reason to put forward the same claims, especially since the "Coordination" be­haved as if, and let it be said that, the other trades should not make wage demands as these would be deducted from the rises given to the nurses.

Another clue to the maneuver is the fact that the "Nurses' Coordination"'s initial nucleus had already, in June, planned to begin the movement on the 29th September, with a one-­day strike and a big demonstration in the capi­tal. This gave the "Coordination" time to estab­lish itself more firmly before the real test. This reinforcement of the "Coordination"'s ability to control the workers was continued right after the demonstration by a meeting of several thou­sand people, where members of the leadership appeared for the first time in public. This mass meeting legitimized the "Coordination" after the event; it maneuvered as skillfully as possible to prevent the strike breaking out there and then, until it had things "well in hand". The meeting also allowed the "Coordination" to affirm its own specificity as a nurses' body, in particular by "encouraging" other workers who had taken part in the demonstration (proof enough of the immense discontent in the hospitals) and who were present in the meeting to form "their own coordinations". The apparatus was now in place for a systematic fragmentation of the struggle within the hospitals, and its isolation from other branches. The other "coordinations" created after 29th September in the wake of the "Nurses' Coordination" (no less than 9 of them in the health sector alone) were given the job of finishing off the division among the hospital workers, while it was left to the "health workers coordination" (created and controlled by the Trotskyist group "Lutte Ouvriere"), which claimed to be "open" to all trades, to control the workers who rejected the corporatism of the other coordinations, and to paralyze any attempt on their part to spread the movement outside the hospitals.

The fact that a "coordination" (which had been formed by trade unionists) launched the movement, rather than a trade union, is obvi­ously no accident. Given the unions' loss of credibility in France, especially since the "united left" government of 1981-84, it was in fact the only way to ensure a large-scale mobilization. It was thus up to the "coordinations" to ensure the "massive mobilization' which all workers felt was necessary to push back the bourgeoisie and its government. For some time now, the unions have been quite unable to obtain this "massive mobilization" be­hind their "calls to struggle". Indeed, there are many branches where one or other union only has to call for "action", for a large number of workers to decide that this is purely self­ serving on the union's part, and that they want nothing to do with it. This distrust, and the feeble echo encountered by union campaigns have indeed been frequently used by bourgeois propaganda to drive home the idea that the working class is "passive" so as to develop among workers a feeling of demoralization and impotence. This meant that only an organ free from any trade union affiliation could obtain the necessary "unity" (the precondition for a mas­sive response to its calls for action) within the trade chosen by the bourgeoisie as the basis for its maneuver. But this "unity" of which the "Nurses Coordination" claimed to be the guarantee against the usual "quarrels" among the different trades unions, was only the other side of the coin of the disgusting division which it promoted and strengthened among the hospi­tal workers. Its proclaimed "anti-unionism" was accompanied by the iniquitous argument that the unions did not defend workers' interests pre­cisely because they are organized by branch, and not by profession. One of the "Coordination"'s major arguments to justify its corporatist isolation was that unitary demands had the effect of "diluting" or "weakening" the nurses' "own" demands. This argument is not new. It has already been served up in December ‘86 during the rail strike by the "Drivers' Coordination". It is also to be found in the corporatist language of the "Coordinamento di Macchinisti" on the Italian railways in 1987.

In fact, under cover of "going beyond" or "questioning" the unions, this is nothing but a return to the basis of working class organization in the previous century, at a time when it had begun to organize trades unions; in the present period, it is no less bourgeois than to­day's unions themselves. Whereas today, the working class can only organize on a geographic basis, irrespective of any distinctions between companies, trades, or branches of industry (distinctions which the unions are of course constantly cultivating in their labor of dividing and sabotaging the struggle), any organism formed on the basis of a profession cannot be anything but bourgeois.

Here then is how the "coordinations" propose to trap the workers: either they "march" behind the unions (and in countries blessed with "trade union pluralism" they thus become the hostages of the different gangs which maintain their di­visions), or they leave the unions, only to be divided up in another way by the "coordinations". In the final analysis, the "coordinations" merely complement the unions; they are the other jaw of the vice whose pur­pose is to immobilize the working class.

How "Coordinations" and unions share out the dirty work

This complementarity between unions and "coordinations" has been shown clearly in the two most important movements to hit France in the last two years: the rail and hospital strikes. In the former, the "coordinations'" role was essentially to keep control on the terrain, leaving it to the unions to negotiate with the government. In these conditions, they made themselves useful by pimping for the unions, declaring loudly that they did not contest the unions' responsibility in "representing" the workers in negotiating with the authorities (they went no further than to ask - unsuc­cessfully - for a stool at the bargaining table). In the latter case, where there was far more opposition to the unions, the "Nurses' Coordination" was finally granted a seat at this ­same table, in its own right. After the Health Minister's initial refusal to meet the "Coordination" (following the first demonstration on 29th September), it was the Prime Minister himself who granted this same favor on 14th October, after a demonstration of almost 100,000 people in Paris. It was the least the government could do to reward these people who had done such fine work for it. The division of labor was also maintained on this occasion: in the end, on the 14th October all the unions (except the more "radical" CGT controlled by the "Communist" Party) signed an agreement with the government, while the "Coordination" called ­for the struggle to continue. Anxious to be seen "really defending" the workers right to the end, it in fact never officially accepted the government's proposals. On the 23rd October, it buried the movement in its own way by calling ­for "the struggle to continue in other forms", and occasionally organizing demonstrations, where the declining numbers of participants could not but demobilize the workers still fur­ther. This demobilization was further encour­aged by the fact that the government, while giving nothing to the other workers, and re­fusing any increase in the number of nurses (one of the most important demands), nonethe­less gave the nurses a rise of about 10%, paid for out of funds which had already been allo­cated in the budget. This "half-victory", lim­ited to the nurses (already planned for some time by the bourgeoisie: a previous health min­ister took part in the demonstrations called by the "Coordination" and even President Mitterand declared that the nurses' demands were "legitimate"), killed two birds with one stone: it increased the divisions amongst the different categories of hospital workers, and gave cre­dence to the idea it is possible to win something by fighting on the corporatist terrain, especially when it is behind a "coordination".

But the bourgeois maneuver to disorientate the whole working class did not stop at the return to work in the hospitals. The last phase of the operation went well beyond the health sector, and was left entirely to the unions, which the "coordinations" had put back in the saddle. Whereas while the movement in the health sector was on the rise, the unions and the "leftist" groups had done everything in their power to prevent strikes starting in other sectors (especially in the Post Office, where the will to struggle was very strong), after the 14th October, they began to call for strikes and mobilizations all over the place. On the 18th October, the CGT called an "inter-trades day of action", while on the 20th the other unions, joined at the last minute by the CGT, called for a day of action in the state sector. Once this was over, the unions, with the CGT in the lead, began to call systematically for strikes in every branch of the state sector, one after the other: in the Post Office, the electricity industry, the railways, the urban transport systems in the provinces and then in the capital, the airlines, social security ...

The bourgeoisie aimed to exploit to the full the disorientation created within the working class by the ebb of the hospital movement, and to use the same maneuver in all the other sectors. The unions "radicalized" their language, and - with the CGT in the lead once again - tried to "outbid" the "coordinations" by calling for the "extension" of the strikes; where they still had the influence to do so they organized minority or "bitter end" strikes, calling for "commando actions" (as with the Post Office truck drivers who blockaded the sorting offices) which only had the effect of isolating the strikes still further. On some occasions, the unions had no hesitations in openly donning the "coordination" cap when this could be a "help", as in the Post Office where the CGT created its own "coordination".

The division of labor between unions and "coordinations" thus covers the whole social battle-ground: the latter are given the task of launching and controlling the massive "flagship" movement in the health service; the former, after negotiating "positively" with the government in the health service, are left to finish off the job in the rest of the state sector. And in the final analysis, the maneuver has succeeded, since today the workers' combativity is dispersed in a multitude of isolated struggles which can only wear it down, or paralyze it in the case of workers who refuse to be dragged into the adventurism of the CGT.

What are the lessons for the working class?

Two months after the beginning of the movement in the hospitals, strikes are still going on throughout France, in different branches, re­vealing the huge reserves of combativity which have accumulated in the ranks of the working class; already, revolutionaries can draw certain conclusions, which are valid for the class as a whole.

In the first place, it is important to empha­size the bourgeoisie's ability to take preventive action, and in particular to provoke premature social movements at a time when the proletariat as a whole is still not mature enough to achieve a real mobilization. This tactic has been used often in the past by the ruling class, including in situations where the stakes were far higher than in the present period. The most striking example is that of January 1919, when the Berlin workers answered a deliberate provocation by the social-democratic government by launching an uprising, despite the fact that workers in the provinces were not yet ready for insurrec­tion. The massacre of workers which followed (as well as the murder of the German Communist Party's two main leaders: Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht) dealt a fatal blow to the revo­lution in Germany, where the working class was finally defeated piecemeal.

Today, and in the years to come, this tactic which aims to take the initiative in order to defeat the workers piecemeal will be used sys­tematically by the bourgeoisie, whereas the generalization of capital's economic attacks demands an increasingly global and united response from the working class. The need to unify the struggle, felt more and more pressingly by the workers themselves, is bound to come up against a multitude of maneuvers aimed at di­viding the working class and fragmenting its struggles, which will involve a division of labor among all the bourgeoisie's political forces, and especially the left, the trade unions, and the leftist organizations. What is confirmed by the events in France, is that one of the ruling class' most dangerous weapons will be the "coordinations", which will be increasingly used as the unions are discredited and the workers become readier to take control of the struggle themselves.

Against the bourgeoisie's maneuvers aimed at keeping the struggles under the control of the "coordinations", the working class must be aware that its real strength lies not in these so-called "centralizing" organisms, but first and foremost in its own general assemblies or mass meetings. The centralization of the class' com­bat is an important element in its strength, but over-hasty centralization, without an adequate foundation in the struggle's control by all the workers, can only end up handing over control to the forces of the ruling class (especially the leftist organizations) and to isolation, ie the two elements of defeat. Historical experience has shown that the higher the level in the pyramid of organs created by the class to centralize its combat, the greater the remove from the level where all the workers are directly involved, the easier it is for the left-wing forces of the bourgeoisie to take control and put their maneuvers into practice. This has been true even in revolutionary periods. It was true in Russia, where for most of 1917 the Executive Committee of the Soviets was controlled by the Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries, which for a time led the Bolsheviks to argue that the local soviets should not feel themselves tied to the policy conducted by this centralizing organ. Similarly in Germany in November 1918, the Congress of Workers' Councils could find noth­ing better to do than to hand over power to the social-democrats, who had gone over to the en­emy camp, thus signing the death-warrant of the Councils themselves.

The bourgeoisie understands this perfectly. This is why it will systematically encourage the appearance of "centralizing" organisms, which it will easily be able to control as long as the working class remains insufficiently mature and experienced. And to make assurance doubly sure, it will whenever possible create such or­gans in advance, especially with the help of its leftists, giving them their "legitimacy" after­wards through sham mass meetings, so as to make sure that these meetings do not create their own centralizing organs: elected and revo­cable strike committees in the factories, central strike committees at the town or regional level, etc.

Whatever the councilist-workerists may say, those who today are swooning with ecstasy be­fore the "coordinations", the recent struggles in both France and other European countries are proof that the working class has not yet at­tained sufficient maturity to create centralizing organisms at a national level, as the "coordinations" propose to do. There are no short cuts. For a long time to come, the class will have to defuse the traps and barriers set by the bourgeoisie. The workers will have to learn how to spread their struggles, and how to exercise real control over them through sovereign general assemblies in the workplace. The proletariat still has a long way to go; but there is no other.

FM. 22/11/88

[1]See Accion Proletaria no. 72

[2]See Revolution Internationale no. 153  

[3]See Revolution Internationale nos. 168, 169.