Strikes on French railways

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There has been a real development of workers' militancy in recent weeks. Strikes have broken out in all sorts of places against the violent attacks directed at the working class. Numerous sectors have been affected: private and public, industry and sed public, industry and services. To refer only to the ones that got some mention in the daily press: the strike at Alcatel against 12,000 job cuts; the strike at Elf in Pau against the plan to get rid of 1250 jobs; strikes at Nice airport against the introduction of short-term contracts; a series of strikes against the introduction of the 35-hour week; at Elf Atochem, at Cegetel, but also in cleaning firms; in bus companies, food and distribution. Walk-outs at Peugeot against the new shifts involved in the 35-hour week. The TV and the daily papers have said nothing about these last struggles. Or about the numerous strikes that have been breaking out on an almost daily basis in the hospitals and the postal service against job cuts and worsening conditions of work.

In fact, there is a real media black-out about these numerous scattered strikes, an attempt to hide the general character of the discontent throughout the working class. And when they are obliged to talk about them, as in the case of the strike that broke out at the SNCF (national railway) at the end of April, they do all they can to present them as isolated phenomena, as purely "sectional" movements motivated by "egoistic" interests which run counter to those of other workers. With the rail strike in particular, they have tried to whip up "public opinion" against them by talking abut the growing anger of the rail passengers.

Demands common to o the whole working class

Not only was the SNCF strike no isolated case, but, far from involving any specific "sectional" interests, it was an expression of the same mobilisation against the Aubry law on the 35-hour week which has developed in many other places. Mobilisations which show that the working class has today understood that the 35-hour week is no "gift" from a benevolent left wing government, but a violent attack against wages and working conditions.

The repulsive propaganda of the bourgeoisie has presented the railway workers as being a "privileged" sector who "only have to work three hours a day" (!) and who have "refused to do just 16 minutes more". This is in continuity with the gross lies of the recent campaign against the civil servants, who couldn't be given the 35-hour week because they supposedly only work 30 to 32 hours a week already!

The truth is much cruder. The content of the agreement between the SNCF management and the CGT and CFDT unions is really a violent attack on the railway workers:

· the calculation of the working day has indeed gone up from 7 hours 30 minutes to 7 hours 46, but during some periods the average day can go up to 8 hours 15 minutes. In other words it's the classic ploy of annualised hours;

· the extra days off granted "in compensation" has meant a loss of bonuses. If we remember that they can make make up to 40% of gross wages, we can see what this means!

· as for the supposed great step forward of the "massive creation of jobs", this is even more of a con. The "Communist" minister Gayssot proudly announced the figure of 23,500-25,000 new jobs in three years. Except that you also have to take into account nearly 20,000 departures over the same period and the regularisation of 3000 short-term contracts. The final tally is about one new job for each rail depot.

During the transport strikes last October, the demand for new jobs was at the center of the workers' anger, despite the attempts of the bourgeoisie to turn this into a matter of safety and nothing else (see WR 220). At the SNCF, where more than 81,000 jobs have been cut over 13 years, the minister and the SNCF management promised that the demand for new jobs would be taken into account in the framework of the 35-hour week. Now we can see the results.

This is why the anger has again exploded at the SNCF.

The unions' division of labour to sabotage the struggle

In implementing this attack, the left-wing government has relied on the overt complicity of the big union federations, the CGT and CFDT. On 15 April, the CGT launched a huge campaign in the SNCF, singing the praises of the agreement it had just concocted behind the railway workers' backs. This was in the same mold as the other agreements about the 35-hour week whek which the CGT, along with other unions, has pushed through in other sectors, such as textiles.

And when the strike broke out, the declarations of the two unions against the strikers were even more virulent than those of the management: "It is inadmissible that the 2.5% of the workforce involved in this strike could hold the SNCF hostage and put the whole enterprise in danger" said the CFDT's rail leader on the TV, while the CGT made a campaign around the idea that the strike was "sectional and the work of a minority".

At the beginning, therefore, it was only the FGAAC union (the "autonomous" drivers' union) which officially supported the strike, launching an appeal for its affiliated drivers. In the division of labour between the unions, the specific role of the FGAAC was to present the strike as being motivated by the "specific interests" of the drivers, who, according to the FGAAC, have been "left out" of a deal supposedly favourable to other categories within the SNCF. This was itself an enormous lie. This appeal for a strike from a minority union which peddles a very corporatist line was an excellent way of isolating the striking railway workers and imprisoning them in a minority struggle. This obviously made it easier for the other unions to oppose the strike precisely by pointing the finger at the corporatism of the FGAAC.

The manoeuvre, however, was not a complete success. As Liberation put it ot on 29 April, "the movement seems to be drawing in more people than expected" (by the FGAAC representatives themselves). On the 30th, the strike was followed by 26% of the 18,000 drivers, as against 19% the day before. Furthermore, rather than restricting itself just to the drivers, the mobilisation quickly began to involve other rail workers, notably at Sotteville (see the leaflet "Draw the lessons" ) but also at other depots like Marseilles.

The failure of the division of labour between the FGAAC and the other unions obliged the latter to change tactics. In numerous places the local delegates and sections of the CGT were forced to run after the strikers and rally to the movement while at the same time doing what they could to hold it in check, in the name of "the good points of the agreement". At the May 1st demonstration the embarrassed CGT leader Thibaut declared: "I neither approve nor disapprove of such a movement_it can be that some personnel express a different point of view from that of other categories", which was another way of presenting the strikers' demands as being opposed to those of the majority of railway workers (whereas in fact they were only opposed to_ the interests defended by the CGT).

On 3rd may, Sud-Rail and FO, also minority unions, launched an official call for a strike themselves, this time for all categories. In fact the extension to other categories had already begun, without waiaiting for them. The movement continued to widen.

On 4th May, the CGT itself announced a strike_for the following week! The aim was clear: to deal a death blow to the movement towards extension. And the manoeuvre succeeded: in a number of places, the local CGT sections used this pretext to get people back to work, arguing that the CGT's appeal was more "unitary" and more "majority" than the actual movement.

To strike as a particular category, or to reject the strike in the name of "unity": this was the false choice that the unions, through their division of labour, proposed to the SNCF workers.

There was also a division of roles within the unions, between the "base" and the "leadership" of the big federations, notably the CGT. Contrary to what the "radical" trade unionists of Lutte Ouvriere pretend, the movement didn't extend thanks to the local appeals of the CGT in various depots. On the contrary, it was because the pressure from the workers in these depots was so strong that the CGT sections were forced to adopt a more radical language than the national leadership. The union "base" has the job of sticking to the movement the better to obstruct it from the inside, to prevent the strikers from taking real control of the extension of the movement through their own general assemblies. Instead of that, the policy of the CGT base was above all to call on the workers to "put pressure" on the leadership so so that it would organise the broadening of the strike.

What lessons?

The truth is that when the unions rally to a strike which threatens to escape their control, this never reinforces the struggle. It can only serve to strangle and sabotage it. The unions are only prepared to call for wide movements when they are certain that they can control it from start to finish and render it powerless. This is exactly what happened in December 1995.

Union sabotage managed to lead the SNCF strike to defeat. But there are defeats which are rich in lessons for the future. And the essential lesson of the strike which has just taken place at the SNCF is that the workers can only rely on themselves. This means that they must take charge of their own struggles, through general assemblies that are not answerable to the unions.

Against the corporatist propaganda of the unions, which always seeks to enclose the struggle through divisive demands, workers have to put forward unifying demands, those which other fractions of the working class can take as their own.

Workers cannot wait for the unions to organise the extension of the movement; they have to do it themselves, by sending massive delegations to other workers.

And this extension doesn't mean just going to workers in the same sector, but sending delegations to all the enterprises of a given region, and calling on all workers to join the struggle.

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