What can we learn from the blockade of the oil refineries in France?

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We are publishing here an article written by our French section in Revolution Internationale 420 in response to the very widespread debate about the tactic of the oil refinery blockades during last autumn’s struggles against pension ‘reforms’. The blockades have certainly impressed some revolutionaries outside France. Brighton Solidarity Federation, for example, recently published a text ‘The paradox of reformism: a call for economic blockades’[1] which contains the following argument:

It’s all about the balance of class forces. It’s primarily a power struggle, not a moral argument. We might have right on our side, but might will determine the outcome. For the fight against the cuts, there are several implications. Symbolic protest won’t cut it. If actions like UK Uncut move from largely awareness-raising into the realms of economic blockades, then we’ll be getting somewhere. And the state will react accordingly, we must be prepared for more police violence if we’re serious about winning. No doubt such tactics will also be condemned by those notionally on ‘our side’ just like Aaron Porter condemned the Millbank Riot which kick-started this movement. The irony is without such a movement, they’re powerless too. But given the TUC is in thrall to the Labour Party, and the lack of independent workers’ organisation, sustained, co-ordinated strike action against austerity looks unlikely. On the other hand economic blockades have been used to great effect in France both as a standalone tactic and in support of strike action”.

There’s no doubt that the working class can’t push back capital’s attacks by complaining that they are unfair: it is indeed all about the balance of class forces. But the question is whether the tactic of the economic blockade really does create a balance of forces in favour of the working class. The Solfed article seems to offer a very misleading answer, since it seems to think that blockades could work as a ‘standalone’ tactic as well as part of a wider strike movement, and even seem to imply that it would be good to use such tactics in the UK because “sustained-co-ordinated action against austerity looks unlikely” here. In sum, blockades can work when more massive movements are not on the cards. This line of reasoning confirms the criticism made in the article that follows: that as an ideology. ‘the blockade’ obeys the same logic as trade unionism: a specialised minority acts on behalf of the working class; and furthermore, that the unions in France put so much emphasis on the blockade tactic precisely because they could us it to block the real extension of the class struggle.

The blockade of petrol refineries and oil depots was a major element in the struggles against the retirement reform of 2010 in France. In the general assemblies and demonstrations it was a focus of many discussions and debates. For many, blocking the refineries appeared as a means of concretely bringing pressure to bear on the bourgeoisie by paralysing transport and the whole of the economy through this “strategic sector”.

“Despite eight days of particularly well-followed action, it seemed that even with three-and-a-half million of people on the streets, the processions weren’t enough to spread the struggle (...) Throughout France blockages of refineries, of refuse and waste treatment plants and in many other sites, were on the increase. Undoubtedly, the obstinacy of the state and the bosses in imposing their retirement reforms pushed the struggle to rediscover union practices which had disappeared a long time ago (...) How could it be seriously thought that strikes could boil down to processions in the street, hemmed in by the forces of order? History (...) often shows us that our rights, our social acquisitions have been drawn like teeth (and not through polite requests) coming out of very hard struggles and generally by using the only means available to workers: the strike and the blockade of production at the place of work”[2]. These few lines from the CNT-Vignoles sum up what the “blockers” of autumn 2010 were effectively thinking. From February to November, demonstration followed demonstration, each time bringing together millions of people. Within the marches there was an immense anger faced with the degradation of living conditions . However, the French bourgeoisie did not cede ground and even stepped up its attacks on social security, access to health care and on the numbers of workers directly employed by the state. While the “processions in the street” seemed to everyone impotent and sterile, some minorities looked for more radical and effective methods of struggle. The blockade of the economy thus appeared as “obvious”[3].

The refinery blockade: a Pyrrhic victory

A few days of occupation of the refineries was sufficient to create a fuel and petrol shortage and problems in transport generally.

At the end of September, strikes broke out in some refineries. The movement spread quite naturally and factories closed one after the other. In mid-October, 12 French refineries were all blocked. Faced with the provocations of the CRS police, some pickets composed of oil workers, workers of other sectors, unemployed, students, retired, etc., manned the gates day and night.

Rapidly petrol and diesel were drying up at the pumps and the shortage was the number one story in the media. The declarations of the political authorities affirmed that there was no problem of supply to the pumps came across as absurd. Finally, according to INSEE, petrol production was reduced by 56.5% during October.

Apparently the blockaders seemed to have succeeded in their aim. But clearly, in reality, they didn’t. This so-called “victory” is nothing but an illusion created by the propaganda of the bourgeoisie. Letting us think that it is possible to block the production of one sector, whatever it is, is a big lie. And in the precise case of petrol, the bourgeoisie had the full capacity to face up to the blockades. France, as many other countries, in fact holds several million tonnes of petrol in reserve assuring itself of a number of months provisions (17 million tonnes of strategic stocks, or more than three months of normal consumption, reserve stocks of the petrol companies, reserves of oil managed by the army...). Further, with the internationalisation of pipeline networks and, quite simply, importing from abroad by road tankers, states do not solely rely on their own reserves in order to assure the distribution of fuel. As Peter Vener writes, “It is characteristic that even the most insurrectionist of the tiqquniens[4] talk of blocking the ‘economy of the country’, from the simple generalisation of blockades made more or less sporadic or widespread, more or less spontaneous or controlled from above, etc., as if that made the least sense in this time of ‘globalisation’ and the organisation of modern capitalist ‘network’”, particularly in the key sector of the production and distribution of fuel”[5].

The risk of a shortage of fuel in October 2010, and the paralysis of the national economy was thus only a fairy tale to send the workers to sleep. The difficulties in filling up their tanks only affected some drivers, above all because of a panic. The petrol companies even profited from the occasion by putting up their prices. The blockade of the refineries was only a gnat’s bite on the back of an elephant. And capitalism has a thick skin!

In fact, behind this pretend victory of the blockade is hidden the contrary: a real defeat for the working class. The bourgeoisie used the refinery blockade to isolate the most combative workers and divide the proletariat.

* On the one hand, the unions, notably the CGT, resting on the absolute control that it exercised over operations, used it to isolate the refinery workers who were being threatened with restructuring and are thus particularly militant, from the rest of their class. Their justified anger was not the point of departure for an extension of the struggle: rather than organise flying pickets to enterprises of other sectors for them to join the movement, the CGT clearly locked the blockaders into their place of work. Everything revolved around the blockade of the refineries whatever the cost, creating the atmosphere of a besieged citadel where only the “fuel shortages” mattered.

* On the other hand, through an intense campaign on the risks of a fuel shortage, the government and its media readily created a climate of panic among the population. Squeezed between costly days of massively supported strikes and daily harassment from the bosses, many workers were afraid of not being able to get to work. This concern was expressed elsewhere in long queues at the petrol stations that journalists covered up to the point of nausea. If, in general, proletarians did not blame refinery workers and even expressed their solidarity, the hysterical propaganda from the media undeniably contributed to breaking the dynamic of extension in which the struggle was engaged.

Thus, it’s not by chance if, after months of the movement growing in power, the decline started at the very moment when the blockade of the refineries was fully implemented.

But given a mass movement always starts off somewhere, couldn’t the blockade of the refineries have been the point of departure of a much wider struggle? Why did the ICC, from the first blockades, warn of the risk of the confinement, isolation and division contained in this form of action?[6].

The cult of a blockade against the mass nature of the struggle

From its first manifestations, the theory of the economic blockade was built on weak foundations. The pro-blockers very quickly became aware of the ineffectiveness of endless demonstrations organised by the unions. However, they concluded from this that a handful of determined individuals preventing the running of strategic targets such as refineries was the best basis on which to create the conditions for a widespread and authentic solidarity. A group in Lyon called “Premier Round” thus wrote: “The present movement goes from here: ‘We must block the economy; how do we do it?’ The answer is posed around the question of petrol. Even if no-one knows if it will work, if it is the best way to attack the problem, it’s an attempt: organise a petrol shortage. And then see what happens. With the rolling strike voted on, it’s sufficient that some strikers adopt the blockade as a means of action so that others come to join them from elsewhere. Where the strike and sabotage isn’t enough, strikers should oppose transportation. In this way we’ll see train drivers, students, postal workers, nurses, teachers, dockers, unemployed, together blocking the oil depots – without waiting for the endless appeals of an abstract ‘convergence of struggles’. The same thing should happen at the railway stations, postal centres, transport depots, airports, and motorways: wherever it’s enough for a few dozen people to do the blocking (...) the sinews of the struggle unfolding are the blockades of oil refineries and petrol depots, a relat9ively small number of nerve centres. To block the production and distribution of petrol is to finish with symbolic demands and to attack where it does the most damage”[7]. This single phrase alone reveals the false route: “wherever it’s enough for a few dozen people to do the blocking”.

It is moreover very significant that the targets aimed at were refineries, stations, airports, motorways or public transport. The transport sector is effectively a strategic sector for the working class, but for exactly the opposite reasons than those raised by Premier Round: the blockage of trains, metros or buses is often an obstacle to extending the struggle and can facilitate the games of the bourgeoisie. It’s even one of their classic ploys: set workers against each other by unleashing campaigns around the theme of “taking passengers hostage”. Above all the blockage of transport prevents the mobility of the workers who can no longer give their solidarity to the strikers by attending their assemblies or participating in their demonstrations. The movement of delegations of strikers towards other firms is equally made more difficult. In fact the total blockage almost always favours the struggle being locked up into corporatism and isolation. That’s why the most advanced workers’ struggles have never led to a blockade of transport.

When the working class appropriates the means of production

The theory of the blockade of the economy is based on a profoundly correct idea: the working class draws its force from the central place that it occupies in production. The proletariat produces almost all of the riches that the bourgeoisie, in its own parasitic role, takes for itself. Thus, through the strike, the workers are potentially capable of blocking all production and paralysing the economy.

At the time of events around May 68 in France and those of August 1980 in Poland, gigantic strikes paralysed the economy leading even... to fuel shortages. But the blockade wasn’t in itself the objective of the workers, since the country was already paralysed. If these two struggles are historic and remain engraved in our memories, it is because the proletariat knew how to construct a rapport de force in its favour through self-organisation and the massive scale of its struggles. When the workers took over the struggle themselves, they spontaneously regrouped in general assemblies in order to debate and collectively decide which actions to undertake. They looked for the solidarity of their class brothers by going to meet them and draw them into the movement. To spread the struggle is a preoccupation and an instinctive practice of the exploited faced with capital.

At the times of these two great movements, the strikers looked to turn the economy around for themselves, in the service of the struggle and its needs. In 1968, for example, the railworkers ran their trains so that the population could travel to the demonstrations. In 1980, this grip on the means of production went much further still. The inter-enterprise strike committee (the MKS) had “all prerogatives to conduct the strike. It formed working commissions – maintenance, information, links with journalists, security – and decided if certain industries should continue working in order to assure the needs of the strikers. Thus refineries worked and produced, at a slower rate, the fuel necessary for transport, the buses and trains to run, the food industry went beyond the highest norms (previously fixed by the bureaucrats) in order to assure provisions for the population. The three towns (of the Baltic ports), Gdansk, Gdynia, Sopot, lived the rhythm of the strike, the rhythm that the strikers decided[8]. In the strongest moments of this movement, the strike committee organised supplies to the strikers and the whole population by controlling electricity and food production.

The blockade of the economy is a union manoeuvre

The pro-blockers close to the group Premier Round correctly and scathingly criticised the grip of the unions on the struggle. From this, they identified the blockade of the refineries as an action of radical struggle outflanking the iron grip of the unions: “New, informal solidarities are being put in place on the ground and outside of the control of the union leaderships. One feels that the latter have been overwhelmed by events and don’t quite know what to do with all this ‘support’. This solidarity has its own strength and can’t really be controlled and isolated”. But reality was exactly the opposite. It’s sufficient moreover to carry on reading the article for this illusion to jump out of the page:

“Where do you go to support the strikers? Where to send the cash?

* Grandpuits Refinery: donations in cash or cheques made payable to: CFDT-CGT at the following address: Intersyndicale CFDT-CGT, Raffinerie Total de Grandpuits, postal box 13, 77 720, MORMANT, or donate online through the internet site.

* Raffinerie Total de Flandres: address your donations to the strike fund managed by SUD-Chime: P.W. SUD-Chimie Raffinerie des Flandres 59140 DUNKERQUE. Cheques payable to: SUD-Chimie RF.”

The actions of blockading are unfolding “outside of the control of the union leaderships” because they “can’t really be controlled and isolated” so thinks Premier Round, which then informs us, without batting an eyelid, “Where to send donations” to support the strikers: to the CDFT, the CGT and the SUD! The truth is that the unions organised the paralysis of the fuel industry from top to bottom.

Again, Peter Vener provides a rare example of daring to look reality in the face: “Some people joined up with the strike pickets around the refineries in general response to the appeal launched by the local inter-union committees, now often re-named inter-professional assemblies because they were looking to enlarge their base. Certainly, such people didn’t have political designs but they simply had the impression of going beyond atomisation, separation and corporatism, in brief, participating in the ‘convergence of struggles’ and the ‘blockade of the economy’(...) The people who swelled the ranks of the pickets didn’t ask themselves why the trade unionists of the energy and chemical industries, so usually corporatist and closed in on themselves, felt the need to appeal to forces not belonging to their sector, even strangers to the ‘world of work’, sometimes even anarchists on whom they were still openly spitting the day before. Was it a question of new breaches through the walls of bastions so usually well protected and controlled by the trade unionists who, from their watchtowers, usually organise a cordon sanitaire around themselves? Do we see a real rupture by the workers of these sectors with their specific corporatism, based on the horrible neo-Stalinist tradition of ‘produce French and buy French’, etc? In reality, except perhaps for some amongst them, there’s nothing of the sort here. Hence the acceptance of these forces coming from elsewhere, who, for the most part, have to play the role of additional troops to the union apparatus of the CGT and also the SUD (...) Today, via the re-centring of the main union organisation towards fashionable forms of intervention, such as the programmed blockage of the axes of communication, sometimes announced in advance to the police by the union leaders, we go from the ‘strike by proxy’ of the 1980s and 90s, to the ‘blockade by proxy’. The ‘blockaders’ of the sites, have very often worked for the union head offices. Full stop.”

Thus, at the refinery of Grandpuits in the Paris region, numerous workers, unemployed, students, retired, etc., came every day to give their support to the strikers. Some even sometimes joined in with the General Assembly. But these rare “open” GA’s were just pathetic masquerades: speeches from the CFDT representative, then the CGT, then... vote. No discussion, no debate.

Why have these pro-blockaders, usually so critical of the union leaderships, put themselves forward as supporters of the actions typical of the strong-arm tactics of the CGT? For Peter Vener, “one shouldn’t confuse simple reactions of anger against union stewards with a profound criticism of trade unionism”. The experience of reality is moreover much more edifying. There is in fact a perfect concordance between the partisans of the economic blockade and those of the unions: a minority decides and acts instead of the majority of the exploited. The difference lies in what the pro-blockers think acts in the interests of the struggle, whereas the union apparatus are fully conscious of their work of sabotage.

No immediate recipe, no minority activist practice, can be a substitute for the extension and massive struggle of the proletariat. Concretely, the blockade of the economy can’t be a short-cut involving a victory falling from the sky by decree; it is the result of a process of generalisation of the self-organised struggle and solidarity of the workers. If it was obvious that the autumn demonstrations were ineffective, we must not deduce that it’s useless for millions to be on the streets - the real question is this: who leads the movement - the workers or the unions?

“The emancipation of the working class will be the work of the workers themselves” ... of all the workers. 

Pawel and V 21/2/11

 


[2]. ‘Generalise the practices of struggle, today and tomorrow’ Classe en lutte , no.116, Nov. 2010 (CNT-Vignoles).

 

[3]. “France, autumn 2010: the blockade of the economy as an obvious fact”, (Group Communiste internationaliste, published in English here: http://libcom.org/news/france-autumn-2010-blockade-economy-obvious-fact-26112010 ).

 

[4]. The ‘tiqquniens’ are partisans of the magazine Tiqqun, published by the ‘Parti de l’Imaginaire. Their best-known member is Julien Coupat, who was investigated under the anti-terrorist laws and subjected to a major campaign in the media over his alleged involvement in the sabotage of high speed rail tracks in November 2008.

 

[5]. ‘The ideology of the blockade’, Peter Vener, November 2010.

 

[6]. Cf, “Refinery blockades are a double-edged sword” Revolution Internationale – supplement to number 417, October 2010. http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/2010/10/refinery-blockades

 

[7]. “Block everything” The blockade, an idea that works, Tuesday October 26, 2010 (Premier Round).

 

[8]. ‘The victory at the end of the great strike’, Imprecor no. 84, September 11 1980.