The French government and unions hand-in-hand to implement pensions ‘reform’

Printer-friendly version

From beginning to end the movement against the pensions ‘reform’ has been under the control of the unions. There are those that call for strikes, those that have picked and organised days of action, those that have run rare general assemblies. And these are the ones leading us to defeat. We can’t be naive, the government and the unions have been working together for two years... in order to prepare the ground for this reform and make it happen!

Faced with the danger of a resurgence of class struggle...

The government had to provide itself with certain guarantees so that this wide-scale attack, announced by Macron in 2017 as a real “Big Bang”, did not provoke a massive response from the whole of the working class. Edouard Philippe, French Prime Minister, was backed up by the collaboration of his “social partners”, i.e., the unions, in order to sabotage the inevitable explosion of anger among the workers.

This general attack against the whole working class could only unleash a wave of indignation and spontaneous anger in one particularly combative sector: transport. For the rail workers “enough is enough”: after being at the forefront of class movements these last years, notably with the “go-slow” of 2018 against the degradation of their working conditions, against their re-grading, these workers obtained nothing. The attack on their pensions could only strengthen their willingness to take up the struggle again even more determinedly with the slogan “Now that’s enough! We won’t let this happen!” The combativity in the transport sector risked an uncontrollable explosion with the danger that the general attack against pensions would spread a general anger amongst the whole working class.

The ruling class has many means for “taking the pulse” of social discontent (in a country where Macron, “President of the Rich” has become the man most detested by the majority of the population): opinion polls, police-work to assess the “at-risk” sectors, and in the first place the working class. But the most important “social thermometer” is the union apparatus, which is much more efficient than opinion poll sociologists or police functionaries. In fact this apparatus is the instrument par excellence for keeping the exploited corralled in the service of capitalism’s interests. The union apparatus of the capitalist state has had almost a century’s experience. It is particularly sensitive to the state of mind of the workers, to their willingness and capacity to fight against the bourgeoisie. It’s these forces surrounding the working class who are permanently responsible for warning the bosses and the government of the danger represented by the class struggle. Meetings and periodic consultations between the union leaders and the bosses or the government also serve this warning system: they elaborate together, hand-in-hand, the best strategy to allow government and bosses to carry out their attacks with the maximum effect against the working class.

The unions have understood perfectly well that the working class in France was no longer disposed to keep its head down and unflinchingly take new attacks. The ruling class equally knows that the working class today hasn’t the least illusions in the “light at the end of the tunnel”: all workers are now conscious that “it will get worse and worse” and there will be no other choice than to fight in defence of their living conditions and a future for their children. Thus the popularity of the movement of the Gilets Jaunes a year ago against the cost of living and misery, was a good indication of the anger grinding away in the entrails of society: 80% of the population supported, understood or had sympathy with this anti-Macron tsunami (even if the working class couldn’t recognise itself in the methods of protest[1] of this inter-classist movement initiated by a petty-bourgeoisie being strangled by fuel taxes). In the last two years the bourgeoisie has seen a real growth of workers’ combativity. The tenacity of the hospital workers and postal workers, on strike for over a month, was another indication. The multiplication of struggles in the distribution sector, bus drivers and aviation was another.

Faced with the accumulation of the discontent of the exploited, the French bourgeoisie thus had to accompany the application of the pension reform with a “fire-wall” in order to channel, lock up, divide and exhaust the inevitable response of the proletariat.

... government and unions manoeuvre together!

Hated among the demonstrators today for “stabbing us in the back”, the CDFT and UNSA have played their role perfectly as “responsible and reformist unions”. It was a real piece of theatre[2]:

- Act I: the CDFT put together a text with the government over two years by affirming that it wanted a “just and equal” universal system but refused the notion of an “age pivot”(part of a points system for receiving a full pension or partial pension), a real provocation from the government having the aim of focusing all the anger on this point and thus turn attention away from the real subject, the general attack against pensions.

- Act II: On December 11, the government officially announced... with a drum roll... that the age pivot would finally be in the reform: the CDFT reacted because a “red line” had been crossed and it re-joined the “union front” and the whole media was occupied by the “age pivot or not” debate; a great drama made out of nothing.

- Act III: Friday January 10, finally, a big surprise. At Matignon, the government pulls back on the “age pivot”; the CDFT and UNSA cry victory and leave the movement.

People leave with “a points-based pension system” in their pockets, that’s to say more years of work and a reduced pension.

Twenty-five years ago, the Juppé government used some elements of the same strategy: make a general attack against the class (in this case the reform of social security which meant restricted access to healthcare for all) and a specific attack against one particular sector (the reform of the rail worker’s retirement deal, which imposed another 8 years work on them!). After a month of strikes, with the ultra-combative railworkers at its head, Juppé retreated and the unions cried victory, insisting that the status quo for the rail workers had been maintained. This sector, a real “locomotive” of social protest, returned to work and in doing so sounded the end of the movement for all. Thus the government could keep its social security reform.

This old manoeuvre functions less well today. No-one has cried victory apart from the CDFT and UNSA. Everyone has denounced the trap for what it is: humbug! A strategy aimed to sugar the pill. Even in the press the secret was open and stale.

If then, despite their determination, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators stopped fighting little by little without the government withdrawing its general attack against pensions, it’s because the attack was wider and more complex. Alongside the “reformist” unions, the “radical” CGT, FO and Solidaires (an alliance of “radical” unions) played their role in isolating and exhausting the strikers. Taking account of the level of anger and the combativity of our class this programme took longer than foreseen. It needed all the know-how of these specialists in sabotaging the struggle in order to achieve their aims.


After the return to work from the holidays, the campaign on the pension reforms was officially launched with FO, Solidaires and the CGT using any means available. How? They did so by calling a multiplication of sectoral days of action; everyone in their box, with specific strikes and specific claims. “Look after number one, the unions for everyone”. The aim was to exhaust the existing struggles before launching a wider and more controlled movement.

However, this organised dispersion was greatly criticised. In the demonstrations you could find many workers who expressed their discontent faced with the divisions: they wanted the unions together because “we are all in the same boat, we have to fight together”. The announcement on September 20 of a large, unified demonstration for December 5 responded to this push. Here again, nothing is left to chance: the date is chosen because it’s sufficiently far away (more than two months) to enable the crumbling and exhaustion of the strikes to continue. They are also just before the Christmas and New Year period liable to make any transport blockages unpopular and isolate the most combative workers.


During October and November, the “radical” unions continued their work of undermining the movement through isolated and sectoral strikes. While in many sectors the worker’s anger was palpable, the unions were wary of calling for open gatherings in general assemblies unifying firms and the sectors among them, through sending massive delegations to discuss and spread the strike. Nothing like that! Just isolated strikes and actions while having to wait for the promise of the great December 5 demonstration. But this strategy of exhaustion and demoralisation turned out once again to be insufficient. The working class continued to push and combativity was mounting.

On October 16, rail workers suddenly stopped work following an accident on the line in the Ardennes. Spontaneously, through telephones, they warn each other and thus spread the strike through parts of the SNCF. The workers at Ile-de-France were particularly combative. RER (suburban and rapid transport system) lines were blocked. The unions jumped on the bandwagon and took over the strike demanding “pension rights”. In other words, they hobbled the movement that was already underway. The bourgeoisie had no stomach for this sign of workers’ autonomy and the dynamic of taking the movement in hand and extending it, to the point that government and bosses denounced the illegality of this “wildcat strike” and threatened reprisals against the strikers. This allowed the unions to definitively take control of the situation by putting themselves up as the protectors of the strikers and defenders of the right to strike. During October, a number of wildcat strikes affected the SNCF, notably in the maintenance centre at Chatillon where, without union say-so, 200 out of 700 workers stood up against measures being introduced to worsen their working conditions, measures which were quickly withdrawn so as to stop the strike in its tracks and thus avoid spreading its ideas to other workers.[3]


Thus the unions have been warned and they had to become more combative in order to harness the movement. On November 9, the CGT joined UNSA-railways[4] and Sud/Solidaires, in calling for the strike on December 5. It announced that this action would also be undertaken at SNCF. Then the CFDT-railways announced it would also be part of the movement[5].

But behind this “union front” and speeches about unifying all sectors, in the corridors they continued their dirty work of undermining and division. Their sabotage of the unity of the movement in the hospital sector is particularly characteristic: since March, the unions and their “inter-emergency ward collective” undertook ultra-corporatist actions, separating the struggle of the emergency workers from all the other hospital services. But under the growing pressure of the will “to fight together” they changed their tune and called for two “unitary” demonstrations, November 14 and 30... unifying the hospitals! The unions did this to better separate this struggle from the general movement against pension reform in the name of the “the specificities of the hospitals” (and all the better to divide them). This decision of the unions caused a row within the general assembly of the hospital workers and a number of them mobilised for the December 5 demonstration all the same.


At the time of the great December demonstrations, the need for solidarity between sectors and generations, to fight together, is taken up in the slogans blasted out by the loud-speakers mounted on union lorries. For what? Nothing. Just repeat the slogans endlessly at each day of action. But concretely, each sector is called to march behind their union, sometimes marked out, cut off from the others, cordoned off by and surrounded by union “security”. There was no great meeting to discuss at the end of the demonstration whereas a number of workers had suggested it. The unions and the cops dispersed the crowds. Time was getting on, the transports must leave...

Mid-December, the striking rail workers of the SNCF and RATP understood that if they remained isolated the movement was destined to defeat. What did the unions do? They organised a joke of extension: some CGT representatives went to meet some other CGT representatives at another firm.

At the Saturday demonstration, officially organised by the unions so as to allow workers from the private sector to participate in the movement, the CGT, FO and Solidaires made no effort towards mobilising other workers. On the contrary, all their speeches focused on the courage of the railworkers who were fighting for us all” and on the strength of the blockade of this sector (suggesting that other workers were impotent) and the necessity of support in ... filling up the collection boxes of solidarity organised above all by the CGT in place of the active solidarity of workers in the struggle and extension of the movement (even if it was understandable that everyone felt the need to help the rail workers financially because they were losing a month’s wages!). Throughout December, the unions cultivated a strike by proxy!

Thus, alone in their “unlimited” strike, the rail workers were encouraged to hold on whatever the cost, during the 15 days of the holiday with the slogan: no Christmas truce!


Here again, while the media denounced “the taking hostage of families who simply wanted to come together for Christmas”, these two weeks of “truce” during which the rail workers fought alone weren’t enough to exhaust the anger and the general combativity, nor did it make the strike “unpopular”.

January 9, the new slew of multi-sectoral demonstrations once again saw hundreds of thousands of protestors thronging the streets and still determinedly refusing the reform.

January 10, Philippe negotiated with the unions and announced “a constructive dialogue going forward”, promising to ask President Macron the next day if it was possible to withdraw the “age pivot”. All the unions saluted this great victory for the CFDT and UNSA, this small step forward for the CGT, FO and Solidaires, showing that the government had begun to retreat under the pressure of the street and the strikers of the transport sector.

The next day, another demonstration: Saturday January 11 in Marseille, the unions organised some entertainment at the end of the demonstration in order to make it impossible for any discussion to take place. In Paris they left the way clear for the police to use their tear gas, once again dispersing the throng and beating up some of the demonstrators. The unions don’t want discussion between workers. But above all, the turnout for the day was clearly much lower, the trains began to take to the rails again, fatigue was making itself felt, the ambience among the smaller crowds was less combative. The final blow could now be dealt: Prime Minister Philippe announced the withdrawal of the “age pivot”... temporarily. The timing was perfect.

The unions call for extension... of the defeat!

Now that the movement was running out of steam, when the striking rail workers were running out of money, when they were going back to work bit by bit, what did the “radical” unions do? They now called for the extension of the movement which was going into a reflux, haranguing the private sector to “take up the reins”, denouncing the “cowardice of the strike by proxy”! You only had to listen to Monsieur Melenchon (leader of the left-wing Parti France Insoumise) on January 9 on all the TV channels telling us “the strikes by proxy started well, now everyone should get going!”

Now, the unions can only talk about “sovereign general assemblies”, trying to make us think that only the former are the spokespeople of the workers and that if some continue to exhaust themselves in carrying on striking alone, they can do nothing: “it’s the GA and the base who decides if the rail workers want to lose more days of wages” (so said the boss of the CGT, Philippe Martinez on the television).

Now, they multiply the actions in order to demonstrate that the workers don’t want to strengthen and generalise the movement and in this way they put the defeat down to the workers! There were no less than 3 days of action in one week: January 14, 15 and 16, which the unions have called whereas the rail workers are gradually going back to work.

Now, the leader of the CGT, Monsieur Martinez, echoed Melenchon in denouncing police violence... violence which had been going on for months. And this while the unions up to now have allowed workers to be beaten up and dispersed at the end of demonstrations with tear-gas, without a word or any sort of protest. Melenchon now calls for the resignation of the Paris police boss so that the unions could say that they were against the repression of the strikers.

Now, the unions are playing the game of negotiating with the government in order to “take the hardship and the drudgery of work into account”, a new stage for the corporatist fragmentation of the movement when everyone is working under pressure and exploitation means hardship for everyone! This “aspect of negotiations” is seriously under consideration with a single objective: divide workers and even put them in competition in negotiations that are lost in advance, branch by branch, in order to determine if this job produces more hardship than the other. The “union front” will doubtless look good when they try to find out whether the CGT-railworkers and the CFDT-Carrefour workers have the most “hardship”.

The unions pulled the same trick at the time of the rail workers’ strike of winter 1986 by calling for the extension of the strike at the end of the movement, when the workers began to return to work[6]. In fact what these social firefighters are trying to do is extend and strengthen the defeat of the class. The aim is to give guarantees to government so that this reform can pass through parliament without difficulty (thus allowing the government to put through other attacks)!

No, the working class will not be made to feel guilty by the unions!

No, those who go back to work are not strike-breakers!

No, the sectors which haven’t joined the struggle do not lack courage and solidarity!

It’s the unions, hand-in-hand with the government who have planned and organised this defeat!

It’s the unions, hand-in-hand with the government, who have prevented all possible unity and all real extension of the movement!

The working class on the other hand must be conscious of what it has done. After ten years of weakness, following a long, exhausting and impotent movement called by the unions, in 2010, the workers have begun to raise their heads, to try to unite and to recognise each other as part of the same class. These last months have been animated by the development of solidarity between sectors and between generations!

Here’s where the victory of the movement lies, because the real gain of the struggle is the struggle itself where workers from all jobs, all generations finally come together in the same street combat against a ‘reform’ which is an attack against all the exploited! And this is what the government and the unions will try to wipe out in the weeks and months to come.

We must come together to debate, discuss, draw the lessons in order not to forget them and, at the time of tomorrow’s struggles be still more numerous and stronger by beginning to understand and to thwart the unions, these professionals ... of defeat. They will always be the last rampart of the state for the defence of capitalist order!

Lea, January 14, 2020

Translated from Revolution Internationale 480

[1]. Occupation of roundabouts, ostentatious displays of Republican or nationalist symbols such as the tricolore and La Marseillaise.

[2]. Cf, our leaflets announcing the manoeuvre from the beginning of December.

[3]. The declaration of the workers at Chatillon was highlighted in Révolution Internationale no. 479 and here’s a short extract from it: “We, the workers on strike at the Technicentre of Chatillon on the TGV Atlantic line, stopped working in numbers from Monday October 21 in the evening, without consulting the unions or being corralled by them (...) Our anger is real and deep and we will fight to the end for our demands and for our respect and dignity (...) Enough of reorganisations, low wages, job losses and not enough workers! We call on all rail workers to stand with us because the situation today at Chatillon is in reality the reflection of a national policy”.

4]. Whereas UNSA in other sectors did not call a strike! In fact with UNSA-railways it was forced to stick with the combativity of sector or face the risk of being completely discredited.

[5]. ... whereas at the national level, the CFDT was no longer calling for a strike!

[6]. In Revolution Internationale (no. 480), there’s a further article in French of the lessons of the 1986 strike: “The workers can fight without the unions”




Class Struggle