Airbus, Alcatel: once again the unions are there to sabotage workers’ struggles

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This article first appeared in the April issue of Revolution Internationale . It describes a situation in which, following some initial spontaneous reactions by Airbus workers in France (and Germany) to the announcement of massive redundancies across Europe, the trade unions had resumed control of the situation through a series of classic manoeuvres. However, as can be seen from a follow-up article, translated from the May issue of RI (‘Spontaneous walk-outs at Airbus: the workers make their voices heard’) the unions have by no means exhausted the anger of the workers or their capacity to respond to further attacks by the company by taking their struggle into their own hands. An article on the wildcat strikes in the Airbus factory at Broughton in Wales was published in World Revolution 303 and can be found online here .

Lay-offs, job-cuts, factory closures, casualisation, relocations….the wage earners are more and more subjected to the terrible reality of an accelerating capitalist crisis. The same attacks are taking place in Europe (Airbus, Alcatel, Volkswagen, Deutsche Telekom, Bayer, Nestle, Thyssen Krupp, IBM, Delphi…) and in the USA (Boeing, Ford, General Motors, Chrysler….In the private sector in France, there were officially 10,000 job losses in 2006 and 30,000 are already lined up for 2008. These plans don’t only affect archaic sectors but ‘cutting edge’ industries like aeronautics, IT, electronics. They don’t only involve small or medium enterprises, but all the big industry leaders and their subsidiaries. They don’t only affect workers on the production line but also the engineers, the office workers, the research workers…..

Every state, every boss, knows very well that this situation is forcing all workers, whether in the private of the public sector, to pose anxious questions about their future and about their children’s future. It is more and more obvious that the workers of all countries are in the same boat. This is why the bourgeoisie is obliged not only to try to put sticking plaster over the gaping wounds in its system, but also to gain time, to prevent the proletarians from becoming truly conscious of this reality.

This is also why the trade unions, whose specific function within the state apparatus is to maintain control over the working class, are trying everywhere to take preventative action, to head off any movement towards a unified working class response to these massive and frontal attacks. Their basic task today is to make sure these attacks can be carried out by sowing divisions in the working class, by separating them by department, sector, enterprise, or country.

The ‘Airbus model’ of union sabotage

The unions, the government and the bosses, the whole political class and the media, have polarised attention on the 10,000 job losses hitting the Airbus employees (up till now presented as enjoying the privilege of working for a highly successful company). And it’s the unions that have been in the forefront of the manoeuvres aimed at dispersing the workers’ anger and dividing up their reactions.

The unions began by pretending that they didn’t know what was coming, but that they would be there to defend the workers’ interests. In fact they had for months been fully involved in the ‘Power 8’ plan, for which the bosses had set up a ‘pilot committee’ made up of the Director of Human Resources and the trade unions, with the precise aim of “preparing for any social impact that these measures might have” (from a note by the bosses of the Toulouse-Blagnac factory). The trade unions all used the same language, minimising the attack when it was in its preparatory stages, involving themselves wholeheartedly in the lies being put about by the bosses and the different states involved. After that, they made sure that the workers at Meaulte, who had come out spontaneously on strike 48 hours before the official announcement of the Power 8 plan, went back to work, telling them that the factory would not be sold, even before the bosses made it clear that no decision about this had been taken.

Adapting to different situations in different factories, the unions organised the division of the workers, as in Toulouse, between those sectors who were affected most directly and those who had been spared. And on top of this, they have been putting forward the idea that if Airbus is in this situation, “it’s the Germans’ fault”. The unions have gone on and on about “economic patriotism”. In a leaflet issued on 7 March and co-signed by FO-Metaux (the biggest union in Toulouse), the CFE-CGC (white collar union), and the CFTC, they declared that “the interests of the whole French economy, local and regional which is at stake…Let’s stay mobilised…to defend Airbus, our jobs, our instruments of labour, our skills and our knowledge for the benefit of the whole local, regional, and national economy” This repulsive propaganda, pushing the workers to rally behind the competitive logic of capital, could already be seen at a demonstration of the unions from different European countries where Airbus is present: “Defend our instruments of labour together, wage earners at Airbus, its subsidiaries, and all the Airbus sites in Europe” (joint leaflet by all the unions, 5 February 2007).

After the demonstrations of 6 March, the unions talked about a big Europe wide demonstrations in Brussels on the 16th, but then cancelled it three days before that, replacing it with local demonstrations but still presenting it as a “European day of mobilisation”, but limited to Airbus workers and scattered across different local sites. And they capped it all in Toulouse by greeting the workers at the gates of the factory, taking them in buses to a totally out of the way assembly point, then marching them to the company HQ in Blagnac, where an army of TV cameras was waiting to publicise the ‘event’. Hardly had they arrived than the unions packed them back in the buses and drove them back to work. And the headlines in the ‘left wing’ paper Liberation next day were effusive: “Unprecedented radicalisation against Airbus management: wage earners of all countries have united”.

The unions, like the rest of the bourgeoisie, certainly don’t want to see a big, Europe-wide mobilisation where workers can get together, discuss and exchange their experiences. Above all in the present climate of attacks: 6000 job cuts at Bayer; raising of the retirement age to 67 in Germany; wage cuts in the health sector in the UK; 300 lay-offs at Volkswagen-Forest in Belgium….

Everywhere the same union dirty work

Nor did the unions want the Airbus demonstration to coincide with the demonstration in Paris of the workers of Alcatel-Lucent against the restructuring of the group, which foresees 12,500 job cuts, at least 3200 in Europe, between now and 2008. That’s why it was called for the day before, 15 March. It was again presented as a unified European action, but there were only 4000 workers from all the French sites affected, especially those in Brittany, with purely symbolic delegations from neighbouring countries: Spain, Germany, Holland, Belgium and Italy, all of them hidden in a forest of Breton flags.

Meanwhile, in a series of small strikes in various parts of France, the unions have focused on different issues. There was a long and exhausting strike over wages at Peugeot-Aulnay, while at Renault in Mans, 150 workers were pulled out by the CGT in a minority strike against a new flexibility contract singed by the other unions. And yet at both factories it is well known that the companies are about to announce lay-off plans. This makes it clear that the real aim of these union actions is to tire the workers out as much as possible and allow the attacks to go through. The teachers were called out on an umpteenth day of action on 20 March with the same objective.

The workers have no common interests with their bourgeoisie. On the contrary: the situation is forcing them to recognise their own common class interests against the massive and simultaneous attacks they face. Such a situation makes for questioning, reflection, a growing recognition of the need for struggles to extend, for unity and solidarity. Even though the unions are usually still able to keep the workers divided and isolated from each other, the more openly they do this, the more they discredit themselves. The conditions are maturing for workers to come together, to discuss together, to organise themselves outside and against the unions, and across national frontiers. Wim, April '07.


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