The strike that began on 20th January in Guadeloupe has made its mark in Martinique from the 5th February and threatens to spread to Reunion and Guyana, the other overseas ‘départements' of the old French empire. This is not an exotic conflict: it is truly an authentic expression of the international resurgence of class struggle, a testimony to a general rise in anger and militancy amongst workers faced with high living expenses and worsening conditions and wages.
Average prices in the Antilles are between 35 and 50% higher than in France (carrots 164%, endives 135%, leeks 107%, meat or chicken more than 50% and apples for example are double the price); unemployment is at 24% officially - 56% amongst people under 25. The territory also has more than 52 000 on income support. Despite the strength of nationalist (autonomist" or "indépendantist") feeling amongst strikers, the 146 demands put forward by the strikers are all linked to the question of attacks on the standard of living: for an immediate reduction in the price and of all the most important products, for lower taxes and impositions, freeze rents, raise wages by 200 euros for all workers and also pensions for the retired and income support, lower the price of water and public transport, bring in formal contracts for insecure private sector workers comparable to those in the public sector. The popularity of these demands and the obstinacy of the struggle testifies also to the level of the mobilisation and fighting spirit of the workers; the same can be said of the demonstrations in France on 29th January, the recent riots of young proletarians in Greece, the demonstrations in Iceland and the recent strikes in Great Britain.
Despite the media propaganda stressing the importance of local identity, a theme put forward in particular by cultural associations (demonstrations and rhythmic chants to the traditional drum), and above all with their hype around demands about being "creoles" confronted by the "békés" and a nationalist or anti-colonial tone, these traditional characteristics of the movement in the Antilles have been constantly relegated to the second level. The LKP (Union against Super-profits) which includes 49 organisations, unions, political groups, cultural associations and clubs, and its charismatic leader Elie Domota has searched to channel a struggle which clearly puts the exploitation of the workers at the forefront.
We must salute the solidarity of this massive and unified strike which shows the way forward for the whole of the working class in the face of a general deterioration of its living conditions.
Since the start of the strike there are no buses running, schools, universities, hypermarkets, administrative offices and most businesses have been shut. The port, the commercial centre and the industrial zone at Pointe-a-Pitre have been deserted. There again, faced with lack of food or petrol, a true class solidarity has been expressed, exercised at all levels between parents, friends or neighbours. The protest movements against the high cost of living started on the 16th and 17th December 2008 with some protests in the streets of Pointe-a-Pitre and of Basse-Terre, when the prefect refused to receive a delegation of strikers which was judged to be too large and their access to the prefecture was stopped by the deployment of numerous police officers.
In Guadaloupe the demonstration of the 30th January at Pointe-a-Pitre started with some thousands and quickly reached 65000 demonstrators in the centre of the town. It was the biggest demonstration ever in the islands (relative to the population of the island). It's equivalent to having 10 million in the streets of Paris.
One thousand school children and college students joined the workers on strike. Le Palais de La Mutualité de Pointe-a-Pitre became a rallying point, a place for expression and debate where numerous workers have spoken up, expressing their anger or disarray about their living conditions. In one of the first negotiation meetings, on the 26th January, some journalists and striking technicians from Radio-France Outre-mer (RFO) had placed cameras in the meeting room and loudspeakers on the outside of the building in order to allow everyone to follow directly all of the negotiations.
Just as in Guadaloupe, on the basis of the same demands and with the same slogans there were 20000 demonstrators in the streets of Fort-de-France on the 9th February.
The arrival of Yves Jégo, the Seretary of State for Overseas on the island has allowed most of 115 fuel stations to be re-opened (the owners were on strike as well) on the promise that the opening of certain new automatic stations by the big petrol companies will be limited. The sub-ministry has made many other promises in order to attempt to defuse the conflict (lower taxes on petrol products, on dairy foods, reduction of tax on dwellings and local taxes) and has even undertaken to help the negotiations with the equivalent of 130 euros of exonerations per worker. However, the negotiations on the 200 euros of monthly wage increase were already underway between the bosses and the unions, under the aegis of the prefect. Jégo was reminded of this by the Prime Minister, Fillon, and was called back to Paris in short order. On his departure he made contradictory declarations (he later maintained that he had never promised anything on the subject of wage rises: "It is for the employers and the unions to negotiate in this field"), his lightening return to the island, this time practically taken off the case, flanked by two "mediators", only stirred greater anger in the population, shocked by such contempt and such lies.
Under the pressure of the anger of the strikers and of the population in general, the unions and the LKP have been forced to take up radical positions. The call has been made for general assemblies in all businesses, the "marching delegations" from one business to another have been increasing, the strengthening of the pickets has been decided upon. The proposition by the regional council (supported by the local Socialist party) to defuse the conflict by offering 100 euros as a monthly bonus for three months has been refused by the strikers.
On the 14th February a demonstration of more than 10, 000 people took place at Moule to commemorate the events of 1952 when, after a strike which had lasted three and a half months, the CRS fired on demonstrators, killing four sugar cane workers and wounding fourteen others. There is still a sugar cane factory at the place, Gardel, close to a power station; it employs more than 9000 people. In May 1967 a bloodier repression of a construction workers' demonstration saw more than one hundred die at Pointe-a-Pitre.
For some weeks, the numerous manoeuvres and trip wires used to ruin and divide the strike and defuse the movement, to move it on to a purely nationalist terrain have not succeeded. On the 16th February even though the LKP was trying to tame the road blocks in order "to denounce the blockage of negotiations", the French Government was raising the pitch, declaring that "the continuing situation is intolerable", and police had started charging demonstrators (though up to that point there had been no injuries), wounding two and proceeding to arrest fifty even if everyone was released three hours later.
In the Antilles, like in mainland France and elsewhere the social tempest has started to blow and this frightens the bourgeoisie. Everywhere, through the hard experience of struggle aggravated by the crisis and the failure of capitalism, and despite all the traps and the obstacles that its implacable enemies place before it, the working class is in the process of rediscovering its class identity and of waking up to the power of unity and of solidarity in its ranks. It is entering a historic period in which nothing will be able any longer to remain as before, "when those above can't go on as before and those below won't go on as before" as Lenin already put it nearly a century ago.