For more than 6 weeks the working class in France has been engaged in struggles of a breadth unknown for quite some years. Hundreds of thousands, even millions of workers from a whole number of sectors have been out on strike and demonstrating in the streets. However, despite this massive militancy, the movement has not succeeded: the government is about to push through the law on pensions, which has been the main focus of workers' anger. What's more, to make it clear who's the toughest, the government has announced that there will be no 'presents' for the strike days lost: they will be fully deducted from the workers' pay, in contrast to what it has done before after movements of this kind. Its aim is clear: it wants the whole working class to know that 'there is no point in struggling', that we have to draw in our belts without complaining, otherwise things will be even worse. Faced with the capitalist attacks, struggle is necessary
'There's no point in struggling': this is the refrain which the exploiters have always sung to the exploited. Nothing could be further from the truth: if today, in the main capitalist countries, workers don't work a 16 hour day like they did at the beginning of the 19th century, if they still get basic social benefits and a pension (even if it's getting increasingly thin), it's because previous generations of workers have fought for these things. The bourgeoisie, the class which rules the world today, does not give presents. It doesn't produce wealth by itself: it is the workers which it exploits who do that. Its reason for existing is not to allow the latter to live decently, but to extract as much profit from them as it can. There are no 'good bosses', whether private or state. A 'good boss', who really wanted the best for his workers, who willingly increased their wages and reduced their time at work would not be 'competitive'. He would soon go bust as a result of competition from other enterprises.
The first thing we have to underline about the recent struggles is that they are a clear rebuttal of all the campaigns which have been inflicted on us since the collapse of the eastern bloc and of the so-called 'socialist' regimes. No, the working class has not disappeared! No, its struggles do not belong to the past! Because the struggle that has just been carried out by the public sector workers is not a struggle of 'functionaries' or 'privileged groups'. It is a struggle of a large part of the working class whose boss is the state, a struggle against an attack which affects the entire working class, both in the public and the private sectors.
The second thing is this: faced with the aggravation of the economic crisis and the attacks of the bourgeoisie, the working class is going to be more and more compelled to fight for the defence of its living conditions. This perspective is clearly contained in the attacks that have already been programmed, particularly the attacks on social security planned for the coming months. It is clear today that the working class has no choice but to struggle. Because if it doesn't, the bourgeoisie will continue to hit it harder and harder.
Thirdly, it is only through the most massive and united struggle possible that the working class can gain the strength to limit the attacks of capitalism and push back the bourgeoisie.
Finally, it is only by returning to the path of struggle that the working class can rediscover its identity as a class, regain confidence in itself, develop its unity and solidarity. This is the only way it can become aware of its own strength and understand that is able to offer an alternative to the impasse of capitalism.
This is why, despite the fact that this recent struggle has not succeeded in pushing back the government (in particular on the question of pensions), the working class must not become demoralised. It must resist the idea that bourgeoisie is trying to feed it - that there's no point in struggling. Why didn't the government give way?
The attack on pensions had been planned by the bourgeoisie for several years - from the time the left was in government. The right has hastened to point this out, as have certain socialist leaders like Delors and Rocard. With the brutal acceleration of the economic crisis over the last year, the bourgeoisie could not hold back from making this attack. But it chose the moment to launch it because it knew that the working class could not fail to respond to such savage blows. This is why it set in place a whole series of measures to make sure that the explosion of discontent would be stopped by the truce of the summer holiday period.
Part of this strategy involved provoking one sector in particular: the education sector, via several supplementary attacks: the suppression of jobs for younger teachers and supervisors whose work brought some relief from increasingly harsh working conditions; the attack around the issue of 'decentralisation', which placed around 110,000 education workers in an extremely precarious job situation.
Why this 'unfairness' towards the education workers? Why were they singled out special attention? With the announcement of decentralisation the government has focused the teachers' anger on this specific attack, thus pushing the main attack (on pensions) into second place. This provocation had the aim of ensuring that the entire working class was unable to recognise its own interests in the teachers' struggle to the extent that the attack on decentralisation does not directly concern the other sectors, unlike the attack on pensions. It is clear that this provocation was aimed at dividing the working class and preventing a massive and unified response by all the public sector workers.
The government knew that the period of exams would act as a barrier to the struggle, and that it could count on a three month truce during the school holidays.
To lead the working class to defeat, the government was, as ever, able to rely on the loyal services of all the trade unions (CGT, CFDT, UNSA, SUD, etc) and the leftists (LO, LCR, CNT, PT). At first, when the government had just announced the attack on pensions, the unions appeared to be divided and to be obstructing any immediate, massive response from the working class. For example, the CGT called off the strike in the buses and railway on 14 and 15 May with the argument that it would be better to wait for the national demonstration in Paris on 25 May and prepare for this 'ideal moment' by not moving. On the other hand, in the education sector, we saw the unions acting very militantly and pushing the teachers to enter the struggle, not around the pension issue, but on the question of decentralisation (the call for Luc Ferry to resign, etc.). This fixation by the unions on the specific attack on the teachers, which was given a lot of media attention, created a certain disorientation in other sectors and blocked the possibility of a massive and unified struggle on the issue of pensions. This is why Raffarin was able to get away with saying that "it's not the street which governs", precisely because the government had quietly been working hand in hand with the unions and knew that it could count on their dirty work to divide and undermine the workers' response.
This divisive manoeuvre was consummated in the exam period which crowned the defeat of the education workers. The 'radical' unions and the leftists raised the threat of blocking the exams with several objectives. First, rousing other sectors against the teachers, in that it would be the children of workers who would pay the price of missing their exams. Second, making the strike unpopular by presenting the teachers as irresponsible and selfish people with no 'professional conscience'. Finally, dividing the teachers between those who wanted to halt the strike and those who wanted to carry on to the bitter end.
This whole agitation by the unions in the education sector had the overall aim of not only sowing the illusion that the teachers, on their own, could push back the government if they were determined enough, but also exhausting the strikers in a long strike that would demoralise them and make them hesitate to take part in the next round of struggles (for the large majority of strikers, they have lost several weeks' pay).
When the teachers became aware that the government would not give in, the unions (and the CGT in particular) had the incredible cynicism to blame the other sectors for not showing their solidarity with the teachers. In short, it wasn't the unions who were responsible for the defeat but�the other sectors who didn't want to mobilise in support of the teachers! The working class is the only force that can change society
The attack on pensions, and the coming attack on social security, is not peculiar to France. It has nothing to do with a good or bad management of the national economy. In all the industrialised countries of Europe, whether governed by the right or the left, the workers are now seeing all the social 'gains' since the end of the second world war being put into question. We are seeing a general collapse of the 'welfare' state. With the deepening of the world economic crisis, capitalism can no longer afford to subsidise the basic needs of workers it can't exploit directly (pensioners, unemployed, the sick, etc.).
Today, the working class has to understand the real significance of the attacks on pensions and social security, which is in no way a 'temporary' phenomenon linked to an 'unfavourable economic juncture' or to an 'unfair distribution of wealth' as the leftists of LO or ATTAC claim.
The collapse of the welfare state merely reveals the historic bankruptcy of the capitalist system, a system which has nothing to offer humanity expect more poverty, massacres, famines and epidemics.
Capitalism is a system that has reached the end of its tether and it is impossible to reform it in order to improve the conditions of the proletariat. The only 'reforms' it can carry out are reforms of the same type as the changes to pensions and social security, i.e. attacks which further degrade the living conditions of the working class.
This is why there can be no other perspective except to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a new society, based not on the search for profit, on exploitation, but on the satisfaction of human needs.
And only the working class can realise this perspective. If it is to do this, it must not give in to demoralisation after each defeat. Today, it has lost a battle, but it has not lost the war. It must prepare for a return to the combat in better conditions, by collectively reflecting and discussing, in the workplace, in general assemblies, by analysing the real reasons for the defeat.
To be stronger tomorrow, to develop a massive and unified combat, it will be vital to:
- put forward demands common to the whole working class and not fixate on attacks in one sector;
- immediately extend the struggle by sending massive delegations to the nearest enterprises;
- defend the sovereignty of the general assemblies which must be places where workers can regroup en masse, places of discussion open to workers from all sectors;
- unmask the manoeuvres of the unions aimed at controlling the general assemblies and sabotaging any real attempt at extension.
It is only in and through the struggle that the working class can become conscious of its strength, rediscover its self-confidence. It is through confronting the manoeuvres of the unions and the leftists, in the struggle itself, that the workers will be able to understand that they can only count on themselves.
Faced with the attacks of the bourgeoisie, there is no choice but to fight. More than ever, the future is in the hands of the working class.
RI, May 2003.