Struggling behind the unions leads to defeat

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The movement of struggle against the pension reforms has lasted eight months so far. Workers and employees of all sectors have regularly come into the streets in their millions. Since September more or less radical strike movements have appeared here and there, expressing a profound and growing discontent. This mobilisation is the broadest in France since the crisis which shook the world financial system in 2007-8. It is not only a response to the pension reform itself but, in its breadth and depth, it is a clear response to the violence of the attacks over the last couple of years. Behind this reform, and the other attacks being prepared at the same time, we see the whole working class and other strata in the population being pushed further into poverty, precariousness and misery. And these attacks aren’t even close to ending because of the inexorable deepening of the economic crisis. This struggle is clearly only the harbinger of others following on from those in Greece and Spain in the face of drastic austerity measures.

However, despite the massive and impressive size of this reaction, the government has not given way. On the contrary, it is unwavering, despite the pressure in the streets, relentlessly affirming its firm will to push through this attack, constantly and cynically repeating that it is ‘necessary’, in the name of ‘solidarity’ between the generations. Everyone knows this is a great lie, almost a provocation.

At the time of writing the mobilisation is retreating and it is certain that the reform will be achieved for the bourgeoisie. Why is that? Why is this measure, which is a blow to the very heart of our working conditions, and when the whole population has so powerfully expressed its indignation, passed in spite of everything?

Why has this massive movement not succeeded in pushing back the government?

Because the government is sure the unions have control of the situation, unions which have always accepted the principle of a ‘necessary reform’ of pensions! All the left parties, which have tried to graft themselves onto the mobilisation to avoid losing all credibility, are also fully agreed on the necessity of this attack on the working class. After all, they voted for it.

We can compare it with the movement against the CPE in 2006. This movement, treated with great suspicion by the media at first as a futureless “student revolt”, ended by forcing the government to withdraw the CPE.

Why did that movement meet with success?

First of all because the students were organised in mass meetings (general assemblies) open to all, making no distinction between categories, public or private, at work or unemployed, etc. This surge of confidence in the capacities and strength of the working class, of profound solidarity in struggle, created a dynamic of extension in the movement, a breadth drawing in all generations. On the one hand the mass meetings aimed to hold the widest possible discussions, without being confined to the problems of students; on the other hand we saw demonstrations by workers mobilised alongside the university students and numerous school students.

But it was also because of the students’ determination and openness, drawing fractions of the working class into open struggle, not falling for union manoeuvres. On the contrary, when the unions and especially the CGT tried to place themselves at the head of the demonstrations to take control of them, university and school students overflowed the union banners several times, clearly showing that they did not want to be reduced to an after-thought when they had taken the initiative in the movement. Above all they showed their intention to keep control of the struggle themselves and not hand it over to the union leadership.

In fact one of the most disturbing things for the bourgeoisie was the way the students organised their struggle, the sovereign general assemblies, electing their coordination committees, and open to all. The student union often had a low profile, not making much ground among the workers when they went on strike. It is no accident that during the movement Thibault, head of the CGT, often said that workers have nothing to learn on how to organise from students. If the students had their assemblies and coordinations, workers had confidence in their unions.

In the context of such a determined movement showing the danger of overflowing the unions, Villepin had to give something up as this was the bourgeoisie’s last protection against the explosion of massive struggles which risked making a breakthrough.

With the movement against the pension reform the unions, often actively supported by the police and media, were able to do enough to take the high ground, seeing what was coming and getting themselves organised for it.

The Intersyndicale in the service of the government

From the beginning we saw a division of labour among the unions, with the Force Ouvrière holding its own separate demonstrations, while the Intersyndicale (inter-union coalition) organised the day of action on 23 March, aimed at ‘tying up’ the reform after negotiation with the government, and two other days of action on 26 March and especially 24 June, just before the summer holidays. We know that days of action at this time of year are often the coup de grace for working class when it is facing a major attack. Alas for the bourgeoisie and its unions, this last day of action showed an unexpected mobilisation, with more than double the number of workers, unemployed, or temporary workers, etc, in the streets. And while the first two days of action were gloomy affairs, as underlined by the press, anger and the feeling that enough is enough were evident on 24 June.

So, under the pressure of this open discontent and faced with a growing consciousness about the implications of this reform for our living conditions, the unions found themselves constrained to organise another day of action on 7 September, this time calling for the unity of trade unions. Since then, none have failed to call for the days of action which attracted around 3 million workers on several occasions.

But this “Intersyndicale” unity is a trap for the working class, destined to convince them that the unions are really determined to organise a broad offensive against the reform and that the way to do this is repeated days of action in which we watch and hear their leaders, arm in arm, engaging in their discourse on the ‘continuation’ of the movement and other lies. What they dread above all is that the workers escape the union shackles and organise themselves. This is what Thibalt, secretary general of the CGT, said which “sent a message” to the government in an interview in Le Monde on 10 September: “We could be going towards a blockage, towards a broad social crisis. It’s possible. But it wasn’t us that took this risk”, giving the following example to make his point better on what the unions see is at stake: “We even found a SME without any union where 40 out of 44 workers were on strike. This is a sign. The more intransigence dominates, the more the idea of repeated strikes gains strength.”

If the unions were not there workers would organise themselves and not only really decide what they want to do but risk doing it massively. Union leaderships, and particularly the CGT, have zealously worked to prevent this: putting themselves centre stage socially and in the media, all the while preventing any real expression of workers’ solidarity on the ground. In brief, an out and out barrage on the one hand and on the other activity aiming to sterilise the movement and marshal it behind false alternatives in order to create division, confusion and better lead it to defeat.

The refinery blockade is the most obvious example. When these workers, who were already very militant, showed an increasing will to express their solidarity with the whole working class against the pension reform, and particularly confronted with drastic personal reductions, the CGT wanted to transform this solidarity into a high profile strike. So, the refinery blockade was never truly decided in the mass meetings where workers could really express their point of view, but had been decided according to the manoeuvres that union leaders specialise in. So the workers were pushed into a dead-end action, spoiling the discussion. However, in spite of being locked into this by the unions, some refinery workers sought to make contact with workers in other sectors. But, overall, caught up in the logic of the ‘complete blockade’, the majority of refinery workers were trapped in the union notion of keeping to the factory, a real blow against the broadening of the fight. In fact, while the refinery workers wanted to reinforce the movement to push back the government, the blockade of the depots unfolding under union leadership proved to be a weapon of the bourgeoisie and unions against the workers. Not only to isolate them in the refineries, but to make their strike unpopular by causing panic buying and threatening a more general fuel shortage. The press prolifically spreading its venom against those ‘taking us hostage, preventing people from getting to work or leave on holiday’. The workers in this industry also found themselves isolated; when they wanted to contribute with a solid struggle and create a relation of force in favour of the withdrawal of the reform, this particular blockade was turned against them and against the objective that they initially intended.

There were numerous similar union actions, in areas such as transport, and preferably in regions with fewer workers, for at all costs the unions want to reduce the risk of extension and active solidarity. They must play to the gallery and appear to orchestrate the most radical struggles, and choreograph the work of the different unions in the demonstration, all to spoil it in reality.

As was said in the leaflet from the “AG interpro” at the Gare de l’Est on 6 November: “The strength of the workers does not only lie in blockading a petrol depot here or there or even a factory. The strength of the workers is to unite in their workplaces, over and above their job category, where they work, for which enterprise or industry, and to make decisions together…

We have seen the unions united in one “Intersyndicale” everywhere, all the better to promote the appearance of unity, setting up the appearance of mass meetings without any real debate, caught up in the most corporatist preoccupations, all the while publicly adhering to their pretended will to fight ‘for all’ and ‘all together’… but each organised separately, behind its little union chief, and doing everything to prevent massive delegations searching for solidarity in neighbouring enterprises.

A movement rich in perspectives

On the other hand there has been nothing at all in the media about the numerous interprofessional committees or general assemblies[1] which formed during this period, committees and assemblies whose aim is to remain organised outside the unions and to develop discussions that are really open to all workers, as well as to organise autonomous actions which all workers can not only recognise but also and above all participate in massively.

Besides, the unions are not the only ones to impede such a mobilisation, for Sarkozy’s police, with their reputation for pretended stupidity and anti-left spirit, have been an indispensable aid to the unions on several occasions through their provocations. Example? The incidents at the Place Bellegour in Lyons, where the presence of a handful of ‘rioters’ (possibly manipulated by the cops) was the pretext for a violent police repression against hundreds of young school students, the majority of them only wanting to discuss with workers at the end of the demonstration.

Here we see what the bourgeoisie particularly fears: that contacts build up and multiply as widely as possible in the working class, young, old, at work, unemployed.

Today the movement is on the way to being extinguished and it is necessary to draw the lessons of this defeat.

The first lesson to draw is that it was the union apparatus that allowed the attack on workers to be passed and that this was not theonly time. They were doing their dirty work, for which all the specialists and sociologists, as well as the government and Sarkozy himself, saluted their ‘sense of responsibility’. Yes, the bourgeoisie can, without hesitation, congratulate itself on having ‘responsible’ unions capable of smashing such a broad movement and at the same time making it appear that they did everything possible to allow it to develop. This is still the same union apparatus which stifled and marginalised the real expressions of autonomous class struggle.

However, this defeat bears many fruits; for despite all the efforts of all the bourgeoisie’s forces to seal off any breaches where workers’ anger escaped, they have not succeeded in dragging it into the general defeat of a sector as they did in 2003 (see IR 114), when the struggle against public sector cuts gave way to a bitter retreat among workers in education after several weeks on strike.

This movement is coming to an end. But “the attack is only beginning. We have lost a battle, we have not lost the war. The bourgeoisie has declared the class war on us and we still have the means to conduct it” (leaflet entitled “No-one can struggle, take decisions or win in our place” signed by the workers and precarious workers of the inter-professional general assembly at the Gare de l’Est and Ile-de-France, already quoted above). To defend ourselves we have no choice but to extend and develop our struggles massively and to take them into our own hands.

“Have confidence in our own strength” must be the slogan for tomorrow. 

WW 6/11/10. Translated from our paper in France, Révolution Internationale, no 417


[1]. We consider these as real expressions of the needs of the workers’ struggle. They have nothing to do with the coordinations orchestrated by the unions and leftist organisations, often under-hand, and which we have denounced many times during the railworkers’ struggle in 1986 and again during the heathworkers’ movement in 1988.




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