The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Public Sector Strike

Jan 17, 1996

From the third week in November through the third week in December, French public sector workers carried out a strike which effectively shut down public transport and reduced other public utilities and services for more than a month.

The strike developed in the wake of a day of action, on November 24th, during which 500,000 workers demonstrated all over France. Train drivers remained on strike the following day. Within three days the strike expanded to all the railway workers and to all the Paris transit system workers. In the following week it spread to the post office, telephone, civil servants, teachers and other various categories of workers employed by the State. This public sector is very large in France. However, the strike was less massive in these sectors than in the railways and the Paris metro and buses.

During the five weeks the strike lasted, the unions called all the workers, from private and public sectors, to demonstrate on four or five occasions. More than two million people hit the streets on December 12th, at the peak of the mobilization.

Nonetheless only a few factories really went on strike more than the few hours required to participate in the demonstrations. That was the limit of the movement. It did not really expand to the private sector.

Nonetheless, large parts of the "Juppé Plan" which had provoked the strike were canceled. To get more, the strike would have to have been general for the entire French working class and not only for the entire public sector. Nonetheless, it was an important movement, the largest strike in France since May 1968.

What follows is a translation from an article written by our comrades in Lutte Ouvrière, a French Trotskyist organization, published in the January edition of their journal, "Lutte de Classe."

The Juppé Plan: A Provocation

One catalyst for this strike was the government’s announcement that it intended to fund the social security system through taxes rather than through contributions deducted from wages. This called into question the joint union-employer administration of an authority with a bigger budget than that of the state. French governments have been talking about such a change for years, but the current prime minister, Alain Juppé, apparently was the one designated to put it into effect.

This change threatened the unions more than the workers, but workers would have been affected by the imposition of a new tax to pay off the "social debt", that is, the accumulated social security deficit, and by an increase in what pensioners have to pay into the system.

The factor which really triggered the strike, however, was the attack on public sector workers, and on railway workers in particular.

On September 4, the French government had announced that public sector workers would get no general pay increase in 1996. Over the next two months a series of announcements or comments were made, indicating the government’s intentions.

Finally, on November 15, Juppé announced his so-called plan. First, the specific pension plans for workers in the public sector were to be junked. In particular, SNCF (the state railway company) drivers would no longer be able to retire at 50, nor could other public sector workers retire at 55 (they are able to retire earlier in compensation for their much more difficult working conditions).

The government proposed to bring the pension system for all public sector workers into line with the measures Balladur had taken two years earlier against private sector workers. To obtain a full pension, workers would have to put in 40 years, rather than the previous 37 and a half years.

The changes affecting SNCF drivers were part of a larger plan for the state railway company. This plan required the SNCF to bear the whole brunt of the deficit which has resulted in great measure from the costly investments to build high-speed lines. The state itself had demanded this investment as a way to aid big multinational corporations like Bouygues, Alsthom and others who hoped to use the new high-speed French rail system as publicity for similar products they want to export.

While the investments benefitted such companies, the state’s plan required railway workers and passengers to foot the bill. To pay off its debt, the SNCF would certainly have resorted to considerable labor-cost-cutting measures, line closures and job cuts. The total cuts represented an average reduction of one million francs per railway worker.

All of this was an out-and-out provocation for the public sector workers.

In addition to this, the government proposed to abolish the 20% deduction allowed to all wage-earners before they figure their income tax.

The Union Apparatuses Decide to Make a General Fight

In spite of everything, these attacks would probably not have been enough, even in the public sector, to provoke the reaction that occurred if the union federations had not decided to move toward a general strike of public sector workers. Were the union federations resolved to move toward a general strike of all workers if the government did not back down? Perhaps. But, as things turned out, since the government did back down, they were never put to the test on this.

On the surface, FO (Force Ouvrière) was the most radical union in this movement. But in reality FO did not have the militant resources to carry out such a policy. The strike was actually spearheaded and extended by the CGT (Confederation General des Travailleurs) and its militants. [The CGT is tied to the Communist Party. FO was created by the anti-communist section of the CGT leadership which carried out a split during the Cold War].

Overall, the unions carried out most of the actions in this movement in united fashion, even if the different Federations and Confederations issued separate strike calls.

The high points were days of action which combined both strikes and demonstrations. In general, these were days of strong mobilization. The first day, October 10, was aimed at public sector workers only, but after that the unions sought to involve workers from the private sector also. On November 14, in response to calls from the five large confederations plus the two teachers unions, there were demonstrations all over France in defense of the social security system. November 24 and November 28 were the real start of the general strike by railway workers and the public sector.

In fact, there was almost a break in the de facto unity between the union apparatuses on these two days since the CGT called workers out for the 24th, while FO called for the 28th. As it turned out, there was no break. FO railway workers took part in the day of action on the 24th, serving notice they would strike from the 24th to the 28th; the CGT, for its part, announced that it was calling workers out on strike and to the demonstrations on both days.

Starting from the evening of the 24th, all the railway workers federations called for a renewable strike. On the 25th, some Paris buses drivers responded to the call of the Paris transport unions for a strike; two days later, the Paris metro went out. Throughout France, the movement was growing.

While calling for renewable days of action, the union federations were carrying out a policy which had the opposite effect that such days usually had. Instead of being one-day events with no follow-up, mere letting-off of steam or voicing of principles, each of these days became a milestone in an on-going movement and an incentive to continue the struggle.

The same thing had, in fact, already happened this past spring at Renault over other issues.

When the unions announced, immediately after a day of action, or even on the action day itself, the date for a subsequent day of action, this encouraged some workers to stay on strike and others to join the movement.

This strategy was clearly a deliberate calculation by the union apparatuses who wanted to make a show of strength, while advancing cautiously, testing the ground and allowing time for the mobilization to grow.

The strike did not break out like lightning, nor spread like wildfire. The SNCF drivers, who were the most affected, were the first to react, and their strike was the most dramatic because its immediate effects were so obvious. But apart from them, other SNCF workers had to be persuaded to join in the movement. The drivers and the union militants worked to persuade the others; in doing so, they turned their back this time on the corporatist policies the unions have so long followed. Then the unions began to extend the strike from one sector to the next. Their militants, many of whom lacked confidence because of the current climate, also had to be convinced. The union leaderships were ready to use the most militant groups of strikers to bring others into the movement, whether within the same company, or from one company to another. Thus the strike spread within the SNCF and the RATP (the Paris public transportation authority), and from the SNCF and the RATP to the EDF (the public electricity authority) and the post office.

Naturally, in places where they were present, and particularly in places where their authority was recognized by workers, far left militants played their part. But the movement was able to spread throughout the country because of the attitude of the CGT and Communist Party militants, pushed by the Confederation leadership. They were the ones who also determined the general shape of the movement.

The demonstration days allowed all the workers of a town, particularly in the provinces, to take part in or at least watch shows of strength which encouraged the undecided. Between the days of action, the unions organized mini-demonstrations in front of town halls and police headquarters, particularly in the Paris region. Their aim was to gain the attention of the population and especially the workers in small companies.

Naturally, the strike could extend, become deeper and last over a long period only because there was a level of discontent going beyond the immediate demands which had mobilized the public sector workers. It was also a strike wherein people showed that they had "had enough".

On the other hand, even in the public sector, the strike did not at all have the same success everywhere. The number of real strikers and their degree of determination varied considerably from the SNCF and the RATP to the EDF, to the Post Office or the provincial urban transport systems. The same differences were seen from one region to the next, or from one town to the next, or even from one sector to the next in the same company in the same town. Although teachers played a considerable part in the days of action, they did not go on strike immediately nor did they strike all the time. And everyone knew that the coming school vacation would bring their movement to an end.

The discontent and general "fed-up" feeling were not enough to let the private sector workers overcome their demoralization; they did not take advantage of the situation to join a strike which could have become a general strike. Nor did the CGT and FO carry out the same systematic effort toward the private sector. Nonetheless there was a high level of discontent among private sector workers, reflected by the sympathy that most of them showed for the strikers. And they were in sympathy with the strike, despite the fact that it often made life difficult for them, particularly in the Paris region where there was a total strike of all public transport and where people generally travel a considerable distance to work.

The Sudden Combativity of the Unions

One important fact about this strike needs to be emphasized: the sudden combativity of the union confederations, particularly the CGT and FO.

These two reformist apparatuses demonstrated that, under such circumstances, they were capable of deliberately moving toward an unlimited general strike. They may have called it "generalized" rather than general and "renewable" rather than unlimited, but, fundamentally, this changed nothing in this case.

The CGT, in particular, acted without fear of being outflanked; and it was ready both to use forms of direct democracy and to get the most militant strikers to go and talk to less committed groups of workers. Not only did it tolerate, it organized or even encouraged a wide range of contacts between different sectors, categories and professions. It even allowed far left militants to speak to the strikers, even when they represented no one but themselves or were not themselves workers.

This strike did not start at the rank and file level, even though there was considerable general discontent. The union organizations had to mobilize workers gradually, after much effort. Only after several days of action in which the combined strikes and demonstrations were sufficiently successful, did a section of the working class become involved in the strike. And even then, it was only those most directly and specifically affected by the government measures.

It was necessary for the rest to be brought into the movement. But this meant overcoming their resistance and their considerable mistrust of the ones who had first joined the movement. The first groups of strikers and the unions had to insist on the fact that they were not fighting solely to defend their own corporatist interests. This did not happen overnight, nor everywhere at the same time.

For it to happen at all took the political will of the union apparatuses. And it took the active, determined and self-motivated intervention of militants from the CGT, FO and other unions such as the CFDT and even some independent unions.

Because the will and the policy of the union leaders were sometimes distorted when passed on by their militants, the union leaders had to intervene to impose their policy. If they had not, the strike probably would not have spread, not even within the SNCF, and certainly not to the RATP, and then to the Post Office and other sectors.

o Sudden Conversion

This being said, the union organizations did not change their nature in the course of this strike.

Whatever are the convictions, ideas and hopes of the militants who make up these unions, their apparatuses and their leaderships have long been (and in some cases have always been) institutions serving to maintain the existing social order. They defend, within certain limits, the interests of the workers against the bosses and the state - in the same way a lawyer might defend a client. But they do not call into question the capitalist domination of society and, at a more elementary level, they do not attempt to shift the relationship of forces between the bourgeoisie and the workers in favor of the workers.

The union bureaucracies are certainly able to lead broad and tough fights when they consider it necessary.

This is particularly the case when they need to refurbish their credibility in the workers eyes. And it is also the case when they themselves are attacked by the bourgeoisie.

In the current situation, the union bureaucracies had come under attack regarding their right to administer the social security system.

In France, these bureaucratic apparatuses have subsisted for years largely on the basis of social legislation which guarantees their existence almost regardless of the number of members they organize. Their existence rests on their electoral success, not on their members. Some of them have a complete monopoly in elections for shop stewards. Depending on the number of votes a particular union gets, they are entitled to shop steward positions; to subsidies; and to working hours freed for union meetings, for meetings with employers and for work with joint administration bodies; and so on.

They could even, in a pinch, do without members completely.

Thus, the government’s implicit threat to remove them from joint administration of social security funds was a threat to their existence, one which moreover implied that the state would increasingly attack the social legislation protecting their very existence. Small inroads have, in fact, already been made: shop steward positions can now be fused with those of work council delegates; thus the number of official steward positions could be reduced, and in consequence the number of hours paid to union officials to do their job.

The demoralization demonstrated in recent years by the workers and dwindling union membership may have led the government to think it could launch an attack on the union apparatuses.

Whatever else it may have wanted in attacking the unions, the right-wing government led by Juppé wanted to make a demagogic appeal to its own electorate.

The current majority faces opposition on its right from Le Pen. By attacking the unions and public sector workers, the government and the present parliamentary majority hoped to please their voters: shopkeepers, the liberal professions and heads of small businesses and industries, instinctively opposed to the state, to social security and to the unions.

This was the reason for the enthusiastic applause from all the deputies of the right-wing majority when Juppé presented his plan for attacking social security.

The strike France has just gone through was the response of the union apparatuses to this whole situation.

That is why we should not conclude, as some have done, that the union organizations have become less bureaucratic since they were able to organize a real general strike in the public sector. Contrary to what a leader of one far left organization said, a bureaucrat who is capable of extending a strike is no less a bureaucrat for all that. And the way in which the CGT ended the railway workers strike illustrates this: they called for the end of the railway strike before any vote was taken in the general assemblies of the railway workers, even without consulting the strikers.

A Political Game

Why this sudden radicalism, more apparent than real, on the part of the union organizations?

For a long time the CGT was held on a political leash. This was true not only during the period in which the left was in power, but also during the long period prior to that when the possibility of a left-wing government was emerging. Throughout these years - practically the past quarter of a century! - the CGT made no attempt to mobilize workers. Even less did the other apparatuses. First, they did not want to compromise the left’s rise to power; once it was in power, they did not want to embarrass it. Moreover, the workers may not have responded in the same way if the CGT had tried to mobilize them against a left-wing government.

Since 1993, however, the right has been in control of the government; since May 1995 it has also held the presidency. This not only gives the CGT a little more room for maneuver, it also changes the workers attitude.

While this political change may explain why it was possible for the unions, and the CGT in particular, to take a more militant attitude, it does not explain why the union leaders felt it necessary to take such an attitude, nor why it led them to adopt the policy they did.

The question mainly arises for the CGT. In the case of FO: on the one hand, the way in which the government treated it over the question of the social security system provides ample explanation for its sudden radicalism; on the other hand, its radicalism would have had little concrete effect without the support of the CGT.

The CGT may have had political reasons. Through the intermediary of the CGT, the Communist Party may have been tempted to use the strike to strengthen its own political position. Not only was the strike a way regain credit among the workers; it was also a way for the CP to demonstrate to its former and future partner, the Socialist Party, that it still plays the decisive role among the workers. Thus the Socialist Party had better take note: if it returns to power, it will need the Communist Party; in any event it would do well not to push the CP into open opposition. And this is true whatever might be the respective electoral strengths of the two parties.

This way of seeing things may be common to the whole of the apparatus of the French CP and its leadership, or it may be only the view of one of its factions. For although "faction" may still be for the moment a taboo word, it is an open secret that there are different and conflicting factions within the Communist Party. And this is inevitably reflected in the CGT. We can assume, for example, that some mayors of major cities and some deputies or candidates for parliamentary seats have a more election-based vision of alliances with the Socialist Party. On the other hand, officials whose power is linked to the union apparatus may prefer to demonstrate that it is impossible to govern without taking them into consideration.

The way the call to end the strike was made is a reminder that, even when the union apparatuses adopt a radical policy, what they do or do not do is based essentially on calculations about their own interests. They defend workers interests only insofar as they coincide with their own interests as an apparatus.

A Victory, Within Limits, but a Victory Nonetheless

Nonetheless, in the current circumstances this public sector strike was a victory for the working class.

It forced the government to back down on almost every aspect of its attack on public sector workers. Juppé had to back down on the plan for the SNCF, on all the public sector pension schemes, and even on the abolition of the 20% tax deduction for all wage-earners. On the social security system, on the other hand, it did not back down.

And the bosses, especially, did not have to make any concessions. They did not have to agree to any wage increase. The test of strength took place solely between the state and state-employed workers, between the government and the union bureaucracies.

In spite of this, it is a victory all the same.

Obviously, no one can say what effect this victory will have on the morale of the working class in general and on the necessary struggles to come.

One thing that can be seen, however, is that the unions still receive a lot of support in the public sector when disputes break out locally over specific demands.

The fire is thus still burning. Perhaps it could be a starting point for a full-scale fight by workers for basic demands.

This is to be hoped, but no predictions can be made. For the moment demoralization, at least in the private sector, is still considerable. Even if the unions adopt a militant policy and succeed in starting strikes which spread into a general strike, there is every chance that they will not do so over demands which fundamentally change the situation of the working class. There is every chance that the strike they will lead will be a strike for nothing, or for very little, like that of May 1968.

What is to be hoped, therefore, is that the workers militancy will again rise to the point that they will be the ones to decide on the objectives; that they will choose major objectives (such as control over companies accounts, abolition of commercial secrets, control of the bank accounts of company heads and their proxies, prohibition of layoffs and the repartition of work among the whole population); and that they will find the means to lead their strike themselves.

In the recent strike, the problem did not even arise since the strike was spearheaded not by the workers determination but by the determination of the union leaders, which is scarcely a lethal weapon against the bourgeoisie.

The strike by railway workers and public sector workers was a defensive struggle; it was a victory because it stopped the government from striking a blow. The attack was staved off not only for railway workers and other public sector workers, but also to some extent for all workers. This is not just because the abolition of the 20% tax deduction for wage-earners was prevented, but also because the government will now be more cautious and less inclined to make provocative moves whose main aim is to please its petty bourgeois electorate.

Nonetheless, the attacks will start again. In this period of economic stagnation and accumulated deficits, the state can continue to maintain capitalist profits and bourgeois income only at the expense of the working class.

What is more, although the strike, and particularly the way it spread in the public sector, made the government back down, it did not make the bosses back down. Juppé has lost his authority, but the bosses have neither lost out materially nor lost face. Just listen to Calvet, the CEO of Peugeot, who blamed both the unions and the government for the real or supposed losses caused by the transport strike.

To stop the retreat imposed on the working class over a good many years now, other struggles and other successes are required, successes which are recognized as such by a broader section of the working class, thus giving it confidence.

Most of those who went on strike discovered or rediscovered the fact that workers struggles can make the government back down. They also demonstrated this fact to many of those who did not have enough confidence in themselves to join this fight. In addition, because of the fact that the union leaders sought to rely on rank and file members to conduct and extend the strike, the strikers discovered general assemblies in which they could debate their aims, and they experienced strikers solidarity. Many of them came into contact with workers in other companies for the first time; in many cases it was even the first time they came into

contact with workers in other categories in their own company. They also found out that it was better to spread the strike to other companies rather than restrict it to their own. And those who want to can understand that while this strategy of extending the strike may have been this time a policy inspired by the unions, from above, strikers have the means of carrying out this same policy themselves when the unions are opposed to it.

How long this experience will be remembered depends on what happens next. This in turn is linked, in the current situation, to the policy led by the unions, and the CGT in particular, over the next few weeks and months. But this return to strike action by an important sector of the working class; the scale of the movement which accompanied it, testified to by the size of the demonstrations; the fact that certain corporatist barriers were surmounted; and the sympathy which was shown by the rest of the working population might constitute a turning point in France.

Whether it does could obviously depend on the attitude of the union confederations, and they bear a heavy responsibility in this area.

It could also depend (and this would obviously be more important for the future) on a rise in workers morale and militancy, which could create a situation in which they would not depend solely on the policy of the union bureaucracies.