The Spark

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

A Wave of Working Class Mobilization

Jun 30, 2003

The following is based on articles published in Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the political journal of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle) in France and from Class Struggle, the political journal of Workers' Fight in Great Britain.

In the period between mid-March and June 19 there was the largest wave of industrial protests since the winter of 1995 in France, when a railroad strike developed into a mobilization of workers throughout the public sector.

This time, education workers took the lead. New sections of public service workers were drawn into this movement when they joined the series of national one day protests and strikes all over the country called by the trade-union confederations. In some cases, once new workers participated in a one-day action, they either continued to stay on strike in the days leading up to the next national one-day strikes, or they continued participating in street protests. Many workers in many cities' and towns' public transport systems, as well as in the national railway system, the post office, the road maintenance services and municipal services, among others were drawn into the movement this way.

Private sector workers joined many of the marches, and some went on strike, if only for a few hours to join the protest. But the mobilization did not really spread to the decisive industrial strongholds of the working class.

A significant section of the working population, several million workers, was involved in these strikes and marches in one way or another. What was most positive about this wave of militancy was that the workers were able to overcome some of their divisions. This is partially due to the movement's objectives, including the fight to defend pensions and to a lesser degree to stop the attacks on the educational system, that touched all workers. But in addition, a large number of strikers showed a great deal of determination in convincing workers in other sectors to join the movement. The movement appeared as the militant expression of the working population as a whole. And it crystalized the general discontent in the working population. Thanks to this high degree of unity in purpose and action, teachers i.e. intellectual workers who normally do not see that their fate is tied with that of the rest of the working population for once were clearly conscious that all wage earners, whether intellectual or otherwise, have the same interests.

Those who participated in the movement realized that they were able to pull others behind them. It was the workers who took the initiative in the demonstrations with the imagination and enthusiasm of a community of people fighting together for their own rights. In the strikers' general meetings, they discussed their strike, made decisions collectively and carried them out themselves. All this helped the strikers become conscious of their collective strength and determination.

Despite the fact that the wave of protest failed to force the government to withdraw its attacks on the pension system, the movement proved that the working population could raise its head and fight back, even after years of undergoing all the attacks from the bosses and their government. No one can say what will happen in the future. Certainly, this militant wave may not at all be over. What happened between April and June may be only the first phase of a larger mobilization, this time sufficiently large and deep to achieve victory. In any case, this is what we hope.

The Government's Offensive

This wave of protest was provoked by the series of measures taken by the right-wing government, which had come to power in presidential and parliamentary elections the year before.

It is worth recalling what happened during those elections. The previous government had been a coalition led by the Socialist Party, and it included the Communist Party and the Greens. For five years, this left-wing government carried out pro-business policies, which resulted in a significant degradation of living and working conditions for a whole section of the working class. This left many left-wing voters feeling bitter and betrayed. As a result, when the presidential elections rolled around last year, many of these voters did not turn out at the polls, leading to a big loss for the parties of the left-wing coalition. This allowed the extreme-right candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, to finish in second place behind Jacques Chirac, the candidate of the traditional right wing.

The left-wing party leaders tried to grab the initiative by joining with the right-wing parties and most of the media to whip up a campaign of hysteria against the alleged "threat" of a Le Pen candidacy, which was then used as a pretext to call for a vote for Chirac in the second round. There was no chance whatsoever for Le Pen to be elected, since just the votes won by the various right-wing candidates in the first round gave Chirac a large lead. But for the Socialist Party this political manoeuver allowed it to divert attention away from its own large electoral losses for which it would otherwise have had to answer.

The result was that Chirac was elected with an unprecedented 82% of the vote. This was followed by the election of a large right-wing majority in the subsequent general parliamentary election. On the strength of Chirac's score the different right-wing parties did something that they had failed to do for decades: they managed to patch up their differences and formed a single party behind Chirac. Chirac's prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, formed a new government which felt confident enough to undertake a series of measures aimed at stepping up attacks that previous governments had carried out for years policies whose aim was to increase the share of the national income going to the wealthy at the expense of the working population, the jobless and the poorest.

These attacks were aimed at everything from the income tax system to the minimum wage, from pensions to health insurance. Even the level of disability payments was reduced something which affects mainly the poorest, without even allowing the state to make significant savings. The new government amended the official 35-hour work week, retaining all the aspects which worsened working conditions (reducing overtime pay and increasing flexible hours which benefitted the bosses) and the huge subsidies introduced by the Socialist Party to "compensate" the bosses for the "cost" of implementing this law, while it deprived workers in small workplaces of the right to a 35-hour week. The new government also adopted some of Le Pen's anti- immigrant demagogy and implemented some of the measures he had advocated.

Eventually, however, it was the attempt to reduce pensions, which a previous right-wing government had already failed to crack in 1995, that backfired on Raffarin's government.

Robbing the Pension System

The French pension system is based on a state pension fund, financed by contributions from workers and bosses. Today's workers contribute to a special fund out of which the pensions of current retirees are paid. Unlike in the U.S., this pension system covers all the workers at the level that workers in this country get only if they have a big supplemental pension from a company, along with Social Security.

The method for computing these pensions is too complicated to explain in detail here. Let us just say that up to 1993, one had to pay contributions for 37.5 years in order to get a full basic pension. In 1993, the right-wing government of the time changed the rules for private sector workers only, who were made to pay contributions for 40 years, while reducing their basic pension income. At the time, public sector workers were unaffected. In 1995, however, another right-wing government tried to impose the same cuts on public sector workers and sparked off a huge strike wave to which the government had to cede.

Last November, the Raffarin government announced a new attempt to impose the same cuts on public sector workers. Except this time, they made no secret that these cuts were to be followed by other ones, affecting all workers. The measures, which the French Parliament passed, will cut pension income in the public sector, with the reduction becoming much larger for pensioners as they get older, due to the cost of living formula which was adopted. Public sector workers will have to pay 2.5% more of their wages in contributions and will have to work for 40 years. And by 2020, everyone will have to work 42 years to get a full pension.

To make a long story short, this means that French workers will have to pay more and work longer in order to earn smaller pensions!

The justification for such drastic cuts is familiar and predictable. It is said that the number of pensioners is increasing and they are living longer, while the relative number of active workers is decreasing. They say that since there are fewer and fewer workers to support more and more pensioners, new sources of funding have to be found, while pensions have to be reduced. Of course, this is almost word for word the same argument that politicians in the U.S. make when they claim that Social Security will go bankrupt.

In France, as in the U.S., this claim is false. First, it completely ignores the fact that labor productivity is constantly increasing, which means that fewer workers are producing considerably more wealth. Of course, how this wealth is used is a matter of social choice. Raffarin's and Bush's choice is obviously to allow this extra wealth to line the pockets of the wealthy. But society could be organized in such a way that this wealth is used to provide for the needs of everyone provided that it is freed of the parasitic capitalist class. The only legitimate choice for the society would be to guarantee a decent way of life to those retired workers who during their working lives produced what society needed.

Second, even within the present system, the argument that society cannot "afford" to pay decent pensions is a fraud, and the Raffarin government shows this clearly. Its statisticians claim that, without the series of cuts which are being introduced, by the year 2020 the French pension system would be running a deficit of 36 billion dollars annually. Of course, such long-term estimates are highly suspicious, since governments cannot even accurately predict the shortfall of their own budget for the next year, let alone that of the pension system in 17 years! But even if we assume that this figure is correct, it is still much less than the estimated 46 billion dollars in state subsidies which the Raffarin government admits that it will dish out to the bosses in this year alone, an amount which comes on top of similar amounts distributed to the capitalist class in previous years and, no doubt, in the years to come! In other words, if the state cut its corporate subsidies, there would be more than enough to guarantee the future of the pension system!

These attacks on the pension system can be catastrophic, especially with unemployment rising and temporary jobs more and more the predominant form of employment for many workers for longer stretches of their working lives. Indeed, the long-term jobless who have lost unemployment benefits no longer accrue credit for pension contributions. Workers also lose credit for pensions in all sorts of other ways. Part-time workers accrue credits only in proportion to the part-time wages they earn. This results in lower pensions benefits, since those benefits are computed on the basis of their past earnings. Those who retire after having alternated between periods of unemployment and periods of temporary, full, or part-time work at the minimum wage and sometimes less, will join the estimated eight million people who already live under the poverty line in France.

Instead of a "modernization" of the pension system, as Prime Minister Raffarin describes his measures, they constitute a step backward for society as a whole.

Education Workers Lead the Way

Prime Minister Raffarin probably did not expect that the employees in the educational system would be the first to react to his measures, nor that they would be able to pull behind them many other workers from completely different sectors. However, it was not over the pension issue that education workers first mobilized.

The French education system employs over a million workers, of whom 800,000 have teaching duties, 110,000 carry out administrative, social, health and playground tasks, and about an equal number are manual workers (technicians, maintenance workers, cafeteria staff, etc.). This latter group, known as TOS, which comprises the lowest-paid staff, was targeted by Raffarin's decentralization reform which shifted their work contract from the central to regional governments (all education workers are normally employed by the central government, which means that they can apply to transfer anywhere in France without loss of status or seniority). This was seen as a potential threat against their jobs and a possible first move toward privatization of education. This is what initially prompted all categories of education employees into action.

The education unions had already called for four token national days of protests and strikes over various issues. And there were some limited work stoppages in the south. After Raffarin announced his plans against the TOS, the unions called for a national day of protest on March 18. By that time, teachers in a number of schools had already decided to go on strike and they were calling on other schools to join them.

In the Paris area, the initial impetus for the strike wave was provided by a minority of teachers from ten secondary schools in the northern suburbs of Seine Saint-Denis, which are often referred to as the "Red Suburbs" because of their traditional strong support for the Communist Party. In other towns, like Toulouse and Marseille, the initial core of strikers was made up mostly of elementary school teachers from the poorest areas. One remarkable feature of the situation was that the strike wave was developing independently in many different towns. This was partly encouraged by the union-sponsored days of protest, although there was no real coordination between the unions.

After the Easter break, the strike wave resumed with the same spontaneity. People did not wait for May 6, the national day of protest against the decentralization plans called for by the unions. In the Paris area, the strike spread to the entire Greater Paris region. Soon twice-weekly mass demonstrations were being organized in central Paris, every Tuesday and Thursday. Elsewhere, the strike spread to new towns and new schools. It was a constantly expanding wave, although it retained the same character as before, with the core being a minority of determined strikers in each town, and with many more taking part in marches and joining the strike on and off, depending on the activities organized on the particular day.

The protest on May 6 marked the real turning point in the strike. It was an overwhelming success across the whole country. And this provided the strike with a new upsurge of energy. During the following days, the strike spread dramatically both in terms of strikers and the number of schools affected. Within a week, the strike, which up until that time had been largely confined to a small number of urbanized regions, developed into a national strike. The strikers held daily meetings in each school and each town. In the big towns, these meetings often brought together several hundred strikers every day: 800 in Toulouse, 1,000 in Nantes, up to 800 for the Greater Paris mass meeting and between 200 and 600 in each of the five suburban districts of Paris. And because they were democratically run and allowed everyone to speak, these meetings boosted the confidence of the participants and encouraged people to be actively involved in the strike the next day and to bring others. Meetings were organized with parents as well, in order to explain to them what was at stake and, if possible, convince them to get actively involved.

By then, the objectives of the strikers had added the issue of Raffarin's attacks on pensions to that of decentralization. The strikers were conscious of the fact that to force the government to back down on these two vital issues, they needed to spread their protest to other sectors of workers. Quite naturally, the strikers in the educational system were making contacts with other public sector workers, trying to convince them to join the protest. This worked, and the mobilization gained momentum.

Transport Workers Join the Protest

In the public sector in general, and public transport in particular, the protest over pensions began long before the strike wave in education, in the form of a long series of days of protest that the main union confederations, especially the CGT (General Confederation of Labor), called. Railroad workers carried out a national day of protest on November 26. They followed this with three more days of protest in February, March and April. Each time, large contingents from other public sector workers participated. Each time, the demonstrations were led by a huge banner demanding "37.5 years of contributions for all public and private."

The traditional May Day trade union demonstration was particularly successful and militant, boosting the morale of rank-and-file trade-union activists and militant workers, who increasingly expressed the need for an all-out response to Raffarin's plan. By that time, the strike in the educational system was becoming very visible and producing a sort of militant atmosphere which spread everywhere especially where a delegation of these strikers distributed leaflets at workplace gates, inviting workers to discuss how to defeat Raffarin's plans.

Meanwhile, the union leaders had called a one-day national railroad strike and Paris transit system strike for May 13, and a lot of activity was going into its preparation.

This one-day strike was a resounding success almost everywhere, far beyond what those who had prepared for it had expected. In the railways, the number of workers on strike was the highest since 1979. And the unions even reported an unprecedented participation by low-level managers. In most train depots, the mass meetings voted to reconvene the following day to decide the next step to take. For many of the tens of thousands of transport workers who marched in the streets of France that day, the answer was obviously that the strike had to continue.

However, the two major union confederations in the railways, the CGT and CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Workers), had already decided something else. They made the next step a national day of demonstrations that had already been planned for May 25, which was a Sunday and therefore did not involve going out on strike, followed by another one-day transport strike on June 3rd. Then, and only then, did they say that they would consider a longer strike. Contrary to 1995, when the CGT leadership had deliberately chosen to extend the transport strike, this time it chose to stab the strike in the back just as it was getting off the ground.

The next day, in those depots where the union apparatuses did not try to pressure the workers to return to work, large majorities voted to continue the strike. This happened particularly in the Paris transit system and among the bus workers of many large towns. However, many workers were left disconcerted by the attitude of the unions, while others made bitter comments, feeling that the militant mood could have delivered much more than a one-day strike. But, in the railroads the workers' determination had not reached the point where they were prepared to carry out a fight that opposed them to the union leadership, as they had done, for instance, during the 1986 railway strike. Soon, most of the railroad depots were back to work. Only in a few places did a small minority of militant workers remain on strike.

By that time, the other big union confederation, the CFDT, decided that it had done enough. It announced that it had agreed to the pension plans. But many CFDT branches remained involved in the protest. Thereafter, the wave went on from one day of mobilization to the next. Some of these were impressively successful, particularly the national demonstration on May 25. Even the transport strike on June 3 was still remarkably strong, although there were already noticeably fewer strikers at the mass meetings. But the attitude of the CGT leaders, who did nothing to appear opposed to the idea of a fight back but kept proposing nothing other than these days of mobilization, finally convinced workers that the CGT was not prepared to wage a serious fight against Raffarin's attacks.

Toward Another Offensive?

Many other public sector workers staged strikes during this period. And there were many different kinds from the odd stoppages to strikes lasting for weeks. There were also a few work stoppages in the private sector, including in medium-sized companies, usually to allow workers to participate in local demonstrations. Many private sector workers did take part in the demonstrations, either as parents or as future retirees.

The protest wave never came close to the point of becoming a general strike. But it was dynamic and broad enough to cause the government concern. There is no doubt that the days of protest called by the unions played a decisive role in the build-up of the protest, even if this was not what the union leadership intended. But the fact that the strikers went on to develop their own channels to organize and spread the protest was a factor of some concern for Raffarin. The government certainly might negotiate with union leaders if needed to contain the strikers, but only provided the union leaders remained able to control the protest.

No one can say whether the conditions in which the protest wave developed would have allowed it to grow into a general strike.

In any case it would be pointless to blame the CGT leadership, let alone the other unions, for having failed in this respect. After all the CGT is first and foremost a reformist union. As such, its policy is not to organize radical confrontations between the working class and the capitalist class or its state. On the contrary, due to its integration in the institutions of the state, it rejects such a confrontational perspective. Its leadership may use a more or less radical language, depending on circumstances, and propose more or less radical forms of actions, but never with the objective of developing a general mobilization of the working class to defend its class interests. And if such a mobilization were to take place, the CGT leaders would promptly put on the brakes.

Even if the CGT leaders had called for a general strike, no one can seriously guarantee that the main battalions of the working class, particularly in the private sector, would have responded. A general strike is not something that can be triggered by pressing a button.

However, the CGT did weaken the protest wave. It chose to put the emphasis on demanding that the government open up negotiations without attempting to mobilize workers on the largest possible scale so as to have the strongest hand possible at the bargaining table. In so doing, the CGT showed the government and the working class that it is willing to accept, even if within limits, the attacks on pensions. If the CGT put its considerable militant resources into building up the mobilization and created a relationship of forces which was more favorable to the working class, the CGT could have at least helped to bolster the workers' confidence in their ability to fight, even if this would not necessarily have changed the outcome of the protest.

In the history of the French working class, the past general strikes whether that of June 1936, May 1968 or the civil service strike of 1953 have never taken place thanks to any militant strategy on the part of the trade-union leadership. In each case, working class militancy forced the union leaders to go much further than they wanted. This is why the working class cannot rely on union leaders to have a policy aimed at generalizing strikes. But they can force union leaders to follow them, and they can dump or distance themselves from union machineries which try to oppose the struggle.

In this protest wave, this process in which the strikers themselves generalized the strike was carried out only in a limited, embryonic fashion by a minority of strikers, white collar workers. But those who participated in this process and understood why this strategy is necessary and how it can be implemented have acquired a precious experience. If this protest wave re-emerges in the months to come (which may well happen given that cuts in the national health insurance system are planned), this experience will be decisive. Because, once again, there will be no way forward other than to extend the protest as broadly as possible, to involve in the protest the largest possible number of workers as activists and to win the participation of whole sections of the privately-owned industrial strongholds of the working class.