Mar 18, 2007
The following article was translated from an article written by militants of Combat Ouvrier (Workers Struggle), a Trotskyist revolutionary group in Martinique and Guadeloupe. The article appeared in issue number 104 of Lutte de Classe, published by Lutte Ouvrière in France.
As in previous years, during 2006 there were many strikes on the two islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. These former French colonies in the Caribbean are 4,300 miles from the "metropolis," France. Today they are considered "overseas departments of France," or "DOM."
These two islands have a population of around 900,000, who live on a land area of a little less than 1,200 square miles.
Some of the strikes really caught the attention of the population, as the strikers demonstrated both courage and combativity. But it's important to remember that this can also be explained by how small the territories are. A social conflict in a small or even very small workplace can have an echo and can have important effects on the consciousness of workers, despite the small number of workplaces involved.
Most of the conflicts we will discuss were in workplaces of a few dozen workers, rarely more than 100.
The strikes particularly hit stores, distribution, and agriculture, but not only. There were also social movements in private and semi-public services like nurseries, kindergartens, technical schools, and the University of the Antilles"Guyana, which rely to a greater or lesser degree on funding from the local governments.
In some strikes the workers wanted to defend themselves against layoffs, workplace closings, not getting paid on time, etc. But there also were many movements where workers went on the offensive, demanding substantial pay increases. Many strikes lasted weeks and some lasted months or even more than a year, as in the case of the strike of the Dannon-Guadeloupe workers.
Obviously, we can't go into all the strikes in this text. We will describe a few which particularly caught the attention of workers in the Antilles. These examples were notable because of their length, with the confrontation with the bosses lasting two or three months or even over a year. Moreover, the workers often succeeded in winning some of their demands.
The strikes of 2006 took place in the midst of growing poverty.
Even those with more or less stable jobs had to fight non-stop just to have the basic minimums: To get paid on time, to get overtime pay, to get paid for all the hours worked, to get holiday pay, and to get bonuses for scheduled raises. All these problems led to many social conflicts. These were localized strikes with little possibility to spread, because the demands stayed strictly tied to the particular problems and conditions of each workplace.
For five years, the number of unemployed has risen on both islands to close to 30% of the active population. This is much higher than the level of unemployment in France, which is already quite high. This gives some idea of how much worse things are in the Antilles and other overseas departments. This unemployment weighs heavily on economic and social life. Finding and keeping a job is the main preoccupation of the entire working population. In addition, many workers not counted as jobless work only part-time, like many supermarket workers, or workers in the banana and sugar cane plantations and in sugar processing, which is usually seasonal work. But few can count on a second job.
So the amount of unemployment and underemployment is higher than the official statistics. According to officials who measure unemployment, their supervisors push them to deliberately undercount how many job seekers there are.
Because of this situation, the number of people receiving the minimum wage has risen rapidly to over 30,000 on each island. Again, the percentages are much higher than the French national average.
By every measure, the working population faces a worsening situation. Housing is inadequate. For many years, the government has cut funding for subsidized housing and the construction of public housing has declined.
Similarly, those workers with a job, whether permanent or temporary, earn the minimum wage or even less because they work part time. So they use every means to increase their wages. They defend themselves fiercely when they feel under attack, when jobs or hours of work are cut.
There were defensive movements all through 2006: against temporary and permanent layoffs, against a reduction of work hours, against the attempts by certain bosses to not pay their workers in full. Some strikes began because of an attack or injustice by the bosses, such as the promotion of a favorite, and then developed more offensive demands concerning pay and working conditions. The workers deemed that since they had to fight against the boss's injustice, it was best to demand higher pay as well.
But many strikes began over wages, often demanding substantial pay raises. All these strikes required the workers to truly be militant and not give up. Bosses stretched strikes out in order to discourage and demoralize workers. The bosses have done this for many years. But they have not been able to reduce the number of strikes. From one year to another, workers kept carrying out fights, sometimes long fights. They know they will have nothing if they don't fight, that fighting is the only way to improve their situation. Workers see what the bosses are doing. When they go on strike, they know in advance what to expect. They know that when they confront the bosses, the bosses will only give up something out of fear that they will lose lots of money.
For now, this combative mind set is deeply rooted among workers. As a result, even when one group does things which could antagonize other workers, such as blocking roads or bridges, shutting off the electricity or water, etc., so far the reaction of other workers has been one of understanding and even sympathy. Sometimes some workers openly say, "Anyway, tomorrow we may have to do the same to defend ourselves."
We could give many examples of these defensive and offensive strikes. But we will limit ourselves to some strikes which had a particular influence on people and brought out comments and reflections among workers.
In 2006, the strike at a Dannon yogurt factory had an impact on workers' opinions. The strike started on June 7, 2005, continued into 2006, and lasted over a year.
The strike began because the company had not paid the workers for overtime for several years. Officials from the General Workers' Union of Guadeloupe (UGTG, a nationalist union), who led the strike, showed that the company had shorted each worker a total of around $6,700 since 2000! The company acknowledged that this was correct. But it still refused to pay. Instead, the company proposed to pay each worker $330. So the 21 production workers and 10 delivery drivers went on strike. Their tenacity won the respect and sympathy of all workers. The strike lasted one year and four days. According to the union, the workers won their demands. Besides that, the production workers won a pay raise of four to six percent, and the drivers won a lump sum of $2130 and a new sales commission. The strikers also won paid meal breaks and retroactive payment of overtime due. These gains cannot be dropped and will be upheld by labor courts.
During the conflict, mediators and "facilitators' intervened to put themselves between strikers and bosses. But in fact all these people were on the side of the bosses. Just like the local authorities. Dannon-Guadeloupe imported yogurt from elsewhere and when the strikers prevented its distribution, the local authorities had police escort the trucks.
This strike was accompanied by many demonstrations in front of the regional council building. Many unions and political organizations gave support to the strikers. Then, after some months of conflict, the UGTG threatened to generalize the fight, at least in the sectors where the union was most implanted. This may have weighed on the Dannon bosses' decision to make some concessions. But also the determination and stubbornness of the strikers pushed the boss to retreat.
But right after the workers returned from the strike, the boss decided to discipline some of them for what they had been accused of doing during the strike, such as blocking yogurt trucks, fights, confrontations, and heated arguments. No doubt the boss decided that after more than a year on strike, the workers had reached the limits of their endurance. The boss fired five workers and suspended four others without pay for 15 days. Among those fired were two union stewards and one union representative. Their case was brought before the labor tribunal. But at this time, despite union protests, the bosses at Dannon have prevailed. But according to the UGTG officials, the fight is not over. They are awaiting the decision of the labor tribunal and then, depending upon how it is decided they will see what action to take.
In Martinique, the strike by the workers of the BataliPre Plaza casino caught the attention of workers and mobilized the militants of the General Workers' Confederation of Martinique (CGTM) in support. This strike began March 31, 2006, and lasted over three months. At the beginning, around 80 workers, half the workforce, carried out the strike. They demanded a raise of $135 per month. They said they knew the casino's functioning, budget, and profits, and explained that it could easily afford the raise. Not only that. The real owner was known to be the white big plantation owner, Hayot, considered one of the richest men on Martinique.
In response, the bosses proposed a raise of $140 over three years. But the workers did not budge and continued to demand an immediate raise of $135. Throughout the strike, the workers took to the streets, demonstrated and set up road blocks around the casino.
The CGTM, whose local union led the strike, called for the support of workers at other workplaces. Several times, the union called for actions to support the casino strikers. Every day, the bosses spread lies about the strikers, saying they wanted to destroy the casino, and the bosses threatened to close it. Finally, they proposed a bonus of $400. But in return, they said they wanted to institute worse work schedules.
The strike lasted 101 days. The strikers returned to work with an agreement that didn't completely meet their demands. But what they won was not negligible. They got a raise of $60 on July 1, 2006, and another $47 on November 1, 2006.
In Guadeloupe, the strike by temporary teaching and research assistants marked the beginning of the fall semester, September 2006. They went on strike after learning that the 40% cost of living bonus had been eliminated for staff working in overseas departments. For some workers this meant this meant they were working for $665 to $800 less than those doing the same work who had permanent staff positions. The strike began on September 29, with other teachers and students also joining it. In the end, the whole University of the Antilles-Guyana (UAG) was paralyzed for two weeks. In this strike also, the strikers were active, showing up in schools and taking to the streets to explain to the population why they went on strike. They also sought to gain the support of other unions. The university professors of Martinique went on a two day solidarity strike. Finally, the UAG administration, under the authority of the national education minister, capitulated and restored the 40% cost of living bonus for all teaching and research assistants, even after 2007.
On the two islands, aside from these movements which were the most important, all throughout 2006 there were a number of smaller strikes. In Martinique in January 2006, workers at the Mercedes garage went on strike. In Guadeloupe in the first months of 2006 there were several strikes. Security guards went on a strike called by the UGTG. In the city of Abymes, municipal workers went on a strike also called by militants of the UGTG. This strike lasted 15 days. The demands included respect for workers' legal rights.
The wave of strikes continued on both islands all through the year. On April 28, in Martinique, the union of petroleum products drivers (SCSTPPA-CGTM), a new union in this sector, went on strike. Twenty-one tanker drivers sat down in the parking lot of the SARA petroleum refinery, awaiting the bosses' responses to their demands. They won pay raises and improvements in working conditions after having paralyzed much of the gasoline distribution to gas stations for 24 hours.
Most of these strikes were essentially led, driven, and supported by the main unions on the two islands.
The biggest union in Martinique is the General Workers Confederation of Martinique (CGTM), whose secretary general is known as a comrade of Combat Ouvrier, a revolutionary workers organization. This comrade was elected in 1990 during a congress which proposed a renovation of the union, previously led by militants of the Communist Party of Martinique (PCM). These militants, who became the minority, preferred to provoke a split than to accept the vote of the congress delegates.
Since then, the militants of Combat Ouvrier and other political groups fought to make the CGTM a union capable of honestly and actively representing and defending the interests of the workers of Martinique. During this conflict, the CGTM won workers' support, popularizing and explaining their demands to other workers.
The CGTM by itself won as many votes as all the other unions combined in the labor tribunal elections. The others include the Central Union of Workers Martinique (CSTM), a union influenced by the militants of the Independence Movement Martinique (MIM) whose leader heads the local council. There is also the Democratic Central Union of Workers of Martinique (CDMT), formerly the CFDT, whose current secretary general is from the Trotskyist organization GRS, which is linked to the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR). The other CGTM-FSM, which is led by militants of the PCM, has not grown since the split but it exists in some sectors such as building maintenance and hotels, and it successfully led the strike by Club Med workers.
In Guadeloupe, the main union is the General Union of Guadeloupean Workers (UGTG) and is led by militants from the independence movement. They had their moment of glory in the 1970s and 1980s. But now the main pro-independence political organization, the People's Union for the Liberation of Guadeloupe (UPLG), is floundering. It no longer has members elected to the local councils. Meanwhile, the union militants linked to the struggles of agricultural workers and some other sectors have distanced themselves from the UPLG. These militants had breathed real life into the UGTG, constituting almost all its full-time paid staff. They made the UGTG a unique organization, both a union truly implanted in numerous workplaces and sectors but in its structure and methods also a nationalist organization. Its flag was not the workers' red flag but the Guadeloupean national flag, flown at every demonstration. For all the UGTG's references at its congresses to the fight against exploitation, its principal goal was the independence of Guadeloupe.
The relations of the UGTG's militants and leaders with the workers aren't democratic relations. They don't hide it. It's their conception. It is the union leadership, the elected officials of the UGTG, that decides on demands, strikes, the ways and means and practical details, not workers' and strikers' assemblies.
Nevertheless, the workers appreciate the fighting spirit of the UGTG unions, even if in many strikes there is little or no openness about what is discussed, negotiated, and signed between the bosses and the UGTG leaders.
As soon as the UGTG militants confront other unions in a workplace, they seek to impose their point of view rather than address the workers' concerned so that different points of view can be submitted to them, so they could decide what actions to take, with what goals and in what form. This attitude in particular is a source of conflict with the militants of the CGTG.
The CGTG is less implanted than the UGTG, having much less influence, and has had considerable difficulties confronting the rise of the UGTG. The CGTG has tried for years to overcome this. For many years, the timorous, moderate and hardly combative policy of the CGTG leadership provoked a hemorrhage of many local unions, which went to reinforce the UGTG. This happened in sugar cane, the sugar mills, supermarkets, big hotels, local authorities, city government, etc.
Since 2004, a comrade of Combat Ouvrier was elected secretary general of the CGTG. Militants of Combat Ouvrier and the Communist Party (PCG) came to an agreement to carry out the rebuilding of the union. The CGTG is much less implanted than the CGTM but, for three or four years, it has sought and managed to better carry out its role of organization in the service of workers' struggles.
In the beginning of 2007, just as in 2006, strikes continued to characterize the social situation. In Martinique, there was the long strike of the Club Med workers which just ended, while the strike of the AFPA personnel in Guadeloupe continues, as well as strikes in private clinics, and a strike at the water company, Générale des Eaux. In February-March 2007, when the sugar cane harvest began, the workers of the Gardel sugar mill, after several weeks of negotiations and a day-long blockade of the mill, made the bosses give in on a wage increase and other improvements for the workers.
As this article is being written, the workers of the Générale des Eaux company (GDE), in Guadeloupe, are on strike and have been since February 22, called out by the CGTG. This strike at the water company is far more important than the usual cases reported here. There are 400 workers, scattered at different sites throughout the island, who are in charge of the drinking water network. The strike began against an arbitrary management decision of GDE, which unilaterally put a worker in a responsible position without following the contract's procedure. The contract specifies, "for management must put any vacant position up for bid and inform the personnel by posting it ...."
For many years, the Générale des Eaux management tried to reduce the influence of the CGTG union, which traditionally is the most combative at the company and which always led bitter but successful strikes. That led management to promote people who are docile or against the CGTG, which also helped divide the workers.
Before the strike began, the head of the company ignored the union's demands, treating them with contempt. Today, the strike involves the limited and rotating shut off of water, especially affecting tourist zones where the big hotels are located. At the same time, the strikers decided to address themselves to consumers. In the interest of the consumers and strikers, they demand openness about everything occurring inside Générale des Eaux, about what the lease payments for water bring Générale des Eaux. The strikers explained to the public that the nine members of management receive a third of all the company's pay. They denounced management maneuvers and all sorts of manipulations, wage discrimination, the bosses' promotions to divide employees, etc. As of March 18, despite shutting off water and the repeated effort of the radio and newspapers to turn the public against the strikers, they benefit from sympathy, expressed in statements of support from workers at other companies.
While the strike was going on, other strikes that began several weeks ago are being waged. There is much talk about the strike at private clinics where the workers demand a wage increase of 2% and the boss offers 1%.
The strike of the CFA (Center for Apprenticeship Training) began on November 6, 2006. The strikers gave their list of demands to the head of the Chamber of Trades on October 26. They continue their strike movement to get permanent positions for 16 workers. They fight against the job insecurity of some workers forced to sign a new hiring contract each year, a problem that has continued for 20 years now.
Another strike affects AFPA (The Association for Adult Professional Education) which was shut down for a month. This educational center had problems functioning because of cutbacks from local and regional authorities. After decentralization, the State didn't transfer funds intended for local authorities. With decentralization, the Board of Directors of AFPA is made up of elected regional officials, State representatives, and businesses and unions. It no longer responds to the demands of the center's users, nor the needs of the workers. Regional allocations, which allow AFPA to pay suppliers, social security and wages, are regularly paid late. The local offices of AFPA are run down, and are neither maintained properly nor rehabilitated. So the workers went on strike to try to really improve their situation. They think AFPA is useful because over several decades it trained many tens of thousands of Antillean and Guyanese youth and placed them in jobs.
Social conflicts have lasted from 2006 into 2007, revealing that the workers have kept an ongoing fighting spirit, despite the difficulties of these struggles in a situation of massive unemployment.
As we saw, though a part of these strikes have a defensive character, in most cases, as at Club Med, Gardel, at Générale des Eaux, or in the private clinics, it's a question of struggles to improve wages and working conditions.
These conflicts developed in a dispersed fashion, one after another or even at the same time, as in Guadeloupe today. These fights don't constitute an actual plan of calculated struggles designed by the union leadership. They do not yet constitute a movement of all the workers, which alone would be capable of changing the relation of forces between the working class and the bosses.
It's a question of local, partial struggles, sometimes with corporatist demands. But despite this qualification, we see that the workers don't hesitate to engage wholeheartedly in fights against their bosses, snatching some improvements and sometimes substantial wage increases. This is a positive factor for all workers, maintaining a favorable morale for this struggle, favorable also for future struggles of a much greater scope.
Because the country is small, when the strikers hang on and battle with determination to obtain a wage increase or an improvement of their classification or their working conditions, each strike has an effect which goes beyond the importance of the affected business. A strike of 20 or 30 workers led with determination provokes as much sympathy as a strike in a more important sector; it causes many workers to talk about it and react to it. And when there is total or partial success in the end, it reinforces the idea of struggle, it encourages a fighting spirit.
All the workers can be convinced that it's worth fighting and see that despite the difficulties and obstacles caused by the determination of the bosses and the lies told by the media, struggle is the only way to force the bosses to retreat and to give up concessions.
These strikes, despite the dispersed form they take today, matter tomorrow in preparation for movements of greater scope. Perhaps thanks to the actions and arguments of combative and honest unions, workers will understand and decide how best to create a different relationship of forces with the bosses. They"ll learn that they can force this tiny minority class of bosses to face the action of thousands, when workers act together as a class.
We aren't there yet, but while waiting it is possible to take steps in this direction. No matter what union leads a conflict in a given workplace, we can make sure that the workers of other workplaces and other unions visibly and actively demonstrate their solidarity with those on strike.
This is an effective way to reply to the bosses' lies and attacks against strikers. It is also a means to create and consolidate ties between workers of different businesses and sectors. All that will count for the future of the struggles made by all workers together!