Apr 19, 2009
The following article – about a 44-day general strike, starting in Guadeloupe, which spread to Martinique – comes from reports made by comrades in the Trotskyist organization Combat Ouvrier (Workers Fight), based in Guadeloupe and Martinique in the West Indies. Each island has a population of about 450,000.
The general strike in Guadeloupe started on January 20, but it was preceded by many local social disputes throughout 2008. In December there were demonstrations protesting the high cost of living.
At the beginning of December many small business owners (of bus, taxi, and ambulance companies...) carried out a protest against high fuel prices.
Hundreds of them took to the streets and blocked all the main roads in Guadeloupe. This movement completely blocked traffic on the island for three days and forced all workplaces to close. The people supported the demonstrators. In the end, the Prefect, the main government authority who is appointed by the French government in Paris, decided to reduce the price of fuel by 30 cents. (In Guadeloupe and Martinique, the Prefect, as the chief executive of the state, sets the price of fuel).
Everybody greeted that reduction as a big victory. Nevertheless, the local government assemblies voted a subsidy of three million Euros for the oil company that produces and markets the fuel. This company is controlled by Total and Chevron, two of the biggest companies in the world!
The different unions in Guadeloupe protested sharply against the subsidy. They decided to get together in a grouping known as the "Alliance against Profiteering," which in the Creole language is LKP (Lyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon).
The LKP insisted that the 3 million Euros be refunded and demanded another cut in the price of fuel. The LKP had a big success, and so about 30 political and cultural groups, as well as environmental and consumer activists, decided to join the unions already part of the LKP.
The LKP called for a general strike on December 16th. That day, around 6,000 people demonstrated in the streets of Pointe-à-Pitre, the main city in Guadeloupe. The Prefect decided not to meet a delegation sent by the demonstrators.
The LKP announced then that it wanted to enlarge its forces and called for a new strike on January 20, 2009. More organizations joined the LKP, with the number growing to 48! When the strike started on January 20th, there were twice as many demonstrators in the streets of Pointe-à-Pitre as there had been in December. The Prefect finally said he was ready to receive the LKP delegation. But the LKP increased the number of demands from those it made in December. And it demanded a universal negotiation meeting between the LKP, the Prefect, the bosses and the elected representatives all together.
In the next few days, this problem was the only thing discussed. The bosses, the Prefect, and the elected representatives all wanted to meet the LKP alone. But the LKP insisted and called for new demonstrations. These demonstrations grew considerably and had about 20,000 people by the third demonstration. By this time, most of the shops and companies were closed, their entrances blocked by striking picketers. Those not yet on strike were visited by demonstrators who came to convince their comrades to join the strike and helped them close their workplaces.
After January 20th, there was no more fuel, no public transportation, and schools and the university were closed. All the supermarkets, all the shopping malls were closed. Part of the port was shut down and all the commercial and so-called industrial areas were out on strike. Most government offices were closed. The post office, tax collectors, most banks and hospitals had very few staff working.
It's notable that after the workers at the electric utility went on strike and blocked the offices of the power plants, electricity was still produced with the agreement of LKP. It was the same for water distribution: the workers were on strike but decided not to cut off the water. That was to avoid irritating the population and creating unnecessary discontent against the strike.
In the face of the growing strike, with a rising number of demonstrations, the Prefect, the government and local politicians agreed to negotiate with the representatives of the general strike, the LKP. The LKP asked for the negotiations to be broadcast on television and radio, so that the population could follow. When the representatives of the strike arrived at the negotiations, they were accompanied by thousands of people. That same morning, 40,000 people marched in Pointe-à-Pitre, which is considerable for an island of 450,000 inhabitants.
Those public negotiations which everybody could follow directly on TV marked a turning point in the strike.
The population could see several things: the Prefect's dishonesty, his tricks. On the one hand, he asserted that he could solve the problems; and, on the other hand, he was hiding behind Paris for everything. He kept saying he had to call Paris, etc. We could see how powerless were the politicians, elected counselors, deputies and senators who said: "We know all those problems you point out, you are right, all those things have to be changed, but you know, when we go to Paris, the government doesn't listen to us."
The population could also see the bosses in their total splendor, that is, bad faith liars with delaying maneuvers. To every request of the workers, the bosses replied: "It's not possible, it's not possible." And what disgusted the population was to see the biggest bosses, the wealthiest people in the country, hiding behind the very small firms, claiming the strikers' demands were going to destroy those small firms and that this was the reason the bosses refused to give into the demands.
The population also noticed that the LKP representatives answered point by point every objection of the bosses, and every cowardly evasion by the Prefect and politicians, and the population felt a great pride about that.
The LKP representatives put forward more than 160 demands, about every aspect of the economy and social life! But they explained that the first things they wanted to obtain were the reduction in prices and an increase in wages of 200 Euros (about $265), for every person earning up to 2,200 Euros (about $2,900) per month! But most workers in private employment earn much less than this, about $1,800 a month.
When the bosses said they couldn't pay, that it would cause them difficulties, the LKP representatives shoved in their faces all the subsidies they had gotten from the state for years and years, all the tax breaks, aid even for renovation of hotel rooms. The smallest renovation in hotels is subsidized by the state.
The LKP brought disabled people to the negotiations. They said to everyone: "Aren't you ashamed to give only 600 Euros a month to a disabled person? How can a disabled person live on 600 Euros?" The population saw on TV the Prefect, the bosses and the politicians lower their eyes in shame.
Then, following an order from Paris, the Prefect left the negotiating table, explaining that the Minister of the Overseas Departments was himself coming to continue the negotiations. It shocked a lot of people that he would leave and was considered a heavy insult by the population.
Most of the bosses' representatives were white, direct descendants of the former slaves owners. But these bosses dared to blame the LKP, saying they were setting people against them and encouraging racism. In response, an LKP representative exposed the official racism in Guadeloupe and Martinique. He said: "How do you explain that in every firm, all the workers are black or Indian, but all the higher-ups are white? In the state offices, the higher up you go in the hierarchy, the more you meet white people." Then he accused the bosses and the government of practicing racism. His speech met with thunderous applause of the demonstrators at the negotiations. The popular support for the strike movement widened further. The LKP set up offices in a small building called the "Palais de la Mutualité" and there, during the 44 days of the strike, every day and all day long, until late in the evening, thousands of people came to that meeting place. There was a kind of permanent meeting going on there, during the whole general strike. Sometimes there were so many people that the crowd had to demonstrate in the streets.
When the French minister arrived, the negotiations started again. But this time, the bosses and the government refused to let the radios and TV broadcast the negotiations. But the harm had been done, the people already understood. The whole population stood behind the strikers and we saw thousands of poor people, unemployed, people living on what we call social benefits from the government, the disabled, the retired, strengthening the demonstrations. And also the number of women demonstrating was remarkable.
Workers were demonstrating of course for a raise in wages of 200 Euros, for a lowering of prices, the freezing of rents and the refund of the previous raise in rent, for an increase in retirement pensions and aid to the unemployed, etc. But with those demands came also the expression of the feelings and aspirations of the population – in particular, NOT to be despised or treated like foreigners in their own country. This claim for dignity was expressed widely in the demonstrations and through a song in the Creole language saying: "Guadeloupe is ours, Guadeloupe is not theirs, they"re not going to do what they want in our country." That song was sung for 44 days by all the population, including children, and was recorded on a CD.
In this atmosphere, the new negotiations began. Starting February 7th, negotiations went on for 22 straight hours. The agreement was due to be signed the afternoon of February 8th. As the LKP arrived for the signing, their leader got a phone call saying the minister was on a plane headed for Paris. And the signing was called off! The population was furious!
The rich and powerful people of Guadeloupe and Martinique did not want to pay for the agreement on the 200 Euros. The deal was that the state would give half the raise, meaning 100 Euros; the local council would give 50 Euros, and the bosses would give the other 50 Euros. After one year, the bosses would have to pay 100 Euros, and after three years, the deal was that the bosses would have to pay the whole 200 Euros.
Little and medium firms, whose bosses are black, agreed with the LKP on the 200 Euro demand.
Big bosses who are white in the majority, representing the local wealthy and the big French companies, seemed to agree with the accord, which for the moment didn't cost them much. But as a principle, those big local bosses, descendants of slave owners, put a big pressure on the government to undermine the agreement. Thus the minister was called back to France. The prime minister in France disapproved of the agreement, saying that the government couldn't interfere in negotiations between bosses and workers.
The minister who left for France was considered a traitor and a coward. The population was disgusted. Tension grew throughout the country.
Then the LKP called on everyone to push the movement further. Domota and Nomertin, two union leaders very popular from the LKP, told people: "We are fed up with marching in the streets. We have to do something else. We call on you to shut down the entire country until the bosses and government come to sign the agreement we negotiated."
They called on demonstrators to build barricades along the main roads. That call had an extraordinary success. On the main roads, militants organized and built the most important barricades. They were joined by people from all parts of the population, especially young people. But all around the country, and also on the secondary roads, small roads, the population built barricades, which was a way of showing their active participation in the movement.
That period of barricades was an occasion for the population to take the situation in their own hands. And people took the initiative. They searched for material – like old cars, old refrigerators, old tires and all kinds of rubbish. Then, they built their barricades, then they defended them. Then, some people organized the feeding of the demonstrators. They also had to decide who was allowed to cross the barricade: like doctors, firemen, or ambulances". All that was undertaken by the population at various points on Guadeloupe. And for two days and two nights, there were ongoing attacks from the repressive forces (armed policemen) to break up the barricades and scatter the demonstrators.
During two nights, we experienced real riots in the urban areas, with plunder and arson in some shops. But we also saw groups of young people, wearing masks, who did not hesitate to use guns against the police. It was during the second night of riot that a well known unionist, Jacques Bino, was killed. The circumstances of his death are not clear: he might have been assassinated, paid for by the bosses.
His death created a deep emotion. Because of the troubled circumstances of his murder, the LKP decided to arrange a massive funeral for him. So the barricades were opened in order to allow the population to attend Jacques Bino's funeral. This was the occasion for a huge demonstration, full of emotion and dignity, but where everybody's determination was increased.
The government announced it would reopen the negotiations. For a few days, barricades were maintained. They were taken down when the demonstrators saw that the government and bosses had decided to respect the old agreement of February 8th.
Thus 18 days after the agreement was proposed, 18 days after the minister ran away, the same agreement was signed in the end.
The government and the bosses wanted to make the strike last a long time because they thought that would break the strikers' determination and discourage them. Instead, they saw the opposite, the population became more and more irritated and their anger grew, pushing more and more young people to seek confrontations with the police. So the government drew back. A hard repression had become very difficult to carry out, even impossible because the movement was too wide, too deeply implanted in the population. Repression was too risky!
Furthermore, starting February 5th, the strike had spread to the neighboring island, Martinique. There, too, demonstrations by thousands of people took place in the main town Fort de France. And the Martiniquans demanded a 300 Euro increase! The general strike was total!
A strike was also being prepared in another French overseas department, La Réunion, in the Indian Ocean. And on the South American continent, in French Guyana, many meetings took place; the people were preparing to mobilize there too.
After the agreement on the 200 Euros was signed by all the black bosses and some little and middle white bosses, the big white bosses, members of the MEDEF (the main bosses' organization in France), refused to sign.
This led to a new stage in the movement. The workers decided to impose the agreement on the big firms that refused to sign.
Officially, the movement ceased after 44 days of strike. On March 5th, work started again almost everywhere. But then, a new wave of strikes started in the firms whose bosses hadn't yet signed the agreement for the 200 Euros. Supermarkets, hotels, shopping malls, banana plantations, the private electricity company – all were struck and closed until they signed the agreement. The bosses gave up one after the other, but at the present time, there are still a few who are resisting, so there are a few strikes continuing.
In Martinique, after 38 days of strike, the agreement was signed on the 200 Euros, and also an agreement to lower the prices of basic necessities.
Today, in Martinique, the workers are mobilized to watch the prices in shops. There are Price Watch committees and follow-up committees about the application of the agreement in different parts of the island. The members of those committees go in shops to see if the prices are lower or not and to pressure the owners to really lower the prices.
It is probably the greatest strike in the past 60 years on the two islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. The number of people who participated in the movement was so large that some local politicians were afraid. That's why they agreed with all the demands. The Progressist Party in Martinique, party founded by Aimé Césaire, said to its members: "It's the revolution, you have to be present everywhere, in all the demonstrations."
The Prefect in Martinique even wore the T-shirt of the "Collectif du 5 février," (February 5th Collective) meaning the union group which led the strike.
The Prefect in Guadeloupe even learned to say some words in Creole! But more than a few stories, what's important is that the workers in the Antilles experienced a new way of fighting, the unlimited general strike! What was important during that general strike is that the workers took the offensive against the bosses. And they did it by bringing behind them all the poor layers of the population. These layers, conscious of the strikers' determination, said to themselves that it was a good moment to start to fight. And the bosses and their government had to retreat. Also in Guadeloupe, the negotiations to lower prices gave the population the idea that those bosses and shop owners have to be watched. People, especially women from the population, go into shops to note the prices and bring them back to the representatives of the LKP. Then the LKP meets with the representatives of the supermarkets to force them to lower the prices.
Today there are price watch committees in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Grassroots LKP committees are created!
There is a demand in the population! Poor people, unemployed, want those LKP committees to be built so they gather people of every party or even people with no party. They want these organizations to be used together in order to present their claims to the authorities, the mayors, the bosses – about every kind of problem (the environment, improvement in living conditions, about the high unemployment of young people, support for strikers, etc.) They want the politicians and bosses to act on their demands.
Of course, those LKP committees are influenced by the militants of one organization or another. Some came about thanks to militants of PCG (Communist Party of Guadeloupe), others thanks to the independent union UGTG (General Workers Union of Guadeloupe) or thanks to the militants of Combat Ouvrier, etc. These committees have to become a place where workers, people from the population, can freely discuss about problems and determine what to do and how to do it, vote on what actions to do, on what is proposed and elect a certain number of representatives to lead the LKP committees.
The general strike launched by the workers on January 20th in Guadeloupe then reached Martinique as of February 5th.
Some features of the two movements were different. In Guadeloupe, the general strike was launched and led by a whole series of organizations, unions, political organizations and associations under the name of LKP (Alliance against Profiteering). In Martinique, the strike was launched by several unions that had been meeting together for several months to coordinate their activities in the workforce.
But even if some features or events during the strikes in both islands were somewhat different, the two mobilizations were mainly the result of the massive determined activity of the workers.
All economic activity stopped on both islands when the workers walked out of the workplaces and organized their picket lines. From then on, the strike was organized and imposed through blockades of commercial and industrial zones, on the port, the power stations, the hospitals. The strikers controlled the distribution of gasoline. They decided if or when they would cut electricity.
The famous song repeated so often in all the demonstrations from the beginning of the strike, "this country is not theirs, it is ours, they won't do what they want there," also reached Martinique! There it was sung in the Creole particular to Martinique and it was also changed, promising that the exploiters, the békés, "a bunch of békés, exploiters and thieves" would be kicked out or dropped in the sea. It could vary according to the mood of the demonstrators .... or the attitude of the bosses during the negotiations or in the street!
On both islands the workers carefully followed the development of the events of the other island. They understood that they confronted the same adversaries and the same exploiters. The same béké families, Hayot or Despointes, the Dereynal and Co. run businesses on both islands. There is the same oil company, Total. And there are the same big stores and dealers: Carrefour, Match, Cora, Leader Price, Renault, Peugeot, Mercedes, which are all controlled by the same small group of contemptuous and arrogant bosses.
Thus, the fate of the workers on both islands was linked in this struggle. They were fighting against the same evils: low wages, high prices, the cheating and stealing by Sara, the oil company controlled by Total that sells gasoline to the two islands.
Their struggles took the same path, the path of the general strike!
The right of the exploiters to have a monopoly on making all the decisions for the economy was called into question. And for the workers of these two islands in the West Indies, this general strike was a promising action to enable them to carry out even more fruitful struggles tomorrow. Future fights could go much further in challenging the ownership rights of the capitalists, who from one generation to the next, have been plundering those two islands for centuries through a ferocious exploitation of the population. The general strike, which united the descendants, the great-grandchildren of the slaves in the same offensive struggle, will undoubtedly be a cement that unites them in a broader struggle, beyond the so-called French West Indies, that will achieve the liberation of the entire Caribbean region from all oppression and all exploitation.