The Spark

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

France:
Labor Law
— the Lessons of a Four-Month Struggle

Jun 24, 2016

This is a translation of an article in issue #177, July–August 2016, of Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), a Trotskyist group in France.

The mobilization against the El Khomri bill, called Labor law, embodied the awakening of the collective combativeness of the workers.

This bill fostered a reaction from a significant part of the workers. It was the one provocation too many, the spark that set off a fire. The workers expressed the discontent that had accumulated against the many anti-working class attacks carried out by the Socialist government, attacks that they had not responded to.

After years of silence facing attacks from the bosses and from the government, the working class has broken its silence.

A Three-and-a-Half-Month Mobilization

The main feature of the movement is its duration. It was never an explosion and it never pulled along all of the workers. In particular, in the big private companies, workers who participated in the strikes and the demonstrations were a small minority of the workforce. But the very duration of the movement allowed various categories of the working class to express themselves in the struggle, sometimes directly against the bill, and sometimes with specific demands related to similar local attacks.

At the beginning the movement was marked by the participation of social categories like high school and university students or a fraction of the intelligentsia revolted by the policy of the government. Their initiatives played a role to pull along other people. One of the first expressions of this movement was the signing by more than 1.3 million people on a petition called “Labor Bill: No Thanks!” which was launched in February by Caroline de Haas, an ex-militant of the Socialist Party.

The initiatives of a number of intellectuals – such as the occupation of Place de la Republique in Paris by “Nuit Debout”(“Rise up at night”) starting on March 31st and then imitated in a certain number of provincial cities – also at first blurred the growing mobilization of the workers.

But after a while the movement appeared more and more for what it was: the expression of the workers’ anger.

The duration of the movement allowed various sectors of the working class to be pulled into it, simultaneously or one after the other. The rail-workers were present all along even if the call for a renewable strike was not launched by SUD and FO unions until May 18th and not until June 1st by the CGT. But others – such as the refinery workers, drivers of tanks for gas and fuel, the ones working in plants for garbage incineration – started to participate only two months after the movement had begun.

The movement pulled along workers of middle-sized companies, and even of small ones. For many of them, it was the first time they had participated in a struggle. A number of young workers experienced their first work stoppage and their first demonstration.

In every sector that participated in the movement, only a minority was active. But they were never rejected by their fellow workers. Quite the contrary. According to the polls, 60 to 70 per cent of the people approved of the movement at the height of the mobilization. It means that clearly almost all the workers supported it even though they did not participate in it.

This widespread sympathy of the workers acted like a fulcrum for the movement and, at the same time, showed its limits. The workers who were mobilized enjoyed the moral support of the rest of the working class, their approval, but not their active participation. It was as if the majority of workers participated through delegation.

The Policy of the Union Federations

When the El Khomri bill was announced, the union federations may all have marked their disapproval, but none of them asked for the withdrawal of the bill. But this period of hesitation quickly ended with a split between the federations, with the CFDT on one side, and CGT and FO on the other side, together with the student unions, UNEF, UNL and FIDL.

The CFDT chose to distance itself from the movement and to oppose it, demanding only little changes in the bill. It became the backer and even the spokesperson for the government. The CFDT national secretary, Laurent Berger, went so far as to assert that “it would be unacceptable to withdraw the bill” at the very moment when the plain and simple withdrawal had become the goal of all the demonstrations and the strikes. He added, “It would be a hard blow for the workers because they would lose the benefit of the new rights which have been recognized in the text.” (Le Parisien, May 25)

The CGT, as well as FO, Solidaires and the FSU, made the opposite choice. The inter-union committee set up by these unions assumed the leadership of the movement up to the end. They took the initiative for days of action and demonstrations which undoubtedly structured the movement. All along the movement and the test of force between the CGT and the government, the CGT appeared more and more as the decisive factor of the confrontation.

The choice by the CGT leadership to assume this role was already outlined during the national congress of the union ( from April 18 to April 22 in Marseille), during which the tone was more dynamic than usual. There were discussions about whether to call strikes, if not a general one, at least renewable ones.

Whatever the reason, the decision of the CGT leadership to play a direct role in the movement showed that the militant rank and file of the CGT was fed up with being passive like they had been ever since the Socialist Party took over the government.

Roughly speaking, when the leadership of the CGT opened the floodgates, the rank and file rushed through the gates. Some of the CGT cadres did it with enthusiasm, others with the traditional reformist mistrust of the workers, fearing they could lose control of the movement, even if it was very unlikely given the situation.

Hence some often contradictory and ambiguous attitudes. Hence also their mistrust toward the general assemblies and toward anything that could be used as a framework to let the workers in struggle express themselves. And the movement as such was not powerful enough to impose its own dynamic on the union apparatuses. The latter were in control all along.

It should be said that once they made their choice, and beyond the problem of the railroads that the CGT federation of the railroads presented at first as a specific issue, the tactics of the CGT leadership were well adjusted to the movement. Periodic demonstrations were called well ahead so that each one helped prepare the following one. They structured the movement, allowed it to last and to become wider, be it only because it allowed one or another category of workers to join the movement at various moments.

The policy carried out by the CGT since March is a reverse image of its previous policy. The CGT demonstrated its ability to mobilize. One can imagine that a more combative attitude and an equivalent policy by the CGT when the left took over the government in 2012, could have helped the mass of the workers regain confidence. Such a policy might have hastened the awareness of what is so obvious today: not only is the Socialist government not an ally of the workers in their fight against the big bosses, but it is the instrument of the bosses in their offensive.

Of course nobody can say that there would have been a more massive and more powerful participation of the workers in the mobilization against the El Khomri bill if this political and moral preparation had been made. But it is not easy to catch up with what has not been done during all these years when union leaders remained silent facing attacks by the government, under the pretext that it was a left-wing government. It is important to keep this in mind when discussing with militants who may tend to be demoralized after the mobilization against the El Khomri law, or could even reproach the workers, in particular those in the big companies, for their lack of determination.

The CGT was able to lead the movement right up to the end of the show of strength with the government, first of all because they did not fear to be outflanked by the rank and file. In fact the policy it put forward suited the movement and its level of mobilization.

But to do this was also a break with the government. The CGT was not eager to be pulled along in the discredit and in the rout that the left-wing government undergoes among the workers.

Neither should we forget the rivalry between the union federations, particularly with the coming union elections in the very small workplaces due in November.

In this rivalry, the CFDT leadership choose to bank on a resigned working class as Laurent Berger admitted as such in the le Parisien interview: “I bet on collective intelligence that consist in building well balanced compromises!” To advocate for balance in the middle of a confrontation between the government which wants to pass another anti-worker law and the workers who want to reject it, amounts to taking sides with the government.

The CGT certainly has not become revolutionary because they chose the opposite stance. Nonetheless the interests of their apparatus required that they push to the end the test of force with this discredited government, with which they had no reason to link their fate.

The future will tell if this policy will reward the CGT in the electoral competition with the CFDT. But it is undisputable that the CGT’s choice, and the fact to have stuck to it for more than three months of confrontation, matched the interests of the workers and of the protest movement.

Finally there was another factor that undoubtedly helped the CGT make its choice. The government targeted almost only the CGT, thus trying to isolate them. The maneuver did not succeed. In particular FO, and also Solidaires and the FSU, remained with the CGT all during the movement. In this situation where the big majority of the workers rejected the El Khomri law, it is the CFDT along with the CFTC who appeared isolated by supporting the government.

The Lessons of the Movement

One must constantly bear in mind that the movement, the demonstrations, the work stoppages allowed hundreds of thousand workers to raise a score of questions that they had not raised before. It is during movements, whatever their limitation, that the mass of the workers is pushed to find solutions to a whole series of problems.

In the course of the struggles they can judge the policy of the different organizations; they can become conscious of who is on their side and who is against them, and also make an assessment of the policy carried out in the movement.

All those who participated in the fight and also all those who closely followed the movement in solidarity with it, have learned a lot. They were confronted with lies, then, in the course of the struggle, with the openly anti-worker stance of a government that pretends to be socialist. They could see the way bourgeois democracy functions. While this labor law is rejected by the majority of the population and by the overwhelming majority of the workers who will be its victims, they saw how the government imposed, even on its own members of parliament, a law dictated by the bosses, resorting to article 49-3 of the Constitution.

They have seen the government using all tricks and maneuvers to impose its law in favor of the bosses against the will of the workers. When nothing worked, government members and the media at their service poured heaps of slanders on the unions that participated in the movement, especially targeting the CGT, but in fact aiming at all those, union members or not, who opposed the policy of the government.

Workers saw the government use the damage caused by a few hundred people who broke windows at the edge of the demonstrations to try to pass over in silence the reasons why hundreds of thousands of workers participated in one demonstration after another during three months.

They saw the prime minister who pretends to be socialist threaten to ban a demonstration called by the unions, a decision that no government, even right-wing ones, has taken since the Algerian war. His ridiculous crisis of authority fizzled out with the proposal to shut the Paris demonstrators up in a loop circuit circled with cops and members of the riot squad, on June 23.

Indeed the workers who raised up against the Labor law confronted members of the government and the leaders of the Socialist Party being supported by the leaders of the right-wing.

They saw the opinion-forming machine deployed against them – the big television channels and the big newspapers all belonging to Dassault and his likes.

It was a huge political lesson that is not going to be forgotten.

The very development of the mobilization contains many other political lessons.

The high school and university students as well as the occupation of city squares undoubtedly played a role at the beginning. This was reflected in the fact that the more-or-less intellectual petty bourgeois of “Nuit debout” demonstrated a pretense of attracting the workers to them, claiming to be the embryo of the leadership of the movement.

This phase rapidly ended when the workers began to form the bulk of the demonstrators and when the CGT and FO assumed their role.

However, for a while, the media continued focusing only on what was going on in Place de la Republique in Paris or in other squares in big provincial cities, with the government casting an amused and tolerant view.

Abstract debates took place within the framework of “Nuit debout” – about the means to soften capitalism, about the charms of being non-political or about “horizontality’ to oppose to the “verticality” of power. This demonstrated only that this fraction of the petit bourgeoisie, who deserves the credit for having mobilized against the government, had no policy and even less perspective to offer the workers.

As for the revolutionary communists, they were able to rest on the awakening consciousness of the workers pulled into the movement to help develop it as far as possible, without setting a goal for the movement other than the withdrawal of the labor law which matched the will of the mobilized workers and which was taken up by the union leadership.

The revolutionary communists had to act so that the workers could participate as actively and consciously as possible. `

Behind the cold figures about the number of people participating in the demonstrations and in the stoppages, there is the reality of thousands, hundreds of thousands of workers. For the most part, they are working class militants whose disappointment with the Socialist government had lost their taste for activity but who recovered hope and moreover the will to be active, thanks to the movement.

And there were thousands of others, in particular young people, who have experienced only the weight of exploitation and precarious jobs throughout their active life. Their view of the world in general, and of social relations in particular, was that was pushed on them by the media, which permanently maneuver to present a view of the world which matches the interests of the bourgeoisie. First of all to impose the idea that it is up to the powerful people of the world, the capitalist class, to make the decisions, and it is the fate of the workers to put up with it.

The simple fact of beginning to act collectively by themselves, showed that the workers are capable of doing that. Starting from that awareness, everything becomes possible.

At each stage of the movement, it was necessary to understand the dynamic of the movement, which point it had reached, what were its possibilities, and help the workers to be aware, not only in relation to the actual movement, but also in relation to future ones.

For example, the blockades. In the current movement, where the majority of the workers do not participate actively, it might seem more efficient to blockade a cross road or the entrance of a plant rather than to try to pull the workers of the sector into the struggle. A reformist or a Stalinist militant, keen on feats decided from above, is reinforced in his ideas by the example of successful blockades of the oil refineries to prevent the delivery of gas and fuel.

In one of our editorials for the Lutte Ouvrière workplace bulletins, we exposed the limit of the blockades. “The riot squad can kick out a few hundreds demonstrators who are blocking a refinery or a rail road. But they are not able to replace the workers of the refineries on strike, nor to act as train drivers, as switchmen or airplane pilots.

Neither can they replace the workers on the lines, the employees, the technicians, or the engineers who are all indispensable to run the plants.” (May 30)

The blockades were and are part of the movement as it is. The point is not to reject them. But one should be conscious of their limitation. It is not always possible to do what is right and necessary. But it is always possible to explain oneself, to convince, to make understand, to help increase the consciousness of the workers.

As embryonic as the class consciousness of the workers might be after only four months of movement, it is much more important than what will happen to the labor law after its goes through parliament, with all the changes that it will undergo. It is much more important than the parliamentary circus around resorting or not to article 49-3 of the Constitution. It has even more importance than the exacerbating competition between the various clans of the left, which all helped Hollande to be elected in 2012 and who are today striving to save their careers at the expense of one another.

The El Khomri law has been only one battle in the war between the capitalist class and the working class. This war is not over.

The offensive of the bourgeoisie, of the big bosses, and of their servants in government will go on, because the economic situation and the economic crisis will push them to do so.

Many other fights are in store for the exploited, more important ones, more decisive ones. The experiences in one battle, the awareness it fostered, will be useful in future battles.

In playing with fire, Hollande, Valls and their government might have set an actual fire that is not going to be put out soon.