The Spark

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

French Railroad Workers’ Strike:
First Lessons Learned

Jun 20, 2018

This article is a translation of an article from the magazine Lutte de Classe, issue no. 193, July-August 2018, published by Lutte Ouvrière, a Trotskyist organization in France.

After three months of strike, the united front that had so far existed between the different trade-unions is now cracking: UNSA is dropping out and the CFDT is on the verge of doing the same, while the CGT and Sud are calling to continue the movement in July.1 And what happens next, obviously, depends on the determination of the railroad workers.

The strike movement started on April 3, 2018 and has lasted for nearly three months. Because of its duration and the number of workers involved, the strike movement is one of the most important disputes to have affected SNCF (the state-owned railroad company) since the big strike of 1995. With its strengths and weaknesses, here is a movement that has mobilized a whole section of the working class against the government, under the eyes of the working population at large. Though the strike movement is not over yet, lessons can already be learned from it, at SNCF and elsewhere.

A Pact? No: A Declaration of War to the Railroad Workers!

The so-called “railroad pact,” which was adopted by the Senate on June 13 and the National Assembly on June 14, contains three key measures: the opening up to competition of passenger rail transport with the compulsory transfer of railroad workers to the private sector (a refusal will lead to automatic dismissal); the transformation of the three SNCF entities into limited public companies; and the end of the existing SNCF status for all new recruits. In addition, the outsourcing of freight has been announced. This is clearly an attack against the railroad workers.

The pact, however, is still far from being implemented. We all know how, in the past, a number of reforms, though they had been voted and promulgated, ended up in the trash bin – for example, the “first-job contract” law in 2006. Yet many politicians and journalists are already celebrating the end of what they call a blitzkrieg and the government’s swift victory. Indeed, less than four months elapsed between the presentation of the bill on February 27 and its adoption by Parliament. Those in favor of the pact were of course not afraid of the voting results in the Senate and the National Assembly because they knew that both chambers were bound to adopt this attack on workers. What they were really afraid of was the specter of 1995, when the transport strike paralyzed the country and forced Juppé and his government to back down and withdraw his pension reform.

Despite its tenacity, this year’s movement did not have the same energy and magnitude; it was not powerful enough to defeat the government. Yet, even among bourgeois observers, many see the blitzkrieg’s victory as being relative and they express some concern.

The initial goal was to knock out the railroad workers, as illustrated both by the end goal of the reform and the means chosen by Macron to implement it. Indeed, by simultaneously attacking SNCF’s monopoly on rail transport, transforming it into a public limited company (which could later be privatized) and removing the status of railroad workers (which guaranteed a degree of job security), the government wanted to show that it was ready to demolish what had been the daily life of generations of railroad workers. Macron wanted to show the bourgeoisie and also the right-wing voters that he was able, unlike his predecessors, to confront combative and unionized workers, with no fear of their reaction.

In an attempt to draw public opinion against the railroad workers, the government also orchestrated, from day one, a campaign of slander against them, in particular against their status, presented as an incredible privilege and as the cause of all SNCF failures, notably of the repeated delays.

The railroad workers are well placed to know the real causes of the malfunctions: lack of staff and the derelict state of large parts of the network. The recent paralysis, on June 13, of the entire network at Saint-Lazare (A Parisian main line station) is a vivid illustration: it was due to a defective signaling part dating from 1966, worth 150 euros, and which railroad workers had in vain called to be replaced.

The smear campaign may have paid off in the anti-worker or least class-conscious electorate but it also ulcerated railroad workers, even senior executives, and set them up against the government. In April, SNCS, the union of SNCF senior executives, wrote a letter to the transport minister: “For reasons of political strategy, you, the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister have chosen to use railroad workers as scapegoats in the eyes of the general public.” Though SNCS did not take part in the strike, the letter went on: “We must defend our honor because the government has hurt our professional conscience.”

So the strike was remarkable in that it was morally and sometimes actively supported not only by supervisors and foremen but also by executives opposed to the reform. The result of the “Vot’Action,” a consultation in which 61% of railroad workers participated and 95% expressed their refusal of the pact, confirmed the rejection that had already been shown by the participation in the strike.

Far from dividing the railroad workers, the government managed to unite them against its project and against the SNCF top managers, who provoked the strikers time and again with shameless lies. Far from succeeding in rallying railroad workers behind SNCF’s CEO, Pepy, and his “let’s fight against competitors, let’s be the best” motto, the government instead led many managers ... to side with the strikers in self defense.

Bourgeois Commentators Express Concern

The more conscious bourgeois commentators understand the problem. Raymond Soubie, a former counselor in social relations for President Sarkozy, makes the point: “It’s a good way to work out a law but not necessarily a good way to get everyone on board and have it applied” (Les Échos, June 12, 2018). And Le Monde in its June 18 editorial states, “The railroad battle isn’t over and it’s going to have consequences on SNCF [...]. The company is scarred and social relations have seriously deteriorated.”

Stéphane Laurier, a journalist from Le Monde, is not convinced that the reform is efficient. On June 18 he wrote, “For a reform to be successful, it needs to gain a minimum of consent from the main parties concerned. And this base isn’t covered. There’s currently a poisonous climate in the company so we wish Guillaume Pepy (the CEO of SNCF) lots of luck in re-establishing the social relations that have been a little battered during the three-month strike.”

Commentators may be worried but the strikers should be proud: They have raised their heads up collectively. The tactics used by the government and by management (counting days off as strike days, hiring temporary workers and retirees to replace strikers, defamation, etc.) not only didn’t stop the strikers but in fact strengthened their determination and their cohesion. Most railroad workers went on strike at some point: some for a few days, some for more than thirty days if they stuck to the schedule decided by the inter-union group, and some for even longer. There was no division between them. And it’s well-nigh impossible to find a railroad worker who defends the reform.

The bourgeois commentators use the expression “poisonous climate” but it isn’t appropriate. For the last four months, the climate in SNCF has been one of struggle, of pride, of solidarity, not of individualism or resignation. This shows the way for the future and all members of the bourgeoisie are right to be concerned.

The Government’s Contempt for the Unions

The other remarkable and out-of-the-ordinary aspect of the government’s tactics was its open contempt for the union organizations, at least up until the beginning of May.

When the government announced its bill, it had programmed discussions between Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne and each of the unions. But, from the outset, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe warned everyone that all three parts of his reform were non-negotiable. He also stated his intention to use executive orders and push the reform through as fast as possible. This was directly provoking the unions, who are used to being involved, even if only formally, in certain discussions.

On April 3, in Le Figaro (France’s best-selling right-wing daily), Laurent Berger, general secretary of the CFDT, whose stock-in-trade is to appear as a good negotiator, was outraged that the government had expressed “disdain for the social partners and collective bargaining.” And in Le Monde, on April 9, Jean-Claude Mailly, who at the time was the leader of FO and who had collaborated with the government over the executive orders on the Labor Law last fall, didn’t think that he could put out the fire: “When the grass is really dry, it just takes one spark.” As a matter of fact, all the unions wanted only proper negotiations.

They may have already had doubts but the start of discussions with the minister made it perfectly clear that their being consulted was purely a formality. They were stunned by the composure of a minister who explained nothing and didn’t even reply to their questions. On April 18, Rémi Aufrère for the CFDT railroad workers said, “We’re upset by this because we feel literally humiliated. [...] The government is openly trying to make us capitulate. In the long-term, that’s counter-productive.” Roger Dillenseger for UNSA, another union that had supported the previous reforms, said despairingly, “This is the first time I’ve ever seen this kind of negotiation, if you can call it that.”

The government’s contempt was obvious when the unions learned through the press that recruitment under the special status of railroad worker would end on January 1, 2020. It would have been a meager consolation but the date was supposed to be negotiated. At the inter-union press conference, Erik Meyer, leader of SUD-Rail, sounded off with the others on how the minister hadn’t even bothered to inform them. It was the same thing when the decision was made to transfer rail freight to subsidiaries.

The government deliberately chose to turn its nose up at any offer of help from the unions, even those who usually collaborate with them. So as not to lose face with the railroad workers, the unions were obliged to form a united front for three months, something pretty unusual!

The downside for the government is that, instead of discouraging the strikers, its insulting attitude was one of the factors that contributed to railroad workers being mobilized for so long. Édouard Philippe didn’t even acknowledge the unions until May 7, one month into the strike, when he finally decided that he was willing to receive them.

The Failure of Poor Tactics

Even if he toned it down a bit, Édouard Philippe had absolutely no intention of giving in to any aspect of railroad workers’ demands. The long-prepared bailout plan concerning SNCF’s 35-billion-euro debt was a diversionary tactic. It was, in fact, a demand brought to the forefront by the unions, not by railroad workers.

The CFDT also made an attempt to get first the National Assembly and then the Senate to adopt their amendments to the railroad pact. However, their so-called amendments were so ridiculous and insignificant that they couldn’t even defend them among railroad workers.

Under the circumstances, the unions, especially UNSA and the CFDT, could hardly withdraw from the movement. In an article published in Les Échos on June 12, a UNSA union official declared, “Things are complicated because we’re negotiating a social setback,” to which he added, “If I leave the movement, I might as well commit suicide.” It’s no wonder union leaders felt they couldn’t drop out when you consider that union representative elections are set to begin in the fall. CFDT leaders called for “maintaining daily trains” during the week of high school final exams (French baccalauréat) despite the strike calendar, thus heading towards a break in the movement, but many CFDT militants plainly refused to defend such a position in general assemblies.

The CGT’s Tactics

The CGT is by far the leading union both in terms of union membership and in terms of their influence within the railroad workforce. And the CGT did, in fact, lead the movement. Their leadership became quite clear early on in the movement. The nationwide demonstration they organized on March 22, for example, drew 25,000 railroad workers and retired railroad workers. Other unions also participated in the demonstration, but the CGT made up 80% of the protest march.

The establishment of a strike calendar where railroad workers strike two days out of five over several weeks started April 3 and 4 and was also a CGT initiative. And the CGT was able to gain support for the strike calendar – which was to become a defining character of the movement – among other unions at the inter-union meeting on March 15, just a few days before the nationwide demonstration.

Many trade unionists, including CGT unionists, were surprised at this form of “start and stop” strike action. However, it soon became clear that railroad workers weren’t willing to go beyond the CGT’s calendar. On March 22, the general assembly of railroad workers at the Gare du Nord, a mainline station in Paris, voted in favor of indefinite strike action as of April 3, but in reality only a few dozen striking workers actually followed up on the vote and went on strike outside the set calendar. In some sectors, railroad workers chose to remain on strike between two calendar periods, but again only a minority of striking workers continued the strike outside the calendar. Some railroad workers, particularly train drivers and ticket inspectors, struck every day of the union-set calendar, but this wasn’t the case in all sectors. Most the time railroad workers chose to strike certain days within the calendar and not others, setting up their own strike calendar within the union-based calendar.

It’s not a question of opposing one strike tactic to another, of opposing indefinite strike action, for example, to the “two days out of five” tactic, as if there were some magic solution that could be applied in any place and at any time regardless of workers’ mindset and of how far they are willing to go. A single day of protest can lead to a general strike and start a movement even without an official call to strike by trade unions, as was the case on May 13, 1968 which led to the May 1968 uprising. And even a rapid succession of protest days could allow union activists to rely on mobilized sectors of the working class to rally others, like they did in 1995 against Juppé’s reforms.

Building Momentum or Blocking It?

Far from wanting to build a genuine dynamic, the railroad federation of the CGT clearly stated its purpose in an internal memo published on March 16, just one day after the strike calendar was released. The memo, destined for union representatives, outlines the CGT’s main objectives: “To build a stable, long-lasting mobilization in order to successfully pass through the stages of the government’s strategy and to send the message that they won’t win by simply waiting for the strike to weaken.”

So, from the start, the aim was to reach a stable mobilization and in reality to follow the legislative and negotiating calendars. It was never a question of letting workers take initiatives but rather a way of confining their struggle to merely supporting union negotiators at the bargaining table.

Rather than attempting to convince workers that at some point they wouldn’t have any other choice but to put all their force into the fight, the CGT encouraged workers to embrace a strike-action plan which would save them energy. The same internal note states, “All railroad workers, whether they want to take it easy or disrupt production, will find something to their fancy and be happy.”

The CGT wanted to prevent any initiative from rank and file workers, including from their own union members, from branching out. According to the same internal memo, the CGT states, “We’ll have to be clear and there must be as few dissenting voices as possible. We can’t afford to readjust our strategy according to the whims and hesitations expressed in different locations. There is only one strategy.”

What trade union bureaucrats disdainfully call “whims and hesitations” actually refers to workers’ opinions. In their eyes, workers should accept more than thirty days’ worth of wage deductions but not be able to make their own decisions concerning their strike!

In fact, even unionized workers were influenced by their leaders’ cautious attitude towards workers. Recommendations from federation-level leaders of the CGT suggested members “hold regular general assembly meetings first for union members only, then for rail workers in general” so that union members would speak in unison.

And the day after the successful March 22 protest, the federation sent out an internal memo forbidding union activists and members from “taking part in any type of vote to continue the strike on April 5.”

The CGT was afraid it might lost control of the movement. But such a movement can only become “uncontrollable” when workers build momentum themselves, as they build on striking workers’ enthusiasm and energy to increase their strength and to get more workers not only to join the struggle but to actively contribute to the strike as well. But an “uncontrollable” strike is exactly what union leaders fear the most and the current railroad strike has proved it yet again.

Once CGT leaders realized there was little chance that the strike would go beyond their control, they loosened the reins a little, allowing cross-service meetings between different sectors in places where they had previously opposed any joint discussions.

There’s no use speculating on whether or not indefinite strike action could have created a better dynamic or not. First of all, history can’t be rewritten. But more importantly, the role of militant workers devoted to the working class is not to make an initial diagnosis beforehand and then impose a strategy from the outset. Their role, rather, is to rely on and nourish the will, determination, fighting spirit and consciousness of striking workers at every stage of their struggle.

The International Workingmen’s Association was founded in 1867 on the basic principle that “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” Their emancipation can truly begin only when workers take into consideration and build on the degree of consciousness and determination of striking workers each step of the way.

SUD-Rail’s position had absolutely nothing to do with worker emancipation. The only thing SUD-Rail did was to submit a provisional notice of indefinite strike action without ever actually calling for such action or even trying to find a way to make it possible. SUD-Rail stuck to the strategy adopted by the union coalition. It wanted to remain part of the large union coalition while criticizing its methods locally, according to particular circumstances and opportunities.

Essentially, SUD-Rail, just like the other trade unions, sought to defend the interests of the union apparatus – the right to be considered a valued representative and negotiator at the bargaining table by the government on the one hand, while keeping an eye on the upcoming union representative elections on the other.

What the Railroad Workers’ Strike Achieved

The railroad strike wasn’t powerful enough to go further or burst through the boundaries set up by the trade unions. And that was the movement’s main limit.

However, even within the boundaries set up by the unions, railroad workers have gained valuable experience over the three months of the movement. Tens of thousands of workers participated in meetings, demonstrations and rallies. They met workers from other rail sectors as well as other sectors of the general workforce.

The movement was a non-corporatist movement, so railroad workers distributed leaflets on a wide scale and established relationships with workers from all different types of work. Railroad workers came to help out and support striking workers at Carrefour supermarkets. At the Gare de l’Est train station in Paris, on June 19, they offered their support to Ford workers from Blanquefort (in southern France) who were traveling to Germany by train to defend their jobs. In many places, workers and working-class militants made connections and built contacts in different companies and their connections will count in the future.

Many workers were also witness to the fact that the government and the top SNCF bosses and managers couldn’t put an end to the movement despite their political maneuvers and requests to stop the strike. And people are following and discussing the strike as it continues, if only through the daily train traffic updates that have become just as important as the daily weather forecast. Railroad workers, like many other workers, were able to see that the working class plays an essential role in society, be it simply because of the lack of transportation. They were able to see just how irreplaceable workers are because, when they go on strike and stop working, even if only a fraction of the working class gets involved, it has a major effect on our lives.

The railroad struggle isn’t over yet and whatever the outcome, other struggles will emerge in the future, in different circumstances, and striking workers will again take center stage. They will be faced with the same opponents, whether they be on the side of the government and bosses or behind the masks of trade union bureaucrats. Workers and working-class militants must unmask their opponents, analyze the interests they serve and their attitudes, and evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses in each new struggle, in order to prepare for the next, so that they can go as far as they possibly can in the working-class struggle.

1 Those unions all exist on a national basis, as “confederations,” outside of SNCF. Each railroad federation broadly follows the line of the national confederation it belongs to, with some specificities. The CGT is the largest union in France and the largest at SNCF too. It used to be closely linked to the Communist Party of France (PCF) and its SNCF federation and branches have retained connections with the PCF. SUD (at SNCF: SUD-Rail) is the other union that the media call “radical.” It is much smaller than the CGT, and was formed in the late 1980s/early 1990s as a breakaway union from the CFDT. The two other unions are called “reformist” by the media, because they tend to be less strike-prone. UNSA is a smallish union, one that is proudly sectional (at SNCF, in education, etc.) in spite of its “inter-professional” character. As for the CFDT, it claims to have more members than the CGT. At SNCF, the CFDT recently absorbed the train-drivers union (the FGAC), a sectional but combative union – a late compensation for the SUD-Rail breakaway.