The CGT : sheepdogs in wolves’ clothing

Photo of a dog watching over sheeps

We do not agree with everything the authors say in general, but we reproduce this article for reference and making the history of french trade unionism more accessible.

The CGT pretends to be a threat to the government, but this is just a disguise in order to maintain their role of shepherding the flocks of its supporters all the better to have them fleeced. Far more than probably anywhere else in the world (other than dictatorships, or semi-dictatorships) the unions in France are very much an intrinsic part of the state and work as a central part of the management of capital. The union question is probably the most central question facing any would-be social movement in France that doesn’t want to end up repeating old mistakes and being inevitably defeated.

Submitted by Sun_and_rain on June 6, 2022

"As long as individuals express the need to be represented, they are always confronted by the fact that the representation that they have chosen escapes their control."

– Andre Dréan

Up until fairly recently, recognition of and critiquing the class-collaborationist function of unions – particularly the CGT – was taken as a given amongst radical currents in France. But here, as elsewhere, the counter-revolutionary crushing of memory has had a depressingly debilitating effect. In 2006, shortly after the movement against the CPE, anarchists and the CGT had a serious physical fight in Perpignan on the Mayday demo. Obviously everyone associated with the “anarchist” or “anti-authoritarian” milieu supported the anarchists in this fight.

Nowadays, we’d probably find some so-called anarchists siding with the CGT, if today’s befuddled mentality is anything to go by. Because the current movement against Macron’s new reforms of the « Code du Travail » [("work Code") in France has been shrouded in a fog of confusion. Almost all the various "anarchist" or "anti-authoritarian" organisations seem to have accepted the CGT’s (or Sud’s – see Appendix) version of the law, and copied and pasted it onto their various bits of propaganda. Some "anarchists" even temporarily accept being part of the CGT’s "service d’ordre" (demonstration stewards).

In recent leaflets the CGA1 (a split from the Federation Anarchiste), even stands for the defence of the CGT’s bodies of negotiations with the State. It seems that many so-called libertarians, submissive to the repulsive politics of the CGT and the defence of their managerial position within French companies, believe the promotion of their organisation and its image is more important than contributing to the class struggle. They are incapable of distinguishing between enlarging the profile of their organisation through populist acquiescence towards the CGT racket on the one hand, and contributing towards a subversion of this law, of bourgeois laws in general and of the exhausting society of wage slavery they are aimed at reinforcing, on the other.

Lacking all critical distance, publicising their organisation takes priority over any basic sense of class anger towards class collaborators such as the CGT. And outside these organisations, there’s an almost unprecedented confusion about the CGT and the new laws, both deliberately manipulated and unconscious, permeating the minds of rebels and would-be rebels.

In fact, Macron’s new labour laws are far more subtle with its divide & rule and vague in how it expresses this than most of the unvaried interpretations of it – for example, those aspects concerning redundancy payments. For some proletarians it’s partly an improvement in conditions: in the event of dismissal for economic reasons, workers get 25% more. This is valid for all employees in general, regardless of the size of the company. [note 22/10/17: apparently this was slightly modified a few weeks back – see note in comments box below].

On the other hand, with Macron’s new decrees, in order to lay off wage slaves legally, for managers the conditions have been made easier. Now, even in large companies operating globally, assessors and labor inspectors only need to take into account the “health” of the part of the company established in France, rather than how this company is doing internationally, which previously was the case. However, when it’s a case of unfair dismissal, without legal cause, redundancy payments are now more limited than previously (except in cases of discrimination, sexual or otherwise, repression because of trade union activity, etc. where the old very favorable system still remains). In France today, unfair dismissals happen mainly in small and medium-sized companies, roughly fewer than 50 employees – so it’s obviously the bosses of these smaller-sized companies who stand to gain most from these “decrees”. Of course the definition of « legal cause » and « unfair dismissal» might well change, especially if the present salami tactics3 work for the ruling class, and then this may later be applied to the larger companies, but for the moment this is not the case at all.
However, the law tentatively proposes, over time and depending on various degrees of consent, a withdrawal of previously granted « work security », making it potentially easier for the boss to fire workers, etc. But it’s not an immediate rapid charge towards the conditions of neoliberalism present in most other countries, despite the crude simplifications presented by the CGT. In fact, aspects of it give privileges to union officials. They are being allowed more time off for studying – e.g. 20 hours per week to become a Work Inspector, or 2 months training for work-related studies. And they’re being given an extra hour off per week to attend union meetings. It’s a clever divide and rule that the unions – and particularly the CGT – are only complaining about because they could eventually lose members and money and privileges in their vital role as part of the management of capital. It’s a form of gradual salami tactics, almost designed to promote the muddled mess that is everywhere reciprocated in the ideologies of the false opposition. I certainly don’t pretend to understand every aspect of these new proposals : they’re not easy to read, as they’re written for political-legal specialists in a language only they can understand (« Politicalegalese »)3, for which France’s bureaucracy holds the World Title. In fact, all its tentative suggestions in these « ordonnances »4 are probably intended as a way of testing the water, checking out how the « opposition » to it pans out in order to feel their way around the choices of going in hard or of taking a softly-softly approach.

The fear of complexity and the apparent sense of “community” and sense of certainty derived from simplisticly “taking sides” rather than making sides, makes people easy fodder for Leftist demagoguery. Whilst this law is not clear, it is clear that the falsifications of it by the unions, with the Left and the anarcho-Left hanging onto their coat-tails, can only help towards leading to defeat. As usual. Their manipulative dishonesty invariably (eventually) leads to demoralisation on the part of anyone who seriously wants to stop this slow advance, this progress of increasingly repressive miseries whose effects are increasingly stifling and crazy. And no-one is immune to these demoralisations, including obviously many naive people in some of these organisations.


The main problem about this « movement » (which so far seems to be moving in the wrong direction) is a defence of the unions’ function as if it was a defence of hard-won workers’ struggles. Given this it seems vital to examine some of the history of the unions’ constantly increased integration into the development of capital in France.

Some aspects of the history of the CGT from 1909 to the present

In 1909, the French state responded to the intensification of strikes – particularly by the CGT (which, at that time, included a lot of anarchist workers, and was considered semi-anarchist) – by offering them pensions on retirement. This was rejected outright as an attempt to pacify their combatitivity, as well as being a con since it would simply mean less real income resulting from greater taxes or national insurance from which the pensions would be paid. In any case, the retirement age was fixed by the State at 65 years, whilst life expectancy for waged workers was 55 years on average. The anarcho-syndicalists called it “the pension for the dead”! (similarly, in the 1970s, when workers called their retirement “the widow’s pension”, since they had a life expectancy of 67 years!). This pre-WW1 CGT had tensions between radicals (mostly anarchists) and reformist currents. The latter agreed to have legalized demos in 1909 (with demonstration stewards to prevent it from getting disorderly). Later, the CGT agreed to declare their demos to the state beforehand. So, little by little, a legal framework for strikes and demos was adopted and modified with variations in capitalist cycles and developments, within general labour laws, etc. As a reward for this pacification, the French state, in the run-up to WWl, gave the unions a privilege probably unknown in any other country in the world, either before or since: the permission to hold secret accounts not subject to tax, state surveillance or regulation!!! This unbelievable truth, stranger than fiction, still holds true today.

Probably this was one of the factors behind the majority of the CGT, which held a semi-anarchist ideology at the time, in supporting the state in the first world imperialist massacre5. In 1915, in order to further integrate the unions into the mass slaughter of proletarians they claimed to represent, local « Workshop Committees » (« Comités d’Ateliers ») were formed in factories in which union reps, including « trenchist » anarchists who supported the war, were involved in limited decisions at a local level. This was the response of Thomas, a leading light in the Socialist Party, who was the Minister of Munitions6, to strikes that were developing in certain industries during the war. The state at the same time transformed the mutual aid funds of the unions (« Caisses de solidarité ») – which workers had run themselves – into state-run unemployment benefits. These were, as they are now, funded by taking a part of workers’ wages in the form of tax etc. – the beginnings of the welfare state in France, the state recuperation of self-organised forms of solidarity (see « the welfare state isn’t now, and never was, a “genuine gain for the working class” » ).

By 1936, the CGT having become the union section of the utterly Stalinist French Communist Party, directly negotiated with the state to get people back to work during the massive strikes of the popular front.

As for the « Comités d’Ateliers » (« workshop committees ») begun in the first world imperialist war, they were the local precursors of what in 1945, following the end of the second world imperialist war, became the «Comités d’Entreprise» (« enterprise committees »), which covered, and still cover, companies nationally, with unions participating in day-to-day management decisions. Following World War II, this was part of the deal between de Gaulle and the French Communist Party, who won more votes than any other party in the 1945 election ( it was also due to the fact that they took part in the Liberation – or at least this is what they claimed, since their rôle was very ambiguous until ‘44 at least). From 1945 onwards, at least 60 % of unions’ finances came directly from the state, the rest coming from members’ dues (the latter being the economic base for competition for recruitment between different unions)7. And later on – in the ‘50s – about 80 %. of their finances came from the state. Since 1958 unions have been allowed to be elected to « Conseils d’Administration » (administrative councils responsible for the enterprise’s overall policy decisions, not just the day-to-day ones) in state enterprises, occupying up to one third of the board’s membership. Union participation in these boards also applies to industries that have been de-nationalised, such as Orange, previously called France Telecom. All this means, for example, that the CGT section of the EDF are directly involved in the policy decisions of the nuclear power industry, including the military section of nuclear power ! As I said, truth is stranger than fiction!

We should also mention this : a large part of the French anarchist movement decided after 1945 to enter the main unions with the fantasy of radicalising them (instead of participating in the new anarcho-syndicalist CNT, which they left, or trying to establish autonomous contacts, groups, etc.), while the CGT was close to the USSR, and Force Ouvriere (FO – a breakaway from the CGT, created soon after) was State and CIA-funded. This entrist strategy, of course, never worked (as Unions’ collaboration with the State deepened year after year and anarchist influence decreased) : anarchists in fact soon adopted a trade unionist ideology, accepted having delegates, and so on. Maurice Joyeux and Georges Fontenis, leaders of the FA (Anarchist Federation), became famous for their opportunism and bureaucratic logic.

After the explosive return of the social question in 1968, workers were given massive pay rises in order to get them back to the misery of the factories, and other hell-holes, a pay rise that was eaten up about a year later with inflation. But the compromise needed to pacify a majority of workers – the Grenelle Accords – meant, amongst other things, that union stewards/reps did not (and still don’t) even need to be elected by those they’re meant to represent. Just one individual in a company, with no previous union membership, can become a secret rep if the union approves of it. They are then permitted to display union texts on a notice board at the entrance of a company, and then a week later, allowed to distribute them. More importantly, such a "phantom" rep has a protected salary and cannot be made redundant without an inquiry including a Works Inspector (i.e. the state). Meanwhile, they participate in the Works Committees, Health & Safety committees and Holiday Bonus committees, and participate in the management of redundancies, without any of their fellow workers necessarily knowing who they are.

Despite the whining victim propaganda of the CGT, claiming their imminent destruction because of the new Labour Laws, the government has no desire to destroy the unions, any of them – as they provide the safety valve of a false opposition very useful for disarming genuine opposition (e.g. de Gaulle, in his Memoirs, thanked the Communist Party, to which the CGT was aligned, for suppressing insurrectionary tendencies both in 19459 at the time of the "Liberation" and, more famously, in 1968).

The CGT’s main problem with the Hollande government was that they hadn’t been involved sufficiently in any consultations in the run-up to the bill proposing the Labour Laws of 2016, which was the pretext for claiming their very existence was at stake. The pretense was that insufficient consultations meant the end of the union. A falsification which was accepted at face value by the vast majority of anarchists and "anti-authoritarians" during this movement.

It’s vital to know that probably less than 8% of workers are in unions – about 4% less than in 1968 . Of course, this is partly due to the huge increase in unemployment, part-time jobs and auto-entrepreneur status since that period. However, like in ‘68, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a significant detrimental influence on struggles. Particularly the CGT, which was increasingly linked to the French Communist Party since its formation in 1920, although officially it broke this link in the 1990s.

The CGT’s strategies of demobilisation have created a tradition of controlled-action (as opposed to direct action): it has become much more difficult for proletarians to affirm a will to struggle through direct action, since legal action and vertical action has replaced autonomous forms of struggle for a long time in the CGT. The CGT can assume and organize a certain level of "violence" if pressure from the base is strong. For these reasons, critiques of the organization among the rank and file are pretty uncommon. It should also be remembered that the low levels of affiliation nowadays means a lot of affiliates are militants (meaning they’re active in the bureaucratic-legal stuff).

Here’s just one recent example of this show of violence within the complex interaction between the unions and the state: in May 2017, shortly after Macron’s election, CGT members at a factory manufacturing car parts (Bosch), which was being threatened with closure due to lack of orders, threatened to blow the factory up with gas canisters. The CGT has often made such threats before, but they have never been carried out. Shortly afterwards Macron demanded that Peugeot, Citroen and Renault stop buying so much from cheaper overseas markets and increase their orders from this plant by 20%. At the same time he provided the companies with money from the state needed to make up their loss. This illustrates that France is very far from any crudely classical neoliberal project (as exemplified by the US and the UK, for example), even if it’s slowly heading in that direction. But more significantly, this event shows not simplisticly the power of the unions but of the necessity of the state to have the unions preserve their image as genuine protectors of workers within the confines of their miserable role within the capitalist production process. After the apparent defeat of the movement against the new Labour Laws, the state needed the CGT to reassert its image of a genuinely useful opposition for the next round of intensification of workers’ exploitation in the form of new labour laws, in order to maintain workers’ faith in and compliance with the CGT leadership (I say "apparent defeat" because in fact, it was partly a victory – many of the worse aspects of the law were withdrawn before the summer, though probably this was more to do with the violence of the movement outside of union or leftist control).

The CGT during the movement against El Khomri’s Labour Laws of 2016.

Let’s look a bit more at what happened vis-a-vis the unions during the movement against the Labour Laws in 2016.

Before that, we should firstly remember that, back at the beginning of October 2015, over 5 months before the movement against the Labour Laws, Air France workers, independent of any union instructions, chased managers who were implementing redundancies and tore the shirts off them, and 2 security guards protecting these managers were knocked out.

What was the unions’ response? They quickly dissociated themselves from the workers’ anger : « Air France CGT has expressed its willingness to “calm things down” after the excesses in CCE. “We did not want CCE to be invaded,” Mehdi Kemoune, deputy general secretary of the union told AFP [some media organisation]. He claimed to have intervened to protect HRD Xavier Broseta, target of the protesters, which led him also to be jostled. According to him, the CGT had “warned” the directors that the situation could escalate, calling them to strengthen security. » The union has to be shown to be able to police its members, or at least be willing to, otherwise it has no function as the pimp negotiating the rate at which the wage slaves get screwed – no legitimate function within the system.

Just two weeks before the movement started at the beginning of March, on February 23rd an inter-union meeting, including the CGT, made a declaration which in no way called for the abandonment of the proposed Labour Law bill but only a few minor modifications. Not surprisingly, in 2015, the trade unions had participated in the “Combrexelle report”, a government document that incorporated the recommendations of MEDEF in its “emergency plan for employment” to serve as a basis for this Labor Law. It took an agitation on the Internet (petition and mobilization on and by social networks) at the beginning of March for the CGT, FO and SUD to stop publicly assuming the reactionary positions they had held just days before. But in this epoch, the incessant falsification of history and an almost pathological reduction of individuals to pure immediacy, means more and more people have a memory no better than that of a goldfish. Hence, despite all previous examples to the contrary, the CGT could present themselves in 2016, as they do today – as valiant combatants who had always been valiant combatants.

On March 9th France: between ¼ and ½ million demonstrated against the new labour laws. The unions nationally refused to call a strike – only local unions were involved (not that they’re that much better). On this day there were demonstrations throughout the country and at least 6 towns10 had significant confrontations with the state, whilst students at 100 high schools became involved in this movement .

On 17th March “…dozens of young radicals and casseurs disrupted the Parisian procession …Ten minutes after the start of the parade in the charged atmosphere, some were throwing projectiles, cans and other bottles at the riot police. The atmosphere is “definitely less goody goody than last week,” said a CGT unionist come as an observer.” It was at this demo that the CGT demonstration stewards started handing over « troublemakers » to the cops (I put « toublemakers » in inverted commas because it’s obvious that capitalism troubles the vast majority and making trouble against it is one of the best ways to feel less troubled).
Which is why on March 24th in Paris the CGT HQ had its windows broken given their previous collaboration.
However, also on March 24th, the local CGT, expressing sections of its rank and file trying to push for a genuine opposition from the leadership to the Labour Laws, brought Rouen to a virtual standstill, as port and shipping agents went on strike and blocked roads, whilst in Le Havre striking dockers blocked the outskirts of the town. Later on, at the beginning of April, these dockers warned that they would block the whole city if students or high-school students in Le Havre were to be imprisoned following the demonstrations. I have no idea if this was a threat they continued carrying out during the rest of the movement.

In fact, several local CGT unions went on strike during this movement. For instance, on the 26th April, in Paris, precarious workers, occupied the world-famous Comedie Francaise theatre, forcing the cancellation of the show. 10 national theatres were occupied (or parts of them were) during this movement – mainly by casualised cultural workers ("intermittents"), which included both local CGT and non-unionised workers (see this for a text on their movement in 2003).

Nevertheless, these occupations, if the one in Montpellier was anything to go by, remained very conservative "occupations", essentially symbolic.