We translated the following two texts from 1988, because we think that there are still things we can learn from the strike movement back then. Today in the UK we are confronting similar questions: how can we organise the struggle for higher wages in the NHS and defeat the insulting 1% pay offer? How can we overcome divisions into different unions and professional groups and regions (e.g. with the government in Scotland offering a still puny 4% increase)
In 1988 workers formed independent structures to lead their strike, which side-lined the union leadership – as the union leaders were reluctant to do anything. Also, only 5% of health workers in France were members of unions, so most of the strikers were not part of the unions in the first place. Hospital assemblies and regional coordinations were the strike movement’s backbone. And we have to remember: at the time the workers had to organise all this without Facebook, Zoom or WhatsApp!
“A typical pattern develops to ensure this control: after each day of action on Thursday, the strike continues on Friday in order to be able to hold meetings at the hospitals and elect delegates to the national coordination on Saturday.”
The demands are similar to our’s today: the strike movement fought for substantial pay increases and better staffing levels.
But there were also problems. In many cases the coordinations didn’t overcome the professional divisions, only later on nurses and support workers struggled together. The strike remained largely limited to the public sector hospitals, although the strikers demanded that the demands were also fulfilled in the private sector.
As a group of health workers we think we have to discuss these lessons and our current experiences at work and in the unions – in order to find ways how workers themselves can lead their struggle. If you think similarly, get in touch:
Email: [email protected]
France: Hospitals in turmoil
“We’re tired of working in a galley!”
The various categories (professions) in French hospitals are formally divided by qualification status. Nurses have a higher status and until 1987 a high school diploma / A-levels were a prerequisite for admission to nursing schools. In hospitals, psychiatric wards, and nursing homes, and in the public and private sectors, there are three major groups of workers:
1) 300,000 nurses (infirmières) who receive their diploma after three years of training and then specialize for another year or two.
2) 200,000 auxiliary nurses (aides soignantes, AS) with one year of training.
3) 150,000 auxiliary staff (Agents de Service Hospitalier, ASH) who have no training in the field and perform only non-nursing activities.
At the beginning of their careers nurses receive a salary of about 5600 Frs [French Francs], which can rise to 9500 Frs after 25 years of service. But many nurses earn no more than 7500 Frs even after 30 years. The starting wage of auxiliary nurses is 4800 Frs and rises to 6000 Frs. Auxiliary staff (ASH) are paid according to the SMIC, the minimum dynamic wage for all occupational classes, which is currently 4000 Frs.
There are general regulations for the nursing profession, but also specific regulations related to each sector; private, public, psychiatric, etc. There are no general regulations on pay and recognition of length of service. For example, if a nurse moves from the public to the private sector, their years of service are not recognized. For this reason, among others, the nurses are emphatically demanding a common statute for their profession.
The situation in the ‘white factory’ in France is characterized by the same problems as in other countries: the number of workers in this sector increased rapidly in the 1980s; in 1981 there were only 250,000 nurses. But in proportion to the work imposed personnel have become scarcer. Today a nurse stays in his/her job for an average of only eight years. In many hospitals staff positions are not filled, or are filled by young people on work-fare programs (tucistes) and temporary workers.
For some years now hospital administrators have been offering jobs to only one-third of students after graduation. As in Germany personnel costs in France account for 70 percent of hospital costs. Cost reductions therefore start here first. At the same time hospitals are becoming more subject to the criteria of productivity and profitability. At some hospitals, flexible working hours and information systems ‘for the optimal use of working time’ are being tested.
Organizing in the hospital
Only a few of the nurses, an average of 5%, are unionized. Among the non-qualified staff the communist CGT union is somewhat more strongly represented. In addition to the CGT four other unions declare themselves responsible for the representation of interests: the socialist CFDT, the Christian CFTC, the particularly economically peaceful FO, and the CGC as the association of managerial employees.
The CGT has been hostile to nurses’ coordination from the beginning, since it cannot control this movement. In the general assemblies, there are sometimes violent clashes. The CGT tries to penetrate the movement through its influence among the less qualified staff, AS and ASH. But even there, the movement has developed independently of the CGT. In the meeting of the Central Committee of the CPF [Communist Party of France – the political wing of the CGT] on October 12 and 13, the communist trade unionists changed their position towards the coordination, which brings more than 100,000 to the streets that day. As their activists defect with flying colours, they are now calling for entry into the coordinations themselves.
The union leaderships of the CFTC, CFDT, FO and CGC come to an understanding and refuse to recognize the coordinations. They quickly agree to go along with the Health Minister’s proposals and deliberately set themselves apart from the coordination by staging their demonstrations elsewhere.
UNASIIF (see Libération article) has initially supported the movement, but then withdraws and even actively fights against the continuation of the strike. After its old leadership resigned, the new one rejoins the strike on Oct. 13.
The explosion of coordination
In addition to the nurses’ coordination, several other coordinations are emerging for individual professional groups in the hospital: for physiotherapists, laboratory staff, psychiatric nurses, etc. The most important among them is the coordination of AS and ASH. In addition, the coordination of hospital staff was formed on the first day of the strike. It aims to unite the entire staff, regardless of professional demarcations, and consciously opposes the corporatism [looking only after their own profession] of the coordination of nurses. It includes AS and ASH, laboratory staff, and some nurses as well. The political group Lutte Ouvrière seems to be a driving factor in this.
However, the nurses’ coordination prefers to form an alliance with the AS and ASH, which was inspired by grassroots activists of the CFDT. It is more professionally oriented and calls for a separate statute for auxiliary nurses.
The following demands appear in all the coordinations: 2000 Frs wage increase, minimum wage of 6000 Frs a month, 13th month wage and the integration of bonuses into the basic wage so that they are taken into account in the pension payment.
In addition to these demands, which constitute a unifying moment for all professional groups in the hospital, the coordination of nurses demands special regulations for their professional group:
Repeal of the “Decree of 23/12/87” that opened nursing schools to people without high school diplomas.
A common statute for all employed nurses, with full recognition of seniority / total years worked, even when moving between public and private hospitals.
Improved staffing levels / more nurses hired to improve working conditions.
Right to ten days of continuing education per year with full pay and more budgetary resources for such measures.
Supervision of all newly hired staff by an experienced nurse during the induction period.
Full pay for strike days and a written waiver by the Minister of Health of reprimands against strikers.
Between professions and the working class …
From the beginning, the nurses’ movement had a mass and at the same time specific character. It mobilized almost the entire profession. Mobilization in the private sector is weaker because of the reprisals, but in all negotiations the nurses demand that all the gains made in the public sector be transferred to the private sector. In many hospitals in Paris and in the provinces, other groups of workers at the hospitals also went on strike, bringing a new dynamic to the movement. In some facilities, strikes are organized by joint strike committees of all professions. However, the mobilization of the other professions lags behind that of the nurses.
The nurses’ movement expresses a strong desire for control over their struggle: it is realized in the elections of delegates throughout France. Three delegates per hospital or clinic are sent to the national coordination. A typical pattern develops to ensure this control: after each day of action on Thursday, the strike continues on Friday in order to be able to hold meetings at the hospitals and elect delegates to the national coordination on Saturday. Even if there are tendencies towards bureaucratization in the office of coordination – and its undemocratic composition has been criticized – there is a strong identification with the coordination as its own association. Trade union organizations are consciously rejected.
The nurses want to hold on to their particular demands so that they do not go under, as is the case with the unions. And they also want to remain among themselves so as not to lose control of their movement.
Behind the vehemence and determination with which the demand for a statute is put forward is the fear that the profession of nurses in France will be devalued in the context of European unification. They fear that by 1992 they will be brought into line with the less qualified nurses in other European countries (Germany, Italy, etc.) and thus have to expect lower wages. This fear is also expressed in their constantly repeated demand for the abolition of the “Decree of 23.12.87”.
The demand characterizes a corporatist moment of the movement – which is admittedly deliberately exaggerated by the media. For this specific aspect alone still allows the state to deal with the movement. The nurses emphasize the specificity of their demands and distinguish themselves organizationally from the other groups that have also gone on strike and asked for a joint union. In many hospitals, there are separate unions of nurses and other staff. However, this separation is controversial: At the first national coordination on Oct. 8, nearly half of the delegates voted in favour of extending coordination to all hospital staff, while the rest were opposed. However the assembly was unanimously in favour of forming a liaison committee with the other coordinations, and of joint action.
At present, it is yet to be seen how the movement will develop. Through its dynamism, its strength, and its mass character, the nurses’ movement has been a rousing factor for other groups of workers in the health sector. But as with all struggles that start from a particular profession, it has gradually become a corporatist movement that blocks its own momentum. The nurses had thought they alone possessed the power to force the government to relent. In the weeks following the breaking of the all-out strike, reports of further action (on December 1, although nurses demonstrated again in Paris it was mainly lower-skilled staff who took part) indicate that it is precisely the rest of the hospital workforce, whose demands had been postponed in negotiations with the nurses’ representatives, who continue to push forward.
1988 chronology of events
Strike of nurses throughout France in response to the call of the Coordination of Nurses of Ile-de-France (region around Paris). The unions join in, the CGT only at the last moment and the CFDT not throughout the country. In the hospitals of Paris and other major cities in the province the strike call is followed by more than 80 percent. Demonstrations are also taking place in the province. More than 20,000 nurses demonstrate from Montparnasse to the Ministry of Health. At the head is the banner of co-ordination, the union banners are relegated to the end of the demo. The demonstrators identify strongly with the coordination, often simply chanting ‘co-ordination, co-ordination’.
After the demo a plenary meeting of the co-ordination takes place in the trade union building. More than 2,000 people are present. The hall is much too small, half of the co-ordination stays in front of it on the street and the discussion is broadcast over loudspeakers. Those present unanimously decide on another strike for Oct 6 and 7, a demonstration on the 6th and the first national meeting of the coordination for the 8th.
National strike and demonstrations in Paris and major cities in the province. About 30,000 people demonstrate in Paris. The strike seems to be less followed in smaller cities, the UNASIIF opposes the strike this time, in some hospitals it exerts pressure through the bosses and supervisors. The unions are calling for the strike more openly this time. Often the nurses, who are very suspicious of the unions, no longer know whether they are dealing with the coordination or the unions. In the provinces the flow of information is worse. On the occasion of the demonstration in Paris other groups of hospital staff go on strike and form strong delegations behind the banners of their co-ordinations, the coordination of AS and ASH and the coordination of hospital staff. Most of the demonstrators walk again behind the banners of the coordination of the nurses and the unions are pushed to the end of the procession. In the afternoon the Minister of Health Evin negotiates exclusively with the unions, and in the evening he receives a delegation of the co-ordination.
The general assemblies of nurses and hospital staff discuss Evin’s latest offers, decide on further action and elect three delegates per hospital for the national coordination the next day. Some violent clashes break out with the unions, especially the CGT.
Assembly of the first national coordination of nurses in an auditorium of the Sorbonne with 8-900 delegates from about 400 hospitals in 48 cities. A fantastic atmosphere with a strong desire for grassroots control and strong identification with the co-ordination. The assembly manages to seriously discuss the fundamental problems without microphones. Everyone is listened to and the attentive silence is interrupted only by applause.
10 to 13.10
Strike resumes in hospitals, some starting it as late as Oct 11. 100,000 people on the streets of Paris.
National demonstration with over 100,000 nurses and other professionals on call of co-ordination. The CGT calls for participation in this demonstration, the other unions mobilize for their own demo, to which only 15,000 come.
When the demo of the co-ordination was set up at the Place de la Bastille there were clashes with the CGT which wanted to join the demonstration. They are pushed out, but on the route they manage to get back in partly in the second third of the demo.
After the demonstration, negotiations with Evin take place. The compromises found there already largely correspond to the collective agreement signed later. But for fear of making themselves completely untrustworthy with their members, the union leaders keep delaying their signature.
General meetings in the hospitals to discuss Evin’s proposals, to decide on the further progress of the movement, and to elect three new delegates per facility.
Second national coordination with 5-600 delegates. It is held in another auditorium with worse acoustics, the discussion is not as lively as last week and people have to make their contributions from a tribune. There is a sense of change of direction at the Office of Coordination, it is taking on more of a control function.
Unanimously, Evin’s offers are rejected. A long discussion develops about the decisions made in different hospitals and about the proposals from the assembly. But conspicuously, the proposals from the Office are put to a vote first, and only then those from the floor. And most importantly, the Office ‘forgets’ to vote first on whether to continue the strike. This is done only after the delegate of a Paris hospital reminds it. The continuation of the strike is approved virtually unanimously, with local differences.
The strike has reached a turning point. The Office’s proposals to include nurses in the union organized strike day on Oct 20 are sharply rejected. Instead, regional demonstrations are decided on for Oct 22 to urge the public to participate.
17 to 20.10
The strike continues in Paris and some provincial cities. In some cities it is called off, in others it has just begun, and they are pushing to extend it. Renewed negotiations between Health Minister Evin, the unions and the coordination have brought nothing new. Hospital delegations are doing a vigil in front of Matignon. The co-ordination demands a meeting with Mitterand.
The Office tries to remain flexible: it no longer focuses on the demand for a 2000 Frs wage increase, but on improving working conditions and increasing staff. It keeps open the possibility of differentiating the demand and declares its willingness to agree to a contract if a precise timetable for serious upgrading (from one wage band to the next) is presented.
Demonstration in Paris with an appeal to the population under the slogan ‘Health concerns us all!’ with 30-40,000 people. Important demonstrations also take place in the provinces with the participation of the population (3,000 in Marseille, 2,000 in Lyon).
From now on, the media, initially very sympathetic to the nurses’ movement, begin to exert pressure for the resumption of work. They argue that the nurses have now achieved enough. Continuing the strikes would risk disaster. The newspapers carry articles about the role of the Trotskyists in the coordination.
During a television broadcast, an opinion poll is conducted in which the editors ask the question, ‘Do you think the nurses are right to continue their struggle?’ They probably expected a majority to vote ‘no’, but the results yield 64 percent in favour.
Coordination ends the indefinite strike.
Before the smear campaign starts in the media, the coordination decides to hold its next national meeting behind closed doors. (The previous ones had been open to the press, radio and television.) The first item on the agenda is the continuation of the movement. Of 500 entities represented, 207 vote against and 111 for an indefinite strike. An overwhelming majority is in favour of continuing the movement, with the classic formula: ‘The movement continues in other forms.’ A majority is in favour ‘of different strike actions.’
On Oct 27, public and private sector nurses plan to demonstrate together at the headquarters of the Federation of Private Hospital Owners (FIHEP) in Paris, while collective agreements are being negotiated there among the private sector. A demonstration and national strike involving patients is planned for Nov 3.
The coordination calls on the unions not to sign. Since their rejection of the last proposals of the Minister, the Coordination does not participate in the negotiations. That Friday evening the unions FO, CFDT, CFTC let slip that they will sign.
In the vote on opening up to other health care co-ordinations, there is again a strong majority for maintaining the segregated organization of nurses. But joint actions are foreseen.
The co-ordination of hospital staff calls for the continuation of the indefinite strike.
The unions (FO, CFDT, CFTC) sign. They waited to see what would happen at the Nov 22 demonstration and at the Nov 23 coordination. The CGT refuses to sign. Except for three points, the outcome match the proposals of the Minister, which were already available on Oct 14:
1) The ‘Decree of Dec 23 1987’ is suspended.
2) The prime minister announces a procedure whereby nurses can become doctors after 20 years of service.
3) Strike days are to be paid at 50 percent of wages.
The contract provides for wage increases of 500 Frs. The highest pay grade is to be reached after 17 years instead of 24. Starting in 1989 1,500 new positions are to be created (with over 1,000 facilities in France) which can also be filled by temporary workers. A small part of the auxiliary nurses will receive immediate wage increases. Strike days will be paid at 50 percent, but only until October 24. In addition, nurses will be more involved in co-management committees.
After the 24.10
It is difficult to assess the real movement. It is certainly not over, strikes continue in some hospitals in Paris. On Oct 27, demonstrations will be held throughout the country regarding negotiations with the private sector. The unions are demanding a minimum increase of 250 Frs for all categories, which is rejected by FIHEP. In Paris the offices of the chambre patronale were occupied for several hours. In Arles, where a Franco-Italian summit is taking place, nurses try to get to Mitterand and are dispersed with tear gas.
24-hour strike and demonstration of 30,000 in Paris called by the nurses’ coordination and the CGT. Only a few of the called patients participate in the demonstration and delegations of nurses from the provinces are weakly represented. This time the other categories of personnel participate all the more strongly. The CGT has also mobilized strongly and is trying unsuccessfully to take the lead.
The co-ordination is demanding 100 percent pay for strike days, validation of the training internship of striking students, sufficient staffing increases, funds for continuing education, equal contracts for nurses in the public and private sectors, for general nurses and those in psychiatry, and a new decree for entry into nursing schools. In the long term the co-ordination calls for the development of a precise timetable by 1992 for the fulfilment of all demands.
Evin declares that, ‘The negotiations are over.’ Instead, he offers the co-ordination’s nurses participation in a national commission to advise on how the professional category of nurses should be defined.
At the national coordination the nurses decide to form a legally recognized association but not to become a union. A timetable is drawn up for mobilization for a general strike at the end of January. This time, due to high abstention rates, the proponents of joint action with the other categories get a majority for their proposal that the coordination now ‘devote itself primarily to working on a joint mobilization.’ The liaison committee with the other co-ordinations should not only organize joint actions in the future, but also discuss a common platform of all unions.
The Ile-de-France co-ordination wanted to push for a tougher approach at the meeting, that the government should be given a 72 hour ultimatum in order to continue and intensify the strike after that. Given the difficulties of mobilization in the other regions outside of Paris, it abandoned this proposal. It is decided to hold further, regional demonstrations in November; for the passing of the health budget in parliament and for negotiations with the private sector. For May 1 1989 the co-ordination wants to organize a European demonstration.
The reality of the movement in hospitals
In public hospitals in Paris and other cities, the strike is being followed 80-90% of the time. In reality, however, the strike is hardly felt except on the days of the demos. Basic care continues to be maintained. Mostly, the hospital administration assigns nurses. Since positions have been cut for years most nurses have to be present. In some hospitals, the nurses themselves have established a basic nursing service (for urgent emergencies).
Nevertheless, bit-by-bit, everyday hospital life is becoming chaotic. In some hospitals, the beds of discharged patients are moved out of the rooms, and no new patients are admitted. In others, doctors have to perform treatments that are normally done by nurses. Operations and consultation hours are cancelled. A strike in the administration prevents an overview of medical treatments, surgical procedures, etc. Many doctors show understanding, but fear the consequences. One doctor explains, ‘Only a doctor can decide what constitutes an emergency and you can’t keep the rest waiting for 15 days either. You can’t take the sick hostage.’
At the Lariboisière hospital in Paris, the strike is particularly determined. Since the beginning of the movement there nurses have refused to perform tasks for which they are not specifically responsible but which are normally delegated to them by doctors, such as placing urine catheters or transfusions. One professor says, ‘Attention, if they don’t do it today, there is a danger that we won’t be able to ask them to do it tomorrow! It’s time for the strike to stop.’
The Unstoppable Rise of the Nurses’ Coordination
Abridged translation from Liberation, Oct. 6, 1988.
“They were five, now they are thousands.”
But who are they? What do they want? Since the end of the summer, the health sector has looked perplexed at these nurses, who are breaking the well-worn routines of relations between state institutions and unions, and even upsetting the government itself. They, who usually behave so well-behaved, careful and obedient, have exploded with a ferocity that is alien to the (union, government, sectorial) institutions and beyond the social rules of the game. They are not even anti-union, they just prefer to organize in “coordination,” a term that accurately expresses their self-image.
To be admitted to the office of the “Coordination of the Nurses of the Ile de France,” it is enough to go to the premises, which duck into the back of the CFDT building, and leave your contact details. There is no president, no treasurer, and no one is allowed to speak for the others (to the great regret of the broadcasters). This informal organizational structure with no bylaws has just brought 20,000 nurses to the streets. This has never happened before. What the unions have never succeeded in doing, the “coordination” has managed in the scant six months of its existence.
At the forum of nurses in Vincennes on March 3 this year, no one is talking about “coordination” or a general mobilization, but there is a smell of demands. Everywhere there is talk of the unimplemented “decree” of 1984. The unease is palpable. The profession is searching for its special position between simple “health technicians” (and therefore “sub-doctors”) and the outdated idea of the good nurse who earns her place in heaven in daily sacrifice for patients. The decree of 1984, which, in addition to the strict point of view of medical skills, also recognizes the importance of human relations with the patient, is universally approved.
But “the decree” is still waiting for implementing regulations. Such regulations are the warhorse that was left standing by the traditional unions and that is now being saddled again by the brand new “National Union of Associations and Unions of French Nurses” (UNASIIF). UNASIIF brings together 58 associations representing all professional groups. Founded in the Autumn of ’87, its goal is to advocate for the sector as a whole. Within a year, it became a place for the exchange of ideas, an interlocutor with government agencies, and a protector of the interests of professional groups. Its main leaders are directors of nursing schools, head nurses or executives in hospitals. The top strata, in other words, not the rank and file, who are organized only to a small extent in associations or unions.
UNASIIF has one urgent demand: the abolition of the December 1987 decree that gives access to nursing education to any person, regardless of prior professional training, provided that they have worked for 5 years with social security. The profession was bitter about this move. The training was becoming more and more difficult, and it relied on the nurses on duty for its practical part. But they didn’t want to take on people whose training they think is too difficult. With this thrust, UNASIIF spreads a strike announcement for March 25.
On that day, 3000 protestors were on the streets of Paris. To everyone’s astonishment, problems that were normally discussed during breaks on hospital wards, hidden away from the public, now caused a real uproar. The UNASIIF was received by Michèle Barzach, who assured them that there would be a change in the 1987 decree. On the back of these promises, the UNASIIF went into consultation and decided to take the negotiation route. This political phase was characterised by uncertainty, as no one knew who tomorrow’s negotiating partners would be. Due to this stagnation and uncertainty, the UNASIIF entered back into the fold.
On the evening of that March 25, about 60 nurses continued the day of action at the union hall on Rue Turbigo. These nurses “from the base” were not bothered about political manoeuvring. In their view, action needed to be taken immediately. Pascale, barely older than 25 and a nurse in neurosurgery at Kremlin-Bicètre, collected, with some friends, the names and addresses of the participants of the unplanned meeting in Rue Turbigo. Two days later, in the rooms of the Paris Regional Committee for the Coordination of CFDT Unions in Medical Services (CRC), Pascale met with Pascal, a nurse from the psychiatric ward in Ville-Evrard, with Irène from the emergency room at Versailles Hospital, with Isabelle from Evry, and with a fifth nurse whose first name has been forgotten because she withdrew when she became pregnant. The “coordination” arises. Without any funding or resources between them, only a list of 60 nurses and an idea of a model that came from an understanding of the struggle of the anaesthetic nurses of who had been demanding the right to have their own professional title for a year.
A “coordination” as an experiment
A first flyer was sent out to the 60 people on the list. The first problem that they had to deal with was where to get the money for the expenses? The five nurses tapped into the CRC-CFDT, which had already made its office available to them. The relationship with the activists of this committee was clear from the beginning. They provide technical support to the “coordination”, and beyond that, they did not want to participate in the implementation of any actions or organising that came from the group’s efforts. Finally, the CRC-CFDT looked at the emergence of this movement from the point of view of social movement experts. These trade unionists are themselves somewhat atypical. Since 1985, they had no connection with their general federation, which in turn, provides no support for them. They were shunned and punished for their “class struggle” positions, which were too far to the left of Edmond Maire’s new centre course. For CRC-CFDT activists, the “coordination” was an experiment, experiential material to bring to the debate on the role of unions in society.
With its few pennies, the coordination could only rely on word of mouth to gain a foothold in the profession, and word of the extra-union resistance to spread. In contrast to the meagre resources available to them, its goals were lofty: it wanted to be nationally known and recognized by the end of November 1988. They decided that the three years indicated was the minimum amount of time they believed necessary to reach all nurses in the Paris area.
A second batch of leaflets was sent to union organizations, which were asked to disseminate the information through their channels. Some do, others throw the leaflets straight into the wastebasket. Meanwhile, the news spread through friendship circles and relationships, as in Bretonneau, where all the nurses in the intensive care unit decide to contact their colleagues in public care. At the same time as this, Pascale had gone there [to Bretonneau] to explain the objectives of the “coordination”. A first success.
On April 28, only 80 people come to the union hall on Rue Chateau-d’Eau for the first meeting of the movement, but workers had travelled from 22 care homes and hospitals in the Paris region. Organising quickly got underway, with committees formed on wage issues, working conditions and training. The women draw attention to the fact that the men intervene too much. Whilst the profession was 80% women, men were seeming to occupuy the majority of time on the podium. In response to this, a ratio of 4:1 (women:men) was established as a rule and and strictly observed from then onwards.
“Léon” gives the final kick to the cause
The meeting and initial work was constructive, and so a second meeting was scheduled for just under a month later, on June 14th. It was decided that the full programme of demands was to be consolidated at this second meeting.
Meanwhile, knowledge of the meeting and the “coordination” continued to spread by word of mouth. Nurses across the country expressed their frustration with working at such a pace that they felt they were forced to put the lives of the sick in danger. They were also fed up with their work being viewed as a voluntary service, and their pay packets reflecting that. Another major complaint was that they weren’t able to talk to their patients, due to the strenuous pace of the work.. “The workforce in this area has exploded since 1970,” explains one of the office’s employees. “Today, you meet fifty-year-olds who are the link to the religious sisters from the original days of the profession, as well as young people with schooling, whose tasks are increasingly technical and who consider that they are doing a job, not an honorary one. It is from the latter that the coordination is recruited.”
On June 14, the following programme of demands was adopted, focused on an immediate wage increase of 2000 francs for all. The figure was not justified by any particular calculation, neither by the loss of purchasing power, nor by any other argument. It was a symbolic amount, a high bar, a demand intended to ally all workers together. This meeting was attended by more workers than the first, with the majority of the attendees representing the Paris Region. There were however representatives from Dreux and Caen this time. The meeting decided to call a strike that would begin on the 29th September of the same year.
Following from the second meeting, the organising continued daily underground. Nurses clandestinely used the copying machines of doctors and bosses in hospitas during duty hours to print and spread the demands that had come out of the meeting. The strike call began to spread throughout France, first in the form of a complaint, with no common plan or strategy. Often, the text from the meeting spread through informal networks of the workers; friends, acquaintances, family etc. Within the space of a month, most hospitals in France had workers who were aware of the existence of a certain “Coordination of Nurses – Ile-de-France”.
From July to August, nothing or almost nothing seemed to be happening. Under the surface however, the fire continued to smoulder. At the end of August, the office of the coordination counted the signatures under the petition: 50,000. It was now clear that the strike needed preparation. Without much of a plan, the first journalists were contacted. The nurses uses their connections. Again, underground networks sprang into action and, in the television program “Hour of Truth” on Antenne 2, Léon Schwarzenberg [former Minister of Health] gave the matter the final kick. by announcing the strike there, the profession is fully informed.
At the September 15 general meeting, more than 500 nurses gathered at the union hall in Chateu-d’Eau. The press were invited, and it became clear that the Minister for health was worried. On September 29, more than 20,000 nurses were behind the phantom organization that didn’t even think to announce its “target,” as it seemed so obvious to the coordination. The unions were completely overwhelmed by the insurgent, autonomous organisation, and began to turn against these amateurs, who they perceived as muscling into their territory and undermining their credibility. UNASIIF, naturally sidelined by the “coordination”, still in negotiations with the government was overcome by a bitterness towards these workers who were taking a stand for their own interests and those of society more broadly. “We no longer understand what is going on,” said one board member, “We are admitting defeat. Perhaps this outburst has come about because the nurses have toiled for years and have also had to blame themselves when they have failed the sick-all while being completely subordinate to the doctors’ orders. They react harshly, but they have also known a lot of harshness. For example, when doctors and management decided single-handedly on a Friday that they would have to cancel their weekend plans and come to work.”
A redesign of social relations
CFDT and FO u-turn into supporting the unofficial industrial action. Even more insidious in the eyes of the Coordination was the CGT forcing its way into the movement by attaching to the nurses’ demands those of the auxiliary nurses (AS) and support staff (ASH), where there were also major problems, disputes and struggles. The CGT and the Coordination came to blows over the sectarian nature of the coordination who made it clear that they were not interested in the outcomes for other workers who were not nurses.
The CRC-CFDT activists who help create the leaflets and banners and organize the demonstrations tried to survey the movement that has been created before their eyes. “We were wrong in our assessment. We thought it would start with wage demands of the auxiliary nurses (AS). But in fact, nurses are now discovering union opportunities for action outside the apparatus. They are redesigning social relations and learning to fight for themselves, outside the “old” unions that are no longer responsive to their desires.”
The “coordination” achieved all its goals two months before the date set on March 27. The unions were forced to determine the relationship with it, and the minister, who initially did not want a meeting with them, was forced to meet with the coordination before entering into negotiations over the strike.
Claude Evin was still reluctant to recognize an unofficial and autonomous group such as the coordination, with no official representation, but the only one that mobilizes the majority of the profession. Unions and the state have the same interest, namely to see this “coordination” fail, just as it proclaimed that it was looking to constitute itself on a national level by October 8th. Quite naively, the nurses have occupied a terrain of social relations where no one wants to see them. To achieve this, they spent a whole 50,000 Frs in six months … and only afforded themselves an answering machine.