Governments and bosses have divided the class, between “national” and “foreign” workers, young and old, public and private, all in the name of the so-called national interest. But workers in France have given an inspiration to workers everywhere.
Workers Against the State and the Unions
All over the world the capitalist class is trying to squeeze more profit out of the working class. Over the last few decades governments and bosses have been tearing up the welfare measures introduced to buy class peace after the Second World War. To do so they have divided the class, between “national” and “foreign” workers, young and old, public and private, all in the name of the so-called national interest; in other words the interests of capitalism. In France, transport and civil service workers have been fighting back since last December. The rail strike which lasted well into 2020 was already the longest since the War and part of a much wider movement in France. But the struggle is being controlled by the unions, who are sowing divisions and preparing to sell it out. Small wonder that it is now showing signs of losing steam despite still having the overwhelming support of French workers and 61% of the population as a whole.
The strikes, which began on December 5 and continue at the time of writing, have been denounced by President Macron as "a mobilisation against the end of special regimes", against "equality and social justice". In other words, rail workers and other sectors of workers who pay into a separate pension scheme are being selfish and irresponsible for trying to maintain their so-called "privileges". The French government is spewing out these lies in order to try to divide workers and make it harder to fight effectively against this attack on living standards. But instead workers in France have given an inspiration to workers everywhere, even though the capitalist press has largely tried to ignore them.
The bosses always try to split working class resistance. They are aided by the unions who have an essential role to play for the state with their sectional demands which undermine solidarity. Meanwhile, the government itself is trying to divide workers by launching an insidious campaign around the "Grandfather clause". This represents new pension reform measures not aiming to hit the whole of the class but only the under 45s. They were trying to enforce a division between different generations of workers. To their chagrin it did not work as older workers continued to join in strikes and demonstrations for a withdrawal of the whole “reform”.
In the meantime the unions have been forced into action to play their usual part. In September last year, they had already undermined the struggle by splitting it up into multiple days of sector by sector actions (RATP Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, public finances, National Education, Justice Ministry, EDF, fire-fighters, etc). In early October they finally promised a great day of mobilisation to unite all sectors but only for the month of December! Thus workers who are fighting over the same issue are finding themselves isolated, with their own specific slogan, whereas all workers are suffering from the same degradation of living and working conditions. These familiar union tactics exhaust workers and prepare them to accept a “compromise” which typically means a minor concession from the government while the unions accept the bulk of the cuts. As it is the unions have continued to discuss a climb down with the government, and all eyes are now focused on the outcome which is not expected to arrive until April.
When Edouard Philippe, France’s Prime Minister, offered to withdraw the plan to raise the official retirement age from 62 to 64, it was immediately welcomed by the largest trade union, the “moderate” Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), despite conditions of working extra years to get full pension being included. However, the Health Minister Agnes Buzyn then refused to withdraw the policy of raising the age to balance the system’s finances which will remain intact and take effect from 2037. Thus Phillipe’s proposed withdrawal merely became a postponement. By contrast the more “radical” trade unions, such as the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), say they will continue their “actions” rejecting the entire “reform”. In reality they are waiting for workers to run out of money. Thus, on 27 January the Unsa-RATP union suspended the strike after 45 days saying “their members needed to recharge their batteries.” When and if the unions’ “actions” have finally exhausted the workforce, the government would then be able to put its ‘reform’ safely in place. However, this is not a given. This is the fourth time workers in France have fought against this particular attack. If they can do so once again workers everywhere would take inspiration from their example. And the bosses everywhere know it!
All union-led "actions" are based on divisions and negotiated defeats dressed up as ‘the best that could be done’. Today, workers, the unemployed, the retired and students are not yet aware of the possibility of their collective strength. But there is no other way. A first step in any struggle is self-organised mass meetings or general assemblies, where we can decide together how to conduct the movement and forge the new weapons needed to resist the never-ending attacks and sacrifices demanded by the bosses. French workers are no strangers to General Assemblies (the railworkers meet every day) but most are under union control.
However, it is not just a question of this or that form. What’s more important is the real content. Assemblies confined to different categories sound good, but as long as the unions are in control or if they are just made up of “activists” they will remain simply a place where Leftists sound off to each other. Genuine expressions of class unity, for example, will allow nurses, emergency workers, the unemployed, and all those who can't go on strike, to participate in the movement. They will put forward demands which concern everyone and would give a lead to the kind of general discontent that is currently raging in France over a whole range of issues. As it is, the strikes in France are showing signs of exhaustion, but there is no let up in the attacks on wage workers everywhere from a bankrupt global capitalism. It is only a matter of time before somewhere workers’ pent-up rage and trade union loyalty will turn into an independent movement that challenges capitalism itself. At that point we will be in a new ball game where the political message of the Internationalists will need to be heard: above all in the mass meetings of the working class.
The above article is an expanded and updated version of one that appeared in the current edition (No. 50) of Aurora, bulletin of the Communist Workers’ Organisation.