A brief account of a strike of Tamil pub workers in Paris.
This article was our main history of the strike, which has now been replaced by an improved version available here.
Over the last several years, a revolving network of militants in Paris, France, have developed a strategy and tactics for winning strikes by marginal, low-paid, outsourced and immigrant workers against international chains, in situations where the strikers are often ignored by unions to which they nominally belong, or are actually obstructed by them.
The group, which calls itself simply Collectif de Solidarité (Solidarity Collective) slowly emerged as a network from the ferment and upswing in struggle following the 1995 near-general strike in France over pension “reform” (read: cuts). Their composition ranges from casual workers to people with steady jobs, people who want to fight and who see no perspective for doing so within a traditional union framework. Experience taught them that initially isolated strikes of marginal workers employed by big chains, in the worst possible conditions, can win if they are turned into city-wide actions with help from militants from “outside” the workplace (but hardly “outside” the increasingly downsized and outsourced work force), if those militants are not members of vanguard groups coming mainly to fish in troubled waters for their own recruitment.
Following the traditional march of an estimated 300,000 people in Paris on a not particularly spirited May Day, the Solidarity Collective managed to assemble 100 people for direct action against Frog Pub, a British chain with four restaurants in Paris, where 28 Tamil (Sri Lankan) kitchen employees had been on strike since mid-April. The group invaded the restaurant, confronted the manager and attempted to persuade the customers to leave.
On May 3, 30-40 members of the Solidarity Collective held a meeting in the occupied McDonald’s restaurant (also on strike at the time, which was successful) in the Strasbourg St-Denis area of central Paris. We then marched to the nearest Frog restaurant about 10 minutes away. The strike of Tamil workers had begun in reaction against the firing of a Tamil assistant manager but that question was quickly overshadowed by demands over outrageous working and sanitary conditions and numerous violations of labour law. The boss assigned people their holiday time when it suited him; the dishwashers had to work with cold water; there was no extra pay for overtime; people getting off at 1am had to be back at 8am, (whereas legally there are supposed to be at least 11 hours between shifts). The Frog manager had told one Tamil worker: “I’m pleased with your work. A European wouldn’t do it for even an hour.”
On this second intervention, the Solidarity Collective did not fool around. People marched into the pub and immediately one spokesman started shouting through a loadspeaker; within minutes the main door was blocked and covered by a 15-foot tape with strike slogans in 10 languages and a detailed leaflet in French and in English.
Then the police showed up and a bizarre ballet began. They treated the strikers and strike supporters with kid gloves (it was generally assumed they were under orders to do so, in order to avoid episodes creating bad publicity for the right-wing Chirac government, just then gearing up for an attack on public sector workers), huddling with the strike supporters over a legal restraining order saying that pickets could do this, but not that, etc. We could block the main entrance, but not be inside persuading the customers to leave, and so forth. Periodically one of the strikers set the loudhailer to sound like a police siren, which added to the generally unravelling atmosphere.
Then we marched to a McDonald's that was also on strike. It was packed but it was shut down in about five minutes by the same tactics. We were turning people away at the door telling them the place was closed and 90% left immediately. It was particularly interesting to see lots of scruffy "hip hop" types taking note of the strike.
At 6.30pm the same day, a second action was undertaken at another Frog location in the very upscale St-Germain des Pres neighbourhood, on a little side street. For all the complications that later emerged between the strikers and the CNT (Confédération Nationale du Travail), the anarcho-syndicalist union they had joined, it was initially an upper to turn the corner and see the Tamil pickets with their red and black banners - CNT banners, somehow symbolic of a real internationalism. Most of the Tamils barely spoke French and at times it was difficult to tell (through the lone interpreter) what they made of all the factional politics swirling around them, not to mention - as it later turned out - their own factional politics (cf. below) Nonetheless, as union members in the anarcho-syndicalist CNT, they were protected by all kinds of labour laws that don’t exist or are a dead letter in the US, or indeed some in the UK: they couldn’t be fired for striking, they couldn’t be permanently replaced by scabs (but could be replaced by temps during the strike itself), and if they returned to work they would be protected by their open-ended contract. Nevertheless, public support for the strike was impaired by a widespread overestimation of the efficacy of these laws, and an underestimation of the need for direct action to tip the balance of forces.
The locale was hardly a traditional working class area, with mainly upscale foreign tourists and French wealthy people passing by. The Solidarity Collective managed to get a fair number not to cross the picket line, and some of us were explaining the strike to people in English, French, German and Spanish. With an old shoe box, we started collecting money and raised about 30 euros (£20) in 2 hours. It was interesting because even people who were obviously indifferent or hostile were polite. That said, it must be pointed out that the specific climate leading up to the imminent showdown over public sector pensions in May-June 2003, definitely increased sympathy for the strike among passers-by and potential patrons.
The Solidarity Collective has developed these tactics in 5-6 strikes of the most exploited immigrant and young French workers in the Paris region and the tactics often work. The collective is made up of a Paris-wide network of militants who see the need to go beyond the trade unions. It aims to put the strikers in charge of their own struggle in a way that neither a union nor a typical leftist group does. It has as its sole aims the victory of the strike and the deepening of the “flying picket” network available for the next battle. What kind of reservations can be articulated about the kind of roving tactics of the strike support group? They obviously don't solve "all" problems, and the Collective itself recognises that its ability to turn away customers at the door made for the special vulnerability of the locales in which they were successful. The Collective is the first to recognize that far greater numbers would be necessary to stop a plant closing or to paralyse a military machine.
Beginning in May, 2003, the Frog Pub strike began to be transformed by the large public sector strikes that began in March and continued until the end of June. For weeks, Paris saw one (mainly controlled) mass demonstration after another. The main issues (which can only be dealt with in the most summary way here) were the government’s (ultimately successful) attempt to increase the work requirement for full retirement benefits for public employees to the 37 years already in effect for the private sector, and to attack teachers with a series of educational “reforms” aiming at large-scale layoffs of non-academic personnel and the reorganisation of curriculum in accordance with the “local” job market.
The Frog strikers, many of whom were cooks by profession, hit upon the idea of selling drinks and sandwiches to the passing demonstrators from strategically-located sites along the demo route, combined with the aggressive publicity for the strike and fund-raising which the Solidarity Committee was conducting in every demo already. This tactic netted the strike fund a much-needed boost, and just as importantly made the strike against the “patrons negriers” (slave-driving bosses) known on a scale unimaginable in its initial phase.
Even before the mass movements faded away, however, several factors began to weigh on the Frog pub strike and set the stage for a defeat, one for which, however, Frog management paid a steep price on several fronts.
The first unfavourable turn of events was an internal crisis of the CNT which directly undermined the Frog strike [libcom editors’ note: readers should bear in mind that disputes between different libertarian groups are rarely as simple as one side points out, so we recommend taking the following with a sizeable pinch of salt]. Little enough is known outside the union about this internal crisis, which unconscionably turned the strike into a factional football among CNT mini-bureaucrats, except that at its culmination it led to the summary replacement of the head of the CNT’s restaurant section. Instead of largely ignoring the strike (as the CGT, with one notable exception, had done with Macdonald’s) or walking away and then claiming responsibility for the victory at the end (as SUD had done with the African maids’ strike), the CNT initially ran the strike with little attempt to involve the strikers, presenting themselves as “professionals” who would made short shrift of Frog management in a few weeks. The upshot of this method, when this bravado was revealed for the empty pretension it was, led the strikers to see as their only reliable allies the Solidarity Collective, which latter the CNT was treating as nothing but an organisational rival, projecting their own gate-receipt mentality onto the Collective’s intentions. In the final months of the strike, only a handful of CNT militants continued to work seriously with the strikers and the Solidarity Committee.
Taking a similar destructive toll was the discovery, in mid-summer, that 7 of the strikers were members of the nationalist Tamil Tigers. One of the two Frog Pub managers had managed to contact the Tigers, who constitute a sort of shadow government for the 15,000 Tamils living in the Paris region, much as the North African Islamic fundamentalist groups attempt to impose themselves on the North African population in France. Through whatever deal or payoff, the Tamil Tigers not only pulled their own members out of the strike but threatened the life of one of the strikers who refused to give up.
By mid-summer, the public sector and teachers’ strikes had largely been defeated, except for the ongoing actions of the Intermittents du Spectacle which continued sporadically into the fall.
Nonetheless, the work of the remaining 7 strikers and of the Solidarity Collective began to bite, particularly at the largest Frog pub at Bercy, whose clientele had seriously diminished in sympathy with the strike, a situation prevailing well into the Autumn.
As a result, in spite of the fadeout of the CNT and the “intervention” of the Tamil Tigers, the Frog managers were still keen to settle. Finally, in October 2003, the remaining strikers accepted a lump sum payment of 5000 euro each in exchange for being laid off - which would qualify them for further unemployment benefits.
A small victory, but not insignificant for those who took part in the strike, nor for those of us who seek to learn from our class’s past and try to shape our future.
Edited and altered by libcom from an article Marx and Makhno Meet McDonald's, by Loren Goldner.
1. For readers with a knowledge of French, the article of G. Soriano "L'experience des collectifs de solidarite parisiens: une nouvelle etape", in La Question Sociale (No. 1, 2004) offers a much more detailed analysis of the Frog strike, and of all the [alleged] machinations of the CNT. This publication can be contacted at laquestionsociale AT hotmail.com
2. The “intermittents du spectacle” were culture workers in the arts and media who, until 2003, who eligible for minimally-livable unemployment benefits between jobs. The government’s overall attack on public sector pension rights and teachers also eliminated this program, though the “intermittents” continued their struggle for months after the other strikes had folded. For an overall analysis of the strike movement of 2003 in France, cf. the Échanges et Mouvement pamphlet Pour une comprehension critique du mouvement du printemps 2003 (September 2004). BP 241, 75866 Paris, Cedex 18, France.