Considerations of the agitations of the unemployed and casual workers - Mouvement Communiste (France)

Submitted by Joseph Kay on February 5, 2007

1. Objective wealth of the movement versus its lack of power

A provisional analysis of the agitations by unemployed and casual workers leads to this first observation: their quality lies more in their social foundation than in their striking power or their capacity to cut deeply at the heart of class relationships.

Rank and file militants of these movements experienced a sort of irreducible dichotomy where feelings of impotence and illusions mingled themselves. A great anger, very justified and widely shared by the impoverished proletarians, was sufficient alone to sustain and to legitimize, in the eyes of their authors, short-lived actions. Groups of desperate proletarian, excited by not entirely innocent and disinterested media hype, irresistibly pushed by their destitution, threw themselves into blind struggles of weak intensity and strong symbolic aspect.

As a whole, the actions failed in their objective of widening the audience and the organization of the struggle to the immense mass of unemployed and casual persons and even less to proletarians in longer term employment. Occupations of the Assedics branches, of the ANPE head office, of EDF-GDF offices,[1] of the railway stations etc, generally saw the participation of very few militants (an average number of between 10 and 30 per initiative), in a situation of nearly complete isolation between workers and employees. Unionists and 'well-intentioned' association members, who served as a separating screen to all direct encounters, always interfered between them. It goes without saying that the 'associations of the unemployed' and unions never used their capacity of mobilization among proletarians with 'steady' jobs in order to bring them closer to their more impoverished friends. They did on the other hand multiply the number of Saturday afternoon demonstrations - the usual substitute for class unity, and a prominent place for union apparatchnicks on parade.

As for actions sponsored by the extreme wings of the associations appointed to the supervision of these struggles (occupations of the Ecole Normale, of the Universities of Nanterre and Jussieu, quest for alms consisting in three shopping trolleys of goods at the Leclerc stores of Pantin, gastronomic incursions at the Coupole and Fouquet's restaurants), they were even more ineffectual and confused, successful only in their cheap spectacular representation of the movement. Here, one repeats as farce the '68-ist gesture in order to channel the more undisciplined and nervous elements in the movement.

Unfortunately, due also to a cacophonous panoply of fundamentaly innocuous demands, knowledge of the adversary's terrain and of the specific mechanisms of oppression targeted lacked badly. As the actions went by, the hoped for revelation through praxis - in struggle - of the particular chain of capitalist oppression that holds prisoner the weakest part of the proletariat didn't really progress. The experience gained by the participants in these actions risks proving ineffectual when the fight recovers its impetus and leaves its embryonic state and the democratic and consensual track that brought it into its present rut.

Thus, a parody of the class struggle went down the street without ever succeeding - and for a very good reason - in really becoming threatening: neither to the dominant social order, nor, less ambitiously, to the remaining welfare state institutions. Yet, the vultures of standardized information made no mistakes: the obsessive accent put on actions which implied directly only some thousands of people at their highest point reveals the fear that the caricature may change suddenly into tragedy for the dominant classes. Behind the expertly agitated scarecrow of a May '98 of the 'excluded' - very unlikely in these conditions - bosses exorcise concerns provoked by the fragmentation of a social body crossed by successive crises of growing gravity and generally weak economic upturns.

2. State exploitation of unemployed struggles

This is not all. On the dominant class side, the anger of the dispossessed, as long as it doesn't express itself on an independent footing and at the very height of its suffering, offers the opportunity to lay down again in the heat of events - the terms of oppression. That is precisely what happened during the recent agitations. By means of some crumbs distributed in the shape of exceptional Christmas bonuses at the height of the wave of occupations (a billion francs) - and of which the individualized increase (on presentation of a special help demand file) continues in moderate doses on the sly - the French government succeeded in placing in an appreciable and attentive social environment its laws about employment for the young and about exclusion and to focus attention of important parts of civil society on its project of a law for a 35 hour week. Leaving a detailed analysis of these proposals to another article (see '35 hours against the proletariat', in this collection), it would be useful to briefly summarize its expected aims and results.

These legislative devices have three main objectives:

1) To decrease the impact of youth and long-term unemployment on the cohesion of civil society. Existing at the two temporal extremities of working life (at the end of the school programme and from 50-55 years[2]), this kind of unemployment removes from the proletarian all hope of progress in his/her condition, measured on the complete arc of his/her 'active' period. The feeling takes root that one enters with increasing difficulties into the ranks of workers and that it ends by an impoverishment and a premature expulsion from these same ranks. This perception of things, henceforth extensively shared, greatly affects the level of trust of proletarians in the dominating mode of production and in its State. Thus, without fundamentally upsetting the imperious requirements of the job market, many West European governments are now obliged to face the very unpleasant political consequences of such a reality (abstentionism at the polls, distrust of institutions, revolts, strikes, etc.), and to work on cosmetic solutions to these problems. Whole batteries of measures are instituted: for the young, an increase in schooling years, (diplomas for all), and further education (training of all kinds), diffusion of 'atypical' deskilled jobs, (CDD,[3] jobs partly or completely financed by public funds, part-time work, seasonal work, flexibelised hours, weekend work, paid work experience, etc.), and reductions of recruitment wages; for the long term unemployed, partial or total early retirement, long-term training, so-called jobs of collective benefit, and piloted, state financed access to 'atypical' jobs, until now, almost exclusively the privilege of the young. The desired result consists in sowing the illusion that these people have been pulled from the hell of unemployment and, by this logic, that they 'recovered their dignity', as the now totally exploited.

2) To increase the flexibility of the job market and to decrease the cost of deskilled labour. As is well known, bosses complain incessantly of the excessively high cost of the workforce and ask for increasingly extravagant budgetary concessions (taxes on wages rather than on employers). For their part, governments bustle about these 'chantiers sociaux' to satisfy the bosses' requirements, meanwhile administering to proletarians - the object of their concentrated attentions - doses of ideology so that they swallow the poison without protesting. The left has always excelled in this project when it has taken office, and it is again the case today. With the youth employment legislation, the left invents work of fixed hours guaranteed for five years; young proletarians that accept these placements put back at best for five years their real entry into the workforce, are shoved into posts with very little or no prospects, and are paid at the SMIC (minimum wage) level. With the social exclusion legislation, the 'pluralist' government aims also to submit the unemployed to the mercy of the job market. This effectively means a set of constraining devices that results for the unemployed person in the obligation to accept any work with any conditions. With the law for a 35-hour week, in exchange for the conditional promise of the creation of 150,000 new jobs, the Left attacks 'dead time' (the introduction of the distinction between actual work time and contractual work time), imposes an overall decrease of the rates of overtime pay in their pure and simple absorption into negotiated work hours (extension of 'atypical' work), erases the hourly SMIC rate and splits it (SMIC 35 hours and SMIC 39 hours), destroys the barrier on the authorized length of the working day, (working-time becomes measured annually, general application of weekend shift work, of seasonal work and night work), following the example of the Robien law instituted by a government of the Right (less than 20,000 jobs created until now), encourages the decrease of overall wage rates 'in exchange for secured or created jobs' and in any case institutes an indefinite freeze on wages (see the article '35-hours against the proletariat' in this collection). If with these measures the savings made by companies on manpower costs have not yet been calculated by economic forecasters, we expect that, in all probability, the bosses will come out of it the winners! It is useful to recall at this point that ex-water-board boss Mr. Jean-Marie Messier, chief executive officer of Vivendi - which became, by the recent acquisition of Havas, the second biggest industrial/services group after Elf Aquitaine - is one of the most committed supporters of the 35 hour week legislation. And all this in the name of the struggle for work.

3) To put the unemployed in the workplace. This point is often underestimated, but it is of great importance. The stagnation of real wages (since the last economic crisis of the early '90s), the dizzy expansion of unemployment due to economic crises and technological advances,[4] the increase in job insecurity and black market work (about 10% of GDP, according to the European Commission), the temporal increase in the expected availability for work \endash daily, weekly and yearly, (weekend work, overtime, seasonal work, night shifts, etc.), are phenomena that have deeply affected the state of mind of proletarians and have rendered them markedly more docile and resigned. But to workers who kept a 'traditional' steady job the feeling persisted that despite everything the jungle stopped at the door of their workplace. This is going to change. With these new laws, these workers will be blessed with the opportunity to help in this process in their workshops and offices. After having witnessed it in the neighbourhood and on the way to work, after having recognized it in the eyes of friends that in increasingly great numbers sink into inactivity and shit work, and in the look of distress of the newly part-time unemployed, they will also have to bear it during their eight daily working hours. These hostages of dull toil are going to be rebranded into menacing crosses, by bosses acting as priests of doom, to constantly remind the general proletariat that worse is always possible - that any worker can at any time be crucified in her turn. If the intermittently unemployed person is capable of executing the same task as a worker in full time employment, the boss will let the latter know that his job costs too much and is not flexible enough. If this is not the case, the boss will accustom the worker to a situation in which wildly varied mixtures of regulations - not subject to the previous social democratic consensus - results in a greatly increased number of wage levels (with, as its ultimate aim, a complete deregulation of wage-level guarantees), and last but not least, a 'management of human resources' completely subject to the client. On top of this, for the bosses' professional doormats, the presence of the 'active' unemployed will provide opportunities to exercise their frustrated desire to rule and to strut about at very little cost.

The ambitious strategy of the Jospin government is to use the many weaknesses of this mini revolt of the unemployed to reduce even further the many segmental splits (between geographical regions, between manual and intellectual work, between professions, between levels of pay, between sexes, ages and ethnic origins, etc), which, from the point of view of capital, ossify the job market. But most of all, following the example of their British counter-parts, it is on course to accomplish the perilous feat of at least partly destroying the barrier between work and the dole. Henceforth, thanks to the 'nationaux-pluriel', the unemployed will be employable as unemployed; all unemployed will be called up to contribute to the production of goods and to the reproduction of the dominant social relations (police assistants, school helpers, etc.), without diminishing their extreme economic vulnerability, and without the stigma of poverty disappearing. Concurrently, wage earners will increasingly measure the very short distance that today separates them from the unemployed.

3. Rank and file militants - prisoners of trade-unionism and of teaching by example

If an initial balance sheet was to be made of the recent struggles of the unemployed and casual workers, next to the small crumbs obtained here and there, (suspension of electricity cut-offs, food vouchers, a few hundred francs taken here and there for different reasons, more respect in the Assedics, free photocopying, etc.), would be the incorporation of the new organisations representing the unemployed (AC!, Apeis, MNCP and the CGT committee)[5] into the official processes of negotiations between 'social partners' with the aim of participating in the management of dole funds.

Do the destitute dream and fight for a world without anguish and want? The concrete translation of their dreams is realised in the launching into the orbit of social democratic institutions of capital a new generation of trade unionists! The confusion and weakness of the current movement is for many due to the fact that it is determined by this disappointing dead-end, but this doesn't explain everything. There is also an almost complete lack of independent political expression of the movement.

Nevertheless, as we argued during the most important recent movements (in France and Belgium: the rail strikes of 1986, of the Peugeot-Sochaux workers in October 1989, of the Renault-Cleon workers at the end of 1991, the struggle of Belgian workers against the global plan of autumn 1993 and those of the Air France ground staff in October of the same year, the strike of Gec-Alsthom workers of Belfort and Bourgne of Nov/Dec '94, the industrial strikes of the spring of 1995 and those of the public sector in Nov/Dec of the same year, the long strife at Renault-Vilvoorde and at the ironworks at Clabecq in 1997), this does not mean an absence of political development amongst the most engaged proletarians. at Belin, at Flins, at Sochaux, at Belfort and Bourogne, at Cléon, on the runways of Roissy and Orly, in certain depots and workshops of the SNCF and the RATP[6] or among certain local government employees of the Parisian suburb, at Vilvoorde and Clabecq, even in certain committees of unemployed and casual workers the political discussion is lively. The need for a political expression for the ideas generated and/or confirmed by the unrest is still much needed. Despite this, confidence is lacking, delegation remains the rule and political expression is slow in coming into being.

Trade unionism obscures with a net of falsely realist and reasonable opportunities (demands and negotiations) the aspirations of proletarians set on independence and on a political struggle covering the entirety of the conditions of exploitation. Many proletarians consider the new trade-unionism little more than a lesser evil compared with complete inaction, capitulation or a romantic struggle fought in vain. Therefore, the limitation of the political quality of these struggles, we are sure, is born of the pursuit of a 'transition period that lasts indefinitely'. A period[7] which demands that communists intervene at the heart of these movements brandishing the weapon of the critique of trade unionism and of the emasculation by it of working class struggles. The workers need revolutionary political openings which are recognisable, clear and organized.

The critique of trade unionism must not however end up in obsessively repeating exhortations for the revolution (an empty and meaningless word in present conditions), or, worse, in the negation of all specific demands made by the working class. What we are seeking to target with our critique is not the search for improvement - always threatened - in the condition of the exploited, but the trade unionism which separates the defensive struggles of the communist political perspective in order to integrate them into the many devices of capitalist social democracy. Trade unionism makes of the inevitable economic struggles between buyers and sellers in the job market a choice, a horizon willed and determined unsurpassable, enough in itself. This is what needs to be challenged.

Independent working class organizations, when they exist, must be careful to avoid the trap of the representation of defensive struggles by structures predisposed or appointed to this end by the enemy. It has no where been proved that for the exploited class to win in its struggles it needs to arm itself with a whole panoply of hierarchical organisations, each corresponding to a specific field of the class war. If we look at the real history of the class struggle, all sorts of organisational combinations have been employed: working class parties with or without trade unions, more or less political trade unions with or without a party, councils and militias with or without parties and/or trade unions - none of these hopeful combinations have proved capable of securing victory. However, even when struggles see the birth of a whole group of ad hoc organisations, the dynamic of the movement, if it is not interrupted, tends always to their unification, to their fusion at the service of the maximum concentration of available proletarian force. This is a necessary process when confrontations become decisive. As of today, we want to invite the working class vanguard to help us understand this concrete logic.

The workers' committees that arise out of class struggle must assume and lead the political revolutionary fight by re-connecting it to its material base: the daily struggle of the 'economic' interests of the workers.

It is only when a sufficiently strong, broad and representative system of such organizations have come into being that we will have access to the key to the practical problem of the independent political representation of the proletariat. For this, we must concentrate all our energies in constructing a network of political workers' committees. To postpone to better days (when the class struggle carries well-developed communist ideas) the development of the political self-constitution of the proletariat, means simply to give it up for ever. Regarding this, nothing would be more harmful than to think that we are at the stage of the economic struggle and that we can only take on the political struggle when we have completely solved the former. This would amount to defending the idea that the political revolutionary struggle is independent of the relationships of production and the tensions that cross it. Despite this, the proliferation of a relatively 'alternative' trade unionism would in no way constitute a stage in this process. It would mean, on the contrary, a major obstacle on the steep road ahead. Today, this understanding of things is unfortunately rarely shared by the more radical elements of the proletariat. At the moment, most prefer to reduce their actions to so called alternative trade unionism, to cut a small space at the heart of the trade unionist cage, and to throw all their energies into propagandist, minority actions, with the goal of 'raising the consciousness' of class comrades to 'train' them in the struggle. With the trade unionist short cut comes the fragile safety valve of an anger expressed in a harmless and ephemeral way through punchy actions carried out by a few in the name of those that they claim to represent. And in the hope that the media will notice them... The politically passive fall-back of trade unionism is enmeshed with vague, irresolute protest and vanguardism, and even worse, is reduced to a travesty, a caricature of the class struggle. All of it accompanied by a glaring lack of understanding of the terrain and of the real power relationships. The recent unrest by the destitute have provided a new, life-size illustration of this.

[1] Assedics = the state body that manages the distribution of unemployment benefit; ANPE = the government organization that supervises the unemployed and tries to find them work; EDF-GDF = Electricity de France and Gas de France.

[2] In France, in 1995, half of the young between 15 and 25 were inactive; amongst those in work, 20% had a job deemed 'typical' and 16% had part time jobs. In 1997, about 35% of people between 50 and 59 years old had no work at all, and exactly half of those between 55 and 59 found themselves in this situation.

[3] Contrat à durée déterminée (short-term contract); normally bosses cannot re-hire people at the end of a short-term contract more than twice, but if the boss lets the worker off for a week she can go on being re-hired indefinetely.

[4] Behind this very fashionable concept we can note firstly that production has progressed well beyond the home market, following the example of their foreign counterpart, the big French conglomerates have reinforced their internationalisation and have set up new units of production where the market is growing faster than in Western Europe. On the other hand, because of the continuing sluggishness of the French market, less and less supported by state funding (from 1993 onwards, the amount of state funding as part of GDP has slowly decreased; in 1997, it was 54.7% against 55.2% in 1996), French investments have been targeted more on the rationalisation and modernisation of existing production methods than on their increase. Secondly, the mechanisation of a large part of intellectual work and the increased automation of manual work, obtained by the introduction of a lot of new electronic tools, (computers, telecommunication), have decisively eliminated many occupations (typists, book-keepers, etc). Today 40,000 secretarial and administrative jobs disappear every year. The result is that in France, between 1990 and 1997, according to DARE (the research department of the employment ministry), employment has remained effectively stable (+0.1%). Only service industries with the smallest technological component increased their workforce between 1990 an 1997 (+8.0%). And this when the workforces of industry and construction have decreased during the same period by 13.5% and 17.0% respectively. Unskilled workers of these two sectors have decresed even more than the figures indicated above. Indeed, at 23.6%, the rate of unemployed for the unskilled is almost double that of the whole working population.

[5] AC! (Agir Ensemble Contre le Chomage: 'Action together against unemployment'); association campaigning against unemployment. Apeis (Association pur l'entraide, l'information et la solidarité: 'Association for employment, information and solidarity'); founded by the French Communist Party (CP). MNCP (Mouvement national des chomeurs et precaires: 'National movement of unemployed and insecure workers'). CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail); the French CP's union federation.

[6] SNCF = state railway; RATP = Paris public transport authority (Metro).

[7] In France, 1997 was marked by the lowest number of hours lost to strikes since 1935.