Casual workers strike in the schools of Marseilles, 2003

Submitted by Steven. on November 13, 2006

This text is an account of one week of strikes among casual workers in schools in Marseilles, within the context of a small movement of casual workers in education.

Similar 'movements' took place around the country, but due to the failure to organize a national co-ordination of strike committees information from other cities was hard to come by. In the introduction I try to explain the public services in France, their casualisation, and the role of casual labour within education. In the conclusion I give a few brief assessments of the central features of the struggle and its internal contradictions.

Background to reforms in the public services
France is one of the least developed of all European countries in terms of privatisation and welfare reform. The electric and gas monopolies, the trains and local transport systems, are still in public hands and the state has a controlling share in France Telecom, Air France, and several large banks. In a country where even the lowliest dishwasher has a set of minimum conditions (wages, hours, holiday and sickness pay...) determined by a union agreement at a national level, the public sector workers are particularly well protected. Most public sector workers are fonctionnaires. This is not a contract but a statute; fonctionnaires are 'agents of the state', and as such it is practically impossible to fire them. They receive automatic pay-rises linked to years of service independently of performance or promotion. They retire 2 and half years earlier than their private sector counterparts and receive hefty pensions. There are four million of them, they have a lot of turf to defend, and have a reputation for defending it well, as in the crippling 1995 strike wave which forced the last right-wing government of Alain Juppé to back down on its proposed welfare reforms.

Despite their privileges in relation to the private sector fonctionnaires are not the exception but the rule in their fields. Unlike other countries where only qualified workers are eligible to such guaranteed job-protection, in France the fonctionnaires fill almost every position: from selling tickets in the trains station to answering calls at the gas board or cleaning the floors in the hospitals. In education the vast majority of jobs, academic or not, in the vast majority of schools (the private sector being negligible) are done by fonctionnaires looked after by big corporatist unions (a big independent federation just for education - FSU - plus federations of the big national confederations and numerous autonomous unions). These unions not only defend the fonctionnaires' advantages, they see themselves as partners in the management of education, guardians of the cultivation of the nation's youth. In this they represent well their rank file in that the language of standards and values rather than work and conditions, the contesting of the management of the (welfare) state and thus self-identification with the bureaucracy, is the norm in most struggles. That is until the state started to casualize the workforce.

Before the 90's the only significant category of non-fonctionnaires in French schools, apart from interns and people doing work-experience, were the surveillants or peons. This was a special 7-year contract just for students that had existed since 1937 which mainly involved the 'surveillance' of pupils outside of classes, whether in the playground or during the obligatory supervised homework, along with other menial tasks in the administration. It is debatable whether one can call them casual workers in the modern sense since for the 7-year period they received the same kind of job-protection as the fonctionnaires; along with relatively good hourly pay for their short 20-hour week. In fact it was always coined as a cushy job to help out students in need, and there is a nominal means test in the application. Nevertheless it remained the case that these student-workers had less secure contracts than the fonctionnaires who were slopping out the school diners and mopping up the floors, all of whom could quite comfortably remain there in the assurance of regular pay-rises until retirement. Such a situation was ripe for reform.

In 1990 François Mitterrand's socialist government introduced the marvellously titled Contrat Emploi-Solidarité (solidarity-employment contract) or CES, supposedly to better the lot of interns and give them real job contracts. However these minimum wage - 20-hour/week - 6-month contracts, renewable at the employer's discretion up to a maximum of 2 years, proved very useful as a way to introduce casual labour into the public sector and parts of the private sector too. Every year the number of CES increased, in schools they filled up almost every new post in the kitchens, cleaning and the bottom rung of the administration, and any idea that these people were somehow interns, i.e. looking to climb there way up the public services, was quickly forgotten as the official justification became one of 'managing the unemployment crisis'. This was true to the extent that the CES became the contract for people coming off of the dole, a bizarre state of affairs when you realise that the monthly wage of a CES is 500 euros, only 100 more than the minimum French social security payment (the RMI); but the unemployment crisis in the nineties invented all sorts of pressures to push people into crap jobs, the benefit from the employers point of view was that many of these CES had skills which came free of charge.

When Jospin's socialist government took power in 1997 as a direct result of Juppé's defeat by the unions he promised jobs, and not just disposable ones. By this time unemployment had reached unheard of proportions, with 4-6 million out of work, and youth unemployment had become the centre of the now generalised crisis, with an 'unemployed movement' small in number but big on visibility in actions like mass-looting of supermarkets and occupations of dole offices. Jospin proposed a new 'emploi jeune' (youth employment) contract which was billed as an entrance into a profession, with promises of training with a view to titularisation in the public services - the competitive process of becoming fonctionnaire. Like the CES the emploi jeunes received minimum wage and were mainly employed in the public sector; the difference was that they had longer contracts (five years), they worked full time and thus brought home more money, and they were all under 25 and unskilled. In education they were given the title 'aide-éducateurs' (helper-educators) and mainly filled new classroom assistant roles created by the expansion of class sizes (roles which would otherwise have led to the creation of more fonctionnaires) and replaced some of the surveillant's functions. They were generally assigned to inner-city schools in dire need of extra staff. They initially had 39-hour contracts but these were reduced after the introduction of the 35 hour week in 1999, and by happy accident the four hours to go were those set aside for training.

These three categories, CES, aide-éducateur, and surveillant tended to flow into each other in the actual distribution of the work in schools: the CES generally spreading in the kitchens and less academic sections; the aide-éducateurs becoming regular furniture in the classrooms, libraries and computer rooms; and the surveillants increasingly squeezed between them, watching parts of their job getting farmed out to the more flexible newcomers.

During the nineties the powerful public sector unions put up little or no fight to this slow casualisation of their foundations. It may be asked why the fonctionnaires did not respond to a threat to their job security. The simple answer is that it did not really constitute one. However much these measures seemed to encroach on their terrain, threatening a fonctionnaire's job remained illegal and given the struggles of the past decades no government in their right mind would touch that law; thus only new posts were casualized. The unions failed to resist not only because none of their members were individually threatened by these new contracts, but also because as I point out above the efficient running of the education system remains in the direct interest of their rank and file (the fonctionnaires) and such efficiency calls for a competitive hiring and firing of the most basic extra-curricula work - work becoming all the more necessary because of the growing social crisis, with its increasing levels of delinquency. It should thus come as no surprise that the unions failed to react with force when Jean-Pierre Raffarin's centre-right government took power in the summer of 2002 and announced that it was foreclosing on the aide-éducateur project and phasing out all the surveillants to replace them both with the new assistant d'éducation position, a streamlined 3 year contract equivalent to that of the aide-éducateurs without the fancy promises. The workers were thus left to organize their reaction themselves.

Strikes in Marseilles
In this article I will only deal with the strikes as they took place in Marseilles. As far as we were able to gather similar small mobilizations took place around the country, following similar paths with more or less union involvement. The non-realisation of a proposed co-ordination of strike committees in Paris made practical information hard to come by.

The surveillants and aide-éducateurs generally took the news of their replacement pretty badly. For the surveillants it was another attack on student benefits, whereas the aide-éducateurs, who had been carrying on small isolated strikes demanding their promised training and titularisation rights, saw the new contractuals who were given no such promises as the final proof that they had been lied to all along. Pushed by this anger from a part of their base (for it must be added that both the aide-éducateurs and surveillants had in their struggles signed up to union mediated bargaining systems, something that gave the union a small but significant reason to fight, in that their replacements (CES and assistants d'éducation) would be much harder to unionise) the FSU (the big education union) called a token strike on September the 23rd just for the posts being phased out and about 150 people turned out on the streets of Marseilles. In the meeting that followed the mood was uninspiring, the union insisted that there was no use pursuing the struggle and that instead we had to 'build the movement' and essentially wait for the teachers.

We didn't have to wait long, but the teachers had other reasons to take to the streets. In October the government announced its plan to decentralize national education, a process which would immediately involve the transfer of the maintenance and kitchen fonctionnaires into the hands of local councils and thus no longer directly employed by the state. In the ensuing one-day stoppages and demos the unions insisted on the inequality of the proposed reform, its tendency to benefit richer catchment areas and its anti-republican spirit; but it was these workers, fearing for the security of their contracts, who formed a large part of the initial mobilisations. In the demos the banners opposed casualisation as well as decentralization. However for the union the key issue was in neither one of these demands, but in building a movement that would be ready to react to the retirement reforms that the government was to announce in February.

Many aide-éducateurs and surveillants used the opportunity of official national strikes to take days off work throughout the autumn; in one school they even called their own one day strike and managed to get the CES to support them. But on the whole the CES, who were not being phased out but rather consistently augmented, were disconnected from the others. The same separation appeared between the casuals and the rest of the mobilisation; unlike the fonctionnaires they had little if anything to demand, and much less anything to defend. Their jobs were not being threatened; they were just told that people would no longer have the same opportunities they had had. Yet the only defence of these 'opportunities' was that they weren't as bad as the CES or proposed assistant d'éducation contracts. There was hardly anyone asking to stay on, everyone had taken the jobs knowing they would have to leave when the contract ran out, and though the aide-éducateurs had been given false hopes of titularisation, after five years on the frontline in some of the toughest schools they understandably retained little enthusiasm for the profession. On the other hand the surveillants were all students and were happy to see their jobs as transitory, as by and large they expected their studies to purchase them a higher entry point on the career ladder. In these conditions the small groupings of aide-éducateurs and surveillants that started turning up on demos and eventually formed into the 'collective MI-SE [surveillants] aide-éducateur' (hereafter known as the collective) were driven less by an objective need for solidarity than by a personal one. No one had any illusions about the possibility of challenging the government's decision because no-one was willing to really fight to defend the minimal job security of those who would replace them. The initial motivations for the collective came more than anywhere from the will of several enthusiastic militants. In Marseilles two militants in particular (from two different anarcho-syndicalist unions, the French CNT having split into two in 1993) helped to build strong strike committee in their respective schools, committees which would remain the principal source of strength for the collective throughout the struggle.

Though the militants who formed its base by and large already knew each other, the collective was formed at the beginning of March when an administrative cock up gave the aide-éducateurs something immediate to fight against. Those who were coming to the end of their terms in January and not June had been told that their contracts would be extended until June and that if they didn't accept it they would not get any dole money. This (illegal) threat on behalf of the local education body caused a lot of people to worry about their dole, and many phoned up to insure they would get the full unemployment benefit. They received the answer that due to a lack of staff many would have to wait 4 months, from June to October, before they could touch their first cheque. For those who were estranged from their families or had families of their own this was intolerable and the casuals in two schools (the two mentioned above) walked out on strike on the 10th of March.

The next day the meeting of the collective drew about 40 strikers, many from other schools who had already been visited by groups of strikers in a practice known in French as 'débrayage', the spreading of a strike by doing the rounds of the branches and encouraging everyone to walk out. We decided, as well as continuing the débrayage, to carry out two occupations the next day: the school which handles the wages of the aide-éducateurs and the local academic administration. The occupations although clumsy and unclear in their objectives did manage to put the wind up the administration and a flustered headmaster promised us an interview the same day with the 'Recteur' - the head of education for the region. That afternoon fifty strikers turned up at the Rectorat in Aix-en-Provence. The Recteur failed to show up but he sent four bureaucrats to speak in his place. They calmly explained that we had been misinformed and that new staff would be assigned to the task of processing the unemployment claims and that everyone would get their dole money within a month of terminating their contracts. Our immediate demand quelled we had nothing to do but quibble over the aide-éducateurs' lack of training or vent our anger over the proposed assistant d'éducation project, and since we had no more questions the bureaucrats didn't hang around. We stayed in the conference room to hold a meeting of the collective, but the mood was low. Already rifts were appearing, and though we managed to vote to continue the strike its meaning was getting increasingly contested. A division arose between those who wished to follow the FSU and the larger teachers' movement and those who wished to preserve the 'autonomy' of our struggle as casual workers.

One thing we didn't mention to the bureaucrats who received us at the Rectorat was the first demand on our list, the list drawn up at the first strike meeting. This was for the immediate titularisation of all the casual workers, that is, for everyone to become a fonctionnaire, life-long contract and pay-scale to boot. It wasn't mentioned because we all knew it to be an absurd demand. Absurd not just because manifestly impossible at a time when fewer and fewer fonctionnaire posts were being created on every level, but because very few of us would have actually wanted to work for another year in the kind of jobs we were doing, let alone for life. Those who did have such aspirations were generally already following the official channels (competitive exams) open to individuals who want to become fonctionnaires, and clearly had a much better chance than in collectively demanding such a promotion. It was however the only demand that could be shared equally among the surveillants, aide-éducateurs and the few CES who were there; it was the only thing we could fight for together, that is: a change that would really bring us together, and in a position to have the kind of corporate solidarity enjoyed by the others in the public sector. To struggle together as casual workers implied valorizing the permanent contracts we didn't necessarily want; and this because to 'struggle together' we needed certain bases on which to build our 'community of struggle': a constant presence alongside one another, a common stronghold of terms and conditions to defend and a shared identity to affirm; bases we lacked as diverse and isolated casual workers. This demand got expressed as a demand for 'autonomy', though paradoxically one that sought that autonomy in what we were not. To abandon our autonomy would be to relegate ourselves to a minor position in the wider movement against casualisation, supporting those who resist the casualisation of their jobs and trying to avoid the deterioration of our existing contracts. This was what the FSU union expected from us and exacted from its members who had joined the collective. There thus appeared a divergence in the collective that came to a head in the following meetings where representatives of the FSU openly opposed the titularisation of the casuals outside of the existing system of competitive exams (and remember this could be for becoming a diner-lady!). This might seem like a gross lack of solidarity, coming from teachers who were supposed to be there to support us, but it is in fact the logical position for them in defending their enviable contracts, the boundaries of which are necessarily the boundaries of their solidarity, for every community of struggle is automatically an exclusion, and the competitive entry exams give the fonctionnaires a real autonomy in relation to other workers.

Of course the union (who never officially supported the strike) justifies itself with a discourse of funding and standards and ends up with an essentially governmental argument for its de facto acceptance of casualisation. On their terms it is undisputable, the fact of the matter is that casual labour can make the school into a more efficient and thus more worthy institution. This too is a perfectly natural product of the teacher's position; that is, as both wage-worker and bureaucrat the teacher will tend to see her work as both a wage and a cause, and to the latter extent will identify herself with her boss (the state), supporting measures to economise while defending 'quality'. The union's interest in our struggle seemed to be largely related to the need to extend the movement against the pension reforms which Raffarin had announced in February. But it must not be assumed from this that the FSU was only interested in derailing our more radical, because casual-worker, struggle. After all, wasn't our most radical demand to become fonctionnaires ourselves? No, the struggle was defeated by much more concrete obstacles than the union could ever muster.

The next day, Thursday, was spent doing the 'débrayage' of the schools of Marseilles. We travelled in groups of 3-6, usually on foot, and the long distances tired us out, more so than a normal day's work. We would generally find support in one or two of the schools we visited, either commitments to strike Friday and come to the demo we had called in front of the Rectorat in Aix-en-Provence, or better... the immediate walk out of all the casuals, some of whom would tag along with us. But one or two out of the 8 or 9 schools each group had on their list was not enough to keep us motivated, and we were soon exhausted and discouraged. Those that walked out usually did so for a collection of problems relating to working conditions but the question of the dole money was always significant. We had continued to insist on this issue despite the fact that we had received assurances about it the day before; partly because we mistrusted the bureaucrats but partly because we knew this to be the best argument to get people to strike. (we later found out that the bureaucrats had not been lying and had in fact assigned new staff to deal with the unemployment claims).

Around 100 people came to the demo at the Rectorat on Friday, among them some striking aide-éducateurs from Avignon where the FSU had got more involved in the struggle. Only about half of those who had promised to come the day before turned up, but this still amounted to the biggest gathering of strikers we had mustered. Looking around us and back at the week of strikes it was clear that we had to a certain extent upset the normal functioning of the schools in the region, but watching the crowd trickle away out of confusion or boredom the future didn't look bright. We did however have one last action of our own before the next Tuesday's national education strike promised to swallow up our 'autonomy' in the generalised protest against the reforms of the retirement system. We had heard that the Recteur was visiting a school in Marseilles on Monday. Since he had refused to meet us the day we had been promised an audience with him we decided to pay him an impromptu visit.

We were about 60 at the school gates on the Monday morning, our ranks swelled by teachers whose discourse was notably different: banners announcing solidarity with parents, troubled students, and the defence of the unity of education; anticipating things to come as the teachers would take more and more of the initiative. A few of us decided to block the gates, and when the Recteur's car tried to pass there ensued a scuffle with his security guards in which the school-kids, then out on their break, came to our help and completely surrounded the vehicle. There was a stand off of about 20 minutes before the Recteur gave in to the circumstances and proposed to meet with union delegates. Most people left before the delegates could come back with the results, such was the recognition of the uselessness of negotiations. What was there to discuss?

The next day the collective would find itself isolated on the enormous public sector demonstration against the pension reforms. At first we confronted the strong-arms of the CGT who told us that we had strayed out of the education cortege so we retreated only to find animosity from the FSU who refused to accept our presence, referring to our banners demanding the titularisation of the casuals and the disputes in the meetings. Thus we found our 'autonomy' finally vindicated by a 20 meter gap separating us from the rest of the movement in front and behind. In the days that followed as more schools joined the growing strike wave we found our rather idiosyncratic movement swamped by the teachers and within the week the collective dissolved itself, recognizing that there was no place in such a movement for an independent struggle of casual workers.

Of course the end of the collective did not mean the end of the strike. Many casual workers have followed the strikes since, some schools have been on strike for months now and at the time of writing the education sector in Marseilles is crippled by these strikes to an extent never before seen. However many ex-members of the collective have expressed regret that there is no bloc of casual workers on the demos and a general lack of interest in the struggle from among those who had struck with us. This is easy to understand given few of us believe that the pension system will be worth saving by the time we are 60. What is more significant than our separation from the wider movement are the divisions that arose in the heart of our little strike and our isolation not just from the teachers but from the majority of casuals. Already the relative absence of CES was important. There was a real hierarchy that went CES, aide-éducateur, surveillant, each with significant privileges over the one before. The CES were generally not even consulted during the débrayage, not just because they weren't suppressing their contract but because the others tended to see them as having nothing to defend and therefore no reason to fight. Ironically this is exactly how the teachers saw the aide-éducateurs and surveillants. On the other hand certain militants saw having nothing to defend as having nothing to lose, and therefore the best of all reasons to fight to the finish; yet what finish?

The explanations for the collective and its struggle came in many different flavours, from self-organising the schools from the bottom up, to profiting from an excuse to go on strike and have a laugh. Many talked about the need for casual workers to get together and 'fraternise', giving the impression they hoped for a special kind of solidarity to form that would help us overcome our isolation and even the limits of the struggle. A solidarity to do what was rarely clear, and often this need got expressed in completely abstract terms like the need for casuals 'to have a voice' or 'to be autonomous'. Whether calling for 'self-organisation' of for autonomy, the 'radicals' in the collective consistently showed themselves to be missing the point. Rather than a search for new means of struggle they seemed to be holding a séance to revive dead ones, harking back to a time when the workers struggled together not just because they had to, but because in struggling together they could build an alternative power to that of capital, and present their working class identity as a positivity to fight for. What made the effort within the collective to build a real solidarity/autonomy so anachronistic, and ultimately futile, was that hardly any of us wanted to identify ourselves with our crap jobs. We all had different desires, the only one we shared was not wanting to be where we were, and it follows that few fancied wearing their job titles on their sleeve as a sticker or following behind a banner which explicitly defended such titles. Those that did were usually either doing union work or had political reasons for doing so, even though these would often be expressed as social needs as the collective began to get to know each other and friendships formed.

On the other hand the anachronism of our demands cannot just be but down to militant ideology. Even in relation to the bread and butter issues which really provoked the strike there was much contradiction. The contradiction was often conscious, as in the case of an aide-éducateur affiliated to the FSU who exclaimed in a meeting: 'What we are doing is defending a lousy casualized contract, but paradoxically we have to realize that we have no other option'. In demanding the prompt payment of our dole, in demanding proper training and titularisation opportunities, we are demanding that our contract is respected. In fighting against the replacement of this contract with a worse one we are demanding that our contract be preserved indefinitely. And yet we all know this contract to be worthless and we openly denounce casualisation even as we fight to defend our casual contracts. We are forced to fight for something we don't want, to defend ourselves all the while recognizing that we are nothing. Perhaps this if anything is a clue to how the proletariat, in the course of its necessary struggle against the capitalist class, could discover its own class existence as a limit to overcome, and thus abolish capital and class.

At the same time the most important issue of all, that which mobilized the most people, was the question of the dole. And to this extent we can see how our actual working conditions were less significant than the contiguous interchange between work and the dole. In this sense we were fighting less as a category of workers defending its place in the wage-system than as separate workers defending the foundations of their separation: the dole as facilitator of their interchangeability as casuals. The dole has become the constant mediation between casual jobs, rendering the distinction between the active and reserve army of labour unclear as the hiring and firing of workers becomes sufficient to the immediate demands of capital; the flexibilization of work making the 'active' army itself a reserve, a constant potential to be exploited elsewhere whenever the need arises. In this context the struggle over the dole is automatically a workers' struggle in an immediate sense; the dole is the equivalent which underlies all the wages we receive. When the question of the dole was settled the strike lost its momentum. To what extent the capitalist class can continue to arrive at such easy settlements in a world where mass-unemployment/casualisation coincides with the necessary reduction in welfare spending remains to be seen.

Text from, 7/2003