Our Intakes section in this issue comprises articles and leaflets written by participants in the 1995 winter crisis and translated from French. The first six documents were mostly produced as leaflets at the time, and describe and analyse the developing criticisms and desires among sections of the movement. The remaining three pieces are articles written at the end of the wave of strikes and demonstrations, in January 1996. They reflect upon some of the radical tendencies and limits of the movement, and provide a vivid account of the solidarity, creativity and conflict experienced by rail workers and others.
The first six pieces below were mainly produced as leaflets, in December last year. We have chosen these from the dozens of leaflets we came across on the basis of the insights they offer into how those involved understood the movement at the time. Some, such as Now or Never convey the overall feel of the movement; others are more critical and analytical - in particular Beware, One Striking Train may Conceal Another. Finally, Last (but not least) Exit to the Strike, is a lively illustration of the relationship between workers and bosses towards the end of the rail strike.
The final three pieces were articles written around January 1996, at the end of the strike movement. The first, The Strike and After, was written by a printer-cum-proofreader in Paris involved in the strike in his workplace. The article describes some of the radical tendencies of the movement, but suggests that as a whole the movement was limited by the failure to grasp the function of work and the role of the state. The writer describes the new forms of insubordination against state power which developed, and points to the need to clarify a critique of the unions. The second article, France End of 1995: Anger and Huge Strikes, was written by M in Athens, for a foreign readership. The piece analyses the defensive nature of the strike movement. Unlike the offensive of 1968, here was a movement defending prior gains in the face of the march of economic liberalization. The final article, On the Eve of Battle, was written by a train driver in the Paris region. The article is a vivid account of the experiences of solidarity and creativity within the movement, and of the conflicts both between the movement and its opponents and among different participants within the movement - particularly trade union players.
ONE MORE EFFORT!
The government which came to office in May promised change and to fight against social fracture. Finally, we have had the police state and the awakening of social antagonism by the mass of waged and casual workers and the unemployed.
From the foundation of the Vigipirate (government plan to prevent terrorism), to the social security reform plans, only three months have passed. Three months during which the state, after having pursued the Islamisists, is now attacking public sector workers. The objective is to set up one section of the population as the enemy within.
The anti-terrorism plans are designed to reassure people by pointing a finger at anyone who looks like an immigrant. With the Juppé reforms it is civil servants who are denounced as the privileged who want to keep hold of their privileges.
Between the two, there are a mass of citizens held hostage in a no-mans land in which the silence only seems like proof of a tacit acceptance of the current political situation.
In the case of the anti-terrorism plan, this device has worked rather well: voices have barely been raised, there has been little resistance to the increase in controls, arrests, expulsions the cities and outlying areas. Only certain suburbs have been the site of clashe s in a situation already tense for several years. But as the young people in the cities have been well aware, far from hunting down terrorists, the anti-terrorist measures are aimed primarily at the domestication of new dangerous classes stuck in certain districts and on the edge of the big cities. Vigipirate is the policing aspect of the crisis which is being imposed on unstable populations
The social security reform plan is participating in the same politics of generalized policing for those who cannot afford the medicine of wealth: photos on social security cards, obligatory health books, advance payment for health care for foreigners. But above all the attack on social gains and corporatism is a question of breaking down the last bastions which are protected from the crisis and reaching the final stage of the long road of neo-liberal enterprise of the last fifteen years. The restructuring of the process of production must not remain at the doors of the public sector. In order to reach it, the Chirac state is ready for anything. Including mobilizing the army and giving rise to the creation of so-called passenger committees.
The policing, the firm and scornful no confronting the strikers are the sign of the reinforcing of the states authority which appeals to a sense of history to eradicate what remains for us of revolt. So comrades, one more time, its now or never!
Contact: La Bonne Descente, Paris
NOW OR NEVER!
The growing social movement gives us, for the first time for ages, the opportunity to create our own history. Without opposing some reform or other, the students are rebelling against misery, against the empty hole of the future, against the society which has dug this hole. Led at first by unions scared of losing their breaks, hundreds and thousands of workers have today thrown themselves into a strike which goes beyond opposition to the Juppé plan. When the demands multiply, when the transport workers remain mobilized, when the postal workers go on strike, when the Air France workers are on the runways again, we can feel that the submission to sacrifice, after twenty years of fighting the crisis, is finally in the process of being broken... When the metro workers strike means that the Vigipirate plan is out of the question... When, as in Marseilles, the unemployed lead the front of the demo... When, as in Jussieu, the youth from the suburbs and students join to defend themselves against the cops... When students and permanent and casual workers meet on demos and in assemblies... When, as in Toulouse, the students come to help strikers stop the buses... When the categories which imprison us disappear...Thats when a generalized social revolt takes shape against the capitalist order.
On the other side, the Prime Sinister and his Notat, the boss of the professional left, all chant the usual blackmail to us: We must adapt to survive in the World Market.
In the face of a government which is playing all their cards, everyone senses that, behind todays struggle, is the risk of serious defeat, followed by social regression for everyone.
Will the Law of Economics condemn us to this? Lets smash the laws! So that we can struggle, speak to each other, and imagine other ways of living together.
We must take back the time that wage slavery has stolen from us.
Long live the GENERAL STRIKE!
A country which is entirely on strike is a new world shaping itself!
THE MOMENT HAS COME...
IF IT ESCAPES US WE WONT FIND IT AGAIN FORA LONG TIME.
anonymous poster on the walls of Toulon, 23 March 1789
Behind the specific demands there is often a general feeling of dissatisfaction, of having had enough. The profound misery of the majority of the population derives from not being able to express the fact of their isolation.
Everyone who finds themselves stuck in their roles as unemployed, casual workers...are today in the position many will find themselves in tomorrow.
These past few days we have been demonstrating with the strikers.
We are convinced that the present turmoil is asking for more than it is letting on. We hear the refusal of the deterioration of living conditions, the refusal of the usury produced by the constraints of money, the refusal of the erosion of everything that makes a human being a being who does not take it lying down.
This refusal bursts through the surface of specific demands here and there.
In many towns, demos have not been so big for three generations.
In Merlebach, Orly, Nantes, Paris, Montpellier, Sainte Etienne... strikers, demonstrators rise up against the police armada deployed to defend the commodity, to contain people coming together, to prevent people meeting each other and talking, to neutralize the struggle.
In the street, in the places where there are strikes, waged workers, unemployed, students are starting to talk. In Nantes, Montpellier, Paris, the demonstrators refuse to disperse, occupy the street, seek places to be together.
In Clermont-Ferrand, railworkers invite other strikers and passengers to a banquet in the station, The following week, they organize a ball...
In several towns, EDF (electricity) workers put the electricity onto the cheap rate.
Others restore the electricity to EDF sources. Elsewhere, striking postal workers ensure a minimal service for the unemployed, people on benefits... And all other initiatives which have happened in silence or been twisted by media corrosion.
This confrontation which sets the people in opposition to the state has already claimed its victims - those who attack objects: cars, dustbins, cameras, shop windows, riot shields...have bled, been dragged to the courts, imprisoned.
- One years prison sentence for a shop window and two shirts in Montpellier...
- Three months for the destruction of a table in Paris...
- Two months for overturning two cars in Paris...
Casseurs? These are students, the unemployed, the homeless, waged workers, teachers...They are all expressing a general anger, like the miners of Merlebach or the strikers of Orly.
To demand liberation and amnesty for all the demonstrators is to refuse false divisions: public sector workers, private sector workers, casseurs and demonstrators, waged workers and the unemployed, strikers and passengers...
Combating the fear, the fear of tomorrow, of the unknown, of the self, of others, of losing what little we have...
Reversing the situation against those who sustain it, getting our confidence back, giving ourselves the means to meet each other, in the workplace, in the job centres, the universities, schools, or other places, by opening them up...inviting people in...?
Divided, we are conquered. Our power lies in meeting together.
Just because its raining cats and dogs, thats no reason to stop pissing.
Paris, 10 December 1995
WHAT DO WE WANT?
What do we want?
Not difficult to know: its enough to listen to whats being said, not in the anti-chambers or screens of power, but in the processions and the bars, in the occupied stations and the individual modes of transport that have been joyfully collectivized.
We want to talk
For the twenty years that the crisis has lasted, we have been told that its very complicated, that we dont understand anything about it, in short, that we must make sacrifices, that is the price of economic progress. Now, what do we see? The only real crisis is that of a system which rests on the exploitation of wage labour: There is less and less work, while there is more and more wealth. It is the system and its pseudo-rationality that is in crisis, thats what we want to talk about.
We want to get away from the categories that imprison us
In transforming privileged work, we have been isolated in categories which are supposed to oppose each other to defend or reclaim the morsels of privilege: private salaries against public, against CDI, unemployed against workers, homeless against those who live in rabbit hutches, with the homeless to call everyone who waits for them if they are not wise. It is against this society of generalized blackmail that we have been set in movement. Its against this tendency to increasingly set everyone against each other that we have started to reunite. Railworkers, posties, students, teachers, unemployed etc. have met at strikes with an ease, a confidence, a desire to listen never seen until now. While eating, singing, drinking and resisting police intimidation, we have discovered a new way of being together. Those who have started to talk are numerous, no longer under the title of their category, but under the title of human. Thousands of people whom the system has separated have woven lines between each other: This is the main benefit that we have gained in this struggle, and we will fight to keep it
We want to keep the strong position
Already, we have succeeded in putting the brakes on the triumphant rationality of the capitalist economy. No, the movement is not finished. Its up to us to develop the newest elements it has brought:
Lets get away from our categories!
Lets get away from our workplaces to go and meet others!
Lets transform places of pain into places for parties!
Lets take other places, pleasant and heated, and open them to everyone, included and excluded!
Why oblige the SDF to sleep in metro stations? Lets occupy the national palaces!
All possibilities are still open to us!
From those without categories
Contact: La Bonne Descente
BEWARE, ONE STRIKING TRAIN MAY CONCEAL ANOTHER
The purpose of a social movement is to continually overthrow aspects of a situation and transform the certitudes of yesterday into the doubts of today and to supply tomorrow's questions. As the relations of power evolve, problems pose themselves with more clarity. The questions raised by the present strike movement are decisive for what follows.
Today the strike has a grip on almost the totality of the public sector. At the same time - at least in Paris - student agitation seems to be having difficulty in transforming itself into a true movement. A minority is engrossed in an assemblyist activism which cannot go beyond the corporatist framework controlled by the unions. The real relations between delegates, students and co-ordinations are being masked by clashes between groupuscules at the heart of co-ordinations which are gradually losing all credibility and are only co-ordinating manipulative projects. The activism of this minority only survives thanks to the new breath brought by the strikes of waged workers. Despite the energy of a few put into making political proposals, despite the radicalization of one section of students, this movement has not been capable, up to now, of going beyond its corporatism, of inventing or liberating a subversive creativity.
In the striking public sector, some aspects are also appearing in a new light. The movement has been set in motion at the grassroots level and is carried by a profound sense of discontent which has existed for a long time in society. However, the great majority of workers seem to have become consumers of their own strike: active participation is being left to union militants. In some cases only collective engagement has been preserved. Whatever it is, the volume of the movement has already carried a dynamic which transcends the initial objectives. In the face of the brutality of the choice of power - which is as determined as the strikers themselves - one can examine the state of the strengths of the movement and its perspectives. Globally, the strike remains under the control of the unions, even if the delegates seem to carry a determining weight. The unions are the only ones negotiating the market which presents itself as the reasonable issue in the conflict. The dawning of the great day of class struggle is necessary for capitalists to measure the situation and to define the framework of a new general interest. A confrontation of this order does not displease them, as long as the market can regulate itself in a friendly manner. The unions also need this struggle to reinvigorate themselves just when they are at their worst. The form taken by this conflict is an indirect consequence of the crisis in French syndicalism and the urgent necessity for it to regain a minimal ability to represent. This weakness in syndicalism is also the strength of the movement. Recently especially, the strikers are showing themselves to be very open, concerned about what is happening elsewhere in society. They have been capable of extending their struggle from their own strength, leaving their places of exploitation in order to meet other waged workers and to persuade them to join them. And there are many who support the students in struggle.
The absence of forms of organization capable of expressing the determination and new aspirations of the struggle is the movements main weakness. It explains the passive attitude of one section of proletarians. This absence is even more remarkable given that the isolated struggles of the preceding years had seen the birth of numerous autonomous organizations. Today any generalization of strikes is for the profit of the unions, further reinforcing their capacity for negotiation. From now on the lack of the movements autonomy in the face of the union apparatus will bring its defeat. If the movement is not capable of transcending itself and creating independent organizations, uniting with those who are unionized or non-unionized, it will also be incapable of connecting with workers from the private sector, who have become, for now, hostages of the bosses. It will no longer be a question of struggling against the selling out of the movement by the unions. It will be too late. The union leaders and the powers that be will share the fruits of all our energy and generosity. Those who submit to this today will be held responsible for it tomorrow From now on only the transcending of the leadership of the unions can put the strikes, and the youth in struggle in the universities and schools onto a new level.
The opening out of the struggle towards others by the strikers is one of the strengths of the movement. It allows those who fight alone against the capitalist order to express themselves and to confront their opinions. It is the only activity which seems to me to have any sense today.
No, the railworkers are not privileged!
No, the railworkers are not responsible for the financial hole in the SNCF (railways)!
The state is responsible - let it pay! Its got the money!
Yes, each worker repays more than 6000F per month in interest to the banks.
Revolt is good!
local union - Northern Paris
23 November 1995
A rebel without frontiers
LAST (BUT NOT LEAST) EXIT TO THE STRIKE.
END OF THE STRIKE IN NIMES
Tuesday 19 December 1995
Since Friday the media have been chanting the same chant about the tendency of a return to work, the strike is suffocating, the general assemblies are becoming angry, railway depots are voting for a return to work. On Saturday 16th December, they were proved right: the Strasbourg depot voted for a return to work. The next day this general assembly voted again for strike action: this fact was for the most part not mentioned.
For some days, the union confederations have made an awful come back. They began certain negotiations with ministers. On the night of Saturday/Sunday, a fax sent from the minister of transport arrives in all the depots via the unionists. The contrat de plan is frozen. Pensions are not being touched. All the reforms which concern the railworkers are delayed until later. The return of corporatism. (During the entire time of the strikes, the men of the state and their collaborators have maintained that the movement was corporatist and political in order to denigrate it. The state and the unions have been busy making of it what they would like it to be and what it was not.) The return of confederations is the return of the traditional union order: channelling, falsification, demagogy. It is the return to injunctions and threats to the local union branches who have been a part of the strike everywhere as an extended inter-union whatever union they belonged to.
On the afternoon of 19th December railworkers in Nimes vote for a suspension of the strike. The last step towards achieving momentarily, as they say, the movement of negotiations are engaged with the local leadership of the SNCF on this theme: for each worker who leaves, another will be hired (whether they retire or are moved).
A large rectangular table was placed in a room under the station. The principal director, surrounded by directors of related services, as well as the union delegates (CGT, CFDT, FO) and, standing, encircling this conventional intimateness, 200 railworkers. The local director, (who is called M. Verité which means Mr. Truth in French), does not manage to get in touch with the regional director of Montpellier on his mobile phone. He declares that his plans of hiring will not be questioned again and will follow the procedures previously fixed.
Scattered conversations with some railworkers explain this demand by the fact that for them it is not a question of calling to be hired in order to deal with a lack of staff on certain posts, but of giving a job to someone who is unemployed: We are not fighting for our little SNCF. We are fighting for our children, for everyone. We are fighting for all those who can no longer fight, in the private sector and elsewhere. We voted for a suspension of the strike because we want to spend the holidays peacefully, so that people can travel. To gather strength. In any case, the general assemblies have already been called out for the beginning of January. Another who declared himself non-unionized regrets that the strike was suspended: It shouldnt be stopped like that. After three weeks, they are going to think were tired. And he starts speaking with a vaguely sing-song tone to no-one in particular: Youre tired... And everyone responds: Were not tired...
There is excitement in the room. For two hours, the railworkers chat and tease each other. The director says that he will telephone again. He is left alone with his mobile. Ten minutes go by and he returns to the room. No news from Montpellier. One railworker declares: Youd better tell them something in Montpellier. And that is that there are two hundred of us in the room, that youre in the middle of us and that we have no intention of letting you leave. The director: Are you holding me hostage? The railworker: Thats exactly it. The director demands some time to telephone again. A train conductor explodes: Verité, youre nothing but an arsehole, youre really taking us for a load of bloody idiots. One phone call to Montpellier only means that the financiers gain thousands in one second. Verité, Im going to kill you(!) if you carry on. His colleagues rush towards him. Calm down, calm down, come outside for a breath of fresh air. The CGT delegate speaks: You see M. Verité, until now the strike was dignified and responsible. You see whats going to happen. Youre going to have to deal with a strike which we can no longer control, and you alone will be responsible. One railworker cuts short the Stalinist speech. Right, thats enough. Were going to look for equipment, and were going to lock the door of the room with Verité in it. Then well solder the doors of the depot. I propose that we vote for or against going back out on strike. Well vote! Well vote! The delegates huddle among the railworkers. Who is in favour of the strike? All the hands go up followed by a jovial, Everyone together! Everyone together! One railworker who has remained outside proposes to some others that they find the directors car and set fire to it. Another, who had arrived with cans of beer on a trolley, proposes saving the empty bottles. They make good missiles, you never know. A gang comes out of the room and invites everyone to blockade the two trains that are about to leave. Everyone together! Processions in the stations. Trolleys are thrown onto the tracks. Some railworkers get onto the trains, firmly make the conductors leave and let off the alarms. Beautiful music. Another gang decides to shut the station. They get hold of bars, rods, trolleys, and run around the station. They block the doors and set up barricades. The average man in the street is surprised after hearing the TV and the radio announce that the strike is finished everywhere. One passenger says: The press, they really are a bunch of liars. And everyone proclaims Everyone together! Everyone together! Everyone is smiling, especially the railworkers. Everyone goes in front of the room. Why didnt you come to the general assemblies, they were open to everyone. Everyone could speak. There were unemployed people, teachers, kids from the electricity board, from Cacharel, the homeless, secondary schoolkids, housewives who all spoke. The CGT delegate starts speaking again: Comrades, we know how to remain dignified, we have shown that we are responsible and proud of our company. We have known how to resist all provocations and we will continue to resist them. The attitude of the directors is a provocation. We will not respond to it. This wanker had barely finished when everyone applauded and started again Everyone together! etc.
Provocation? Where? When?
The delegate goes into a dark corner. He also has a mobile phone and is probably calling his own boss. Long conversation.
Return to the room. The director has not moved. Some railworkers have gone to find the passengers who are in the blockaded trains. The room fills up with children, young people carrying bags, women old people. One railworker states that the passengers are with us and he describes Verité as responsible for the situation. Tell him what you think. One woman manages to approach him. Monsieur, theyre right, you should accept what they are demanding. The whole room: Everyone together! Everyone together!
Journalists from the local paper arrive. One striker tells them, from the back of the room: Watch it boys, weve clocked your faces and were going to read the paper tomorrow; if you lie again well find you. The journalists stare at their feet. Insults and piss-takes fly in the direction of the director. There is a jokey atmosphere. Everyone comes out again, and no-one is left in the room except for the unionists and the directors. Outside, there is talk of other depots which have, it seems, relaunched the strike over the same issues. Some of them are telling their families, their children. Its pointless to think only of yourself. Others regret the fact that the private sector has not joined the strike. It was an opportunity for them. If they havent done it now, when will they do it? Another describes the job of his cousin in a private company and says that everyone is fed up, that everything has to change, that the private sector will come out too: They have to. I talk about the miners of Freyling-Merlebach who attacked public buildings, the police and set fire to the directors offices. The railworker replies: With them its not the same, its a question of survival. A question of survival? Its a question of survival for us as well, you can see the kind of world theyre trying to make.
Return to the room. The director is there as well as the CGT. The director: Messieurs, I've just been speaking to Montpellier. The regional director is in agreement. For each worker who leaves another is hired for the next three months. The delegate starts to speak: You understand clearly what M. Verité has just said. For each person who leaves, one is hired for the period of renegotiation of the contrat de plan. Were going to vote for or against the strike. Cheers of Weve won! etc. The noise stops. One railworker: Look! Thats not the same thing, what the delegate and the director say. Murmuring in the room. The delegate becomes smaller. The director comes to shake his hand: During the period of the contrat de plan, one leaves, one is hired. When the Stalinist smiles again the whole room starts with: Weve won, etc. It gets quieter again and another railworker: No, no! Thats not how it happens. Verité must sign now. Hes already stitched us up. Verité says: Ill sign tomorrow during the negotiations which are a planned with the unions. No, you sign now. One point thats all. The room is filled with as much laughter as the Stalinist and the director are green. Paper for Verité. This is the moment of truth (Verité) etc. And of course a railworker: No! Verité has signed but not the other directors; they must sign as well. One of the directors states that he cannot be involved. We dont give a toss, you sign and if those above you dont agree with it, well, you can jump, you're nothing but a fuse. The guy complies. The delegate breathes a sigh of relief and in a beautiful outburst: Comrades, weve just had a beautiful victory. I think that the moment has come to re-vote with responsibility and dignity. I propose that we call off the strike. One conductor proposes not the stopping of the strike but its suspension. Everyone agrees with using this expression. Unanimous voting for suspension. Weve won! Everyone together! etc.
Everyone leaves. In the car park adjacent to the room, red fireworks burn and envelop the atmosphere in smoke. Various conversations, and paradoxically, an atmosphere of bitterness and sadness. One railworker says to me: What a bummer, Ill have to go to work tomorrow. I really dont feel like it... Another says: You say weve won. Weve only won the pleasure of making the directors bend a little bit and its really miserable. We want so much more. We want more from this society. But this kind of talk is articulated among only a few even though everyone thinks it. There is nobody to say it loud and strong, speech is left up to the professionals, the unionists. I start to be more annoyed with the attitude of the anonymous railworkers who are getting excited in small groups and losing themselves in jokes than with the unions who are going about their usual business which everyone expects of them. The delegate takes the microphone and tries to turn the impressions upside down. Comrades, we have achieved a great victory there. We achieved this victory by virtue of our sense of responsibility. We have come out bigger through this. This strike will have been exemplary in its calmness and dignity. He begins to applaud. A delegate from the FO says: Its true weve won. But nothing is finished. The general assemblies will take place at the beginning of January to make the point. The applause gets warmer. Some railworkers with whom Id been chatting and whose hands Id shaken when the station had been closed pushed me towards the microphone: Everyone here knows that Im not a railworker. I represent no-one. What I want to say is: Thanks. Thanks for fighting for everyone, for having given expressed the feelings in this country where for years and years we havent stopped taking it lying down. Thanks for having given us back the desire and the taste of talking and talking to each other. Thanks and see you soon. Everyone together, everyone together, the railworkers replied. Even the CGT applauded. Some railworkers hugged me. For one moment... I disappeared into the darkness. Some railworkers joined me again and asked me how they could get in touch with me again. I leave my address.
The next day, at a final, poxy demo, I will meet up with a railworker who will say to me: This morning at work, there was no joy. No-one felt like working. We were changed. Imagine, for 23 days, I had never taken so much pleasure in going to the depot. And Ive been working at the SNCF for fifteen years. My wife moaned a bit, she didnt see much of me. Thats to be expected. But the atmosphere was extraordinary. We didnt want it to stop. When you see the unions saying that its a beautiful victory, not one railworker thinks that. We lost, thats it. We won nothing. But morale is good. Above all, we are really angry now. When people say we suspended the strike, its not to show off. The strike has been suspended. Well wait for the new year holiday to pass. And afterwards well start again. Everyone is saying so. I bring up the attitude of the railworker who had threatened to attack the director the day before: Of course hes right. Everyone thinks the same. They really dont give a toss about us. But we mustnt give in to these bastards. That weakens us. As if we dont already have enough to defend. We speak of situations where there is nothing left to say. We speak of the running of the trains by strikers themselves and for free. Its a long running debate amongst us. We can do it. The problem is that we are prosecuted. As long as the movement is strong, we can hold out, the conductors and the others are risking nothing. But when the movement gets weaker, the cops will come and nick people who they pick out and isolate. So...The movement must always exist. Its not simple of course.
The Strike and After
The following text has no pretension of drawing the full picture of the 1995 winter crisis on the scale of the whole country,but of giving my point of view based on my own reflection and my own, very modest, participation in the movement of insubordination in Paris. Its aim is not to end discussion but, on the contrary, to encourage the opening up of debate amongst those who intend going further than just recording events. To understand today the advances as well as the failures seems essential - in order to avoid being tossed about by unseen situations tomorrow.
To reflect is not to genuflect.
Whatever the admirers of neo-liberal democracy might think, capitalism at the end of this century is the inverse of the image it presents. Behind the humanitarian mask appears the increasingly implacable inhumanity of exploitation and domination. The aggravated capitalization of life generates horrors without end to such an extent that, in the most civilized countries it is henceforth difficult to regard them as contingent and temporary.
From the point of view of the masters of this world, the World Bank being the appointed manager, many things remain to be done to crush their slaves and give free reign to their all-consuming ambitions: to devastate the planet and let loose the domesticating power of capital. For the factions in power in France it is necessary to get it over with - and quickly. They are impelled by the expiry dates for European integration, and in a more general way, by the requirements of the world market for which they are, in the final analysis, only acting as proxies. But it was enough for state employees to demonstrate their refusal to submit for the well-oiled machine, set in primed motion by the present managers, to begin to seize up.
For the leadership of the trade unions, who are always hostile to individual and collective initiatives which escape their control, the decision to call a strike was the result of exhausting negotiations conducted with all the pedantry and ceremony proper to democracy with the objective of gaining credibility from people concerned. But individuals not lacking in decision already know from experience that the formal unanimity thus achieved doesn't signify anything in itself. Without waiting for the approval of all their still hesitant comrades, they not only went on strike but also began to seize the signal control centres.
Such initiatives were denounced by the SNCF management as irresponsible acts which put the security of the rail network and equipment at risk whereas it is them who have been responsible for numerous railway catastrophes on the lines which don't pay - by letting them fall into disrepair. In reality, such acts reveal the vulnerability of the transport network which is more and more centralized and computerized. The generalization of the latest technology is at once the source of the power and the general weakness of the system. It is an arm of capital to domesticate humans and to render their presence more and more obsolete. At the same time, all that was necessary was for a handful of individuals to occupy the control centres and signal power boxes, carry out some basic acts of sabotage, like erasing the computer memory, for the network to be paralysed in its entirety.
The leadership of the trade unions viewed with suspicion the first spontaneous outbursts which took place without their approval and which would have enormous unforeseen consequences. For those responsible for labour power, work is life itself and a strike is merely one of the unfortunate means the wardens of survival are sometimes obliged to use in order to attain their desired end. They do not understand that to stop work, even in a momentary fashion, forms part of the pleasures of life even though it absorbs a lot of energy and you lose money sometimes.
For a great deal of the strikers, the strike, on average, was set to become an end in itself. An activity breaking with the everyday. It allowed heads to be lifted up and the cycle of resignation to be broken, to break somewhat, trade separation, to speak, to party, to demonstrate in the street and - and why not? - to feast with the people in the neighbourhood, which, by the way, happened much more on the fringes than in the centre of Paris, now being transformed into a museum and into a commercial centre for luxury goods.
The holders of state power, apologists for social Darwinism, have denounced such unwillingness as the corporatism of the privileged worker, in short, as a survival reflex of antediluvian species unable to adapt. This view has nothing new about it. It dates from some fifteen years ago when the workers in traditional industries resisted, sometimes very violently, their disappearance ...a primordial situation in order to bring the stubborn under control and permit the reconversion of capital.
The workers in state industries like the SNCF are, by tradition, marked by corporatism and underpinned by professional pride. But when the initiators of the first strikes affirmed that they were striking for themselves but also for all proletarians waged and unwaged, they showed that they were overcoming their habitual shopkeepers' outlook which had caused so much wrong during the preceding strikes, in particular during the winter of 1986.
The content of the first intense discussions held, as often as not, in cafés as well as in assemblies, showed that there had been some subterranean maturation well before the outbreak of the strike. The majority were, to be sure, mainly preoccupied with the many questions relating to the status of the state workers. But a more conscious and determined minority went much further and attempted to tackle all the problems of daily survival. The responses were very confused, tainted with ideology and the language of pure democracy, but one felt a critical reflection, a search for real perspectives which would permit the human to be replaced at the centre against the dictatorship of the market, beyond capital's inhuman categories and the separations and roles which accompany them.
Thus, the strikers at SNCF, telecom, RATP (metro) and even the electricity industry accepted that people not belonging to the state industries were present in the general assemblies, organizing soup kitchens for down-and-outs and reconnecting, in part, electricity to shelters for the poor. These were the seeds of helping one another break with the ideology of belonging to a firm and the insane egotism peculiar to contemporary capitalism.
Ridicule failed to kill anymore: the wretched attempts by the state to set the population against the strikers failed. After the fiasco of the first demonstration of angry passengers held hostage by the strikers, it decided to cancel the following demos. In spite of the generalization of disorder on urban transport, the population were not at all unsympathetic to the strikers, an attitude which stood out clearly from the latent hostility during the preceding SNCF strikes, in particular during the winter of 1986. In general, the sympathy was passive sometimes active: the setting up of a support fund for the strikers, putting up those occupying depots in the centre of Paris and who lived too far away on the outskirts to return every evening to their home, etc.
There were moments when it was possible to think that things were going to go much further. But the initial dynamism foundered, then came to a halt, without the demands which had caused the strike even being met, in spite of the general bitterness when the strikes were called off and the continuation of certain pockets of resistance.
The repression had been restrained, except in ultra-sensitive sectors to the functioning of capital, like in the electricity industry, where it was directed at isolated pockets of unyielding resistance. The absence of cash, the fear of being without it and of being laid-off, had been some factors which had contributed to the general inertia, in particular in the most structured sectors of capital where self-reliance, the war of one against all and of each against themselves, are, hence-forth the rule. But the strikers themselves were less hamstrung by lack of money, at least immediately. Moreover, the determined among them replied to people who proposed to raise money on their behalf: we are fed up with striking by proxy. Better to go out on strike yourselves. The critique of striking by delegates was to the point. It put in relief the somewhat amorphous behaviour of ordinary citizens, accustomed at work to delegate the resolution of their problems to official and officious individuals and therefore, scarcely inclined to show any spirit of initiative. Moreover, on the whole they continued to work, willingly or reluctantly, at best marching behind the trade union leadership, with the unemployed sometimes by their side. Even the mass of strikers were less and less mobilized. They stuck to the simple matter of renewing the strike through the general assemblies, participating in demonstrations and in the parties organized at their workplaces.
Against the prevailing passivity, the most combative strikers called for the generalization of the strike. The formula was ambiguous: it meant they considered their own activity, the strike they had embarked on, as the obligatory reference point for all potential revolts.
The unblocking of the situation could not come from the simple increase in the number of strikes. The extension was, in part, subordinate to radicalization, to bypassing the limited character of the initial initiatives which had stirred the mass of protesters. The contradiction between the breadth of the protest and the near general absence of a subversive perspective was clear to those who had not lost their clarity. In spite of their combativity, the protesters had stumbled over two essential questions, that of the function of work and comcomitantly, the role of the state and in particular, the welfare state.
The strikers in the state sector were rejecting the devalorization of their situation. But they had taken on board as unassailable their alleged mission, to be at the service of all citizens. They had valorized what their survival was based on: their work. They endowed it with unique virtues whereas here, as elsewhere, work has become something very functional, with no particular meaning to workers except that it permits them to have money and to be recognized as citizens. Their sole peculiarity is to be an integral part of the state's communication system.
Furthermore, the state workers who had been able to profit from the weakness of the latest technology in their workplaces had not understood the modifications these had already led to in the rest of society. They were hoping their strike would paralyse the economy in its entirety and would therefore force the State to give in over the essentials. Nothing of the sort happened.
In the Paris region, the transport blockade had been total, much more so than in the winter of 1986, but the impact had been less. Industry has practically disappeared to the benefit of finance, the press, etc. There the computerization of work processes predominate. Firms have been capable, much more so than previously, of carrying out their essential activities thanks to flexi-time and the use of home based computer terminals. Some managers had hesitated to put similar measures into operation because they were in doubt about the enthusiasm of their personnel and preferred to have them under their watchful eye in order to control them. Moreover, the nature of work did not always permit it, in particular in the retail trade. But the tone was set.
The concept of a communication network less and less overlaps that of the transport network. To increase the pressure, it would have been necessaryfor strikers to block other networks which was difficult to achieve without the connivance of employees in telecom, The electricity industry, etc. The strike in the electricity industry (EDF) would have had a much greater impact to the degree where the communications network couldn't function without electricity. But the trade union leadership, aware of dangers, broke the few strikes which took place in the electricity industry and warned the over-excited against acts which endangered the security of power stations and the grid.
Behind the fixation on retaining acquired privileges, there appeared ambiguities at the same time towards the welfare state. For example, calls for guaranteed employment, even payment for not being employed.
The system of labour protection, put in place on the morrow of the Liberation, was indispensable to the reconstruction of the basis of the state, and a prelude to the subsequent frenzied accumulation of capital over the next 30 glorious years. Labour power was then considered as the most precious capital. The recent changes within capital, in particular technological changes, have brought into question its centrality and as a consequence, the state treats it as a depreciating commodity whose upkeep is expensive and worthy of being thrown in the waste paper basket.
Moreover, the domination of the welfare state was of a piece with the helping-out mentality. It had accustomed citizens to seeing their survival problems taken in hand and decided by a supreme authority in a practically quasi-automatic fashion without there being any need to intervene themselves. This renunciation had been the reverse of protection. In particular, it wasn't for nothing that in the atomization and partial asthenia that stubborn individuals, because of their hatred of work, fled firms in order to try and live a little. Despite the partial questioning of the welfare state, the need for social security wastes and encourages the partial neutralization of energies which, if not, would become dangerous to society.
Neo-liberalism is to be sure inhuman. But it does no more than reveal the internal essence of capital: for it, the human is only of interest to the degree it is capitalizable. From now on, more than ever, it will be too much. When state power becomes the apologist for labour, it is not because it thinks that the employment of all potential workers remains the primordial condition for the value creating process of capital but in order to try to make good, at the least cost, a life of inactivity, the origin of revolts. The state has a horror of emptiness. So to keep order, any kind of activity is better than none at all, such is the credo of neo-liberalism which has taken over from the apologists of the welfare state. Work remains the best cop even though the mode of contemporary capital's functioning rends practically impossible the employment of all available human beings, even on the cheap.
It might appear paradoxical that some protesters who were indifferent to politics should have granted so much importance to the idea of democracy: faced with the authoritarianism of state power, the defence of citizenship appeared to them indispensable.
In France, the myth of the sovereignty of the people has always been of great importance in the minds of the average citizen. They see there the means of disposing of despotisms, although it resurfaces without ceasing from the representation they have themselves chosen. But the myth would never have a similar hold on them if the state had not also appeared as their protector with the setting up of the welfare state. Not only did it assimilate, in the last analysis, citizens with workers, but also as workers it protected them somewhat, they and their families, against the upset and risks inherent to wage workers in the service of capital. In France, the welfare state had thus realized up to the end the democratization of the state.
From now on, the transformation of capital shall make citizenship appear as a pure political form without a socially effective content. That is why the reduction of the protective role of the state is linked to the partial, and even total questioning by the excluded, of the statute of citizenship. Here also, neo-liberalism plays a revelatory role. Democracy appears, even under a benign appearance, as what it always had been: the domination of capital.
The winter crises also revealed the paradoxes of contestation for official unionism. The protesters have, en masse, expressed willy-nilly, their refusal of neo-liberalism following union officials to the degree that, with the exception of those in the CFDT, they made a show of mobilizing them.
It is, however, notorious that in France disaffection with trade unionism has considerably increased over the years. At the risk of abstraction, the period of radicalization after May '68 had not shown a surpassing of the trade union strait jacket. Rather, it had sanctioned atomization, the dissolution of former combative communities and submission to the imperatives of capitalist restructuring.
But the principal characteristics of the welfare state in France is to have integrated the trade unions, who at times have preserved the facade of contestation, into organs for the protection of labour. Paritarisme (the equal representation of both sides when management and trade union leaders meet) gave the impression to the trade union rank and file, and continues to give it despite de-unionization, of having a direct hold over state management through the intermediary of their leaders.
From their angle, the majority of trade union bosses were apprehensive; the reduction in the contractual function of the state would mean to them the loss of sinecures and positions even if the tendency to participate in the mode of neo-liberal management was pronounced among them and not only in the CFDT. What's more, they knew that their acknowledgement as partners by state power depended on their being representatives and their capacity to enclose and derail trouble in the enterprises, especially in attracting and controlling the most combative individuals which appeared.
Already for a number of years, the day belonged not to exclusion (except in the CFDT) but to recuperation, in order to try to broaden the base of the pyramid whose mummified summit was in danger of falling to pieces. The shop floor delegates' development is henceforth very different from that of preceding generations. The oldest had often participated in radical groupings which had sprung up after May '68, particularly in workshop committees outside of the main trade unions. The bankruptcy of their revolutionary political pretensions had led them to devote the majority of their energy to rank and file trade unionism even when they were sometimes members of Trotskyist/anarchist groups, etc. The youngest have come from the co-ordinations of winter '86. They are pretty indifferent to trade union labels; not uncommonly they belong at one and the same time to several organizations including the libertarian wing of the CNT. Their combativity is at times real. But, as long as they manoeuvre within a framework of a trade unionism approved by the state, they are tolerated by their leaderships as elements necessary to their survival and to the maintenance of their influence over the incredulous who, for want of better, accorded them some credit for trying to limit the damage.
The trade union leadership played the game well. The basis of their subtle sabotage was double language. They had, in part, consigned to the basement their stall-holder slanging matches and sought to consolidate, for the moment at least, the branch on which they were sitting and which they had contributed to sawing through. Hence the demagogic appeals to a unitary inter-trade action through the generalization throughout the country of strikes and demonstrations for the scrapping of the Juppé Plan. In reality they refused to extend the strikes, in particular in the electricity industry (EDF), monopolizing speech and communication in the strikers' assemblies, controlling demonstrations and causing them to degenerate into inoffensive, repetitive marches in which the aim was exhausting their energies and preventing the most radical of them taking over the local branches after their own fashion.
The winter crises confirmed the breakthrough of a renewed rank and file trades unionism recomposing itself outside of traditional confederations, very much upsetting the different leaderships, in particular the leadership of the CFDT. From now on the model is the SUD.
The frequent references by the founders of the SUD to the origins of revolutionary syndicalism, indeed of anarcho-syndicalism for those who are also members of the CNT, to the original trade unions and to the first associations which had as their objective the emancipation of the workers, could be deceptive. Likewise their hostility to the most narrow minded corporatism.
But their steps were more the result of the exclusion imposed by the leadership of the CNT than of any critical reflection. In reality, they are participating in the renewal of trades unionism, a renewal based both on taking up the theme of self-management and the taking into account of the phenomenon of exclusion, up to then neglected by the main unions. They combine the traditional defence of the right of state employees with the defence of the workless, the homeless and illegal immigrants, participating in the creation of charitable organizations and multiplying contacts with those religious and lay people who are taking over from the state in matters of social assistance.
The SUD is already an integral part of a combination movement such as the purest democrats of our epoch dream of, champions of the defence of civil society against the attacks of state power. But the renovated combination movement is rotten even before flowering: it is born out of the decomposition of the former professional trade unionism, based on the identification of individuals with their type of work, and from the emergence of new reformist associations based on the aim of integrating into the world of work all those who have been excluded, so that they become citizens in their entirety. In spite of the good will of a number of SUD members, this atypical trade unionism, as they like to call it, has nothing revolutionary about it.
The irony is that the bureaucratism of the main unions does not stop them from participating in the institutional mechanisms in the state industries, in particular, in elections which allow them to be recognized by the state as the official representatives of the staff. The notion of not abandoning the terrain of power-sharing institutions, from workers' committees to administrative councils, to the managers is completely worn through. The terrain is full of pitfalls, delegates are admitted as co-managers of labour-power.
Faced with the institutionalization of the SUD, some protesters propose to limit the duration of delegates' participation in the co-management organizations and even to elect and revoke them on the basis of only the decisions taken in general assemblies and strike committees. But no formal procedure has ever impeded the appearance of a hierarchy within the institutions even when the base is regarded as sovereign. As long as individuals express the need to be represented, they are always confronted by the fact that the representation that they have chosen escapes their control.
It is customary in France for demonstrators to try to get round obstacles encountered in concrete struggle through a recourse to abstract recipes. Faced with the incapacity to understand what was shackling the development of the content and the contents of the movements unfolding, there was a return to apologetics regarding well-known forms. But, detached from the context that gave them life and meaning, they were nothing more than dead, hollow formulas, phantoms which no longer arouse fear in the holders of state power and their acolytes in the trade union hierarchy. Because the trade unions, for fear of throwing petrol on the fire, have avoided using the term general strike, some protesters thought they saw in it the miracle solution. But whatever their good intentions, they have only tried to outbid their rivals.
The general strike of May '68 constituted their blue-chip stock par excellence. In so doing, they no longer demonstrated any critical spirit. For the mass radical movement which broke out then had already passed the very limited confines of the general strike. It began to question work and many other aspects of daily survival: the family, school, urbanism, etc. Under the control of the unions, the occupations quickly shut themselves away and sometimes turned hostile to anything which wasn't to do with the corporate struggle. So leave the dead in peace. The wheel has turned. The structure of society has undergone an in-depth transformation with the commodity invading the totality of relations plus the near total demolition of working class communities which had, in spite of their corporatism, put up a resistance to capital. It has become impossible in France to identify the modern islets of contemporary capitalism, workers and non-workers, with the former workers of industrial capitalism which then constituted the heart of the economy, with the exception of, partly, state industries and what remains of the classical industrial firms.
To go on strike is not reduced in importance because work, as a feature of the domestication of individuals, remains the basis of society's functioning. But the general disruption of the work process throughout the country is, less than ever, the model for combat for every particular revolt. The ensemble of roles and the straight-jackets which suffocate us overwhelm the confines of work. Henceforth, work disruptions are only one of the moments of the movements of insubordination against state power and contemporary society. Witness the urban riots endemic to the megalopolis of the most advanced countries which already, in spite of the limited character of their objectives, are no less a very characteristic manifestation of revolt in our epoch.
It is impossible to say today what will happen tomorrow. The outcome of the winter movement has not been settled in advance. In relation to those of the recent past it has achieved some advances but, at the same time, it has revealed the existence of enormous obstacles. Of course these are not, a priori, insurmountable and must not become the pretext for kow-towing. Nothing is inevitable, and as the celebrated saying recalls: the power of the masters also rests on the weakness of the slaves.
However, it none-the-less remains true that historical conditions have been modified. The Juppé plan is not the only fruit of the neo-liberal fads of the technocrats in delirium who are today in power in France. In this case the mass strikes of winter would have been enough to cause its withdrawal. But behind them looms the menacing shadow of the real enemy whose managers they only are. The enemy is global capitalism which has decided, on a planetary scale, to deliver the coup de grace to those it has not yet got under control. It's also the reason why the shrewd Juppé plan has the capacity to take a lot of punishment.
Moreover, the victims of neo-liberalism are in a corner. On the one hand, the oldest are scarcely enthused by the programmes coming from bygone periods which in general were reformist. On the other hand, young people have grown up in the shadow of the crises, in an atmosphere of generalized nihilism, which characterizes contemporary capitalism.
Even when the determination to unravel it is real, the absence of a global perspective for overcoming the survival which envelopes them condemns them to explosions of anger which are considerable but without any follow up at the moment, when even a simple resistance to the encroachment of capital is a very arduous thing to achieve. Capital has always taken back what it granted the night before and one cannot appraise the winter movement in terms of a balance sheet. But the non-satisfaction of basic demands had a part to play in the feeling of powerlessness. We don't live only for the pleasures of the flesh but when they aren't to be had those of the spirit offer no consolation.
The absence of great aims does not prompt the use of great means except in very particular situations. Power understood this. In spite of the fear the massive work stoppages in state industries aroused in them, they relied more on the likelihood of decay than on savage repression and gave way to sectional demands only to accelerate the decomposition.
A handful of irreducibles in Paris and the regions, in order to struggle against defeatism and the return to atomization following the return to work, have taken it upon themselves to think and act in a co-ordinated fashion in expectation of a hypothetical resumption. The initiative is not without interest. But it is essential to comprehend that it cannot be a matter of reconstituting the action committees, such as existed in the period of radicalization inaugurated by May '68. And still less the co-ordinations, in the image of those which arose during the preceding strikes and which sought to be the representatives of different trades and professions in struggle. Without neglecting the exchange of information and the rest, it is, more than ever, necessary to draw up a critique of the movement of insubordination which we participated in. The possibility that individuals refusing to accept resignation will converge depends on it. What is necessary, in particular, is the critique of trades unionism, even atypical trades unionism. It is difficult because it could be the cause of a distancing, not only as regards trade union leaderships, but also as regards friends who are still full of illusions on the question of rank and file trade unionism, and not comprehending the critique, the latter could liken it to a rupture in relations forged during the strike. But it is today one of the conditions enabling us to act by ourselves and for ourselves.
France End of 1995: Anger and Huge Strikes
Governments today are so accustomed to hammering into peoples' heads arguments to do with economic logic (calculability, profitability, competitiveness). Used repeatedly they believe it will enable them to pass no matter what measure. It is true that in Europe since the commencement of the big neo-liberal offensive some ten years ago the movements which arose to oppose it have only rarely been able to prove the contrary. To date, the last which succeeded in France was against the CIP (creation of a minimum wage for those under 25 and obviously inferior to the minimum salary in force). In any event the present French government has starkly shown itself to have a large appetite for economic adjustments: privatizations (which have been a bad experience for a far from negligible part of the population) had, when they touched on the public sector, aroused deep suspicion. And, it was at this point that Prime Minister Juppé had sought to put into effect the plan for restructuring the SNCF which had been on the cards for several years, comprising an undermining of railway workers' social benefits, a reduction of the SNCF'spublic function and, as an inevitable consequence, lay-offs to come (after tens of thousands over the last few years). At the same time a plan for the reform of social security was put forward with the aim of balancing the budget - that old monster.
It was already practically inevitable and foreseen several months previously that the railworkers were going to go on strike to protest against the agreed on plan, that is, the projected restructuring of the SNCF. Any eventual overhaul such as specific retirement provisions had not yet been announced. The railway workers had for some years vigorously denounced the logic of profitability which they were the butt of. The plan would only push things further. The logic of the TGV had profoundly altered the SNCF's financial politics and reduced to a secondary role the notion of public service. This meant firstly a huge indebtedness and hence the technocratic necessity to make the railways pay - therefore railway staff had to be reduced, and fares increased according to market logic. Reservations were to be obligatory and tickets purchased an hour before departing practically like air travel. Bit by bit, the notion that there existed non-profitable lines which had to be axed, no matter what problems this would pose to passengers, began to command attention. When work loads become punishing and are not acknowledged as such the more it becomes the norm. Hence proposals to reduce any advantage linked to this aspect.
In these conditions, where conflict was already virtually inevitable, the announcement, at the same time, of a plan levelling down specific public sector provisions and a plan to redress social security financing, substantially modifying its administration, could only unleash the railway workers' anger. The public sector, whose privileges were also threatened, supported them on a massive scale as relatively did people who found the social security reforms disquieting. All this has unleashed a wave of strikes in the public sector, principally in the transport sector (trains, metro, bus, Paris at a complete standstill) and the post office, virtually paralysing the entire country for three weeks.
It is hardly a matter of indifference that the strike was, in large part, catalysed by the overhaul of the social security system bringing it solely under the control of the state. What people feared, and doubtless with good cause given the European priority of profitability in all areas of the public sector, is that once it became a state concern, nothing could prevent it from making economies in the future - even the prospect of privatization - a reduction in contributions increasing the difficulties of average and below-average wage earners. Besides, it wasn't surprising that a majority of French people had no confidence in a government when it came to reforming social security. Over the last few years adjustments have already taken place which, each time, have entailed a reduction in entitlements, making life even harder for poor people. In the era of privatization frenzy, increased competitiveness and relocations, social security had become a symbol of something which had escaped the globalization of the economy, something which still vaguely belonged to the public.
Generally this strike wave had revealed more precisely a latent feeling on behalf of a considerable number of the badly paid that, after ten years, they were not going to put up with any more sacrifices in the name of global competition which had not sensibly improved the precarious nature of their survival, and quite the contrary of what had been affirmed in economic circles. What was starkly revealed was a weariness with the politics of profitability at any price practised by both the state and enterprises. That is the European logic, the logic of budgets, the control of spending which necessarily signifies a reduction in social investments by the state and an increase in insecurity which had begun to befelt as insupportable. The promised compensation of a reduction in unemployment corresponding to a renewed acceleration of the economy increasingly appeared as a mirage wheeled out solely to reassure. People have not yet got around to openly and explicitly criticizing this Europe such as statesmen and bosses conceive it but, being obliged to submit a little more to the yoke of balance sheets and profitability, to seeing the promised jobs going to Asia or South America, a permanent doubt has set in. In order to participate in the development of international markets, it is not necessary to count on the enthusiasms of the crowds. People are only trying to save their bacon.
In this movement of discontent, there is a determination to contest economic logic, refusing the proposed new plans according to this economic logic even though doing so on a defensive terrain, desperately clinging on to previous gains.
Some hundreds of thousand people regularly demonstrated in the streets simply shouting down with the overhaul of pensions, down with the overhaul of social security, and ending by calling for Juppé's sacking. All this could often be compared with a trade union demo with the usual predictable break-aways. Except that the number of demonstrations in the regions were striking (sometimes around 100,000 in towns with around several hundreds of thousand inhabitants) and that the demonstrations lasted for several weeks without peoples determination, in response to the arrogance of power, weakening - in spite of the loss of a not negligible amount of money. This had been seen to such a marked degree for a very long time, some said, not even since 1968.
The movement has expressed an interesting tendency desiring a real dialogue and a clean sweep of authoritarian decisions and the ever-ready plans of experts which are implemented shamelessly, even violently, and, if the resistance is too powerful, by negotiations which invariably end up agreeing on something, (which seems to be the case now, given that the strike has ebbed and the government has not given a proper guarantee, at least as far as concerns social security reform).
This tendency to take democracy at its face value showed up regularly in the remarks of strikers and people who were interviewed. It even happened one Wednesday evening on December 1st during a live TV broadcast which laid claim to being democratic by letting strikers speak (in fact, the time allocated to them was far less than to the crew of invited experts). The strikers however, detournéd and extended democracy. We were able to hear directly the statements of postal workers and striking railway workers in spite of TV contrivances not allowing them to speak for long enough so they could not really develop their ideas. (All the same, they succeeded in making their presence felt sufficiently to be given a little time to talk). We were able to hear a SNCF striker remind us that if the SNCF was so in debt it was because it had been financed for ten years without adequate funding, the Pharaoh-like TGV project which had been decided on solely by the experts and which now everyone had to pay for and that there was no reason to look elsewhere for the famous SNCF debt. Finally, each group of strikers interviewed managed to get in a direct live appeal to generalize the strike - all this at a peak viewing hour (between 21 and 23.30 hours). The programme's presenter was definitely in for a roasting that night.
It is necessary however to temper the enthusiasm which could inspire a relatively massive strike in Europe at the present time where such movements have a tendency to be uncommon.
Firstly, it was only at SNCF and the Parisian transport network (RATP and the buses) that there was an overwhelming majority for strike action followed by the post and sorting offices (around 100 out of the 130 offices paralysed) - but, less well in the financial department sectors and FOS) (only a few days and not everywhere). In the EDF (French electricity industry) only around 40 per cent came out on strike in the second week of the conflict with cuts occurring regularly in certain regions. In French Telecom it was less. Teachers joined in only after two weeks had elapsed although on a massive scale. In the rest of the public sector the support was considerably less, joining in on the three or four most important demonstrations in large numbers but not subsequently going on strike. The private sector for its part had only marginally been represented. All the same, it is essential to note that in spite of the daily difficulties created by the absence of transport (especially in the Parisian region) many people who continued to go to and from work reserved their smiles and sympathies for the strikers claiming solidarity with their demands even if they didn't see their way forward to the possibility of joining in.
Secondly, the nature of the proposals having led to the strike (social security/public sector pensions and the agreed-on plan for the SNCF), had provided a staging post for the major trade unions who kept control over the movement and its opportunities even if they were sometimes thrust aside and necessarily had to go along with strikers determined to demonstrate their anger. But it had always been at stake that the demanded withdrawal of the proposals would be followed by their subsequent re-negotiation. By whom? The trade union experts naturally. Obviously such control of the movements possibilities had weighed on the ideas, the development of the debate and the furtherance of a critique of society. The trade unions had shifted this onto the political terrain against the government in power nicely aided by Juppé's boasting stance. And this tendency in the movement to express a profound dissatisfaction with the neo-liberal transformation of society and the dismantling even of the idea of public service (because what counts, above all, is profitability imposed by experts whilst, by definition, the notion of public service must come from the public deriving satisfaction according to its will and deliberation) has only been incompletely sketched out and expressed under the form of defensive slogans. Swept along by the groundswell, the unions decided to calm things down by calling for militant demonstrations which passed off to the detriment of reflecting on the reasons for this discontent and to communicating this essential aspect.
It is not by chance that this time there wasn't any autonomous co-ordination leading the movement. On the one hand, concerning the planned restructuring of the SNCF, the CGT, which is still very influential in this sector, had the time to foresee the conflict and prepare to be an active force. Regarding the issue of social security, the FO, which has been partly responsible for its management for several decades, was not going to let such a bastion fall without doing anything. Marc Blondel, its leader, had not ceased to let rip during the conflict in order to obtain what he wanted: a subsequent re-negotiation with the unions and, once he obtained it, he had made haste on one thing only: that the strikes end. These elements marked the weakness, the movement's lack of an independent spirit which, in spite of its determination and pugnacity, let its possibilities be pretty well smothered by the trade unions.
The force of the movement has, at times, been compared with May '68. In fact the relationship with '68 is far from being a direct one and the size and of the demonstrations, at least in the regions, could only make one think so sometimes.
There has been a change of mentality. Insecurity has grown since then. People defend themselves more than they go on the attack and, although their determination is great, they increasingly feel they have their backs to the wall. Perhaps it is still a matter of changing the social systembut it does not directly express itself as such. What hasn't changed much are the methods used by governments and trade unions to limit conflicts in a way that enables them to be resolved without changing anything essential in life. In 1968 people gave free reign to their enthusiasm for destabilizing a far too peaceful France, staid governments, the daily grind. The question of social activity was posed in its essence: attack on hierarchies, the questioning of work itself as alienation (never work). Peace finally had been bought through a hefty wage rise. But society had burnt with an intense flame.
The atmosphere today is far from being so inflammatory, the imagination is not always there at the appointed time, spirits are flagging, people have retreated generally, globalization strides implacably onwards. They fear for their children and daren't stride out (especially in the private sector literally knocked sideways by lay-offs and insecurity). they are ready to protest that they want no more aggravation and seek to pose the social question in terms of guaranteed employment. Unfortunately, it is not just a trade union slogan. Employment has become a national obsession in France and that, of course, prevents any fundamental questioning of government means (whether right or left, they fundamentally obey the logic of profitability and global competition) and the aims and means of firms. How far away it seems from the popular need to seize real power in society and, starting right from wherever it may be, to assemble and decide on what to do and what sort of activity. There is a tendency to want more than simply holding on to past gains but it remains powerless, paralysed by the apparent immensity of its task: the questioning of global logic.
The strike has become serious, responsible. It lacks a dose of madness in order to think beyond social security, retirement and the future of the railways.
One thing is certain, the apparently unstoppable managerial dialogue finished up, on account of reducing the mass of wage earners to a precarious existence, by colliding headlong with determined resistance. The entire logic of the economic arguments seeking to justify austerity plans could not prevent people from feeling that the only thing that made their lot supportable, if not enviable - that is a minimum of security - was being blown sky high by global competition. For now, this is expressed only by the defence of past gains, in the need for a return to security (wages, pensions, social security, state support) and trade union experts are well placed to channel these ideas springing from dissatisfaction. It is the social wrapping indispensable to survival in a world that is fundamentally competitive and individualistic. Bit by bit, this social wrapping is eroding, the forward march of Europe wants it thus because it fits perfectly with the world movement of markets and economic liberalization. There is therefore a good chance that one will often see the return of such movements against insecurity elsewhere in Europe. The problem that is posed is knowing how these movements can break free from ideas limited to the defence of a security that is not exactly exciting and enviable. The leaden weight of the trade unions is still capable of limiting the debate, but beyond this problem it is in the hands of each and everyone that the limitation of ideas thrives. Between the mostly aimless and violent outbursts in French suburbs and the fatalism dominating society as regards the advance of commodity logic, there is not today an influential pole of opposition that has succeeded in establishing itself. Over the last few years there have certainly been new things like the homeless movement, those of the excluded and unemployed which have freely denounced and forced state bureaucracy to insist that immediate concrete solutions be found for people in a state of pressing need, deprived of all material support and slipping into vagrancy. By occupying government buildings, in forcing open in a real sense the doors of ministries, they have ensured that some attention and comfort are accorded to them. But, up to now, their aim, the satisfaction of urgent needs, has become more or less mingled with that of survival. Their appeals for solidarity, if completely justifiable, have been too tainted with humanism, even by Christian good will (Abbot Pierre for example), to dare to attack the social logic at the very root of the problem which leads to these sinister consequences. Increasingly people are to be seen without a roof over their heads, wandering aimlessly about, totally discarded. One extremely disabling thing in France (and, no doubt, more generally in Europe) is that there does not seem to be any alternative for society other than, on the one hand, an ultra-liberal destructive privatization which doesn't give a hoot for those countless people who don't figure in the statistics, and on the other, an appeal to state protection under the sign of extended provision. It's as if society had lost all ability to organize itself, to generate its own values, its own richness and material, other than participation in the market (whether European or the world). In any case, the least one can say today is that this blocking of a social alternative has two poles: the affirmation of ultra-liberalism and the defence of the welfare state manifests in every way the same acceptance of the everlastingness of the system, stopped from casting any real doubts, beyond a simple pin prick, on the fatal march of progress. And yet I will not be the last to draw whatever benefits I can from the state. These exist so autonomously from society, from the will of the people - a monstrous bureaucracy - that the sanest relationship one can still have with it is not to hesitate to profit, where possible, from its ungainliness and blindness. To demand a just return, whether in maintaining the gains of wage earners or, from the recruitment of new aides, or to profit from the bureaucratic shortcomings of the system is one thing. But it definitely does not constitute a point of departure for a reversal of perspective in social life. Far from it.
It was pleasurable obviously to see economic activity reduced to a crawl for several weeks and feel that its smooth functioning corresponded to a form of slavery, to a general stupefaction. To a certain extent, the massive mobilization in the streets restored confidence because one could see it was possible to resist, to refuse new austerity measures and to effectively oppose the authoritarian decisions of experts. The expression of a mass of people, of the average French person, that is a poor person, confirmed the possibility of a return to pressure in the streets which the movement against the CIP in the spring of '94 had already signified clearly. When it came to a return to work people dragged their feet. With sectors continuing to remain on strike, one saw that the outcome of the conflict, pensions and unwritten guarantees, satisfied no one. Defiance persists and the atmosphere is one of readiness in the event of negotiations fouling up. One last point in favour of this type of strike movement in our times is the extreme fragility of the economy confronted with a transport stoppage. After a few weeks of strikes the whole system grinds to a halt. All firms lose money on a vast scale and are economically asphyxiated. It is more than ever a solid basis on which to make a practical critique, the problems remaining being those of clarity of critique and effective solidarity with strikers who still rely a lot on trade union organization.
On the last point it doesn't to amount much to unreservedly enthuse about the force of the movement when one sees how the beginning of a vital public debate, experienced as such, was so easily eaten away, often disarmed by slogans and ready-made ideas.
Reflection has not managed to effectively break the vicious circle of obsession with employment and purchasing power, the imagination of people always seeming to stumble over the vision of social struggle. Finally, the impression is of a movement which attacks the real enemy, the absolutism of money, without finding its true voice to speak about a general situation and which remains clouded by a still corporatist language. The protest has not fulfilled its promise, thus leaving the field open to trade union experts and government specialists skilled at a realistic negotiation concerning benefits and who won't risk changing anything making up life's mediocrity and misery.
Provisional end to the state of things.
1. The particular system in place at the SNCF forces on-track workers into retirement at 50 and others at 55, while elsewhere the retiring age for some years had been at least 60 following a lengthening of contributions imposed on the private sector under the pretext of course of competition and profitability to 40 years in place of 37.5.
2. It is necessary to clarify some features of the French social security system. Up to now the system has been directed at once by the state and by the unions, FO essentially, with in second place, representatives of management. The state had, to be sure, determined the general orientation, the overall budget, the rules concerning the repayment of debt and regulated the structure in general but which was financed by wage earners on the one hand and firms on the other. And, in fact at the level of the regional funds, the trade union FO, so steadfastly opposed to reform, had power over budget decisions and was free to make important appointments. It is necessary to establish whether or not the system is still very indebted, many people including economic experts suspecting and even accusing the state of having taken certain important moneys out of the social security account, which they should have taken from other sources. Thus the state now had no bother pointing to the debt which it could largely have contributed to and created by abusing its decision making powers. Through the reform, social security would be fiscalized, that is financed entirely from taxes and therefore would fall wholly and exclusively under the control of the state, requiring an annual parliamentary debate before making major decisions, particularly budgetary ones (obligatory democracy). In fact the masters have to change which might appear of little consequence. In fact it is nothing of the sort because the trade union representatives who participated in its management actually immobilized the system for years and therefore kept its evolution in check (i.e. submitting completely to criteria of profitability) without having the foggiest idea how to improve it. And in any case, all governments not daring to confront the inevitable discontent were, up to now, afraid to countenance a general reform that solely privileged the profitability of the system and the sums involved. Rocard, the leftist minister, had prepared the movement, Juppé had jumped into the driving seat.
FO: Force Ouvrier. A trade union traditionally little to the fore of militant workers' struggles with a strong presence in corporate branches like prison officers, social security but barely represented in the SNCF, or the sorting offices.
CGT: Confédération Générale du Travail. The union traditionally linked to the Communist Party but over the last ten years more concerned with purely trade union matters than political ones following the gradual weakening of the French Communist Party. It has a tradition of participating in militant workers' struggles which it has made its business to control somewhat. It is still relatively influential in statist sectors like the SNCF and the metro, but generally it is weakening and for some ten years it has gone from a predominant position in industry to the position of a simple constituent - hardly more important than others in a parcellized French trade unionism.
On the Eve of Battle
In spite of the hopes it raised, the strike movement that began to develop from the end of November to mid-December 1995 hadn't anything revolutionary to it. The announcement of a new round of negotiations and possible conflict between the unions and government after Chirac's election to the head of the French state had anticipated the defensive stance, on the part of the workers, against the agreement over measures dictated by the World Bank, the IMF and their flunkeys in a technocratic Europe.
No one was deceived: the key word of the strikers was liars as regards Juppé and cohorts. These people have scarcely the demeanour and talent to allow the poor to dream whilst continuing to enfeeble them. Mitterand is dead and his style has followed him. Chirac got himself elected on promises which lasted less than the illusions.
Right from the moment a government assumed power co-opted by the preceding one and international finance, the official French Mafia had decided that its financial protectors had to be first served. One recognized the master from a slave by their priorities.
The reform of the social security system, the Juppé plan, had followed the raising of taxes. Under the pretext of an imbalance in the accounts, made up and unverifiable, the technocrats had drawn out of their briefcases a bag of measures destined, on the one had, to reduce to the lowest denominator the growing level of retirement pensions (alignment of the so called public sector with the private) and, on the other, to tax poverty (the means testing of the family allowance, RDS etc.).
Under the domination of the economy the majority of individuals have been stripped of the faculty of simple analysis. Not being able to write, people have learned how to add up, and when the bill is wrong, it is reason itself which is brought into question.
The nobility of the state (in the words of the sociologist Bourdieu), the estate holders of this democracy in its death throes, has burdened the mass of the population with a state debt whose benefits they alone are in receipt of. They went about cashing in on their situation with the same ruthlessness as a boss exploits his workers. The despicable and arrogant greed of a government casting aside all legitimacy had provoked a movement of waged workers limited to the defence of what exists.
After 20 years of social disintegration which shaped the working class in France, the state which, in the era of Mitterand, had substituted culture for social links, found itself faced with tenacious resistance, in workplaces where a solidarity of conditions is a mode of acknowledgement. The railworkers began: employees belonging to the metro, the electricity industry, telecom and the Post Office joined in the dance. In the regions, municipal employees joined in the mÃªlée and its was precisely there, far from the capital, that the most intensely lived experience occurred. There, the strikers, their neighbours and people generally acted in solidarity using their time and their proximity to encounter one another, discuss, have a ball, criticizing this world before remaking it for themselves.
In spite of the near total paralysis of all the means of transport, good humour tinged with the perfume of an at times pronounced resignation, had won out over the bitterness exuded by managerial bastards. Such was its consistency, the mood so widespread that if people stood up and refused further humiliations, it was for the good of all, as much as for themselves. Poor people living on their knees but in search of vengeance and have a jealous regard forthose who say no.
At the heart of the different sectors, the hierarchies, abasing themselves to a fault, and rightly disturbed, were under pressure to carry out their next function: to disappear. Except for some aborted attempts to get the trains running, some buses and tubes, cadres and other flunkeys did not intervene hoping to benefit from the beneficial financial consequences of a conflict which, in the beginning, did not threaten them. In the Post Office (PTT) as in the electricity industry (EDF-GDF), the matter was treated with less managerial politeness. Parallel sorting offices were opened, defended by security guards to deal with the former, and for the latter, punitive sanctions accompanied by lay-offs and court cases.
Except in Marseilles there wasn't any significant conflict. Going on strike two weeks after the start, the Marseilles train drivers found themselves isolated when other sectors resumed work. The municipal council of Marseilles linked up with the RTM (Regionale Transporte Marseilles) to decide, counting on an apparent weakness, to send cops against the workers. It wasn't a good idea because the strikers hardened until they gained a provisional concession.
The CGT-CFDT-FO-FSU unions called for four big days of local and regional demonstrations which took place at an accelerated tempo of sorts to stop the emergence of other forms of action which could have escaped their control. Whilst reducing the subversive risk of an absence of demands, the planned demonstrations, in spite of everything, were to the good of people who, up to then, had neglected to seek in the occasion a basis on which to begin to do something together.
At the conclusion of demonstrations, notably in Toulouse and Nantes, there was a ritual clash which smashed the harmonic decor and left the terrain open to the enemy. The time gained by the state to desocialize individuals was not made good by an ephemeral barricade of litter bins. On the contrary, the isolated violence brought home how powerless they were to reconquer the territory of encounter, and fed the states imprisoning bulimia.
Although latent, the tension between unions and strikers, evident during the 1986-87 conflict in the SNCF (the French railways strike) were not apparent and have not yet been revived. The railway strike began on the 22nd of November without prior warning and union approval in the majority of places threatened with closure by the state-SNCF plan.
Feeling the anger mount and not having the initiative, the trade union organizations decided to support the strikers; the unanimity at the base of the strikes was such that the unions could only accompany the movement and seek to contain its development.
The Stalinist old guard had nearly disappeared from the ranks of the CGT to be replaced by Bolshevik militants less aware of bureaucratic manoeuvres or wage arbitration and the necessity of power sharing. The same applied to the militant wing of the CFDT where libertarian currents jostled delightfully. These young bureaucrats are not yet worn down by lying and about turns, nor unmasked by the betrayal inherent in their function: tell me who you associate with and I shall tell you what you are.
Hence, internal trade union conflicts are expressions of factional rivalries sharing the same ambitions. This endemic quarrel is to be seen at the approach of elections to union office but this time it was between unions. The sincerity of individuals employed by these organizations is not proof of their honesty but of their blindness. The rottenest practised a similar sort of opportunism culminating in a show of scorn for the non-unionized, who have nothing to gain from the commerce of waged misery; for the traffic in poverty wages there was nothing on offer.
Prior to haggling over the remains of a movement they could not lead, the trade union crew presented a united front. The unity proclaimed from the top was the inevitable result of alliances brought about by lower ranking militants, in the course of daily assemblies, which had the dual function of keeping the strikers under-informed and voting for the continuation of the strike.
The possibility of transforming these open assemblies into forums where the free exchange of views could flower was scarcely more concrete. Happily, uniformity did not reign across their entirety, but geographical differences were cruelly felt. People discussed more (providing material and financial support) on the forecourt of Bayonne station or in Parisian stations, where the perplexing Vigipirate plan made access to meeting places difficult.
Pickets and the occupation of SNCF premises often allowed ideas to be expressed which surpassed the assemblyist consensus: the return of the repressed swept aside the omnipresent bureaucratic mantras.
Between the never ending never again like before numerous poems, quotations and scant consolation:
We begin to live when we retire,
We join battle and open fire,
Juppé - we ain't no whores,
You'll be fucked by our struggle and cause.
Prominently, flanking a roll call of scabs:
Annihilate forever everything that can screw up your movement.
(Depot de Paris Saint-Lazare)
The gradual resumption of work which, at times, was stormy, was not due to trade union ploys as was often the case in the past. Tiredness, exhaustion, lack of money, the announcement that some reforms were to be frozen contributed to ending the strikes. The most pessimistic strikers were unhappy about the fact that the movement was not generalized: They ignored the degree of control attained by the domesticating power of liberalism. Many who wanted to continue were filled with bitterness, rage and nausea when the strikes were called off. They did not wish to break the bonds that had united them with others for three weeks and create division to the possible detriment of friendships formed and the social adventures to come. Everyone agreed on a pause to recover breath and to critically examine the movement.
It is imperative to understand its deficiencies, its qualities and limits because the state will not go back on its decisions.
To reflect is not to yield.
A railway proletarian
Paris, January 17 1996.
For help with translations of these texts, thanks to: ex-Blob and friends, BM Combustion and Christelle.
1 Title of both a leaflet distributed in the movement and an article in the recent French edition of Echanges et Mouvement.
2 Doctrine which justifies predatory relations between individuals.
3 A very widespread ideology which opposes a literal to a real meaning of democracy.
4 Sporadic demonstrations happened in neighbourhoods outside of official ones.
5 This even extends to the timetable itself. The more useful the borrowed indexed timetable, the more expensive it is - a process already in force in the TGV and which it is intended to apply generally.
6 Normally in French politics there is a formal separation between the election of the Presidency and the previous government and its Prime Minister. For the first time, however, this pretence was dropped, as the whole government had already been chosen by the previous administration (both of them Gaullist, though before Chirac, Mitterand, a Socialist, had been nominally Head of State).
7 Increased national insurance contributions of 3.5 per cent.
8 For example, nationally organized state-subsidized free music festivals, usually several days long and mostly held in the streets in every town throughout France.
9 This refers to the fact that these cadres, unlike in '86-7 when they fully participated in the repression and scabbing of the railworkers' strike, were themselves threatened with redundancy by the latest State reforms.
10 It's of no importance to us to have found out that some cadres, or even high functionaries, participated in the demos and the strikes! How far does this go, this team spirit of which these managers speak, these high level scabs who break most movements and then change their tune when it's their arse that's threatened.
11 A largely marginal pro-situ/autonomist milieu tend, in France, to go on demos in order to wait for the end when they have a traditional stone-throwing, window-smashing, conflict with the cops, maybe overthrowing a car or two. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it has no strategy behind it and doesn't arise out of the rest of the demo; the vast majority of demonstrators aren't touched by it. It's largely a voluntaristic affair which doesn't develop from the concerns and anger of the vast majority, who remain, and are treated as, spectators of this predictable reflex punch up; it doesn't subvert marginality, but tends to reinforce it. The media and the State exaggerate these conflicts in order to be that much more repressive with those arrested.
12 A reference to the fact that French prisons are being stuffed to bursting point.
13 These people spend half their time in the CGT and the CFDT offices.
14 According to the latest news, SNCF management have increased the amount payable to striking union delegates. It has always deliberately confused bureaucratic dialogue with social dialogue. Union delegates have for ages only represented a handful of wage workers.
15 The plan drawn up under the pretext of combating Islamic terrorism resulted in a vast increase in CCTV cameras, the presence of the army and gendarmerie everywhere and secret access codes on gates to places where assemblies had been held in the '86-7 strike.