A massive wave of strikes and protests has gripped France, as workers battle to stop the raising of the retirement age. Workers showed their potential power to defeat the changes, but with the bill passed in parliament union leaders appear to have succeeded in winding down the movement.
Between two and 3.5 million people have taken to the streets nine times since the reforms were announced. Strikes have involved workers from the civil service, post, hospitals, education and transport sector, to metal and dock workers and the private sector.
Public support for the struggle to defend pensions has grown to 71 per cent since the strikes began, despite the widespread disruption. President Sarkozy’s popularity has plummeted reaching just 29 per cent, the lowest since his 2007 election.
Sarkozy’s reforms are typical of austerity measures being imposed across Europe to deal with the deepening economic crisis.
They include privatisations and job cuts, including 7000 sackings in the education sector. But most controversial are efforts to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, and delay access to a full state funded pension until the age of 67.
In addition to the massive general strike days, key sectors such as petrol, transport, electricity and dockworkers have voted for continuous strikes. Twelve oil refineries were shut down for nearly two weeks with workers blockading and occupying the premises to prevent them from functioning.
Strikers at France’s largest fuel refinery; Fos-Lavera oil port in Marseille, struck for 15 days before the strike action was broken up by riot police with tear gas and truncheons. The government responded brutally, sending in the riot police and even the army to break up the strikers, threatening them with imprisonment of up to five years if they didn’t return to work.
The oil industry was paralysed with a quarter of France’s 12,500 fuel stations running out of fuel.
Workers at two fuel depots in Belgium even struck in solidarity with French workers, blocking trucks from entering to make up for fuel shortages in France.
“We are not prepared to see our livelihoods taken away for profit. We do a hard and physical job and are not going to work until we drop”, said Pierre Brossat, representative of the dockworkers union. “[Union members] want action to win. That means continuous strikes, and a general strike that closes down the economy and hits the bosses.”
Students joined the demonstrations en masse on the October 12 with thousands across the country protesting in solidarity against the reforms and to express hostility to “Sarkozism”, his austerity measures and his racist expulsion of Roma. High-school and university students built barricades to blockade their schools. One thousand of France’s 4300 secondary schools went on strike, with 600 of them blockaded shut.
Djamila, a school student from Paris said, “It’s about pensions, it’s about young people not getting jobs because workers are kept on into their old age, it’s about Sarkozy’s dirty government. We have a slogan—‘Unemployed at 25, exploited at 67. No! No! No!’”
But the strikes at refineries have now ended and garbage collectors have returned to work in Marseille to begin removing 10,000 tonnes of rubbish piled in the streets after two weeks on strike. Another two million people took to the streets on October 28, but for the first time since the movement began numbers were smaller than the week before.
From the beginning union leaders had to be pushed into escalating the days of strike action. As Patrice, a health worker, told Socialist Worker (UK), “It felt like they were doing it without much heart. They expected to have a few stage-managed protests and then it would end.” They refused to extend the action into indefinite strikes between the one-day strike protests.
A further day of protests is planned for Saturday November 6. But as Marcel Grignard, a senior union leader at the CFDT confederation, put it, “the closure of parliamentary debate and the promulgation of the law will create a new situation”.
The pensions reform will not be introduced until 2018. And big business has taken a bruising—the one-day general strikes alone cost French bosses $564 million each—and this does not even begin to include the cost of the indefinite strikes in some industries.
As governments continue to step up their austerity measures, rank-and-file workers will need to organise from below to force their union leaders to call the kind of all out workers’ action that began to be glimpsed in France.
The current issue of your newsletter carries the headline ‘French Workers Show How to Fight’. What can be gleaned from this? The scale of French strikes results from the tradition of the French labour movement and from the composition of French trade unions, of capital in France and of France’s social make-up more generally. These strikes in France did appear to be the most significant since those of the 1990s. But who are they showing the way to?
Australia doesn’t have the same composition of trade unions, capital nor social make-up. It is poor thinking to transpose the concrete situation in France onto the concrete situation in Australia; or rather to ignore the concrete situation for the passion for a particular mode of class politics. If all that is intended is that large scale strikes are a desideratum – an abstract ought – then there is a responsibility to at least talk about the distinct conditions of possibility for this sort of action in Australia.
We have some recent evidence for this. The strikes against the WorkChoices legislation can be talked about on the basis of the strategy of the ACTU – its media campaign and the campaign it fought within particular unions to shape the movement. The ACTU had developed over time a particular strategy for rebuilding union density and extension and this had established a particular subject within the trade unions. The scale of the strikes around WorkChoices resulted from the ACTU including this form of action as a tactic in its strategy, a tactic that was of course argued by militants. Neither in France nor Australia were the strikes predominantly spontaneous. In neither case do the actions of workers form clean objects for theory.
The scale of strikes in France (or Greece, for that matter) is not unprecedented. If this scale of strike action happened here, over the extension of the retirement age, it would be a miracle (to borrow from Lenin). This isn’t to isolate Australia. The massive rallies of Latino workers and their supporters in the USA a few years back were again based on concrete conditions and not simply on an exhortation to a passion.
I wonder what the point of this slogan ‘French Workers Show How to Fight Is’ is? Surely there are local real practices in the working class that ‘Show How to Fight’. Ark Tribe is surely an example: refuse to cooperate with capital. Perhaps this would be a better and more authentic and practical basis for a slogan than the gigantic concept ‘French Workers’ – which must include the entire history and tradition of ‘French Workers’ as well as the composition of its present trade unions, of capital and of the social make-up of the society it exists in.
In the present clear thinking is much more important that exhortations to the passions. Of course talking about what has happen in France and elsewhere is important. But making the specificities of the concrete situation in France an exhortation in Australia is misleading.
You have drawn made a very large straw man out of this one.
There are always specific dynamics of working class struggles in one country or city across the world that cannot be transposed exactly across to other nation states exactly – that is obvious.
But are you suggesting that French workers going on strike and students blockading their schools because of a rise in the pension age and cut backs to social services has nothing to show an Australian working class who has also suffered a rise in the pension age and cut backs to social services? That is the general point. Nobody is expecting the situation in France to be replicated over here (who ever said that??), but my experience as an activist on campus shows that the situation in France has provided some inspiration at the level of ideas.
On Ark Tribe and the ABCC, and the ACTU’s Your Rights at Work campaign – these are things we have consistently covered… and there is an article on Ark Tribe in the issue you refer to.
Then why not lead with Ark Tribe on the cover: ‘Ark Tribe Shows How to Fight’? His refusal has shown Australian workers how to fight much more concretely than French workers and students. He has simply said that the law does not apply; or that it only applies to the degree we consent to it. That is an essential lesson.
Have French workers and students said this? No, not in these protests. These protests are set pieces within trade union and social democratic negotiations with the state-they assume the law applies and so want a better law. There is nothing wrong with this politically. The point I make is different and more substantial. Ark Tribe’s action show that we can ignore the law; French workers and students show that mass protests can be part of changing the law. There is simply something more substantial, and concrete, to be drawn out of Ark Tribe than the French protests.
I think the comment about France providing inspiration is valid. But isn’t a socialist publication supposed to do more than inspire; and isn’t much more than inspiration lacking in the Australian situation? I think foregrounding things like the French protests is misleading.
That is both wishful thinking about what Ark Tribe and his refusal to appear at the ABCC represented and a sectarian dismissal of the French strikes which judges the entire strike movement by the politics of its leadership.
Ark Tribe refused to appear at the ABCC and then fought a court case to try to justify this on a legal technicality–that the wrong person served the notice on him to appear. So the lesson sent was not simply that unions can defy the law and get away with it–but that if you defy the law you will have a lengthy court battle (over 18 months long) and must fight your case on legal terms.
Sadly, it is precisely defying the law that the construction unions have NOT done consistently–they are still copping massive fines for breaching the anti-union laws and agreeing to pay them all.
And it’s not simply true the strikes in France were just set-piece rallies called by the union leadership. The left fought and pressured them to call these actions, and some groups of workers went well beyond them like the oil refinery workers.
But again, we have written plenty of articles on Ark Tribe, making precisely the points I’ve outlined. You seem to have an incredible ability at hairsplitting if nothing else.
Ark Tribe got off on a legal technicality. While it is obviously more than welcome, it is a little rich to say that beating the ABCC on a legal technically shows that “the law does not apply” or that we can “ignore the law”!
The law continues to apply, and can and will still be enforced unless people fight, collectively. It would have been better if the officials called a national strike on the day of the trial. Ark’s original “refusal” at work is how we can fight the ABCC, but the union officials strategy here is just as much about obeying the law as that of the union officials in France. At least in France they showed that you can stop work and in doing so showed who runs the system everyday.
I think you are making strange mountains out of molehills: I also never said the only role of a socialist publication is to provide “inspiration”… if that was so we would just publish nice pictures of collective action. But we publish agitational articles that argue for concrete ways forward in social campaigns and union struggles all the time.
‘Ark’s original “refusal” at work is how we can fight the ABCC, but the union officials strategy here is just as much about obeying the law as that of the union officials in France.’
Isn’t this where Ark Tribe was indifferent to the law, ignoring making not apply? His refusal (with or without scare-quotes) at work was what I was referring to, not the case in court.
‘Legal technicality’ is what law is all about, law exists in its application not is letter. I thought you would have known that. There can be modest Magna Carta’s much more significant than 63 old points.
Ark Tribe’s refusal to obey the law in his workplace was a denial of the laws efficacy. The law only exists if it materially applies. Ark Tribe was denying the law its existence. We can always ignore something that doesn’t exist.
The point is that it is not about simply obeying the law or not, but about what real actions say about the material existence of law. This is why Ark Tribe’s case is obviously more significant than set-piece protests in France, and actually does ‘show how to fight’.
The point you seem to miss is that the law does still apply and that the CFMEU is struggling under a huge bill of fines for people breaking the law – the problem is there strategy is to pay the fines rather than push national strike action. We need bigger and better rank and file organisation within unions like the CFMEU to push that.