France: One-Day Strike on April 28
A final stage before indefinite action against Hollande’s government?
This year will have seen the spring strikes come early… in March. The so-called ‘employment’ law, called after the Labour minister El Khomri, was the trigger, quite understandably. It represents a major attack on all of us – a massive step backwards which will completely transform the workplace. For a significant section of the workforce, it would mean a lifetime of insecure employment – no fixed labour contracts, no real collective bargaining rights.
From now on the fight is against ‘the El Khomri law and its supporters’. And against a bosses’ dictatorship which will be installed in many workplaces, or which will get even worse in those where it’s already difficult to have workers’ rights respected.
Unity in struggle between workers and young people
The extent of social unrest was expressed on 9 March – the first day of demonstrations and strikes that united workers and young people together – and it is growing. On 31 March, more than a million people went onto the streets, with strikes in many workplaces especially in the private sector. Already, for many workers, the need for a general strike was firmly in their minds and in their discussions. This is the extent of struggle which must be reached if we are not only to consign this employment law to the dustbin but also to put a stop to policies which only push people even deeper into insecurity and misery.
The fact that young people, especially school and university students, have joined in this movement is a source of support and encouragement for millions of workers. This alliance of young people and workers is the best fuel to drive the movement forward but also the greatest source of dread for all those politicians who support the system, not only the Valls-Hollande government but also those on the right and in the Front National. It is this alliance and this unity in a mass movement that will enable us to win.
The battle will continue with the call by the trade union confederations for a 24 hour strike and rallies on 28 April, demanding the withdrawal of the El Khomri law. That day must of necessity be the last stage before the leaders of fighting trade unions issue a call to bring everyone out on a general strike. The anger is there, as is the unwillingness to put up with policies in the interests of the rich; people are fed up with fiddling politicians and particularly with their arrogant tone in the media. We need to go forward, build up the strength of the movement sufficiently to employ our best weapon to bring the economy to a halt and show everyone that the fat cats and their lackeys in the political class are powerless: a united all-out general strike.
We have been writing articles about this for over a year now: there is a huge wave of anger in society and the moment is coming when this anger is going to – as it must – turn into open revolt.
That is what the 9 March showed, and that is what made such a success of the 31 March. That is why the movement is constantly seeking to go further and to inflict a real defeat on this government.
To sum up: it is anger against the dirty tricks which have been played on us ever since the unfolding of the capitalist crisis in 2007-2008. All these dirty tricks have the same origin, which is that the capitalists are trying to protect and increase their profits, on our backs, and the actions of successive governments have been to help them do that. Nearly ten years of redundancies, low pay, public service cuts, worsening of working conditions, and harassment by managers – we’ve had enough! And this government which claimed to be on the ‘left’ has clearly done nothing to make things better; it has even been a worthy successor to former right wing president, Sarkozy, in championing the interests of the rich.
Ever since François Hollande was elected president of France in 2012 there has been a continuous rise in unemployment, with 3.5 million people now jobless, yet the 500 richest people have a combined income of 460 billion euros.
So when Hollande said, in his televised broadcast on the 14 April, that France is ‘better off’, we are obviously not talking about the same France because we are not living in the same world as these people.
The scandal over the massive tax evasion revealed by journalists in the ‘Panama papers’ did not even provoke surprise. It just confirmed that the system is corrupt, and that all the elites, from the Front National, through the fat cats and the banks, to the Parti Socialiste, are all mired in corruption. These are the same super rich who support policies which demand more sacrifices from the great majority of the population who nevertheless live in poverty. The same super rich who manage to pay as little tax as possible while taking advantage of public services and infrastructure.
So it is obvious that a law which allows them to make us work more for less and entirely for the benefit of those who have everything already, cannot be allowed on the statute book.
The second reason for this anger is the stifling atmosphere which has developed since the Sarkozy years and which has got worse recently: the Front National and reactionaries, of all kinds, are never out of the media, racist campaigns are conducted against Muslims and refugees, and increased powers have been given to the police.
This stifling atmosphere has seen mini versions of Sarkozy and current prime minister, Manuel Valls, popping up everywhere, with managers harassing workers, head teachers who take themselves for CEOs, freedom of expression which only exists for the media that operates to prop up the system – we’ve had enough of all this. Previously it used to be said that ‘dictatorship means keep your mouth shut’ and ‘democracy means endless discussion’. Today, with Valls, it’s more and more a case of ‘keep your mouth shut’.
This sense of being repressed and treated with contempt whenever you criticise the way the world is being driven – straight at a brick wall – could no longer be silenced. That is also what explains the enormous movement of revolt around the employment law, alongside the new phenomenon of gatherings in public squares known as Nuit Debout (‘Up All Night’).
Yet again we are greeted with contempt and repression. In many cities, simply gathering in the street for a discussion brings attacks by the police. And police harassment against school students shows that what the system wants is docile youth, who do not think and do not challenge.
It is very clear – as far as democracy goes, we are living under a ‘democratic’ dictatorship of the capitalists
Trade unions’ response
When faced with all this, the absence of any real willingness to act on the part of the main trade union leaders became intolerable. So is the refusal, by a whole host of parties and currents who claim to be on the ‘left’ of the PS, to come out in opposition to Valls and Hollande. On-going attacks, like those on staffing in health and education, redundancies and factory closures, have all been accompanied by routine days of action without any real demands being put or any plan of campaign, despite the willingness of the workers involved to take action. This has now become a factor in the situation.
‘Soft’ is too weak a word to describe the initial reaction of the national leadership of the CGT to the El Khomri law. It has been unacceptable to the many activists fighting the day to day battles. The support shown on social media, especially the response to an Internet petition, showed that it is not just thousands but millions of people whose patience is exhausted, and they are ready to act and make their feelings known if they have the means and the opportunity. Where previously the trade unions said ‘well, we’d like to take action but when you call a strike, there’s not enough support’, now we have the proof that that is wrong. This translated into the success of the 9 March and, even more so, of the 31 March, with 1,200,000 demonstrating across more than 200 towns and cities, including many private sector strikers.
And now the leadership of the CGT (Confédération générale du travail – Confederation of Labour) which everyone knows is still the trade union best placed to lead a determined struggle, has to be persuaded to put forward a real action plan moving towards a general strike. Once again the activists are trying to make themselves heard, in the debates at the 51st Congress of the CGT, numerous local strikes, and even through the phenomenon of ‘Up All Night’. It really is only a determined and widespread strike that can bring an end to this law, and only that will put a stop to the politics of Valls and Hollande.
Strikes break out
Since the middle of March there has been an explosion of local strikes, at the same time as the movement of school and university students continues to fuel anger at the pro-rich policies of the government.
Militancy is spreading and deepening. Strikes are breaking out over wages and working conditions (at Campanile at the Eiffel Tower, various McDonald’s restaurants, engineering and public transport). Determined strikes, some of them lengthy, are spreading, such as Calcia Cement, XPO logistics, Lisi-Creuzet engineering, postal workers, school staff, social care, TCAR public transport in Rouen.
In practice, this is the dynamics of a mass strike, in which the El Khomri law is unanimously rejected and where other demands are brought forward to reinforce and support the overall struggle.
But what is still missing is a lever, and a truly democratic leadership for a much broader struggle, even in the local strikes. The inter-union coordination does not fulfil this role and there are not many workers’ assemblies. And so the debate about moving towards a general strike, and the fight for it, still mainly take place within the trade unions themselves or in workplaces which are on strike.
“Nuit Debout” Creating a Stir
It is partly for these reasons that the phenomenon of ‘Up All Night’ has found a certain echo without – for now – being a huge event in itself. The fact that it is spread to so many cities indicates a need, and a desire, to discuss, to break out of people’s isolation and to press forward together with the idea of a general strike. But this comes after a long period when struggles have remained isolated and there have only been limited public debates. All of a sudden there are so many discussions that it is difficult to know where to start.
The general strike is in everyone’s thoughts, and there is a real will to defeat this government. The rejection of capitalism is getting stronger. But for now, if Nuit Debout is a space where it is possible to put forward and to debate ideas, it nevertheless lacks the authority and clarity needed to make decisions and drive the movement forward on a broader scale. In reality, few decisions are taken there and the main objective, which is to make the government back down over the employment law, tends to be side-lined, when really it should be at the heart of the activity. The trade unions as a whole do not attend sufficiently, apart from those workplaces which are on strike, CGT activists in an individual capacity, and some of the trade unions belonging to Solidaires (Solidarity) federations on the railways, in the post office and in education; and this does nothing to deepen the discussions. But, at the same time, the persistence of the phenomenon encourages people to continue struggling, destabilises the political forces which are propping up the system and makes them fear that these are just the first steps towards an active challenge to the whole system.
The movement of the school students, of the university students, the debates within the trade unions and ‘Up All Night’ – these are all movements which mutually support each other without really coming into contact with each other except on the major strike days. And yet they are all part of the same dynamic which is heading towards a general strike, of which 28 April is the first step, with the possibility of a longer strike in May.
The struggle will continue with the rail strike of 26 April and the possibility of strikes in a number of other workplaces. On 3 May, the law will be presented at the National Assembly. Now the trade union leaders opposed to the El Khomri law should be calling for that day to be one of general strike action and arguing the need for a longer strike until the law is withdrawn. The call to name the day for May and the possibility of even continuing the strike after 28 April should be proposed in trade union meetings and general assemblies, and in the ‘Nuit Debout’ gatherings. Without waiting for calls from above – though we need those – we need to build this general strike that we all want to see if they do not listen to us.
Repression in a crisis-ridden system
The hatred which the FN and the right harbour against ‘Up All Night’, the frenzied reaction from the most reactionary sections of the police (CRS and anti-crime brigade responsible for unrestrained use of tear gas and truncheons against school students), the statements made by numerous PS leaders against ‘Up All Night’, tells us all we need to know about their fears: it is becoming clear that a majority of society no longer has confidence in this system and do not feel like following those ‘leaders’ anymore. All we need now is a decisive movement for this defiance to be transformed into open rebellion.
These are anxious times for the tops of the government and the political parties. We see the right wing leaders of the FN and the PS attacking the CGT for their poster denouncing police violence. We see the employers hesitating when they demand that the government returns to the original plan for ‘employment’ law when, at the same time, more and more dissident voices are heard in their ranks who fear a generalised social conflict. We have seen the leading lights of the right wing forced to back down when faced with mass mobilisations, Juppé and to a lesser extent Fillon, regularly voice their fear that the movement would be too powerful to be contained and would condemn the possibility of a ‘reform’ (abolition) of employment rights.
And then there are those to the left of the ruling Socialist Party (PS) who seem to be waiting for one thing only: for the movement to subside so they can start discussing things which seem serious to them but where the majority of people have no expectations – namely the Presidential elections in 2017.
A mass movement which can win and change everything
This situation can tip over into either victory or defeat; it is highly unlikely that it will remain unresolved as it is now. The camp of class struggle is growing in strength, despite the repression, which is often an admission of weakness on the part of a system whose defenders are not as determined as those fighting it.
The employers are divided. A section of them fear the government will back down too far; another section fear the movement is already too strong. Gattaz (the bosses’ leader) is trying to get them to close ranks by threatening a boycott of negotiations over unemployment insurance. But we are not going to hold negotiations over the weight of our chains; it is for us to break them. Gattaz can have his own little boycott in a corner; what makes us strong is our unity in this struggle and our demands, and the fact that there are millions of us against their handful of parasites.
This society of ‘work, shop and keep your mouth shut’ no longer appeals; it is stifling and destructive. But what everybody wants to see at the heart of society is solidarity, comradeship, socially useful work, and not exploitation, racism, sexism, intolerance, harassment by managers. What is being challenged is both capitalism, its law of profit and the dictatorship of exploitation, but also the alienated human relationships it imposes on us. All of us who are part of the struggle want to throw the Khomri law, Valls’ and Hollande’s policies, and, for many of us, capitalism too, on the rubbish heap.
And even if many look sympathetically on various actions, such as spontaneous demonstrations, they do not want to be part of a limited and small-scale movement; they want to see mass struggle, all of us together, young people and workers united.
For two years, Gauche Revolutionnaire (CWI) has been defending the idea that these isolated days of action must have the objective of developing a united struggle, using militant strikes over wages, and against redundancies and poor working conditions. In this way we can unite the majority of workers.
Today the Khomri law alone is enough to create unity in our demands and our method of struggle. The fight against the Khomri law poses the question of the general strike, since it represents such a social counter-revolution that to accept it would be to accept the rule of all-powerful bosses and the exploitation of workers until they drop. Even the small employers have attacked the domination by the large multinationals, which the Khomri law represents.
In discussions taking place in the movement, the need for a shorter working week, higher wages, and a democratic and collective organisation of work for the good of the community and not the profits of a handful, are ideas which constantly come up. In every discussion, although it is not always expressed consciously, we also touch on the need for a revolution, the overthrow of capitalism, and the construction of socialism. This would see the economy organised democratically to meet social and environmental needs on the basis of public ownership of the main means of production, distribution and exchange.
Gauche Revolutionnaire believes that a general strike is approaching. We need to build for it, and we need fundamental discussions about the kind of world we want – whether that is in the ‘Up All Night’ gatherings or among strikers – because we think that everything points in one direction. We believe there is a need for a real mass party of class struggle to confront the parties and organisations which serve capitalism. That is what is missing today, a party to unite workers and young people who have already come to the conclusion that we need to overthrow this barbaric and unjust system.
We are fighting for a real revolution which will allow us to build a truly democratic society free from exploitation and injustice.
The general strike is our most powerful weapon because it demonstrates that society cannot function without the workers – goods are not produced and are not transported – and that our next objective must be to ensure that there are no bosses to extract profit from us.
That is what is on the agenda which we must build for and make successful; to get rid of the Khomri law and the world it represents.
Repost from SocialistWorld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers International.