French Labour Law: Strengths and Weaknesses of the Movement

The renewable strike movement, which has been launched in several key sectors of the economy over the past three weeks, has had the immediate effect of intensifying the media propaganda campaign aimed at the anti-labour law mobilization since the beginning of March

cgt-marchPhoto: CGTThe extreme aggressiveness of this propaganda, which is orchestrated at the highest levels of the state and the bosses, reflects the hatred and fear experienced by the latter in the face of such mobilizations by refinery and port workers. And for good reason: by paralyzing important sectors of the economy, the renewable strikes showed the way to a possible victory against the labour law. As we noted at the beginning of March, only the development of a renewable strike encompassing a growing number of economic sectors is likely to make the government back down.

At the same time, the renewable strikes [the continuation of which is put to the vote on a daily or weekly basis] have shown the enormous power of the working class. Not a wheel turns and not a light bulb shines without the kind permission of the workers. This truth is unbearable for the capitalists because it has revolutionary implications. Indeed, if it is the workers that make possible all the critical activities of the country’s economy, why shouldn’t they be its masters? Why leave the economy and the state in the hands of a handful of giant parasites - the bosses of the CAC 40 companies and their right-wing, or “left-wing,” politicians?

Our opponents have posed that question themselves, in a way, when they continuously repeated the words of Prime Minister Manuel Valls: “The CGT [trade union confederation] does not make the law in this country.” This is true; it’s Medef (the main employers’ association) who makes the law in this country at the moment. But the present movement emphasizes the enormous potential power of the labour movement. The workers of the EDF electric company reminded Medef President Pierre Gattaz of this by cutting power to his holiday home, while switching more than one million homes to cheaper “off-peak” rates. Therefore, if it really was the labour movement that “made the law” instead of big business, wouldn’t things go better for the mass of the population? These are the kinds of questions that the statement of Manuel Valls has aroused in the minds of a number of workers. In seeking to turn “public opinion” against the CGT and workers in struggle, the Prime Minister has given material for political discussions on this crucial question:  who should run society? Who should “make the law”: a minority of profit-hungry big capitalists, who are destroying the economy - or the mass of workers, who produce all the wealth?

Encouraged by government statements and Pierre Gattaz, journalists and columnists of the major capitalist media have thrown aside their last trappings of “objectivity” and joined the great reactionary chorus. The problem in France, you see, is the CGT, the “blockades”, the population being “taken hostage” by “a minority of radicalized strikers” - and so on, around the clock, in all major media. Le Point director Franz-Olivier Giesbert has managed the difficult task of outpacing even infamous columnist Eric Zemmour in his inflammatory rhetoric, by putting the CGT and the Islamic State group in the same pot. But then, you must treat the CGT like IS! In one sentence, Giesbert revealed the real purpose of the “state of emergency” and anti-democratic measures adopted in the wake of attacks in January and November 2015. All these measures are aimed not at terrorists of IS but our democratic rights, the democratic rights of the labour movement - including the “terrorists” and “thugs” of the CGT, to quote the president of Medef. This is another important political lesson that has escaped from the pen of a bourgeois reporter.

By pushing our opponents into making such political pronouncements against the strikers and their organizations, renewable strikes have had the effect of politicizing the debate. Let’s take another example. The CGT is accused, on every television channel and radio frequency, of making “a mockery of democracy.” How? By rejecting the authority of Parliament and the President of the Republic “elected by the people” in 2012. The “democratic institutions” are threatened by a “minority” of “radicalized” unionists. But again, the argument turns against its authors. First of all, the use of the decree powers of article 49-3 on May 10 in order to bypass Parliament showed the attitude of the government itself towards the democratic institutions. And, as the mobilized workers now say, “the strike is our 49-3.”

Second, President François Hollande did not campaign in 2012 on a commitment to destroy the Labour Code. Rather he named “finance” as his “enemy” and promised to improve the lot of workers, youth, the unemployed and pensioners. But once in power, his policy was driven by the interests of “finance” and big business in general, at the expense of the rest of the population. And they want the workers - a majority of whom voted for Hollande in 2012 – to peacefully let themselves be stripped of their rights after being betrayed, once again, by the leadership of the Socialist Party?

No, Holland and Valls do not represent “the majority of the people”; they represent and serve a handful of billionaires, while they languish in the depths of unpopularity. In contrast, the activists of the CGT in struggle defend the interests of the entire working population. The real democratic “majority” is on the side of the strikers and their unions, not on the side of the Élysée Palace, the Parliament and the MEDEF. This is how a great many workers understand the situation. The bourgeois (and corrupt) “democratic institutions” come out more discredited than they were already.

A problem of leadership

In the first instance, the media offensive against strikes and the CGT has not affected the massive support enjoyed by the movement. This is not only what the polls show, but also the great success of the strike fund launched by info'com-CGT [the union’s ICT workers’ branch]: over 260,000 euros collected to date. If the national leadership of the CGT had organized a serious financial campaign of solidarity with the strikers, the figure would undoubtedly be much higher.

Support for the movement is therefore strong. But that can change. If blockages and renewable strikes do not develop significantly, if they do not rapidly spread to new sectors of the economy, it is unlikely that the government will back down. So, for lack of a perspective for victory, the movement could lose public support. This is the objective of Valls and Holland. The main danger is not anti-union propaganda of the government, but the relative isolation of the mobilized sectors.

Above all, workers engaged in a renewable strike cannot hold out indefinitely. By its very nature, the extension of the movement must be fast. From this point of view, we must recognize that the situation is mixed. The garbage and waste treatment workers have entered the movement. The strike is still solid in strongholds such as the Compagnie Industrielle Maritime oil terminal at Le Havre harbour. Every day, blocking actions and roadblocks, among other things, are organized around the country, including notably the initiative of electricity and gas workers. On 7 June, a CGT statement announced strikes in 3 of the 4 Amazon sites in France - where working conditions are notoriously bad - and "renewable actions in many food companies (Nestlé 56, Haribo Perrier 30, Jacquet 63, Tabac Le Havre...), engineering factories (LME 59 Iveco 07 Annonay, Peugeot Mulhouse...), commerce (Intermarché, Leclerc 31), and glass (Verralia...)". All these strikes are very significant. They show enormous potential. But at the same time, the movement is receding in the refineries, while they were all on strike on 24 May. The owners of several refineries are engaged in intense manoeuvring to break the strike, holding "consultations" over the heads of the workers’ assemblies. Most road transport workers have returned to work. The strike on the SNCF railways is not solid enough to paralyze traffic. No significant disturbance is visible on the RATP (Paris transport) network.

The dynamic is therefore contradictory. And once again, the government will not back down easily: firstly, because the Labour Code is a very important counter-reform from the standpoint of big business; secondly, because the government fears that a victory for the workers will encourage new mobilizations. This is what the CGT leadership should explain, instead of simply welcoming the mobilization - ignoring its weaknesses - and sowing illusions about the potential impact of the ‘day of action’ on June 14 (which was set for far too long after the beginning of the renewable strikes). In itself, the day of action on June 14 - even if it is powerful - will not force Hollande and Valls to back down. Remember that in the autumn of 2010, Sarkozy and Fillon conceded nothing in the face of three days of action, each bringing more than 3 million people onto the streets of the country. Unless it forms part of a phase of expansion of the renewable strikes, the day of action on June 14 will change nothing.

There are limits to “striking by proxy” against the labour law, [in which some key sections of workers bear the brunt of the action while others offer more passive support]. In the absence of a generalized movement, the workers on strike will attempt to wrest guarantees from their own employers before returning to work. The government is manoeuvring to encourage this scenario, as we have seen with the road transport workers who obtained guarantees and as we are currently witnessing with the railway and airport workers among others. It would be absurd to blame the workers of these sectors. The responsibility for this situation falls on the national leadership of the unions involved in this movement who do not sufficiently take into account the real dynamic of the struggle and call yet again “to continue and amplify the mobilization in all of its forms,” when the only “form” of mobilization that can lead to victory at the current moment is the rapid spreading of renewable strike action to the maximum number of sectors of the economy.

Lastly, the CGT continues to call for mobilizations “in order to obtain the withdrawal of the labour law... and to win new rights with a labour code for the 21st century.” The withdrawal of the labour law is obviously the main demand and should remain so. We must push back against the attacks of the government. But many workers – most notably public service workers – do not feel immediately threatened by this law, which on paper does not directly affect them (although in reality any step back in the private sector is a step back in the public sector). Conversely, in the private sector, a great number of employees are already faced with provisions contained in the labour law. This is why positive and offensive demands should be incorporated into the platform of the movement – for example on wages or working time – capable of bringing new layers of workers into action. In this respect, “new rights with a labour code for the 21st century” is a formulation that is far too vague without any real concrete content. This cannot convince anyone to enter the struggle.

After years of counter reforms and austerity, employees are willing to fight: this is clearly shown by the current movement. But against opponents as determined as Valls, Hollande and Gattaz, the movement needs a leadership that is determined to fight until the end, with an offensive strategy that corresponds to the real balance of power and the actual dynamic of the struggle. If the leadership is lacking at the top of the trade unions, workers and trade unionists who are active on the ground should take things into their own hands. The general assemblies of the workers must be linked at the local, regional and national levels through elected and recallable delegates in order to give the movement a democratic structure able to fully express the militancy of the workers, develop the movement and go on the offensive. The demonstration of June 14th in Paris could be the opportune moment to organize a meeting of delegates from general assemblies of active areas all over the country. There is no time to lose!