"On lache rien!” We do not give up! This slogan sums up quite well the mood of militant determination of the French workers’ and youth movement against the El Khomri labour counter-reform which has now entered its third month. Last week saw oil refineries, harbours, nuclear power stations on strike and fuel depots blockaded by striking workers. What stage is the movement at and what are its perspectives?
The week of May 23 marked an important turning point in the development of the movement. One after another, the country’s eight oil refineries voted to go on an all out strike. This followed the decision of the government to use CRS riot police to break up the blockades of fuel depots which striking workers had organised the previous week. Government repression only served to push the movement forward and of course, it is easier for the government to send the police to remove burning tyres than it is for it to force striking refinery workers back to work.
The all out strike by oil workers, which also blockaded the country’s two main maritime oil terminals at Le Havre (CIM, where the vote was carried by 95%) and Marseille (Fos-sur-Mer), became a new focal point for the movement. On the back of the oil workers strike, the national day of action on May 26 also saw workers at the main nuclear power stations join in, the paralysing of the country’s harbours, and sizeable demonstrations in most major cities.
Even the workers at the prestigious nuclear submarine factory DCNS at Cherbourg went on strike and established a blockade. “We have also blocked the military harbour [next to it],” said Alexis Padet, CGT trade unionist at DCNS.
The powerful CGT Syndicat du Livre [Newspaper Union] went on strike, preventing the publication of all national dailies on May 26. To try to partially redress the anti-trade union bias of all the papers, the union further demanded that all newspapers should carry an opinion article by CGT secretary Martinez, which the newspaper bosses denounced as being against “freedom of the press”. Thus, the only national newspaper which appeared on the day was the Communist L’Humanité, which did agree to carry the article by the CGT secretary.
The whole of the North West of the country has become a stronghold of the movement. At Le Havre, 30,000 marched, including a 2,500 strong column of dockers (see video below). The movement has developed further than in other places. Daily General Assemblies of trade union militants from the main workplaces are meeting to decide which industrial areas, bridges or key roads they will block, to offer support to striking workers, etc. The bosses complained: “there are no ships, no transport, no goods, it’s a siege!”
In fact, this wave of strikes has clearly brought out the enormous power of the working class in a modern capitalist country. Not a wheel turns and not a light bulb shines without the kind permission of the workers (in this case literally, as nuclear power stations, oil refineries, electricity substations, road transport, etc all went on strike), even national newspapers have to get the permission of the printer’s union to come out. What an answer to the cynics and sceptics who said that the working class does not exist anymore, that it has become atomised and can’t act in unison. This is not to dismiss the impact of widespread casualisation of labour, through subcontracting, agency work, and other means. However, when the heavy battalions of the class begin to move, they rally all the other sections. In this movement we have seen the youth playing an important role as a precursor to the workers’ strike, and both uniting in demonstrations and road blockades.
The Fos-sur-Mer refinery near Marseille, has also become another focal point of the movement. On May 24, early in the morning, the “socialist” government used CRS riot police, with tear gas and water cannons to break through the blockade of this important refinery (see video below). The language used by the government was one of war: “The refinery has been liberated, others will follow suit”. The CGT representatives also described the scene as one of war: “an unprovoked attack on peaceful protesters. The police then chased us with helicopters into the town and entered the trade union building”. Another explained: “The CRS intervened in a very forceful way. They used rubber bullets, batons, tear gas canisters in direct shots, several comrades present were hit especially in the face and back of the head. They have pursued us into the local Union and now they are now posted outside the door. Nobody can enter, no one can get out."
The brutality of the police only served to increase the resolve of the strikers. On May 26, 7,000 marched from the refinery into the town of Fos-sur-Mer which has a population of 15,000 (see videos below)
It is interesting to note that Fos-sur-Mer which elected a Socialist Party mayor in 2014 by a big majority, then voted over 50% for the National Front in the first round of the regional elections in December 2015. Then, just a few months later, the town saw a huge working class uprising. There are many conclusions that can be drawn from this: disillusionment with left parties carrying out right wing policies will lead to increased abstention and a protest vote for far right parties, but at the same time the vote for the far right can be cut across by militant class struggle (and only by militant class struggle).
Police brutality has become a common thread through the whole movement. The state of emergency law passed (with the vote of all the Communist Party MPs) after the Paris terrorist attacks is now being used in a forceful way against workers and youth defending their rights. In an unprecedented assault on democratic rights, some demonstrations have been banned, individuals have been singled out and banned from attending demonstrations, journalists have been prevented from covering protests, some have been forced to delete pictures, others have been shot at deliberately with tear gas canisters in order to prevent them from continuing to report, plain clothes police officers have snatched demonstrators from amongst the crowd, others have acted as agent provocateurs.
In a very telling incident in Bordeaux, the riot police snatched an 18 year old student from the youth contingent at the back of the demo on May 26 and then created a line to prevent his comrades from getting him back. The whole of the demonstration stopped and turned back. Trade union militants, notably the dockers, confronted the CRS riot police in a tense stand off for about 30 minutes until the student was released to the cheering crowd.
Mediapart has selected 21 of the most shocking examples of police violence against demonstrators in the current movement. It is worth watching: here
To these attacks on basic democratic freedoms we have to add the fact that the government was forced to use decree powers (article 49.3) to prevent a vote on the law in Parliament as it did not have the necessary majority.
The week ended on May 27 with a national day of action in solidarity with the Air France strikers who invaded the directors board in October 2015, chased them and ripped the shirt off one of them. Thousands of workers gathered in airports across the country, sending a powerful message of working class solidarity (see the demo at the Marseille airport below).
The attacks against striking workers, road blockades and demonstrations have been accompanied by a high profile campaign of demonisation of the trade unions and particularly the CGT. “France taken hostage by CGT social terrorism” scream the paper headlines. The former right wing Prime Minister Fillon denounced the CGT for “having placed itself outside of the democratic and Republican framework”, the same words used to describe the Paris attack terrorists. The boss of the employers federation Medef, Gattaz, described those trade unionists opposing the labour counter-reform as “thugs and terrorists”, accusing them of acting “like a Stalinist dictatorship”. “Everything must be done to not give in to blackmail, violence, intimidation, terror,” he said.
The bosses and the government have also counted on the services of the general secretary of the CFDT union, Berger, who has been the most committed partisan of the law, after being given a few crumbs at the beginning of the movement. Berger has spent all of his time on TV studios and newspaper interviews defending the law and demanding that the government should not retreat, particularly on article 2.
The European Union is also worried about France. The troika clearly sees this reform as “not enough”, but still “a step in the right direction” which must be implemented at all costs. On May 31, the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker offered his thoughts: "This isn't some monstrous reform, it's not an attack on French labour law. These are adjustments that remove some rigidities. It would be good if France did this." Of course we know Mr Juncker and we have seen his “adjustments” before - in Greece. What he is saying is “we will only take out your spine, you see, so you can be more flexible” …
Juncker is also worried about the potential example which the French movement is setting for the workers in other European countries. Many in Italy, Belgium, Spain, Britain and beyond are closely following events in France. The militancy of the movement is seen as an inspiration. Workers across Europe can see that if this counter-reform passes in France they will be next. In some countries, the same measures have already been introduced. The movement in France has clearly had the effect of providing encouragement to the movement in Belgium against similar attacks on pro-labour legislation. Last week there was a spontaneous strike of railway workers which spread like wildfire. On May 31 they went on an official strike. A general strike is being prepared for June 24. A victory of the French movement would have explosive implications for the labour movement across Europe.
Clearly, the ruling class is in panic at the possibility that the government might be forced to retreat by a powerful social movement. The government is extremely weak. Opposition against the El Khomri law remains solid amongst the population in general. The rate of disapproval for president Hollande is at a record high of 83% and that of prime minister Valls is at 73%. At the same time, a majority of public opinion (61%) blames the government if the protests end up disrupting the Euro Cup football championship which France is hosting as of next week.
In these conditions the government has started to change its tack. First of all it has attempted to make partial concessions to different sectors in struggle, in order to defuse and divide the movement as a whole. This seems to have worked with the road transport workers who called off their strike. It did not work with the SNCF railway workers who have started an all out strike on May 31.
There is also a lot of talk of a possible modification of article 2 of the law. This article gives company-level agreements precedence over sector or national agreements, undermining the basic principle of collective bargaining. Thus the government is combining repression and threats but at the same time hinting at possible concessions. From its point of view it would like to tire out the movement and create confusion by making partial concessions. Article 2 is a substantial part of the labour counter-reform and if it were to be withdrawn it would mean an important, though partial, victory for the movement.
What’s the strategy of the trade union coordination (Intersyndical)? This week we have an all out strike of the SNCF railway workers starting on the evening of May 31, called by the CGT, UNSA and Sud-Rail, both in opposition to the labour counter-reform and as part of the company negotiations on working conditions. Paris public transport will also be affected by an all out strike called by the CGT due to start on June 2nd, with Sud union calling its own separate all out strike from June 10. All of the unions at civil aviation have called a 3 day strike starting on Friday against the continued destruction of jobs in the sector. Meanwhile, Air France pilots union SNPL has consulted its members on a possible strike. An impressive 78% have participated in the ballot with 68% in favour of a “prolonged” strike (over 6 days) if it were to be necessary.
Even if we leave to one side these strikes which have been officially called, there have been - on Tuesday May 31 - road blockades at key industrial areas across the country, mainly organised at the initiative of the local and regional union structures.
The national leadership of the CGT seems to be pushing for a national day of action on June 14, which is the day the law will begin to be discussed in the Senate, while at the same time it has resolved to to “amplify and support the actions decided by the workers in general assemblies, including renewable strikes”. The problem with this strategy is one which has been explained before. The endless succession of national days of action, every week or every fortnight, has the risk of tiring out the movement. In any movement, if you do not escalate the action and keep the rhythm, the danger is that it will just fizzle out. Refinery workers have been on strike already for a week or ten days. They cannot really be asked to hold out for another two weeks on their own. The same goes for railway and other transport workers who are only starting their own all-out strikes, but have already had several days of strike over the last two months.
The union leaders kindly offer to support actions “decided by the workers”, but give no real guidance over what they think these actions should be! Of course it is down to workers in each workplace to vote for or against strike action, in general assemblies. This is ABC. But the workers in one factory or one industrial sector want to know whether they will be alone or their strike action will be part of a general movement. That is the purpose of having national trade union organisations involving workers in all regions and across all industries, so that if an issue affects all of them (and the labour law clearly does), they can all move together.
At a local level and in some industrial sectors, the mood is clearly very radical and determined. They want to inflict a political defeat on the government, which they feel is weak.
At the same time, CGT general secretary has also made noises towards conciliation. He highlighted having received a phone call from Valls; “a first,” he said, and offered to sit down for talks with the government with no preconditions. “Martinez welcomes the restart of dialogue with the government,” announced the headlines. “Dialogue” in and of itself doesn’t mean anything if the other side insists it will make no concessions. It only serves to create the impression that something substantial is on the table, which in turns weakens the resolve of the strikers. Furthermore, Martinez has now said that he is prepared to discuss the content of article 2 rather than demanding its withdrawal. Far from offering “support for the actions decided by the workers”, this is the opposite.
The government is weak. This is not the time for loose talk about dialogue, but rather to go on the offensive and demand the retreat of the El Khomri law. What is required is a clear call for a national strike. General Assemblies should be linked up at a local, regional and finally national level, through elected and recallable delegates. Giving the strike a democratic structure is the only way to ensure that no deal will be signed behind the back of the strikers and that the workers themselves are in full control of all decisions pertaining to the strike. This is the way to give real meaning to the “on lache rien” slogan. We do not give up! Forward to victory!