Tendencies towards radicalization threatened by the treacherous leaderships of the trade unions

Historic day of demonstrations in France

October 19, 2010

Following three days of protests against the pension reform since the end of the summer (September 7 and 23, and October 2), the government is betting on an ebbing of the demonstrations, especially considering that the Senate hurriedly voted on the main articles of the law, enabling Sarkozy to send a clear message to the public: "everything has been decided, there’s no need to demonstrate, the law has been passed." Nonetheless, the day of strikes and demonstrations on October 12 in France was historic. Despite the differences between the numbers reported by the Interior Ministry and those of the trade unions, both emphasized the increase in the number of protesters in comparison to September 23, that is, 1.23 million demonstrators according to the police and 3.5 million according to the unions, making this the largest mobilization in the last 20 years. If the number of strikers in the public sector has remained constant, with 30% participation, what is new are the calls for an indefinite strike in various sectors and the entrance of the youth onto the stage.

The entrance of school students onto the stage

High school and university students have been a key sector in France’s large social movements, being a central protagonist in 2006 in the struggle against the First Employment Contract (CPE) of Villepin, and their entrance into the current struggle has alarmed the government. In several universities (Rennes II and Marseille, Paris-Tolbiac, Paris-8, Strasbourg, etc.) massive assemblies were organized following the resumption of classes this week to decide on the actions to be taken. In more than 300 high schools, there were blockades or pickets, leading to columns of school students joining in the marches in several cities. The entrance this sector into the struggle has been harshly criticized by the government, which accuses the extreme left and sectors of the Socialist Party (PS) of manipulation. The reality is simply that, as put by one functionary for public order in a large provincial town: With the students, less controlled in the trade union structures than the adults, everything becomes unpredictable [1]. In particular, the Ministry of Education and the Elysee fear the blockades and the violence that often accompany the mobilizations of the youth [2]. But far from the result of any manipulation, the entry of the school students (and possibly the university students if the movement continues for a few weeks) has far deeper causes. In addition to the degradation of public schools, young people reject the worsening conditions accompanying entrance into professional life and adulthood. The school and university students know that 23% of people under 25 years of age are unemployed (10% above the European average), figures which are worse in poor neighborhoods where one in two young people are unemployed. They also know that those who are fortunate enough to have a job are working in increasingly precarious conditions, while the explosion in property prices over the past 30 years has made home ownership an illusory aspiration. This is without mentioning the daily violence to which they are subjected by the police or by the schools because of the obsession with uniforms or the tightening of the internal regulations in the high schools and the denial of students’ rights. Within this framework, the raising of the retirement age is seen by them not only as resulting in an increased workload for their family members, but as making their own entrance into the labor market more difficult.

Tendencies towards radicalization: an indefinite strike in key sectors

In several sectors, calls for an indefinite strike against the reform have been raised. This is the case in urban public transport, the railway SNCF, the energy sector and especially the chemical sector, with the vast majority of French refineries shut down by the workers, an action with the potential of causing a fuel shortage in several areas of the country. In entire regions, the movement against the pension reform, together with specific demands concerning working conditions as well as the reform of the ports, has caused paralysis for several days and, in the case of Bouche-du-Rhone in the Marseille region (the second largest city), for more than two weeks with strikes among municipal and fiscal employees, workers in the port of Fos and in the refinery. In the port of this large city, 85 ships, including 56 oil tankers and 29 cargo ships, are sitting idly because of the strikes. This situation is enormously unsettling for sectors of the bourgeoisie, who are beginning to show signs of their apprehension.
The determination of some sectors is strong. Michel Denis, representative of the CGT in the Total refinery in La Mede (Bouches-du-Rhone), 28, "knows he will have to work at least until 2044. ’In this work, when you pass 55, it becomes very difficult, especially with the shift changes.’" He is "...willing to go all the way." "If we present a notice that the strike is to be extended twenty-four hours,†he insists, “it is not to have fun in the demonstrations, but to show our determination" [3]. One sees the same climate in the union local at the Montparnasse station in Paris, which – with 110 votes in favor, 4 abstentions and no votes against – voted for the continuation of the strike this Wednesday. "A hundred voters, more than the day before, but still nothing to exalt, says the reporter. An experienced guy makes an ugly face: ’We still have a margin. In ’95, in the assemblies here there were 200 people.’ This morning there were ’new faces.’ Some, not unionized. For a railway worker, a signal that ’things are beginning to thicken, there is less resignation because people are beginning to understand the enormity of the reform, and to understand that now is the time go into action.’" [4].
Locally, the vanguard is organizing to decide what actions to take to continue the strikes. In those sectors where the union leaderships are calling to continue the strikes nationally, the strikes go on. This is the case for example in the railway stations in the capital in which the workers voted unanimously in favor of an indefinite strike in the morning assemblies. Where the bureaucracies are not calling to continue the strikes, the most militant sectors are organizing and voting for protracted strikes, for example in the case of the secondary school teachers in the Paris region.

The union bureaucracy as the main obstacle to stopping the reform and defeating Sarkozy

It is clear that in recent weeks the battle has become a political struggle. The anger goes beyond the counter-reform of the pensions: there is a growing anti-Sarkozyism; the consequences of the crisis are being felt more and more in the private sector; the tensions derived from a series of reforms by the state, such as in the hospitals, are being felt; without saying anything further about the anger of the students described above.

Faced with this situation and the pressure of the base, the union bureaucracy has had to do the impossible in order to maintain its control of the movement, calling for days of action in an increasingly immediate way, such as on Saturday the 16th (i.e. two in a week, and possibly they will decide on another on Thursday the 14th, when they meet again, which shows the existing anger). This is movement in extremis to find a solution to the conflict – which is increasingly difficult and complicated – which allows them to save face after so much struggle. But these leaderships, not only the CFDT but also the CGT, which is allowing the strike to continue at the sectoral level so as to avoid openly colliding with the base, are enemies of the radicalization of the conflict and do nothing to develop it and sustain it at a national level, making use of the fear of lost wages in the private sector – both in large industrial companies and in SMEs – in the face of a leadership that doesn’t want to enter a decisive battle (a fear which this leadership itself instills to prevent a radicalization). In fact these leaderships objectively (and subjectively?) are working for a replacement of the president in 2012. "If a government does not change course in the face of such mass demands, one must find a political solution ... but through the ballot box!" is what will be said by the union popes following the passage of the reform, of course with an enormous erosion of support for Sarkozy.

Meanwhile, the tendencies towards radicalization face a tough government that will not give in easily, and currently lack the most minimal alternative leadership capable of sustaining a global confrontation with the government. For now, this is the great weakness of the movement, which lacks even an embryonic leadership comparable to that which existed in the anti-CPE movement in the form of the National Coordination, which brought together delegates from all the assemblies and maintained the struggle for the withdrawal of the law.

In conclusion, the situation is evolving rapidly and the next few days will be decisive. There is clearly a leap in the social movement, whose perspective in the face of the lack of leadership is still uncertain. However, the risks of radicalization are still present, a question that troubles the Socialist Party, who through Ségolène Royale are desperately asking the government for the suspension of the reform, accusing the government of being responsible for what happens in the streets in the coming days. The situation remains open.

Translation: Wladek Flakin, RIO, www.onesolutionrevolution.org