“We Need to Expand the Yellow Vest Movement to a General Strike”: Interview with a French Railway Worker

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We spoke with Anasse Souiri, a railway worker and trade union activist a member of the CCR (in the NPA), about the #GiletsJaunes (#YellowVests) movement, the concessions announced by President Macron and the perspectives in France.

Souri was interviewed on Wednesday, December 12.

On Monday evening, President Macron announced, among other things, an increase in the minimum wage. What is your analysis of these measures?

The first thing we can see in President Macron’s announcements is a political defeat for the government. Having already backed down last week on the issue of the fuel tax increase, there has been such social pressure that Macron has now been forced to retreat even further. He plunged the Ministry of Labour, which had rejected any increase in the minimum wage, into crisis. The same applies to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who last week spoke of a six-month moratorium on raising the cost of fuel, before he had to announce that the tax increase would be completely abolished. So, there is a real panic in the government because they do not know how to control the movement.

And if we take a closer look, we can see that Macron spoke about an increase of 100 euros per month in the minimum wage (“SMIC”), but in reality that will not happen. Macron’s formulation is confusing. In reality he is talking about the so-called activity bonus which is being increased a little more and a little earlier than had been planned before the Yellow Vest crisis began. The activity bonus had already been increased by 20 euros in October 2018, and was set to rise 30 euros in April 2019, 20 euros in October 2020 and 20 euros in October 2021. In other words, a 90 euro increase was already planned during Macron’s term. Now, this increase will not be spread over the entire five-year period, but will come in 2019.

In addition, the activity bonus will be calculated in relation to household income. For example, if I get the minimum wage and my wife earns more than I do, depending on our total income, it may mean that I do not get an activity bonus at all. 1.6 million people earn minimum wage, but some of them do not receive the activity bonus, so this “increase” does not apply to them. It should also be noted that this is a salary increase that does not cost the bosses anything. The money for it comes from the state budget. Additionally, this income is not taken into account when calculating pensions. So it is not the rich who will pay, as the Yellow Vests have been demanding. So far, the wealth tax that Macron eliminated has not been reintroduced.

Macron wants us to pay out of our own pockets for the money he plans to give us. Yes, he has been pushed back, but that is not enough. He is retreating because he has no choice, and he must at least pretend to offer us something.

All other workers – 27 million people – have not been offered anything at all so far. A planned increase of the tax on pensions has been withdrawn, but pensions remain frozen, so people who are suffering will continue suffering. Macron also announced that overtime pay will be tax-free. This is not a wage increase for overtime – this will make overtime cheaper for the bosses, encouraging them to exploit existing workers even more instead of hiring additional workers. Not to mention that nothing is on offer for the unemployed, students, people with disabilities, etc. who are also part of the struggle.

There is also the question of ecological transition. Macron has tried to sell the fuel tax increase as an environmental issue. But as long as there is no intention to invest in public transport, as long as the privatization of state railways continues with the abolition of lines and stations in peripheral areas, etc., we will still have to drive cars. Macron also does not want to tax the biggest polluters who have plenty of money and still do not pay taxes, such as the oil company TOTAL.

How do you intend to push the movement forward?

Every time Macron speaks, the mobilizations become more determined. It would probably be better for his government to remain silent.

The mobilization this Saturday (December 15) will be important. We should not underestimate the impact that the government’s announcements might have in the most petit bourgeois sectors who are satisfied with the minimum. We will see whether the mobilization will continue on such a massive scale, and I think it will. We railway workers fought for three months, but our union leaders had a strategy of limited on-and-off strikes that left us exhausted and isolated. We were not able to change even a comma of the railway reform. But now the Yellow Vests – even though their strength does not come from strikes – are showing that their mobilization will not stop until their demands are met. The government has been obliged to concede certain points in order to divide the movement and push it back. In order to push back Macron, they need a general strike.

In all of this, the task of the revolutionaries is not simply to “make” the revolution, but to ensure that the movement expands socially as much as possible, based on a program of the centrality of the working class. That’s why our tendency, the Revolutionary Communist Current (CCR) in the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), is trying to coordinate the different sectors of the workers movement with working class and poor neighborhoods. The future of students, pensioners and workers in general is at stake. Our place is within this movement. We have the duty to pursue an active policy to expand the movement with a general strike and self-organization. At the same time, we need to condemn the role of the trade union bureaucracies.

How do you see the role of the trade union leaders?

The next step for us as trade union activists is this Friday [December 14], There has been a call for mobilizations and strikes in some sectors. Workers from the trade unions Sud-Rail, Solidaires, Metallurgie, Infocom CGT and others are preparing strikes, despite the silence of the trade union leaders. This is how we need to move forward.

There are many trade union centers – especially the three confederations CGT, FO and CFDT – which are openly betraying the Yellow Vest movement. We saw that on Monday when they went to the Elysee Palace to negotiate with the government. There is that famous saying by Trotsky that the bourgeoisie, in order to destroy the workers’ movement, has its media, its police, its judiciary, but also its trade union bureaucracy. The role of these union bureaucracies is to preserve the institutions of bourgeois rule. The union leaders justify their abstentionism by pointing to the Yellow Vests’ supposedly “apolitical” character. They claim that the movement does not want the unions to join the struggle. But then they permit themselves to negotiate with the government on the movement’s behalf and call for calm. Our task is to strike a heavy blow against the trade union bureaucracy. For 25 years the bureaucracy has only given us defeats, for example by keeping the struggles of civil servants, private sector workers and students isolated from each other, or by blocking workers democracy with assemblies, etc.

We need more rank and file democracy in the active workers movement to wage these struggles and win them. We cannot wait for another Martinez (general secretary of the CGT) or Berger (general secretary of the CFDT) to betray and divide us. So we must smash this bureaucracy before it tries to rise up again like a phoenix from its ashes.

The second task is to mobilize as much as possible for December 14. We workers need to make a real connection to the Yellow Vest movement – so far, that connection is only partial.

The movement is questioning the institutions of the Fifth Republic. What program is necessary in terms of democracy?

I think that at the moment, the movement is characterized by a certain class struggle: it wants to attack capitalism, but it lacks clarity about the means. The working class is not hegemonic, i.e. there is no strategy for the conquest of power. That is why it is necessary to draw up a transitional program based on the actual situation. The problem today is that it will be very complicated to conduct this struggle without a real general strike.

We are in a transitional situation that is almost pre-revolutionary, in which there are revolutionary and semi-insurrectional elements. But we are not yet in a revolutionary situation. Many people are calling for a referendum for a Sixth Republic. Such a referendum would destroy any class struggle program and prevent the proletarian masses from winning the leadership of the movement. It is our task to explain the fraud of parliamentary, reformist and bourgeois programs – whether from Melenchon’s La France Insoumise, the conservative UPR or Marine le Pen’s Front National. These parliamentary proposals represent no alternative for workers, women, students etc. We have to fight back in the course of the movement because referendums do not question bourgeois institutions. Governments are in no way obligated to respect the results of referendums, as we saw in the EU referendum of 2005.

For us as revolutionaries it is very important that this struggle takes on an internationalist dimension. We have seen echoes especially in Belgium, and also in some parts of Africa. It is important for the struggle to take place everywhere because we have a common enemy that we must fight across borders: capitalism. The working masses of the world must mobilize to break this wave of right-wing extremism which is on the ascent everywhere, as we recently saw with Bolsonaro in Brazil. We have to strive for what Marx said so long ago: proletarians of all countries, unite!

During his presidential campaign, Macron was seen all over the world with his idea of a “start-up nation” and as an “innovator” in the political sphere. Now, one year later, we see he is completely delegitimized. So we can say to workers around the world: If we can beat Macron, then you can beat your governments too!

What is the concrete intervention of the CCR?

With our online newspaper Révolution Permanente, we are fighting alongside the Adama Traoré Committee [against police violence], students and railway workers. Last week in Saint Denis, a suburb of Paris, we organized an assembly with more than 700 people. That led to a demonstration last Saturday (December 8) with more than 5,000 people.

We fight in the universities and in the workplaces on the basis of a class struggle program. With our online newspaper we were the first to characterize the Yellow Vest movement in a revolutionary and non-sectarian way. Originally, large parts of the left denounced the movement as right-wing. We are way ahead of other leftists who don’t know how to intervene because they haven’t been politically active for years. It was obviously necessary to intervene in order to drive the movement in the best possible direction and kick out the extreme right.

We laid the foundations for this very early, even before the Yellow Vest movement began, with the “Intergare” coordination that linked up railway workers from different stations. We linked this to the strike of the precarious cleaning workers from ONET and to the struggle for justice for Adama Traoré, a victim of racist police violence, as well as to the mobilizations of the students from numerous universities last spring. Last Saturday, we were 300 railway workers at the demonstration, even though there was not a railway strike. The links we have formed over the past year are now bearing fruit. We must extend them to all sectors in order to fight this battle as well as possible – and to win.

Interview: Sophia Slamani

Translation: Wladek Flakin

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Left Voice

Left Voice

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