On the pension strikes in France

The following communiqué by the International Group of the Communist Left sheds light on the situation and dilemma’s of the pension strikes in France that hold the country in their grip since last autumn. It treats most important questions that the workers and the milieu’s of politicized minorities of the proletariat are confronted with, and provides an  account of the groups’ position and implication in this ongoing proletarian struggle.

IGCL Communiqué on the Strikes in France
(December 8th, 2019)

Very little mention is made in the international press of the strike movement and the massive demonstrations that are affecting France and paralyzing in particular transport, trains, buses, subways and planes since Thursday 5 December. Strikes also affect many sectors of the public service, as some private companies, where it is nowadays much more difficult to go on strike. This communiqué therefore aims both at providing “international” information (certainly incomplete) on the one hand and, on the other hand, at drawing a first balance sheet and advancing immediate political orientations for this mobilization, in order to share them with as many people as possible.

1. Social revolts and proletarian struggles on all continents, France is no exception

This proletarian mobilization takes place in an international context of popular revolts – most of which are directly opposed to poverty and misery – that affect all continents (we cannot list them all here). (1) Everywhere the national bourgeoisies are responding more and more, and even uniquely, with massive, violent and bloody repression, including in “democratic” countries such as Chile and France. This dynamic of revolts and international struggles can only strengthen the consciousnesses and determination to fight capitalism in each country – however vague and confused these consciousnesses may be. There is no doubt that it favors the current struggle in France.

2. One year of social struggles in France

Since Macron’s election [as president] in 2017, the French government has hussarishly passed “Rulings” (2) that aggravate the precarious conditions of employment contracts (September 2017). It subsequently attacked the SNCF railway workers and their specific contract (Spring 2018) with success thanks to the sabotage of the trade unions and their tactics of “days of action” spread out and dispersed in time. Barely six months after the end of the railway workers’ movement, the outbreak of the “inter-classist” movement of the ‘yellow vests’ surprised everyone, and there is little doubt that it was also an attempt to respond to the impotence of previous struggles for its “waged-workers” or proletarian component. The fact that, following the violent demonstrations of December 2018, outside of any syndicalist or political control, a government was forced to give in to some of the demands of the ‘yellow vests’ – the first (albeit very relative) withdrawal since 1995 – has left its mark on people’s minds, particularly on some of the railway workers still suffering from their painful defeat.

Since then, until today, a few thousand ‘yellow vests’ have continued to demonstrate all over France every Saturday, despite systematic and violent repression. In addition to various local and limited conflicts, the hospitals and especially the emergency services have been on “strike” for several months – even if they continue to provide care – and hospital workers have demonstrated on several occasions. Both movements remain popular and are supported by the majority of the population to this day, according to the polls.

3. From September to the end of October: from the massive strike at the RATP to the wildcat strikes at the SNCF

In this latent climate of struggle and anger the government has announced a new attack on pensions for this winter. In September, a first 24-hour strike took place in the local and regional transport of Paris (metro, bus and suburban trains, RATP) against the questioning of its specific pension system. The mobilization was massive (85% took part in the strike) and paralyzed the Paris region. Faced with this new expression of combativity, and in this general climate, the unions set a day of action for… December 5, three months later! Undoubtedly in the hope that it would bring the fever down. But above all, that this would provide enough time for the entire State apparatus, government and trade unions of course, but also political forces, especially those on the left and the media, to organize themselves, to set the timing and the terrain, the demands in particular, to what suited them best, and thereby ensure that the trades unions would master the events.

It is about this planning, this timing and this terrain that the wildcat strikes that broke out at the SNCF in October tried to challenge the bourgeoisie. National train traffic was then paralyzed for the first time during two or three days following a train accident on October 16. Subsequently the high speed trains (TGV) of the western network were blocked following a one-week wildcat strike at the Châtillon maintenance center. In this “tense” social climate, the railway workers tried to open a breach in the system that the entire state apparatus, the trade unions in the forefront, was setting up to control the strike day on December 5 and the following days. Not only has the possibility of getting ahead of the syndicalist tactic existed at that moment, but above all the possibility of dragging other sectors into a movement that was “uncontrolled” and “uncontrollable” by the bourgeoisie as well.

That is why it seemed necessary and even indispensable to us at that very moment to support and call, as much as we could, the railway workers of Châtillon to extend their strike and the other sectors to join them. That is why we have subsequently reproduced the leaflet of the International Communist Party (PCInt-Le Prolétaire) of November 1, (3) which defended the same orientation, and have published our accompanying communiqué. (4)

Overwhelmed in the center of Châtillon since the strike began on Monday [October 21st ], the radical trade union SUD has managed to maintain its control over the other two maintenance centers in the Paris region – thus avoiding the national blocking of high-speed trains – by organizing temporary work stoppages and sending delegations to the local management during the week of the Châtillon strike. And this until the following Monday. Instead of a firm call for a strike and of sending massive delegations to other sectors to encourage them to join the strike immediately. For its part, the management gave in to the specific demands of the Châtillon center. Once the moment (the concrete possibility) of extension has passed by, the momentarily isolated workers of this center went back to work, having “gained something” anyway. But the episode, the moment, the opportunity was over.

4. The strike day of December 5th

Once this attempt had prematurely ended – a sign of the strengths and weaknesses of the proletariat in France, of its momentary capacities and limits – the entire State apparatus was able to regain control and focus all attention on preparing for the strike day on December 5th. The closer this day approached, the more improbable became a real challenge to the trade unions’ control of the timing – wait passively until the 5th – and of the terrain of the mobilization – government-union discussions, incessant talk shows in the media on the impossibility of maintaining the current pension systems, etc… Every passing day the bar became higher for the proletariat in France, even for a sector or its most combative sectors, to counter the mobilization of the entire bourgeois state apparatus. The whole field of possible positions was occupied: from so-called “reformist” unions, willing to discuss a new pension system, to the most radical ones, “demanding” the withdrawal of the project; from calls for a strike of only 24 hours on 5 December by some to the unlimited strike called for by others.

As the range of possibilities narrowed, the most obvious challenge became massive participation in the strike and demonstrations on December 5 and… the renewal of the strike the day after. But there too, the terrain was occupied by the entire trade union apparatus, up to the leftists.

This narrowing of the proletarian space of struggle was even more evident during the Paris demonstration itself. (5) The Paris demonstration was blocked by the police from the start. Clashes quickly broke out at the head of the march. ‘Black blocks’ and ‘yellow vests’ were present. But once again many demonstrators gathered at the head of the march, in front of the syndicalist banners and in spite of the gas, the sting-ball grenades and the risk of being hit by “flash-ball” grenades. Nevertheless, this “head of march” that refuses to line up behind the trade unions does not offer, or no longer offers, any real perspective for the mobilizations, if it could have done so in the past, in 2016 in particular. We clearly noted this in 2018 when, in response to police provocations, it had in fact participated in blocking the demonstration of the railway workers of 22 March 2018, which should have joined the demonstration of the state employees, notwithstanding the latter was organized by the trade unions. (6) Albeit the fact that more and more demonstrators refuse to give in to repression is in itself positive; by focusing on physical clashes with the police, the possibility of transforming these massive street demonstrations into a moment of extension or unity is suffocated by gas fumes and deafened by the bursting of grenades. And, on this December 5th, by the sound system set up within the “head of the march” in front of the trade union procession, to all appearances by radicalized militants of SUD, undoubtedly for a large part members of the Trotskyist NPA.

5. The intervention of the revolutionaries

In these conditions and before December 5th, it seemed pointless to us (…) to make a particular intervention on the call for a strike and its renewal, which would have been added to all the others coming from trade unions, their local sections, left-wing and leftist political groups and even from revolutionary forces.

Among the latter, the International Communist Party (PCInt-Le Prolétaire) and the International Communist Current (ICC–Révolution Internationale) each published a leaflet, both of which correctly advanced general orientations and slogans aimed at the development and general unification of the struggle, and we could agree with in general. (7) We decided to distribute one of the two leaflets during our participation – together with the distribution of our journal – at the demonstration on December 5 in Paris. We hesitated about which one, and finally chose the leaflet of the ICP for the following reason: in addition to being much shorter and corresponding more to an agitation leaflet, it called on “workers to take charge of their struggle” for the unlimited strike without forewarning, for the independent organization of the struggle, for elected and revocable strike committees, strike pickets lines or occupation of the work places to effectively stop activity, for extension of the movement to other companies, etc.” While the ICC leaflet insisted that Only the coming together within open, massive and autonomous general assemblies, really deciding how to conduct the movement, can constitute the basis for a united struggle (…)” (8) (our emphasis) The difference may seem small, even insignificant to many, and may not have a real impact on the intervention in this particular struggle. Nevertheless, the first leaflet gives a concrete and political content to the organization of the struggle: the organization of workers, in this case the General Assemblies (GA’s), has to put itself at the service of the struggle. In this sense, it cannot be a prerequisite for the struggle itself. The second position, that of the ICC, opens the door to fetishism of self-organization by situating the GA’s as a prerequisite condition for the struggle, by making self-organization itself the recipe to follow. (9)

The other element that seemed to favor the ICP leaflet was its willingness to present demands that allow all proletarians in France to engage and unite around them in the current battle: “for the general increase of wages, pensions and all social minima! For the reduction of the retirement age!” Whereas the ICC leaflet called for “General Assemblies which put forward demands which concern everyone: the struggle against precarious conditions, against cutting jobs, against productivity increases, against pauperization…”, meaning demands that are not directly linked to the mobilization, and therefore abstract and of no use for its real generalization. (10)

6. And now, Sunday 8th?

The strikes have been massively renewed in the transport sector, particularly at the RATP and the SNCF on from Friday 6 December. The continuation of the strike has been unequal in other sectors (e.g. education). From the evening of the 5th, the trade unions have called for another… day of action and demonstration for next Tuesday [December 10]. The government is expected to present its project on Wednesday [December 11]. The fact that the unions felt obliged to set another day so early shows that the will to struggle today, openly and without delay, is strong in many parts of the proletariat in France, and that the unions certainly do not want to be overwhelmed. We can therefore assume that the strike will continue, in an unequal manner depending on the sector, at least until Wednesday and the government’s announcements. Similarly, yesterday (Saturday 7 December) many “yellow vests” demonstrations, often composed of proletarians who went on strike on the 5th, or who even are still on strike, have taken place in many French cities despite, once again, massive repression. The bourgeois press mentions 10,000 to 15,000 demonstrators.

Certainly, the bourgeoisie and its unions are in control of the situation; in particular and most certainly, this will be the case between now and Tuesday-Wednesday (10-11 December). Nevertheless, the will to fight is strong and a kind of arm-wrestling has been engaged with the government. And this can also engage the proletariat in a deadlock. The risk for the whole of the proletariat is to simply and passively wait for the transport blockade to make the government withdraw its project instead of entering openly in struggle themselves. The participation in the street demonstrations is important but not sufficient [by itself]. If there is no real extension of the strike beyond the transport sector, the trade unions, who already master the timing and the terrain, will be able to “play” with the wear and fatigue of the railway and RATP workers, or even with truck drivers, in order to definitively lock this mobilization on their terrain and to “their demand”, and thus to lead it towards defeat and put an end to it.

Only an entry into a renewable struggle and strike in other sectors can make it possible to overcome a strike whose sole objective would become to “block production”, a terrain on which the trade unions will have even more control and dominance over the movement. If there is one “positive” lesson that can be drawn from the ‘yellow vests’, it is certainly the fact that an “uncontrolled”, “out of control” movement – “uncontrolled” by the state apparatus and “out of control” of the trade unions – can frighten the bourgeoisie and really make it retreat. For this to happen, this movement must be controlled by the workers themselves. This means that they must take charge of the struggle and of its extension-unification. To this end, they cannot avoid disputing with the unions over the direction of the combat, over decisions on actions and over demands, and even over negotiating tasks with the government, if they are to take place.

This is at stake in the next two days, undoubtedly until Wednesday and the government’s announcements. The cards of this mobilization will then undoubtedly be redistributed in favor of one or the other class, in function of the development of strikes and demonstrations between now and then, and of the dynamics of the evolution of the immediate relation of forces.

7. Which orientations and slogans between now and Tuesday?

In order to ensure that this relation of forces is strengthened in favor of the proletariat by then, we present some orientations that we submit for reflection and discussion. Even if these will certainly take place post-festum after this very short period, it seems important to us to share our experience and allow communist groups and revolutionary militants on all continents, not only in France or Europe, to reflect on the concrete and changing conditions of a direct communist intervention in a massive proletarian mobilization, rightly aspiring to play a real role of political leadership. Evidently, not limiting oneself to general and often abstract orientations, and trying to provide immediate answers according to the places and times, presents a much greater risk of errors of analysis and orientation. But it is precisely by sharing these experiences and submitting them to scrutiny and criticism that all communist forces, including ourselves of course, will be able to develop our capacity of vanguard political leadership, in other words of party leadership.

  • Right to retirement starting at 60 years of age at most; 37.5 years of contributions for the full rate of pension, suppression of any pension cuts!

  • Increase of wages, pensions and so-called “social” income;

  • Renewable strikes wherever this is possible;

  • Massive delegations from sectors on open strike to non-striking sectors (particularly in the private sector where it is more difficult to strike) or to sectors in partial strike and the holding of collective General Assemblies;

  • Regrouping combative and isolated proletarians in struggle committees on the basis of the strike call, of the sending of massive delegations for its extension, and of unifying demands.

The IGCL, December 8th 2019.

Source: http://igcl.org/Communique-sur-les-greves-en

The English translation by the IGCL has been revised by H.C.

Proofreading F.C.., Dec 23, 2019

 

Notes

1 Not all of them have the same meaning. In particular, the pro-independence demonstrations in Catalonia and the democratic demonstrations in Hong Kong do not show any character or perspective of a fight against capitalism, even if they are also, in their own way, expressions of the explosion of capitalist contradictions that are, in the last resort, due to the economic crisis and impasse of capitalism.

2 In French: “ordonnances”, meaning governmental orders that have not been presented to Parliament. [Editor’s note]

3 PCInt, France: Unlimited Strike and without Notice. the Striking Railway Workers of Châtillon are Leading the Way (Leaflet of October 27. English translation of November 1, 2019).

4 IGCL (November 2, 2019), Active Support to the Strikers of the “SNCF” (Railway Company) in France ! … includes the Communiqué of the Strikers of the Technicentre of Châtillon (TATL, Paris, October 27, 2019) and the IGCL’s Statement on the Immediate Situation in France of November 2, 2019 as well. [Editor’s note]

5 We cannot address the numerous massive demonstrations of 1 million to 1.5 million demonstrators in the other cities, some of which also saw clashes with the police.

6 IGCL, For an Efficient and Powerful Proletarian Fight-back (…) (Leaflet, March 28, 2018). This leaflet can also be read on this blog, together with a first evaluation by the IGCL from April 2018. [Editor’s note]

7 PCInt-Le Prolétaire, Face à la « Réforme » des retraites : Lutte de classe ouverte contre toutes les attaques capitalistes ! (November 29, 2019, French language only); CCI-Révolution Internationale, Strikes in France: Unify our struggles against the attacks of our exploiters! (December 1, 2019, English translation)

8 “(…) carried along by solidarity between all sectors, all generations.” (Editor’s note)

9 In the context of this communiqué we cannot go back over our criticism of the ICC’s councilist drifts in workers’ struggles, in particular its fetishism of self-organization…

10 At the level of demands, it seems to us that the revolutionaries should push even further those justly advanced by the ICP. For example: return to a retirement starting at age 60 at most, return to 37.5 years to have a pension at 75% of the salary, and above all abolition of any cuts in all pension systems; increase of wages, pensions and social minima. It seems to us that the pension cuts are the central measure [against] which all workers – everyone is affected – could unite and engage in a general struggle that would overcome the false opposition that the bourgeoisie seeks to impose between workers of the different pension systems in force. For all systems, the cuts amount to up to 5% of the pension(!) for each missing year of contribution, knowing that contributions must span 42 years. Its consequences are terrible both for the starting year of the retirement, that will be delayed, and for the often miserable amount of the pension itself. The whole of the proletarians, and even beyond, cannot fail to recognize itself in it and make this unitary claim its own.