French strikes continue

June 2018 France-rail

Striking rail workers listen to union representatives at railway station in Lille, France.

By MARTY GOODMAN

A showdown between capital and labor in France over the privatization of the national railroad will extend into the summer and possibly beyond. France’s nationalized railroad, SNCF, is a source of pride for most French people—and in particular, for rail workers, who recognize the landmark rights they’ve won by striking over many decades. The SNCF employs 148,000 workers.

Phillippe Martinez, head of the CGT (General Confederation of Labor), which contains the largest rail union, said, “They’ve decided to break the Code du Travail [the massive French labor rights code]. There will be fewer rights for workers.”

This has been France’s longest rail strike in 30 years. It was originally scheduled to end on June 28, but according to the CGT, another is  planned for July 19. Unions have promised unspecified actions over the summer and perhaps into the fall. The strikes were responsible for extensive disruptions for the 4.5 million daily SNCF commuters. By June, strike losses to country’s railroad were estimated at $400 million.

The battle has been likened to the epic struggle between British mineworkers and the arch-conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984. In France, it’s being fought out with four rail workers’ unions; the largest by far is the CGT, dominated by the once powerful French Communist Party [other rail unions are the CFDT, SUD and UNSA]. On the other side of the barricades is the ambitious neo-liberal President Emmanuel Macron, a former banker and millionaire, who has been dubbed “the president of the rich.”

Privatizing transportation

Macron is at the leading edge of capitalist attacks on French workers, student rights, and health care. He seeks to privatize SCNF, which employs 148,000 workers, and replace it with a new “private” public rail partnership, all the while hacking away at the rights of rail workers, such as lifetime job security (heaven forbid!), pay, and pensions.

The European Union (EU) of imperialist countries, of which France is a member, is mandating “competitive,” i.e. for-profit capitalism, in all EU transportation systems by 2020. The CGT (General Confederation of Labor) has correctly call Macron’s moves privatization, although Macron has denied it. A study of privatized transportation in Sweden, for example, revealed fare hikes and a reduction in service.

In negotiations with unions, French Premier Edouard Philippe has promised no layoffs in the transition—but not for future workers, it appears. Bottom line, the government is refusing to back off of its privatization plans and will continue the corporate rape of workers’ rights. Overall, Macron says he will cut 120,000 public worker jobs by the end of his term in 2022.

Also on the chopping block are about 1 million survivor pensions, overwhelmingly widowed women, who face cuts by Macron. Women’s pensions are already only 40% that of men, due on average to a shorter work history, pregnancy, part-time work, etc. 

Macron’s neo-liberal bill, which include changes to labor law and tax breaks for the rich, was passed in the National Assembly on April 17 and adopted on June 5 in the Senate. Macron signed it into law on June 20. By that time Macron had already imposed measures to taxi retirees more, cut some hospital jobs, and a new university admissions system that makes it more difficult for impoverished students to attend a university—which has sparked student protest. French law provides admission to universities for all those who complete high school.

The country’s budget deficit has stayed within the European Union’s neo-liberal, anti-worker parameters for the first time in a decade, after government cuts of some 60 billion euros. However, a commitment was made to unions that the state would take on 35 billion euros (1 euro=$1.15 U.S.) of the 46 billion euro SNCF debt, if unions agree with “the reform,” coincidently making private investment in SNCF more attractive to possible buyers.

Meanwhile, Macron partnered with Trump in imperialist attacks in Syria, along with Britain. Macron will beef-up French imperialism with an extra 100 billion euros in military spending, money that could go to public services like the SNCF, pensions, education, or to resolve the 8.9% unemployment rate.

This drive for profits and defunding social services for working people are part of a worldwide “crisis capitalism,” which has not yet fully recovered from the 2008 depression and is scrambling for profits at the expense of the working class of every nation by hook or crook.

Angry workers in health, education, and local government are among those who have walked off the job. However, according to the British Socialist Worker, “Although they mobilized strongly on March 22, the lack of momentum was noticeable for the new inter-union strike day on May 22, being obviously weaker than the massive day of action two months earlier, when railway workers participated in the demonstrations.”

“The very broad union front of state employees was based on unions like the CFDT and FO (Workers Force), which, at the national level, have explicitly refused to converge their struggles, in particular between railway workers and state employees, even though these workers are subjected to similar attacks. As of yet, no sector of the national state employees has organized combative pressure to go beyond the off-again, on-again strike calendar, and the national union confederations have not helped to mobilize.”

Already, the more conservative CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labour) rail union, led by Social Democrats, has cut a deal with Macron and has, so far, ruled out striking alongside the CGT. The federation has stated, pathetically, that such a convergence was “not the CFDT’s cup of tea.” Only once, in April, did the CFDT strike in unison with the CGT and other unions.

The strikes have been carried out on a basis of two-days on and three-days off. However, the revolutionary left and the rail union SUD (Solidarity-Unity-Democracy) have criticized this strategy, likening it to the failed strategy of the mostly pro-Syriza union bureaucrats in Greece, whose one day, two-day strikes have mired workers, and Greek society, in misery.

The Stalinist-led CGT leadership, infamous for its sellout of the historic May 1968 strike 50 years ago, has carefully left room for extended negotiations with Macron. By scheduling strikes in advance, the French ruling class can plan and adjust to disruptions. In addition, on-and-off striking, with little result, exhausts striking workers, as now seems apparent, especially after the passage of the Macron-backed legislation. Lastly, the strategy deprived workers of their right at union meetings to extend the strike to an open ended walk-out, which still stands as the best chance of dealing a knockout blow to the French ruling class.

Many sectors react to Macron

Airline worker strikes, which include pilots, air traffic controllers (ATC) and ground crews, have also disrupted French transportation massively, and it continues as of this writing (July 7). Only Air France unions struck alongside the SNCF unions during April; they demanded wage increases, to regain the 6 percent of income lost since 2012 due to a wage freeze.

Budget airline Ryanair says it was forced to cancel some 1100 flights in May, due in large measure to Air Traffic Control employee shortages. ATC militancy is high. A record for strikes was set in 2017, with 41 days affected. Air France estimates its strike losses at 25 million euros per day.

French student protests continue against admissions “reforms.” On April 13, Paris riot police removed 200 students seeking to occupy the Sorbonne university. The same day, strikes closed down the Eiffel Tower and two-thirds of French trains!

Minister of the Interior Gérard Collomb allowed violent police attacks on students. On March 22 students were attacked after they had occupied a college auditorium in Montpellier, where a school dean allowed a group of masked men—armed with bats, tasers, and reinforced punching gloves—to beat them up and evict them. Several students were hospitalized.

The University of Nanterre reacted to repeated student protests by calling in the cops. The notoriously brutal CRS riot police burst into an assembly of students and staff and arrested seven people. There have been police interventions in Nantes, Bordeaux, Paris, Lille, Caen, Dijon, Grenoble, and Strasbourg universities, and probably more. A third of the country’s universities were blockaded or occupied during the months of April and May.

Macron, who dismissed student protesters as “professional agitators,” was answered by the New Anti-Capitalist Party: “The government does not understand that police and military interventions show millions of young people and employees the true face of its policy: that of total aggression against the working classes. It is time for everyone to move against Macron and his world.”

A May 5 protest in Paris dubbed the “Party at Macron’s” resulted in the convergence of left political forces, including Jean-Luc Melechon’s France Insoumise, the New Anti-Capitalist Party and many others. In a show of unity and solidarity, some 100,000 attended.

Desperately needed is the unity of labor itself.  But most of all, labor and the oppressed need a class-struggle, anti-capitalist vision to take down Macron’s attacks and capitalism with him. Labor needs to shut the system down until the job gets done!

Whatever the future holds for the French working class, the class struggle in the U.S. will be impacted, for better or worse. U.S. labor must stand in solidarity with French workers. Workers of the world, unite!