Issue 193 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review

France's red hot winter

United we stand?

Not just a stage army--rank and file workers organise

The power that the French workers had when they acted is clear. But what of their organisations of working class struggle, the trade unions?

There is a lower level of unionisation in France than in any other western European country--much closer to US levels. It is stronger in the public sector, which is 40 percent of the workforce. However, these figures are misleading, since non union members tend to vote for union members in workplace elections, thus giving them some connection to the unions.

The trade union movement is also divided. The biggest, the CGT, is linked to the Communist Party. The CFDT, originally a Christian union, is closely aligned to the Socialist Party. The third of the big unions is Force Ouvrière(F0), which started life in 1948 as a Cold War split from the CGT. There are two other much smaller trade union confederations.

Then there are the autonomous unions, which can be quite militant but very sectional in their outlook, and the unions which organise among teachers. In addition there is a militant split from the CFDT, called SUD, which organises among post office workers.

The CGT reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the Communist Party. Workers join the CGT because they see in it the most determined opponent to the bosses and their system. But the leadership of the CGT, like that of the CP, is bureaucratic and is tied to the electoral strategy of the CP. It also exercises a tight discipline over its members. This can make it a formidable force in terms of mobilisation. But it also uses its control to stifle any attempt at rank and file initiative as far as it can.

This contradiction was present in the latest wave of struggle. The CGT was riding on the crest of militancy but made no attempt to go beyond the economic struggle. It preferred negotiation with, rather than victory over Juppé. But such was the militancy of the rank and file that the bureaucracy could not move easily in that direction.

The CFDT is a much looser organisation. Its leadership is tied to the Socialist Party, which has moved very much to the right since the election. Nicole Notat, its president, achieved notoriety by being the one major trade union leader to agree in broad terms with the Juppé plan. This was because the Socialist Party (not unlike its Blairite counterpart) believes welfare has to be restructured because the state is running out of money.

Her readiness to abandon the struggle contrasts, however, with the militancy of the membership. Her attitude unleashed a storm of anger among CFDT members. Along with anti-Juppé banners on the demonstrations were a number of anti-Notat signs. One even managed an excruciating pun comparing her to Margaret Thatcher ('No-tat--no Tha'tcher').

The looseness of the CFDT gives the different sections real independence and many of them came out against the Juppé plan in defiance of Notat. There was real unity among the rank and file.

Rank and file unity also pushed Marc Blondel, the leader of FO, which is very much a white collar union, to the left. He too backed strike calls. At the same time, his reaction to Juppé's concessions was that he was prepared to negotiate.

The low level of unionisation among French workers does not necessarily reflect a lack of militancy. It reflects rather the way in which the unions operate in the workplace.

Workers vote for representatives on legally recognised plant committees, which are joint labour-management bodies for consultation purposes. These representatives tend to be union representatives (though they can be independents). Workers also vote for union délégués du personnel (like shop stewards), whose task it is to take grievances to management. In addition, the unions are 'political' in a way British trade unions are not. So joining a union is less the elementary act of solidarity it is in Britain (it would be inconceivable in Britain for non-unionists to be leading a strike, unless it was a reactionary one). It is more a conscious political choice to operate in a certain way.

Many political commentators have looked at the decline in trade union membership in France and simply read it as a crisis in the labour movement. But it is more complicated than it looks. For example, daily strike meetings were attended by union members and non-union members alike.

The other side of the coin of a weakened role for the trade unions is the fact that it is more difficult for them to control the movement--although again this shouldn't be exaggerated. The call from above by the CGT or the CFDT or FO on their members can, under circumstances in which the anger is generalised, become a movement in which the rank and file play a leading part rather than act as a stage army.

However, how much the rank and file become conscious of the possibilities open to them is a different matter. They do not necessarily see that they can actively go out and organise with other rank and file workers. This is where politics which look to build on the rank and file are crucial.

An example of this possibility was in the district based movements which began to emerge in Paris, in particular in the 20th arrondissement (district). Meetings between militants to build support for the strikes among school teachers, post office workers and tube and bus workers (there are no railways in the 20th arrondissement) had the potential to become a genuine coordination of rank and file workers.

Strikers meet to plan action and solidarity

The second meeting--in the morning of the demonstration on Tuesday 12 December--brought together 900 strikers from across the public sector: not only the workers mentioned above but rank and file workers from the council, the tax office, telecom and the local hospital. All the speeches were brimming with confidence--not just on the immediate issues affecting' them but also on the need for a generalised fightback.

Significantly, the CGT had no option but to go along with the 'coordinations'. At the local level, there was positive support from local fulltimers. Nationally, the CGT did not build them--and did not stand in their way either.

This was a change from the fierce opposition to rank and file movements which the CGT has previously demonstrated. It showed the degree to which the union had to run to catch up with the movement.

The 'coordination' was a sign of the potential in the movement which could have lifted the unrest to a qualitatively higher plane and could have turned the comparisons with 1968,1936 and even 1789 into a reality.

France's red hot winter

Fighting talk

In the days before Christmas the British press claimed, 'Strikes begin to crumble' in France. The reality was quite different. The key strike by the rail workers did begin to end. But the reason was that the government appeared to have given in on all the sectional demands that sparked the strike.

In many areas there was real resistance to ending the battle. Among a large minority there was also an understanding that the struggle could go much further. In the key southern town of Marseilles rail workers and others stayed out for several days after the union leaders called for an end to the strike.

At the Paris Gare du Nord station, workers also stayed out for several days. A description of a mass meeting, which voted by 200 votes to eight to continue striking after the union leaders, call to end the fight, gives a flavour of the mood among some workers.

'If we settle just for our sectional demands we would be clowns. It would be wrong to drop the demand for the scrapping of the Juppé plan. That's what everyone is shouting for in the streets,' argued one worker.

Another worker agreed 'This movement is not just a sectional issue. It has become a fight against the elite, against deregulation imposed by police batons, against the cuts, against the rich, against an inhuman society. It's a movement which must be political. It has awakened so many people and we don't have the right to betray them.'

Another worker denounced the leaders of the CGT and of FO.

'The union leaders never wanted a general, strike Viannet and Blondel shit in their pants at the very idea! The movement was becoming too spontaneous and independent for them, on the ground. The union leaders are slamming the brakes on hard because they don't want to see strike committees developing,'

A CGT shop steward agreed the union leaders were against a fight to bring down the government. 'Viannet didn't want a real fight against Juppé. He thought there was no alternative to Juppé.'

It would be wrong to draw too many conclusions from such meetings. But there are enough examples to be sure that a significant minority of workers wanted the revolt to go much further than the union leaders did.

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