National Sections of the L5I:

Battle over the pensions in France : Trade Unions are the key

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After six days of strike action and demonstrations in France the confrontation between workers and the government over the issue of the pension “reform” is reaching a decisive moment. Indeed the trade unions have succeeded in organizing very large demonstrations, not only in big cities but towns across the whole country and, even more remarkably, continued this for a whole, month with one major demonstration every week. The rejection of the government’s so-called reform is massive among the entire population and even more so amongst workers.

The government continues to defend its project to increase the age of retirement to 64 at all costs. It is not simply about a technical measure or an episode within an overall plan. For President Macron this is The Reform. Blocked by the pandemic during his previous term of office he insists on this reform as symbolic of his presidency and legacy. For him workers need to work more to pay for the subsidies liberally offered by the government to the bosses during the pandemic and afterwards (on energy costs etc.). As the neoliberal Minister of Economy Bruno Le Maire puts it, the bosses should back this reform “with enthusiasm and determination. It covers 8 to 9 billions euros of economy !” The more ministers try to explain the reform, the more crudely its reality appears in the eyes of workers. Despite all the claims of the government that the change is “pro-women”, it has been revealed that it is is particularly penalizing for them since they will have to work longer. The reform will also hit lower paid workers and particularly those who started working before they were 20.

Faced with Macron an the bosses determination, the present strategy of the trade unions is totally inadequate. They have used a series of one-day strikes in many previous disputes over the last twenty years and the result was inevitably the same: defeat. Indeed, according to a oft=repeated scenatio, after an initial success, the repetition of one day demonstrations hits the workers who do not understand where it it is leading Fatigue and disaffection grow provoking demoralization, in a vicious circle, the one reinforcing the other. The number of strikers dwindles until the TU simply call an end to it, or, as sometimes they put it, “continuing the struggle by other means” …

This time the situation is rather different on two accounts. First, the number of strikers and the force of demonstrations are at a record-high for at least twenty years. Second, all the unions, including the very moderate CFDT, reject the reform and there are, as yet, no signs of weaknening by the “Intersyndicale” (the front of eight unions and federations opposed to the reform). This is of course a reflection of the determination and combativeness of the working class.

After a two weeks pause - due to school holidays – all the unions declared that a stronger stance is needed. “The Intersyndicale reaffirms its determination to shut down France on March 7th. March 7th should be a dead day (journée morte) in the workplaces, administrations, services, schools, transports ...” (Press Release, 21/02)

The CGT leader Philippe Martinez declared that if “the government continues to be stubborn despite the mobilizations, yes, we need to accelerate with more significant actions, longer, tougher strikes, more numerous, more massive and renewable”. This is an elaborate way of describing a general strike without naming it. A renewable strike, (grève reconductible), is indeed the French way to launch an indefinite strike. In the workplace, the strike is then decided on a day-by-day basis by workplace general assemblies (AGs) , every morning. While this all sounds very democratic, it is, nevertheless a rather fragile method of struggle, as it depends on the continued and strong participation of everybody in the assemblies. Each day, the struggle might end so that despite the heavy sacrifices of the strikers, the political and economical impact of it is rather limited. The government knows that it can force an end simply by negotiating marginal concessions with the more moderate unions, weakening the morale of the strikers and breaking the unity of the struggle.

Why is Philippe Martinez avoiding even mentioning an all out indefinite general strike ? In the past, most notably in 1968, the French workers initiated a general strike and then the situation totally escaped control of the top union leadership. Since then, they prefer to carefully control every step of a struggle. If pushed hard, they would even prefer defeat rather than being sidelined by the action of the rank and file.

Despite this cowardliness on the part of the union bureaucracy , the outcome of the struggle is far from pre-determined. It is certain that March 7th will be another hueg day of strikes and demonstrations with likely two million on the streets. Then what next ? March 8th is another day of demonstration for women’s rights. Student organizations are calling for another big day of protest on March 9th. This concatenation of dates suggests that workers should go on strike the 7th and then stay out ! Several important combative unions are calling for a reconductible strike starting on March 7th. They include Paris transport (RATP,) rail workers, oil refineries, ports and docks, and workers in power stations energy. Will this spark be strong enough to ignite a general strike ?

The outcome depends on many factors but one of the most important is the active intervention by political parties on the left. Nothing should be expected from the recent front of left parties, NUPES, nor from it leading force Unsubmissive France (France Insoumise), the party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. FI is formally supporting the TU actions but in reality is focusing on parliament and on the next elections. In Parliamen, however, t they have successfully obstructed the discussion of the law with thousands of amendments in a first session. The law ihas now been been now passed to Senate, where the rightwing has the majority and will be come back again parliament.

However, the tactic of obstruction is far from sufficient to stop the process. The government might try to convince the right wing conservatives - Les Républicains - to support it, or simply to have the law approved with an anti-democratic measure allowed by the conapartist constitution of the 5th Republic. At the beginning of the dispute, FI even tried to organize a demonstration independently of the TU : this was a major flop. This is not to say that NUPES and FI activists will not participate to demonstration and the struggle. Most of them are unionized and are part and parcel of the mobilization. However, on the political ground, all these forces, FI, the Communist Party, (PCF),the Socialist Party (PS) and the Greens act exclusively on the parliamentary level and leave the the carrying out of strikes to the trade unions.

All the forces of the radical left are building the next step for the struggle, however they are both divided and confused.

The New Anticapitalist Party,(NPA) is weakened by the split of its old leadership, carrying with it one half of the membership. This leads to the grotesque situation where there are two NPAs, of similar size, present on the demonstrations, organising events, using the same name and logo. The NPA-Plateform B (PFB) has retained control of the apparatus, the press, the website, the fulltimers etc. It is more visible as its leaders were the spokepersons and former presidential candidates, Olivier Besancenot and Philippe Poutou. . However the timing of the could not be more unfortunate. Having analyzed the world situation in the darkest colors (the working class on the defensive, the rise of the far right etc.) NPA-PFB stresses the need for unity :

“The NPA proposes to build a political alternative to Macron, coming out of the mobilization, with all those who wish to put an end to pro-capitalist politics, towards a society freed from exploitation and oppressed.”

While this might sound radical, similar statements were rather common for PCF and even PS in the 1970s. It suggests in vague words a broad left government, with NUPES, and even a minimum-maximum program. First we put an end to pro-capitalist politics, and to do so we ally ourselves with reformists, then we proceed to a society free from exploitation and oppression. In a sense, this is a first step to solve ambiguity on which NPA was founded, however it does so in favour of reformist politics today and socialism in the distant future.. It is clear that NPA-PFB has started a path that will lead it to dissolve into a reformist party, or simply to become irrelevant.

The other NPA, NPA-Platform C (PFC), is still a heterogeneous block composed of two tendencies in the pre-split party , L’Etincelle (spark) and Anticapitalisme et Révolution trying to organize a united party. They are politically very active amongst the youth and around the workplaces. They correctly defen the perspective of a general strike.

“Yes, we need to move towards a general strike to set things back on the right track. Without workers, nothing is produced. If we strike, nothing is produced and farewell profits and dividends.”

Indeed, their activists are at the forefront in trying to develop self-organization amongst the strikers with the slogan “put the strike under the control of the strikers”. Or, as Gael Quirante, leader of A&R put it at their national rally in February, “Even if starting a general strike is not so simple as to push on a button, we need to search for this button, in every way, with general assemblies, with coordinations etc.”

However, what is completely missing from NPA-PFC politics is the idea that all the strikers should put maximum pressure on the Trade Unions to declare the general strike and prepare this actively in the workplaces, in all the local, regional and other structures of the unions, and agitate for this openly explicit way. One of the paradoxes of the current mobilizations is indeed the low level of participation in the workplace assemblies, despite the numbers in the demonstrations. And another related paradox is the fact that despite all previous defeats, the masses of the workers trust the national leadership of the trade unions. This is even more so that most of the workers mobilized are not part of the vanguard : many of them are going on strike and on demonstrations for the first time in their life. This will not change purely spontaneously. It requires initiative – leadership - by politically conscious and experienced militants

Calling on the TU leadership to follow their words with deeds could be very effective in this. It is an essential component in the process of building the “push button” for the general strike. Even within the more moderate union, the CFDT, the current position taken by its leadership is due to the fact that at their last general conference a majority voted to reject Macrons’ reform. In most of the unions, the ocal and middle levels of leadership, those under a direct pressure from below, are actually convinced of the need of more radical actions. Therefore, while revolutionaries must try to create self-organization bodies, they must at the same time wage a serious determinate struggle INSIDE the unions. Unfortunately, NPA-PFC would reject this as heresy. For them, as for Lutte Ouvriere and even Permanent Revolution (Fracion Trotskista,FT), the united front should be operated only at the rank-and-file level, and not at the level of demands placed on the national leadership. In doing so, they and the workers following them throw away of a crucial weapon against reformism.

The line of Lutte Ouvrière, itself is not very different.

“Some unions call for a reconductible strike starting from March 7th. Indeed we need to move into this direction. But what could really scare the government and the bosses would be that the strikes are decided from below, that they spread like wildfire and that they go beyond the limits set by the TU leadership.
General assemblies with a large number of workers must discuss the follow-up of the movement and the strikes. They must discuss everything, of demands of course but also about the way to lead the movement.
To meet everywhere, to discuss the means to pursue and spread the movement, it is the way to renew in the working class a force that might become invincible.” (LO Feb 15)

This is no surprise, as Etincelle, the largest component of NPA-PFC, is a fraction expelled from LO and within NPA they continued with the same line with little or no political elaboration on what went wrong with LO. RP is on a similar line : “Faced with the hesitation of the intersyndicale, there is no minute to loose. The possibility of a reconductible strike will depend to a large extent on the effort of the strikers. The rank and file organization in every workplace, of unionized and non-unionized workers must develop in the service of this perspective.” (RP Feb 22th)

Again, while we agree that initiatives from below, the spontaneous militancy of rank an file workers is vital it is also of the greatest importance to stress that to free the unions from the reformist bureaucracy means to capitalize on the high point of struggle, on its massive mobilizations. The slogan of a general strike called by the unions (instead of simply leaving this to the rank-and-file) would help break workers from any sell out by their. leader,s and lay the foundation of mass democratic trade-unions, rooted in the workplaces. It is very important to recognize that the masses relate to the bureaucrats as the leadership of the struggle. To simply denounce them, or worse ignore them, will not change this situation. To replace this leadership we must combine demands on the union leaders, with self-organization of the strike, general assemblies which elecet strike committees, etc. and coordinations between different sectors of workers,

Despite this weakness of the radical left, the outcome of the current struggle is far from decided in advance. The breadth and strength of the mass basis comes from the consciousness that there is much more at stake than pensions. Everybody has felt in a harsh way the inflation and the rising cost of living. Youth, both in secondary schools and in university are joining the movement against Macron and its politics. Many have come to realise that nothing positive for them can be expected from capitalism, its economy, its wars and its destruction of the planet. All these forces can be united to defeat the government as they did in 2006.
The breadth of the forces mobilized requires broadening the scope of the strike. Marching toward a general strike requires extending the demands beyond the simple repeal of the present attack. Demands for wage increases, for massive funds for the public services (hospital, schools, universities), for open borders, for taxes on the wealthy and on profit, should be openly discussed by the strikers and become part of an action program for workers, including the heavily exploited immigrants, and youth.

However despite the historic level of combativity, a strategic victory can only be a certainty through a clear consciousness of the aim of the struggle. For this purpose the magnificently militant working class in France needs to arm itself with a revolutionary party and political program.