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French workers strike against austerity

By David Hoskins |
May 30, 2016
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Washington, D.C. – Ongoing strikes by workers against proposed austerity measures, which would strip workers’ pay and protections, are disrupting France’s economy. Workers have been engaged in strike activity for weeks now as labor unions in the French rail, subway and airport transit, maritime transport, nuclear power, and fuel depot and refinery industries issue calls for work stoppages.

The strikes have reduced production and impacted the broader French economy. According to a May 26 article in the Telegraph, half of France’s petrol stations are completely or partially out of fuel and output has been cut at 16 nuclear power plants.

Bloomberg reports that 15% of flights at Orly airport in Paris have been canceled and delays are expected at Charles de Gaulle airport. A key business federation representing small and medium-sized companies said that 58% of its members are struggling to make deliveries and 47% are having trouble getting supplied.

Many unions are planning to further expand the strike activity starting on June 2. The strikes come after months of mass anti-austerity protests known as Nuit Debout or “arise at night.” The Nuit Debout movement is often compared to Occupy Wall Street and uses the occupation of public squares as a tactic to advance its demands, which include the withdrawal of the austerity labor bill.

According to Jacobin magazine, the Nuit Debout mass waves of protest have stormed France ever since the Socialist Party government of Francois Hollande introduced the proposed ‘reform’ of the French labor code, which amounts to austerity. Some of the protests have been extremely large for a country with a population of just 66 million. Approximately 500,000 people engaged in a national day of action on March 9; more than 1 million joined trade union demonstrations on March 31.

Hollande’s government pushes austerity for workers

The recent attack on French workers comes under the guise of labor ‘reform.’ But what the ruling French Socialist Party calls reform, workers recognize as just more austerity. A review of the main points of the labor austerity bill as identified by BBC News demonstrates that the proposed bill weakens the 35-hour workweek; grants employers greater ability to cut worker pay; reduces layoff protections for workers; and deregulates special leave standards, such as those for maternity leave.

French labor unions are also alarmed at the fact that the austerity measure threatens industry standards by granting individual firms greater power to negotiate directly with their employees on pay and conditions, thus avoiding sector-wide standards set by unions. Unsurprisingly, it is this oft-overlooked part of the austerity bill, known as Article 2, that most reduces union leverage and that the government of Francois Hollande says is non-negotiable.

The anti-labor measures in France represent just one part of the global austerity agenda of the ruling classes during the present period. The 2007-08 global financial crisis and corresponding economic recession caused massive unemployment and home foreclosures for the working class in many countries. Yet government leaders in capitalist countries did not respond with massive jobs programs or social investment. And they certainly did not offer a critique of capitalism itself, even though capitalism is to blame for the widespread suffering of workers around the world.

Instead, capitalist governments offered two different medicines, one for capitalist banks and big business, and the other one for workers. Banking and other preferred industries (such as the automotive industry in the U.S.) receive corporate welfare in the form of massive bailouts. Workers get austerity in the form of cuts to education and other public services, reduced retirement benefits, cuts to food stamps and other welfare programs, restrictions on the rights of organized labor, privatization or outright elimination of government jobs, and regressive tax increases, such as the 2013 increase in the U.S. payroll tax, all to pay for the corporate and bank bailouts.

This agenda of bailouts for capitalists on the one hand and austerity for workers on the other is not new and it has played itself out in country after country. The workers’ movements in countries with strong left parties and labor organizations, such as France and Greece, organize mass resistance to austerity.

In the U.S., organized labor and the broader left struggle to find their footing in leading a mass and prolonged struggle independent of the Democratic Party bosses who are complicit in the austerity agenda. The emergence of vocal and visible economic movements in the U.S. following the Great Recession, such as Occupy Wall Street and the Fight for $15, show that the popular will exists to fight back if it can just be tapped and led in a coordinated way.

French resistance offers lessons to U.S. labor movement

The strikes and mass protests in France have been spearheaded in large part by that country’s main trade union federation - the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) - and Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques (SUD). The CGT union has it roots in the French Communist Party (PCF), but disaffiliated with the PCF in the 1990s. SUD is a radical union federation that emphasizes social justice unionism and has close ties to the New Anticapitalist Party.

While the CGT has been accused of moderating its program since severing ties with the PCF, it still carries out militant actions, especially by U.S. standards, and has a vocal, militant rank and file that is often successful in pushing the union’s leadership to the left on key issues. It is important to note that what makes unions like CGT and SUD strong, and often successful, in leading anti-austerity battles is militancy in shutting down production and mobilizing in the streets, not size.

France has lower union density than the U.S. As the Economist points out in a March 2014 article, less than 8% of French workers belong to a trade union, down from a high of about 30% in the 1950s. That figure is below the unionization rate of Britain (26%), Germany (18%), and the U.S. (11%). What sets French unions apart is their militancy, not their density.

This militancy stands in stark contrast to the orientation of most U.S. trade union leaders, where some combination of Democratic Party politicking, social justice unionism, and new organizing for union industry density substitute for a sustained strike strategy. Some of the more active labor unions in the U.S. fetishize new organizing as the savior of the U.S. labor movement.

These labor unions rightly point out that as U.S. union density has declined since its peak rate of over 33% in 1945, the share of income going to the top 10% has skyrocketed. However, they fail to account for one other important feature of the trade union movement that has declined in this country over this same period of time - the strike.

There is nothing wrong with social justice unionism and new organizing to build density. These are progressive moves, but they do not have the same strategic value as withholding labor through a sustained strike, which by itself can stop production, curb the ruling class, force concessions and so much more. A militant rank-and-file minority is needed in this country to push labor union leaders to adopt a militant strike orientation, much the same as rank-and-file members in France’s CGT have forced that union’s leadership into the leadership of an anti-austerity fight.