Mass Strikes Against Austerity Brewing in France?
While workplace resistance to the tsunami of attacks on our living standards, pensions, healthcare, social security, and our social wage in general is near an all time low as measured by recent U.S. strike activity, our French brothers and sisters are demonstrating a different way.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of a center-right party, campaigned promising to put more money in people's pockets, to cut taxes, and make France more competitive. Eighteen months ago Sarkozy seemed unstoppable. Now his government is trying to force workers to contribute more to their pension and retire later. The attack on pensions has stripped away what little remains of the populist posturing that helped Sarkozy and his party win in 2007. As the Economist reported, "The champion of the worker is now wielding the ax, cutting jobs in teaching, hospitals and the police force."
Despite strikes and protests, and a vow of further action by labor unions, the French National Assembly voted in mid September to pass President Sarkozy's pension cuts. The French labor movement responded with a general strike on September 23rd, followed by a wave of demonstrations on October 2nd. On both days, perhaps 3 million workers and their supporters (in relative terms that would be 15 million in the U.S.) took part, with more than 200 local demonstrations on the 2nd.
A day after railway unions called rolling strikes, President Sarkozy, facing a further wave of strikes, announced some changes to his proposed pension cuts to ease the impact on women who stopped work to raise children. The unions dismissed the move as a smokescreen.
Nevertheless, calling one-day demonstrations and strikes weeks apart with no plan for continuing the action is not a strategy that could successfully stop a determined right wing government.
Sarkozy has vowed that the government would not bend on the essentials of the pension bill: increasing the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018, and the age at which people can retire on a full pension from 65 to 67 by 2023.
The next general strike is due to take place on October 12th, and it appears that most French union leaders may escalate the action by organizing rolling 24-hour strikes if the government does not back down. In this plan, striking workplaces would hold workplace meetings every 24 hours where a vote would be taken on whether or not to continue the strike. This would be a qualitative escalation of mass action from the previous strategy of calling national days of action every few weeks.
In some places, sectors of industry are already out – college students, are walking out; high school students are protesting the pension reform; and longshore and petrochemical workers are already engaged in bitter strikes. Workers have shut the oil terminals at Fos-Lavera, the world's third-largest oil port for 12 days, leading to shutdowns at major refineries in southern France. Some of these strikes have been called by national union leaderships, while others started on a local basis. In many cases, such as the ongoing petrochemical and dock strikes, local issues fuel the strikes.
French union leaders have also called a further day of demonstrations to begin four days into the escalated indefinite strike action - two big demonstrations in 4 days! If actually carried through, this would be the action of a workers' movement that means business.
Our French comrades in the New Anti-capitalist Party are of the opinion that the union leaders have not escalated the action out of choice, but out of necessity; their hand has been forced by the pressure of the millions of workers who have mobilized. As these are demonstrations and strikes called from above, it is necessary to build rank-and-file networks and general assemblies to deepen, coordinate, and sustain mass action.
While the mass strikes have not started yet; and the union leaders and government still have time to come up with excuses for postponing general strike action, this is a potential turning point in the class struggle. An indefinite general strike may be about to sweep across France.
With working people and the oppressed across the world facing the imposition of austerity measures, the example of such a political strike movement would demonstrate the enormous potential power of organized labor to disrupt the day-to-day functioning of society (and, implicitly, to reorganize it), with profound implications for the class struggle.