France: Close to half a million workers join public sector strike

Protests were held in 140 cities and towns across France and drew 400,000 people into the streets on October 10..
October 13, 2017

Hundreds of thousands of workers, retirees and students joined a third day of strikes and protests across France on October 10. The protests are part of ongoing efforts by unions, left parties and progressive organisations to defeat attacks on workers and the public service by President Emmanuel Macron.

Protests were held in 140 cities and towns and drew 400,000 people into the streets.

At the centre of the day was a strike called by the nine union confederations active in France's public sector. The strike was aimed at stopping the planned 120,000 job cuts in the sector.

The General Confederation of Workers (CGT) estimated participation of 30-50% across the public sector.

While the mobilised numbers sound impressive, the movement is struggling to build momentum. The mobilisations on October 10 were slightly smaller than those on September 12, although larger than the September 21 mobilisations.

More importantly, the current movement is small compared to recent mass labour mobilisations in France.

Last year's movement against the El Khomri labour laws peaked with two national mobilisations of more than one million people. The movements in 2009 and 2010 saw multiple united mobilisations that drew more than three million people into the streets.

There are several reasons for the smaller mobilisations.

One of these has been the government's use of France's undemocratic constitution to rush through emergency ordinances without a parliamentary vote. This has reduced the extent to which people see attempts to defeat the attacks as realistic.

(There will be a vote on Macron’s anti-worker laws in late November, more than two months after the ordinances came into effect)

The trade union Solidaires argued in a statement on October 12 that the present mobilisations demonstrate a widespread willingness to mobilise against the laws. However, the ability to fully engage that willingness has been undermined by divisions within the union movement as to what parts of the laws should be opposed and how they should be opposed.

The leaderships of reformist union confederations such as the French Confederation of Democratic Workers (CFDT) have been broadly supportive of sections of the legislation.

Rather than call on members to join mobilisations, they have sought to engage in dialogue with the government regarding the text of the ordinances. They have expressed concern that mobilisations against the ordinances would undermine future negotiations with the government.

The more militant unions have instead pushed a line of rejecting the changes and mobilising workers in the streets. However, they have done so inconsistently and in ways that have not taken full advantage of breaks in the CFDT's approach.

For example, when CFDT's rail federation, along with Solidaires' rail federation, called for a strike on October 10 in support of the public sector strike, the CGT's rail federation – the largest union in the railways – refused to join the strike. Instead, it encouraged members to join the protests, meaning the strike had minimal impact on rail services.

Divisions within the movement are not just a symptom of differing assessments of the attacks and how best to fight them. They also reflect a jockeying for positions by the confederations in anticipation of union representation elections next year.

The CFDT has historically been France's second confederation behind the CGT. Today it is either the principle confederation, or at least challenging for that position in the majority of industries.

CFDT officials pointed out at mass meetings of tens of thousands of activists and officials on October 3 that they believe the current moderate approach will strengthen the CFDT’s hand in the elections.

However, the New Anti-Capitalist Party reported on October 6 that CFDT’s leaders had to spend much of those meetings defending their conservative line from criticisms from the ranks.

One positive development has been that leaders from France’s union confederations held a joint meeting on October 9. This is the first such meeting to be held during the current campaign, despite calls by Solidaires for a joint meeting since May.

Unfortunately, the meeting did not issue a joint call for united mobilisation, although Solidaires suggested that in addition to themselves, the CGT and the United Union Federation, which have all been actively pushing for joint mobilisation, there is also support for such a call from Workers Force and the French Confederation of Management – General Confederation of Executives.

The meeting did support a call for a further meeting of union leaderships on October 24, which will take stock of the full range of social attacks coming from the government. Solidaires leaders have expressed hope that the meeting will call a joint mobilisation for early November.

On October 9, the CGT called a confederation-wide strike for October 19. CGT national secretary Fabrice Angei said in a statement: “Our citizens are increasingly challenging the orders, 65% of them reject them and 57% approve of the mobilisations against the government project … the government is conducting a comprehensive deconstruction of the French social model.

“We will mobilise on October 19 against this social destruction, and for a 32-hour week, salary increases and retirement for all via mutualisation”.

Solidaires issued a statement on October 12 in support of the October 19 mobilisation, arguing that it is an opportunity to build public awareness and unify and strengthen the unions’ bases of support in the public and private sector in order to better challenge the government.

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Issue