France: Unions debate how to fight Macron’s anti-worker reforms

October 27, 2017
The October 19 strikes were announced with the aim of driving forward the movement.

One of France's largest union confederations, the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), held a strike on October 19 as part of the campaign against the anti-worker and anti-union ordinances adopted by the Emmanuel Macron government.

The mobilisations were far smaller than the previous three days of protests and have further fuelled discussion within the movement over how to overcome divisions and weaknesses and mobilise the widespread latent public opposition to the government's attacks.

The October 19 strikes and mobilisations by the CGT were announced on October 9 – a day prior to a public sector workers’ strike – with the aim of driving forward the movement. However, the result was about 100,000 workers participating in the October 19 mobilisations – roughly half the size of the September 21 mobilisations and about a quarter of the size of the September 12 protests, the largest mobilisation of the campaign to date.

The call for the strike came after the first inter-union meeting involving all the union confederations was held on October 9, the first of its kind during the current campaign. It was widely known that the CGT would call the strike and that the militant trade union Solidaires would support, but there was no effort made at that meeting to draw the other confederations into the mobilisations.

Conservative unions

The failure to seek to draw other unions into the mobilisation reflects deep problems in the current campaign.

This includes the refusal by conservative unions, particularly the French Confederation of Democratic Workers (CFDT), to join the movement.

The potential of drawing them in seems even bleaker following the publication in Le Monde on October 23 of statements made by CFDT secretary general Laurent Berger at the confederation’s October 18-19 National Council meeting. Berger described the joint mobilisations as a “demonstration of weakness” and the CGT as “the Titanic, who wants to ride on the Titanic?”.

However, the left unions have also displayed an inability to engage and draw in more militant members of conservative unions.

While this objective is easier said than done, the CGT has been heavily focused on individual sections of its own confederation rather than trying to find ways to broaden the movement. While this has at times achieved some gains – such as truck drivers and wharf workers securing concessions that would limit the extent to which enterprise agreements can undermine sectoral agreements – the isolated strikes have had a tendency to leave the more militant sections of the movement on their own.

Where they have won concessions, those victories have undermined the capacity to mobilise these militant and strategically-located workers in support of the broader movement.

New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) militant Robert Pelletier, writing in the NPA's l'Anticapitaliste, argues that a major problem undermining mobilisations has been the determination of the leaders of the major confederations to participate in "dialogue" with the government.

The worst perpetrators have been the leaders of Workers Force (FO) and the CFDT, who despite anger from their rank-and-file and lower-level leaders, have accepted the attacks and argued that engagement with the government has served to limit the damage and helped to make progress in building "social dialogue".

However, this engagement has not been limited to the more conservative unions. CGT leaders have also engaged in dialogue and are seeking to participate in the next round, which will focus on the government's proposed attacks on vocational training, apprenticeships and unemployment insurance.

Pelletier argues that this engagement undermines the extent to which the government fears union threats of mobilisation. He argues that the focus should instead be on building upon the existing resistance by workers – particularly through the calling of indefinite strikes – while moving away from union-by-union and sector-by-sector strikes towards a united movement.

United convergence

Solidaires has continued to push for united mobilisations supported by all union confederations. It had been seeking to bring union leaders together for a discussion on a united response since May – that was only achieved on October 9.

In a statement following their leadership's October 17 meeting with the government to discuss the ordinances, Solidaires called for the rejection of the current ordinances, the repeal of the anti-worker 2016 El Khomri Law brought in by the previous Socialist Party government and rejection of the government’s prioritisation of "flexibility" over security for workers.

Solidaires is working to win agreement for a mid-November convergence of the struggles of workers, unemployed and retirees. It presented proposals for how to achieve this convergence to the inter-union meeting on October 24. Solidaires stated that "the constitution of a strong and determined social movement is urgently needed".

An agreement was reached at the October 24 meeting between the CGT, Solidaires and the FO for a joint mobilisation on November 16. Although opposed by the CDFT, the call has also been endorsed by UNEF, France’s main university student union, and two high school student unions. These student organisations played a critical role in the early stages of the 2016 protests against the El Khomri Law.

Another organisation pushing for a united mobilisation has been the Social Front (FS), which was established in late April by activists frustrated by the collapse of the 2016 movement.

FS has been building up its support with more than 130 union, social justice and political organisations from across France affiliating to the organisation.

It also successfully built a series of united mobilisations against Macron following the first round of the presidential elections in April. FS has called for a joint protest on November 18 against Macron’s policies. Activists from FS addressed the October 24 inter-union meeting seeking to win support for the mobilisation.

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