France: ‘Macron is attacking everyone, and everyone is fighting back’

July 5, 2018
French railway workers on strike, with a placard reading: "Macron, you are derailing'.

Tiziri Kandi is an officer with the hotel workers’ branch of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) – a major confederation of French trade unions. Following the 111-day Clichy Holiday Inn strike in Paris, she spoke with Joe Hayns, from Novara Media, about the strike, outsourcing, and the limitations faced by railway workers in their struggle against President Emmanuel Macron’s attack on the state-owned railway operator, SNCF.

What happened in Clichy?

The Clichy strike was one of the longest in both the hotel sector and the fight against subcontracting. The strikers were very much in the minority — there were only 12 workers on strike for four months.

The subcontractor didn’t want to give us our demands, but the hotel started to lose money. They started negotiations, and after many discussions we signed an accord.

The workers won paid lunches, which is €115 per month, and at least 30 hours worth of work per week. The workers have union representatives, and they won almost everything they asked for.

The CGT is a big union. You mentioned before that, like big unions in Britain, they find it difficult to organise particularly precarious workers. Why?

The problem in France, I think, is that some people are assigned to some types of work. In some sectors we find only immigrants, or only women.

When you go to hotels or universities, you will find that people who do the worst jobs come from other parts of the world — from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe. The most terrible thing is that these people are precarious not only in terms of their work, but in their immigration status too.

People only have a visa for a year. To stay in France they have to find a job and accept any job, because staying in this country depends on it. Their employer knows this and they profit from it. That’s why we find that the most precarious work is done by the most precarious people, mainly women and migrants.

Since the beginning, these workers have been seen as dangerous — here to take our jobs and to push down pay and terms and conditions. The unions don’t realise that the problem is actually subcontracting.

Macron’s administration is attacking the SNCF in two ways — it’s trying to change workers’ contracts and take steps towards privatising the railways. I believe there are four unions in the area?

The problem is that it’s really difficult to organise all the workers of the SNCF and convince them to strike.

Macron isn’t attacking the status of rail workers already working for the SNCF. He wants to change the contracts of rail workers in the future. That’s why he thinks workers will not resist — because the ones already working for the SNCF don’t have to be concerned.

Secondly, it’s really difficult for the unions to organise all the workers together. Macron is smart.

But the workers are striking?

Yes, but they’re limited in what they can do. On strike days, the workers have big meetings in the stations. But the strike calendar is already set — all the decisions are already taken by the [union leaders] and so the meetings are useless.

In the Gare du Nord in Paris, the workers are the most organised in France. They wanted to go even further than the two-day strikes out of every five thing that is currently rolling.

The problem is that other stations do not do the same. They are isolated.

In early May, union leaders proposed a vote on the reforms they’re striking against. Why did they do this?

The vote was a big mistake.

The unions, mainly the CGT, wanted to do the same thing as Air France. Recently Air France workers were on strike for many weeks. The director of the company said that the pilots didn’t represent the workers, and that in order to determine whether the strike should end, the unions should vote.

He wanted to show France that these strikers were a minority, and said that if he didn’t win, he’d leave his job. He failed.

Did he leave?

Yes, of course.

Our unions wanted to do the same thing, but there were problems. Firstly, everyone knows the strikers are not a minority. Secondly, because it was the unions that proposed this vote in this case, it looked like they were doubting themselves. Thirdly, the director of the SNCF said they would not recognise the results anyway.

The fourth thing — and this is important — is that one of Macron’s reforms in the private sector is to use votes to take decisions in companies. When the company decides to make new plans, it will not discuss these plans with unions – they will just take a vote.

The problem is that companies are putting pressure on the workers to vote for them, and this is really anti-democratic.

The unions are supposed to be the representatives of the workers. The fact that today our unions are saying “OK, we will have a vote” is giving strength to Macron.

I read yesterday that a full-blown strike by rail workers is a possibility. Could you explain a little?

The CGT has said, “We are going to keep on striking until July, if necessary”. What’s scaring me now is that the CGT is not talking about a full-time strike as a tactic to win, but as a way to end to the campaign.

Workers today are doing the two-every-five strike. They are losing money. They are tired. For me, this tactic is a way of just saying, “You see? We have tried everything”.

Proposing a full-time strike at the beginning of a strike is not the same as proposing it at the end. If you propose it at the beginning and it’s useless, then OK, other options can be considered. But doing it like this – it’s like a suicide pact.

Reports of student protests have seemed optimistic, in their different ways.

It’s been six years that I’ve been living in Paris, and it’s the first time I’ve seen that something is really happening there. All these strikes together, at the same time — Macron is attacking everyone, and everyone is fighting back.

Macron is doing today what [Margaret] Thatcher did [in Britain in] the 1980s. With the miners, it was an economic question – but it was also ideological. The miners were really well organised, with unions, with organisations, and Thatcher wanted to end that.

In France today, the SNCF is one of the last sectors that is organised with unions and political parties. The fact that Macron is attacking the SNCF shows he wants to destroy unions altogether.

[Abridged from Novara Media.]

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