french transport unions scuttle the strike

Paris transport workers vote to end unlimited strike against Macron
Alex Lantier, WSWS, Jan 20 2020

This weekend, Paris mass transit workers voted the end of the unlimited strike begun Dec 5 on most of the Paris Autonomous Transport Authority (RATP) network. Only lines 5, 13 and B are still on strike. Participation in the strike at the French National Railways (SNCF) is also falling and while workers are determined to continue a struggle against Macron’s pension cuts, it seems the longest strike in France since the May 1968 general strike is drawing to a close. RATP workers told the WSWS two principal factors determined the decision to return to work. First, there was no clear perspective for a struggle after they were isolated by trade unions in other industries (ports, refinery and auto) who refused to carry out open-ended strike action. Moreover, after six weeks of strike action, and as the unions are about to launch four months of further negotiations with Macron on his pension cuts, strikers were under intense financial pressure due to the pitifully low levels of strike pay handed out by the unions. Protests and one-day strike actions are set to continue, but it is already time to draw political lessons from the initial struggle. How could Macron resist with public opinion overwhelmingly against him and, moreover, as strikes and protests against social inequality were spreading internationally? The rail strikes in France over the last months developed alongside strike action by tens of millions of Indian workers, strikes by Pindo auto workers and copper miners, and mass protests in Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq and across much of Latin America. Macron could rely on the close collaboration of the union bureaucracies who had negotiated the pension cuts with him. The first attempt by the working class to overcome the resistance of the trade unions, but in a struggle limited to the national stage and controlled by the same trade unions whose opposition they were trying to smash, did not suffice to overcome all the political obstacles facing the workers. Sylvie, a RATP employee, said:

It is not willingly that we are returning to work. We were hoping the public schoolteachers would join us, the refineries, the major corporations. But ultimately we had the impression that we were alone. We would have liked to strike for six months if we could, but financially we couldn’t, otherwise we would have done. The CGT paid RATP strikers a total of €250k, that is €20 each over six-weeks. On the other hand, the total budget of the French union federations, financed overwhelmingly from the state and employers federations with whom they negotiate austerity, is around €4b. These budgets do not serve to wage the class struggle, however, but to strangle it.

Thierry, another RATP driver, said:

The unions want to set the tone, but the workers want something else. We don’t want to follow Martinez. He only says we will meet again in February. The legal definition of a trade union states that it must have as its objective the definition of the rights, as well as the material and moral interests” of workers, so the French “unions” in fact have not been unions for many years.

Franck, a RATP train driver, said of the unions:

They ultimately managed to do what we did not want them to do. For example, during the two weeks of Xmas vacations, we told them we wanted no truce in the struggle. But before Christmas they announced that the next national protest would be Jan 9. Then we wanted them to start campaigning for a general strike, even if we know it is not so simple in the private sector. I worked as a temp there, also, I know that if you strike there, you get replaced. But we did not get support from other industries.

RATP workers stressed their determination to return later to the struggle, and they know public opinion overwhelmingly supports them. After a six-week strike, two-thirds of the population still backs the transport strike, and a new national protest is called for Jan 24. However, it is also evident from the statements of the principal union bureaucracies that they are seeking to stop indefinite strikes and return to one-day actions that are more directly subordinated to them. According to the National Union of Autonomous Union’s (UNSA) RATP branch:

After 45 days of strike action, most of the strike meetings of the rail network decided to reorient the unlimited movement as of Monday and engage in other forms of action. This will allow us to ultimately wage, as French women and men, this struggle. In conformity with the will of strike meetings on the rail network, we call on women and men to continue and engage together in cross-industry mobilizations.

Union boxtops shaken by the working class offensive against Macron have seized on any pretext to push strikers back to work. According to RATP workers, boxtops attending strike meetings attacked strikers who entered the headquarters of the pro-Macron French Democratic Labor Confederation (CFDT) on Jan 17 to criticize “violence” and call for moderation.. In a Le Parisien interview, Martinez denounced these strikers protesting the CFDT’s support for the cuts, saying:

Such excesses will never be a legitimate mode of expression in a democracy. Exchange elevates debate, but violence degrades it.

One RATP worker said:

We mostly disagree with him.

For now, there is no proof that the strikers who entered CFDT offices acted violently. One of them, Anasse Kazib, denied accusations from CFDT secretary Laurent Berger that they “entered using violence.” Kazib told Berger:

This accusation does not surprise me from you, a king of lying, but tough luck: we filmed everything and there was neither verbal nor physical violence, though one of your officials tore a striker’s jacket and another pushed a female striker.

The end of indefinite strike action does not mark the end of a struggle. Many groups of “yellow vest” protesters and strikers are determined to continue, and anger in the working class against Macron in France, and against the capitalist system internationally, continues to grow. However, they can place no confidence at all in the unions’ assurances to strikers that they can return to work confident that the unions will continue to wage a struggle. The rank and file imposed the Dec 5 unlimited strike on the unions, who feared totally losing control after several wildcat actions at the SNCF in the fall. To return to militant action against Macron’s pension cuts, and to draw broader layers of the working class into the struggle, will depend on workers taking action independently of the trade unions. This struggle has confirmed the warnings made by the Parti de l’égalité socialiste, based on the historical experience of the working class with the trade unions. Tied to the government and planning to negotiate cuts with Macron, with whom there is nothing to negotiate, they strangled the struggle. The way forward for the workers is to build their strike meetings as committees of action, independent of the unions, to draw support from broader layers of the working class, in France and internationally, for a political struggle to bring down Macron.

Police assault “yellow vests” after Macron forced to flee crowd in Paris theater
Alex Lantier, WSWS, Jan 20 2020

Saturday saw a violent police crackdown on weekly “yellow vest” marches in Paris, after Pres Macron was booed and confronted by protesters Friday night on one of his rare public appearances, at the Bouffes du nord theater in the capital. Coming amid ongoing mass strikes against Macron’s pension cuts, the events underscored that France’s “president of the rich” is widely hated by workers and youth. After news emerged on social media that Macron had been sighted at the theater, crowds gathered outside the Bouffes du nord, chanting “Macron resign!” and “All together, general strike!” Protesters sought to enter the theater and confront Macron, who was watching a play together with his wife Brigitte and a large security detail. The Élysée presidential palace initially sought to mislead the public and downplay the incident, claiming that Macron ignored the protest and watched the play through to the end, but it later confirmed press reports that the presidential couple had to be “placed in security” for several minutes, when dozens of protesters managed to enter the theater via the stage. Large detachments of CRS riot police surrounded the theater, and Macron fled the area under chants of “Macron resign!” from the crowd. Macron’s staff issued a statement to BFM-TV, declaring:

The President will continue going to the theater with his spouse as he is used to doing. He will continue to protect freedom of expression and creation by artists threatened by political violence.

In fact, the incident showed that Macron is so deeply hated that he cannot show his face in public anywhere without provoking major protests. When the “yellow vest” protests broke out in 2018, he was so terrified of popular anger at his arrogance and austerity agenda that a helicopter was kept on 24-hour stand-by to evacuate him in case he was in danger of felling into the hands of the French people. Despite the government’s repeated claims that the “yellow vest” crisis is “behind” it, Macron is now more deeply unpopular than ever before. As for the Élysée’s claim that Macron works to protect “freedom of expression,” it is belied by the endless stream of attacks on basic democratic rights and acts of bloody police brutality that his government is unleashing on workers and youth protesting his policies. News of Macron’s arrival at the theater had circulated on several social media accounts including one of independent Franco-Algerian journalist Taha Bouhafs, who tweeted:

I’m now at the Bouffes du nord theater (metro La Chapelle), three rows behind the president of the Republic. Militants are in the area and calling everyone to come in support. Something is being prepared, the evening will probably be eventful.

After Macron’s ignominious flight from the theater, police proceeded to arrest Bouhafs on charges of “participating in a grouping formed with a view to committing violence or damages” and organizing an undeclared protest. They kept Bouhafs under preventive arrest (garde à vue) for the evening. Not only is the arrest of a journalist for reporting the president’s presence an extraordinary attack on democratic rights, but the charge confirms that just reporting Macron’s presence is enough to produce outrage and spontaneous protests in Paris. The police state machine responded the next day, organizing a massive police presence and brutally cracking down on the 62nd weekly protest of the “yellow vests” in Paris. From the beginning of the march, the several thousand “yellow vests” were entirely surrounded by large detachments of heavily-armed riot police and dozens of police vans in front of and behind the marchers. Even in well-to-do areas of northwestern Paris, however, residents could be seen coming to the windows to applaud the protesters as they passed by. Patrick, a retired nurse on the Paris “yellow vest” march, said:

We have to struggle against this quote unquote president, because I think he is really disintegrating. He will plunge France into bloodshed. The one piece of advice that I would give him is to leave immediately with his head high, because otherwise he will leave later with his tail between his legs.

Patrick said he thought the unions had lost control of the class struggle, despite calling a transport strike last December after over a year of “yellow vest” protests. He said:

The workers broke out of the trade union straitjacket, and the unions are trying to take back control of the movement for now. But I think they have gotten around to it a bit too late.

Thierry, a striking Paris transit worker, criticized police violence against the “yellow vests,” saying: “There are certain parallels between the police of the [Nazi-collaborationist] Vichy regime, the police of [1960s ex-Vichy collaborationist official Maurice] Papon and Macron’s police. This violence against the French people is unacceptable. The problem is that they have accepted the unacceptable. Now it is time to wake up and stop police from mutilating people just because they are protesting. We have a constitutional right to protest.”
Speaking on how to deal with this problem, Thierry stressed the importance of the international resurgence of the class struggles across the Middle East and Latin America, and beyond:

In fact, there is an international movement that is beginning, but it is not yet organized. We see things are moving all around the world, but what we don’t have is a world organization, and that we are missing. I did not know for instance about the class struggles you raised in Pindostan.

Violent clashes broke out between riot police and the “yellow vest” protesters shortly before the march reached its destination, the Gare de Lyon train station. Police had suddenly halted the march, trapping protesters on Rue de Lyon and bringing up water cannon while refusing to allow protesters to leave. Clashes erupted, with police firing volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, while some “yellow vests” responded by throwing pieces of pavement, broken glass and construction equipment they had set afire at the riot police units. Police authorities subsequently felt compelled to announce a pro forma investigation amid outrage of widely circulated videos of the police assault, including one where a policeman savagely beats a protester who is lying motionless on the street, his head covered in blood. At least sixty protesters were arrested as clashes continued late into the evening throughout the area around the station, after groups of “yellow vests” managed to force their way out of the police blockade, chanting “Revolution” and “Macron resign.”

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