Outcome of French Workers’ Struggle against So-Called ‘Pension Reform’ a Critical Moment in World Class Struggle
AFTER A MONTH of mass strikes, mass protests and pitched battles with the cops in the streets, French workers are at a crossroads. Whatever happens next in this struggle will have long-lasting effects, not only for the working class of France, but for workers around the world.
The current series of battles began on December 5 with strikes and mass protests against efforts by the government to “reform” the pension system and reduce the living standards of all workers. The “reform” would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 and would switch the calculation of pensions to a “points” system that would see retirement payouts fall on average between 20 and 30 percent — not only for future retirees, but also for current ones.
Working women and those with unstable employment will be hardest hit, as the new scheme does not account for the effects of short-term layoffs, job staggering, family care and wage inequality.
More than 1.5 million workers marched and went on strike throughout France on this “day of action” called by the unions. Rail traffic and mass transit came to a virtual halt as workers joined the protests. Seven of the country’s eight oil refineries were shut down. More than one-third of government workers and half of all teachers joined the marches and went on strike. Strikes by airport workers, especially air traffic controllers, closed most of the country’s largest airports. Truck drivers set up 15 blockades on the major highways.
Five days later, another 880,000 participated in marches across the country, including students and hospital workers, as well as a large contingent of “Yellow Vests.” Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe stated that he would push through the pension reforms despite opposition.
Shortly after the protests on Dec. 10 and Phillipe’s statement, the unions called a second “day of action” for a week later. In the days preceding this next mass protest, more strikes were called. The main ports of Marseilles and Le Havre closed, as did the eighth oil refinery. Electrical power workers also downed tools, causing rolling blackouts.
Nearly 2 million workers went on strike and marched during the Dec. 17 “day of action,” with increased participation by transport and educational workers. Only the day before, the minister in charge of implementing Macron’s “pension reform” was forced to resign after it was revealed he was receiving money from private pension insurance corporations in exchange for his services.
Since that time, strikes among rail and mass transit workers continue, as do local and regional protests, as Macron and Phillipe continue to move ahead with implementing their “pension reform.”
When he came to power in the summer of 2017, Macron vowed to continue the work of his predecessors, conservative Jacques Chirac and social democrat François Hollande, by continuing to dismantle the labor laws established after the Second World War and crushing the ability of workers to organize and fight against the exploiting classes.
Through a succession of presidential decrees (Ordonnances) imposed in the name of “EU directives” — directives usually drafted by France and Germany — Macron has changed key sections of the labor law to meet the demands of French capital, backing it up with brutal police repression. Indeed, the wave of violence against workers in France is the worst since the Vichy regime during the 1940-1944 Nazi occupation of the country, including the authorization to use live ammunition against the “Yellow Vest” protesters last March.
During the last month of workers’ actions, the violence has only intensified, with recently-retired Army Chief of Staff (and likely future presidential candidate) General Pierre de Villiers declaring on RTL radio: “A gulf has emerged between those who lead and those who obey. This gulf is profound. The ‘yellow vests’ were already a first sign of this…. We must restore order; things cannot continue this way.” The message is clear: The exploiters and their state will, if necessary, drown the French working class in blood in order to defeat them!
Into the middle of this rising workers’ militancy being met with increasing police repression has stepped the unions, with one single mission … to negotiate the workers’ surrender to Macron!
From the beginning, the unions in France have done nearly everything in their power to limit, isolate and sabotage the strikes. Even before the December actions began, the unions attempted to negotiate a “grandfather clause” in Macron’s “reform,” creating a permanent two-tier retirement system and sacrificing younger workers. When workers started staging wildcat strikes and protests against “pension reform,” the unions stepped in to stop them. In fact, the unions themselves are divided, with two of the federations, the corporatist CFDT and UNSA, not opposing Macron’s plans.
Throughout December, the union leaders made regular pilgrimage to the prime minister’s residence to plead for a crumb from the master’s table, only to find none offered. Thus, while the “left” unions meet as the Intersyndicale to figure out the best way to fully capitulate to Macron while maintaining control of their memberships, they all present a united front against the workers, pushing off any future “days of action” — in fact, any action — to a time and place when it will no longer matter and the momentum of struggle has been lost.
The fact is that there is nothing to negotiate with Macron-Philippe, the ruling classes or their state. The central task for French workers now is to continue the strikes and protests, not as impotent “days of action,” but as daily struggle that builds self-organization and coordination, that unites the current general assemblies, along with strike assemblies and general struggle groups, into workers’ committees and assemblies of action that include workers, both public and private, takes control of the movement out of the hands of the treacherous unions, and can organize effective self-defense.