Will the French Strikes Ignite the European Powder Keg?
By Nat Weinstein
On May 13, over one million French public workers responded for a second time since the beginning of May to a call by their unions for a 24-hour general strike. Although the one-day work stoppage directly affected only government employees, it resulted in a virtual shutdown of all means of transportation by train, plane, ship, bus and subway. Also on strike that day were all those working in post offices, schools and government offices in France.
Unlike in the United States, most means of transportation in France are state owned. Thus, government employees make up one quarter of the French working class and are an important component of the industrial workforce, which explains the huge impact of strikes by government workers on that countrys economy.
The nation-wide strikes and protest marches in the streets of more than 70 French cities and towns were in protest against the capitalist governments declared intention to make state employees work 40 years in order to receive full benefits when they retire at age 60, instead of the 37.5 years now worked. (Those in private industry already must work 40 years before retiring.)
The governments new legislation undermining state employees pension rights, however, will also affect all French workers since it also provides for the gradual extension of their years of work to 42. The same fate is no doubt intended for Railroad workers, truck drivers and others who, as we shall see, had won the right to retire earlier, many at age 55 and some at 50. Though they are not targeted in the new legislation, they reportedly are convinced they will also be affected if it is indeed adopted by parliament.
A third strike began on June 10, coinciding with the convening of the French parliament, which is slated to debate and act upon the new legislation in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the CGT, the largest of the four French labor federations that have endorsed all three strikes, has pledged to continue this latest strike until the government backs down and agrees to negotiate any changes in the laws governing the social wage of all workers.
Unfortunately, our publication schedule does not allow us to do more in this article than provide the background to todays events in France. That is, the current struggle must be seen in the context of the generalized assault by Europes capitalists to drive down the living standards of their workers; as well as viewing it in the light of Frances failed attempt to undercut the social wage of its workers in 1995.
European workers also under attack
Although the strikes in France have been the most dramatic and militant so far, workers in Germany, Austria and Italy have also been carrying out a struggle against similar attacks on their social wage and other benefits by their own governments. In any event, whatever happens in the rest of Europe will affect France as events there have affected Europe. Thus, workers in Europe understand all too well that the current battle in France is an integral part of a generalized attack on the social wage of European workers by European capitalism. We will also see that workers have seized the opportunity from time to time to go on the offensive as well as conduct an effective defense of their class interests.
On June 3, for instance, eastern German workers were reported wearing red strike vests as they shut down a Volkswagen plant in Mosel and other manufacturing firms in the region. They are demanding a reduction in the workweek from 38 to 35 hours to bring them into line with their coworkers in western Germany.
Steel plants and other manufacturing companies in eastern Germany also stayed on strike for a second day of struggle for a shorter workweek. Its part of a pattern in which workers in eastern Germany have been fighting to catch up with the higher wages and shorter hours enjoyed by workers in the western part of a reunited Germany.
In Austria, buses, trains, subways and streetcars were shut down shortly after midnight on June 2 for about 24 hours. Groups of striking airport workers shut down the entrance to Vienna International Airport. And transport and postal workers in Austria staged the biggest walkout since World War II, also against attacks on their social wage. Austrian workers are fighting their governments plans to cut pensions by around 11 percent.
The fact that workers in a large part of Germany are fighting to gain new ground, while their coworkers in the rest of Europe are fighting to defend their past gainsfor the moment, at leastreflects the well-known fact that there is an organic connection between defense and offense with the one often evolving into the other.
Such a significant reversal happened, by the way, in France in the strike wave of 1995-96. At that time, while state employees were mostly on the defensive in 1995, workers in private industry went on the offensive in 1996. But rather than the year merely ending without any loss in pension rights, it turned out to be the prelude to a struggle by workers for new and improved retirement benefits in the private sector such as the struggle for earlier retirement for French truck drivers and other workers.
French workers go from defense to offense
On November 17, 1996, truck drivers in France went on the offensive, demanding and winning concessions from trucking industry bosses in a boldly militant strike that ended 12 days later.
The full-fledged strike for new ground by some 50,000-truck drivers came close to shutting down the entire French economy. Their main demands were for shorter hours, payment for time lost waiting for cargo to be loaded, higher wages, and retirement at full pay at age 55 rather than at age 60. The agreement ending the strike granted a more than usual pay increase, retirement at 55 and partial achievement of their other demands.
A dramatically effective new tactic was employed during the Truckers strike that explains why only 50,000 truckers could paralyze economic life in France. Striking truck drivers applied steadily increasing pressure on the bosses by literally blockading highways, ports and airports. They began their strike by choking the highways with what the workers called Opération Escargot (operation snail)massing hundreds of trucks three abreast and driving at a snails pace down targeted highways.
Moreover, blockades were focused at critical border crossings such as at the English Channel crossing at Calais at the eastern gateway to Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and at key points on the way south to Spain and Portugal.
The blockade was relentlessly extended day-by-day to industrial zones and fuel depots all over France. All of the countrys 13 oil refineries were sealed off, and half the 400 fuel depots were closed, leading to widespread rationing. Car manufacturers, deprived of spare parts were forced to stop or cut production. Blockage of key roads, often by strategically parking semi-trailers and other very heavy trucks, set off a creeping stoppage of most economic activity in the country. Also affected was trade with neighboring countries as truckers sealed off border crossings.
All this power lay in the hands of just 50,000 militant truck drivers whose creative capabilities were unleashed by the phenomenal expansion of workers democracy that accompanies every great strike struggle. I think that almost every well-organized, well-fought and successful strike exemplifies the enormous power in the hands of working people. It helps make comprehensible the Marxist thesis that because the working class is strategically positioned at the centers of production, transportation, distribution and communication, it gives them the power to make the wheels of industry stop, as well as being the only force that can make them go. The best, most sophisticated machines cannot run without workers to operate, regulate and maintain even the most technologically-advanced productive forces.
And for that reason, and because of other qualities that their position in modern industry endows them with, the working class has the power to change the world.
The political consequences
The wave of defensive strikes that reverberated across Europe throughout 1995-96 successfully brought the attack on French, and other European workers living standards to a dead stop.
Moreover, it resulted in the fall of the government of Prime Minister Alain Juppé in the 1997 French parliamentary elections. Jacques Chirac, who was first elected president of France in 1995 and was chiefly responsible for assigning his prime minister to lead the assault on the workers still holds that office today.
Chiracs first term as president expired last year. Although he was reelected, he won the first round with the ridiculously small plurality of 19 percent, with his capitalist opponent, the openly racist Jean-Marie Le Pen, coming in second with 17 percent, and the Socialist Partys incumbent prime minister, Lionel Jospin, coming in third, and thus disqualified from participation in the second round election.
Also ineligible for the second round were three small Trotskyist parties who together polled more than 10 percent of the vote, which was three times the size of the Stalinist French Communist Partys 3.5 percent vote, and more than one-half the vote received by the Socialist Partys Jospin.
Thus both Chirac, the preferred candidate of the ruling capitalist class, and Jospin, whodespite his Socialist label, was nonetheless capitalisms second choice for presidentwere repudiated by almost two-thirds of those who voted. And when account is taken of the 28 percent of eligible voters who abstained, a large majority of the working and middle classes of France had overwhelming rejected the preferred candidates of French capitalism.
Capitalist political pundits at the time had fully acknowledged this remarkable expression of mass disillusionment in the capitalist status quo by characterizing the 2002 election as a political earthquake.
Why the renewed assaults on workers in France and elsewhere
The reason for the generalized attack on living standards by capitalists everywhere is, of course greed, but its much more than mere greed. Its like the Queen of Hearts in Alices Wonderland, who had to run fast in order to stay in one place. In the case of the real world in which we live, every capitalist is in competition with every other, and must also run faster than others, or fall behind and be swallowed up or be crushed by one of their more powerful capitalist competitor.
The only way capitalists can win this kind of race is by cutting their costs of production. And in the final analysis that means cutting the price of the labor power that they must buy. That is, all capitalists are engaged in a mad race to lower their own costs of production beyond that which their competitors are compelled to pay.
But, without pausing here to follow the deadly logic of this process to the endwhich has been outlined in some detail in many previous issues of this magazinesuffice it to say that it is the fundamental and irresolvable cause of the boom-bust cycles of capitalist production. And in the final analysis, it will lead to a crisis from which the capitalist class cannot escape.
This is the source of the steadily intensifying attack on the living standards of the workers in every capitalist nation, including the richest and the poorest.
It also explains why all the worlds richest industrialized nations wage permanent economic and military war on all the worlds least industrialized and, therefore, poorest nations. And to make bad matters worse, the richest nations of the world are also each compelled to try to save themselves at the expense of at the expense of their workers and their competitors as well.
So, in the final analysis it all boils down to permanent economic and military conflicts by each capitalist nation against all and by all capitalist nations against all the worlds working people.
The question before the French working class todayand by the same token, before the workers of Europe and the worldhowever, is what must be done next. It will be useful to examine this problem a little more closely. It will take us to what some of historys greatest working class leaders have called the art of politics; that is, to know and do what can and therefore must be done next.
For instance, its worthwhile noting that there is a grain of truth to French Prime Minister Raffarins discounting of mass protests by workers by saying that the streets dont rule the country, parliament does. But hes only half right. Control over the streets is certainly a powerful force but, as we have recently seen the control over the streets exercised by the antiwar movement was unable to stop that war before it began.
But mass action in the streets did bring down his partys previous government in 1997. But that was because it was accompanied by another powerful forcemass action in the workplaces of France in 1995-96.
Mass strike action in both the streets and the workplaces of nations, however, can do more than gain concessions and bring down governments, it can and has brought down the ruling classes of nations. But that has only happened when the working class has constructed a revolutionary leadership that understands that no victory is lasting so long as the capitalist class continues to hold state power.
After all, the history of class struggle is replete with big class struggle victories that are taken back by the ruling class when the relation of forces between contending classes changes. And so long as the goal of workers leaders is restricted to merely improving the lot of the workers and all other of capitalisms victimswithin the framework of the existing social ordera lasting victory is impossible.
After all, as we have seen here in the United States over the last several decades; winning improvements in living standards for working people is not a one-way street in capitalist society. The fact is that whatever is won in the course of a prolonged struggle, can all be taken backas much of the past gains of American workers have been eroded over the last several decades.
But workers and bosses are not the only factors in the never-ending class struggle. In the last analysis the ultimate outcomes are decided by which of the two classes is able to mobilize on its side those sectors of society in between the two main contending classes.
And today that intermediary sector of world society has undoubtedly been seriously alienated by the reckless, antisocial and planet-threatening military policies of the entire capitalist world. Make no mistake, while the peoples of the world see the American superpower as the main threat to human existence, they also know that the rest of the capitalist world will at worst, complain and resist but in the end tag along with the 800 pound gorilla headquartered in Washington and Wall Street, U.S.A.
Its no accident that most of the more than 10 million who marched against the war on Iraq just months agoand they include a large section of the middle classesare now marching and/or striking against essentially the same forces responsible for all wars since at least the beginning of the last century. In fact, there can be little doubt that the reason why they marched against war a few months ago is intimately connected with why many of the same people are marching today against the attack on the living standards of workers primarily but also that of the sections of the middle classes closest to them.
However, the unprecedented internationalization of the antiwar movement failed to stop the American imperialist predatory war on Iraq. But when mass action in the streets is accompanied by mass action in the factories and other workplaces in the worlds most powerful imperialist nations as well as in the nations they hold captive, the potential force of the organized working class mounts exponentially and both the capitalists and their governments can be decisively defeated and overthrown in the course of the deepening global economic crisis.
In fact there are many historical precedents that prove that workers indeed have a power at least equal to the economic power of capitalists in every land. And they can and have used that power to end war as was done in Russia in 1917 and in Germany the following year. But while the Russian workers also succeeded in overthrowing capitalism, the German workers were only able to overthrow their Kaiser but not their ruling capitalist class. While the Russian workers succeeded in constructing a revolutionary leadership, that is one that knows how and has the will to win, the German workers in their majority followed a reformist socialist misleadership whose only aim, at best, was to attempt to improve the living standards of the masses within the framework of the existing capitalist order. Unfortunately that is the nature of the official leaders of the working classes in the capitalist world today.
Though mass living standards in the worlds advanced industrial countries are now being steadily reduced, workers are not yet convinced that the crisis driving the capitalist assault on living standards is permanent. Capitalists are often among the last to recognize that their position is hopeless in such a crisis as is now unfolding. Consequently, Wall Streets and Washingtons economic prognosticators repeatedly see prosperity just around the corner as tens of thousands of workers are tossed out on their ears every month.
But there always comes a time when bubbles, real or imaginary, burst. And the longer the global economy continues to contract, the only hope of capitalists in every land is to force down the costs of production in their own country at the expense, of course, of those who can make their living only by working.
Thus, the living standards of the world working class today are on a one-way trajectory downward toward absolute impoverishment. Meanwhile, capitalism seeks to solve its economic problems by other means. And that has already become painfully apparent to almost everyone including large portions of those in between labor and capital. Thats a dynamic that leads to rising class-consciousness and social revolution.
The only way that workers can win over to their side the middle classesand maintain their supportis by showing them that they have the power and the will to win. It is imperative, too, that workers show their natural allies that they dont intend to restrict themselves to defending what they have won, but seek a final victory over their class enemy. Otherwise, if the struggle goes on indefinitely, workers can be exhausted by interminable defensive and offensive strikes. And even though the middle classes always tend, as they are now doing in France, to sympathize, support and even join in the demonstrations organized by workers, they too can be exhausted, even more quickly than the workers.
This is simply because workers get something with each victory, but the middle classes get nothing until the crisis is definitively resolved.
We are still at the very beginning of what promises to be a long hard struggle ahead. Therefore, we still have plenty of time to construct the kind of revolutionary working class leadership without which victory is impossible, in the coming global struggle between the capitalist past and the socialist future.