The French National Strike (1995)
By Nat Weinstein
This article originally appeared in Socialist Action newspaper in January 1996 under the title, The French National Strike and US Workers.
1995 ended in France with a bang that will reverberate around the world for some time to come. The national strike that paralyzed the French economy for the first three weeks of December will be remembered as the first warning shot fired across the bow of the capitalist class as its attack on workers living standards around the world gathers steam.
But while Prime Minister Alain Juppé was forced to withdraw his governments plan to slash the medical and social benefits of Frances railroad workers, he has made it abundantly clear that the entire French working class is his real target, not just employees of the state-owned postal, transport and other industries.
However, although the overall plan to cut the living standards of the French working class as a whole was not withdrawn, the ruling class has been temporarily stopped dead in its tracks. And while the future promises to be an intensified period of class warfare in France, the demonstration of workers power in France will inspire workers everywhere to meet the challenges ahead with a renewed self-confidence.
Defending social gains
A particularly candid analysis of the powerful motivations of French workers appeared in an article by Youssef M. Ibrahim in the Dec. 20 New York Times. He describes the impressive social benefits won in the decades after World War II by French and most West European workers. He lists a variety of benefits denied American workers:
When a French woman becomes pregnant, he writes,she begins to collect $150 a month starting in her fourth month of pregnancy, a subsidy that is extended to every mother in France regardless of economic or marital status....[If she becomes] pregnant again, the subsidy is doubled until her [children] reach age 18. Throughout pregnancy all [her] medical needs, check-ups and medication [are] free of charge...
Larger, poorer families can and do benefit from an amazing array of government-financed benefits that include transportation to a sea or mountain resort. The government pays for moving expenses, care at home for older people, subsidized apartments and even dishwashers and washing machines for those who cannot afford them and have large families. ...
Throughout France, citizens are entitled by law to free schooling through a university education. From day care through high school, subsidized meals are included. Together these benefits and many others constitute a form of subsidy that in the end, allows people of limited income to stretch their life style beyond their means. ...
One of the most memorable comments on the upheaval cited by many here, was made by a middle-aged railroad worker whose income is about $1,400 a month. He stared into the camera and declared that what drove him to revolt was that you cant go to the theater anymore. [!] ...
With the strike now slowly winding down, sociologists, labor leaders and most politicians agree that the three weeks will remain a decisive moment that leaders can ignore at their peril. They see the public solidarity as a wake-up call comparable to other uprisings like the 1968 student-worker upheaval or even, some say, the French revolution itself.
We can add, from other reports in the media detailing many other social benefits not available to American workers, such things as full medical coverage, five to six weeks vacation, and eligibility for retirement pensions when workers reach the age of 60 or even earlier (50 for railroad workers). Retirement pensions in France, moreover, tend to represent a higher proportion of what workers earned in their last years of work.
French workers have done more than strike a blow at the ruling class, they have explicitly rejected the capitalist rationale for cuts in their living standards based on the absurdity that France can no longer afford such generous living standards for its workers. Moreover, French workers have rejected the rationale for austerity used so successfully to drive down the living standards of workers, most effectively in Britain and the United States, for at least the last twenty years. (Brute force was the main means employed against the poorest countries.)
This is what this line of propaganda sounds like in France as paraphrased from reports in the mass media:
Foreign competition and the budget deficit compel us to tighten our belts. We can no longer afford such generous wages, pensions and other benefits. If we dont raise taxes, and cut social benefits, our children will pay for our extravagance. We must make sacrifices or else factories will close and unemployment, already over 12 percent, will grow.
But the French working class has cut through the absurdity behind the central fallacy that society has somehow become poorer. They said, in plain French, dont give us this we stuff! We are producing more goods and services than ever before every hour that we work. At the same time you keep getting richer! So how is it that we cant afford to pay a living wage and provide a bare modicum of social security for us who produce all of the nations wealth?
Workers explode a myth
Many in the land of the Paris Commune, where the working class in 1871 ruled for some three months and nearly succeeded in initiating the worlds first socialist revolution, have also sent this message: Watch out; if you cant make your system run, there is another way we can go!
And no less important, the latest uprising of the French working class has struck a powerful blow at the myth that the working class of today aint what it used to be, and can be pushed around by a capitalism that has, according to the myth, become virtually omnipotent.
This alleged fundamental change in the relation of class forces, the myth-makers say, comes from the rise of multi-national capitalist conglomerates which are able, when workers strike, to simply shift production to plants in other countriesthus making strikes ineffectual.
Moreover, as the myth goes, while capitalism gets ever more concentrated into huge conglomerates, and thus ever-stronger, the working class is being made ever-weaker. This, they say, is because the workforce in basic industry has and is being greatly reduced by computerization and other technological marvels. Consequently, workers in the giant mass production industries no longer have sufficient forces for shutting them down.
But capitalists and workers in France are not different, in these respects at least, from their counterparts anywhere else. Nonetheless, last months shutdown by only a small portion of the industrial workforce in France, mainly those involved in the transport sector, gradually disrupted the countrys entire economyindustrial, commercial and service sectors alike.
The French national strike proves that although many things have changed, the basic relation of class forces has not. Workers remain strategically located at all points of production, transportation, communication and distribution, and still have the power to bring the economy to a dead stop. And while industrial workers surely are the powerhouse of the class as a whole, its power is, in any case, fully expressed only when the entire class and its allies can be brought into the battle in defense of their common class interests.
And thats exactly what happened last December when millions of strike sympathizers from other sectors of the working class, including students, immigrants, oppressed nationalities and even sections of the middle class, showed their support and solidarity in mass demonstrations in every important city in France. The whole class, along with many of its natural allies, answered the attack on their lifestyles, expectations and aspirations with one voice: NO, they declared, we wont stand for it!
Four lessons from this strike
The first lesson that will surely filter down into the consciousness of workers everywhere is that the two-sided myth of worker impotence and capitalist omnipotence is without substancethe strike weapon was proved to be as potent as ever, and capital as vulnerable as ever.
The second is that a strategy based on class solidarity brings the power of the class behind every one of its sectors. It takes on a life of its own and becomes, as it were, an objective force multiplying the power of each and all.
The third lesson we can draw from the French strike is the decisive importance of political actionthis was a political strike, a political action of the first order.
Experience proves that so long as the working class restricts its field of action to the economic arena, capital has the advantage since it has control over all organs of state power and doesnt hesitate to use them when necessary.
Moreover, while independent working class political action on the electoral arena is important, it is far from adequate. The combination of economic and political action in the streets and workplaces is where the real power of the workers is lodged. That was what was demonstrated last month in France.
The fourth lesson has to do with the factor of leadership. In all likelihood, the leaders of the mass political parties that speak in the name of the workers will bargain away much of what French workers won on the field of battle. They are committed, at best, to the reform of capitalism, which is at this moment in history an impossible utopia.
But, in every period of rising class struggle, new leaders begin emerging from the ranks of a working class impelled toward higher levels of political consciousness and action by capitalisms assaults on their conditions of life. It will be up to those who have already reached revolutionary consciousness in France to merge with this new generation of fighters and ultimately construct a new mass political force capable of leading workers to victory.
Make no mistake; world capitalisms leaders are fully aware that their system is in deep trouble. And this awareness has been made more acute by the latest manifestation of workers power in France. But they have no choice. They know that the only way they can hope to hold off the inevitable is by increasing the rate of exploitation. Its the only way capitalism can counter the tendency of the rate of profit to declinewhich is the source of the developing crisis.
Thus, in order to forestall a revolutionary crisis, they must take actions that risk setting it off. This surely is a contradictionbut not in terminology, it is one that is built into the capitalist economic system.
The impact of France on U.S. workers
American capitalists have been leading the way for their class everywhere. They were the first to launch a campaign to lower workers living standards. Its no accident that the American capitalist class took the first steps. A major reason being that it is blessed with having one of the worlds most servile gangs of labor bureaucrats to help them do their dirty work.
Events in France are certain to open American workers eyes to the absurd logic the ruling class has advanced as justification for their anti-worker assault. Neither will they miss noting that the AFL-CIO bureaucracy has been among the loudest in parroting the capitalist rationale for slashing the living standards of American workers.
The U.S. labor bureaucracy has swallowed the capitalist rationale hook, line and sinker and has been telling their dues-paying members that they must make concessions so that our bosses can under-price competitors from other countries. They have justified voluntary give-away of wages and working conditions in the name of saving jobsbut in reality to maintain the rate of profit. Thats exactly the line of capitalists everywhereand soundly repudiated by French workers.
Moreover labor bureaucrats have also swallowed the myth of labors lost power, and have officially declared, strikes dont work anymore. That too has been shown to be false by the workers of France.
But worst of all, to the extent that labor has indeed been weakened; it is the policies of the American labor bureaucracy that are largely responsible for labors decline. And the many defeated strikes the unions have sufferedmost recently the Caterpillar bosses victory over the United Auto Workerscan be laid directly at the door of the AFL-CIO hierarchy.
The following are the three most important contributions to the worsening position of working people gratuitously handed over by labor bureaucrats to American capitalism:
The first is their official policy of institutionalizing no-strike clauses in virtually all union contracts. This innovation, among other things, makes it illegal for union members to respect the picket lines of sister unionswhich went a long way toward undermining working class solidarity. Moreover, the no-strike clause also makes it illegal for workers to strike when employers violate their contracts with the unions.
The second is their official policy of accepting certain anti-labor laws, without protest. Such as those that restrict picketing at workplace gates to ineffectual handfuls of pickets.
And the third is their general policy of encouraging every affiliate, on every level, to seek contractual agreements for its own members even when they are inconsistent with the interests of other sectors of the working classnot to mention the best interests of their own dues-payers.
Such agreements, for example, like subtle and not-so-subtle preferential treatment for entrenched white, male workers at the expense of Blacks, women and newly hired workers. Moreover, the interests of the unorganized majority of the working classwhich should be at the top of the list of labors prioritiesare systematically abandoned to capitalisms wolves.
One of the worst examples of this betrayal of class solidarity has been the failure of the labor bureaucracy to demand from American capitalism quality healthcare and decent retirement pensions for all, not just for those unions strong enough to win it for their own members.
All this is not to say that the labor and socialist lieutenants of capitalism in France and elsewhere are essentially different from their American counterparts. There is only a difference in working class consciousness, which determines how much misleadership will be tolerated by a given sector of the world working class. And this is a variable factor depending to a great extent on the pace and course of events in each nation.
In a nutshell, there is an interaction and leap-frogging of working class struggles transmitted from country to countrywith first one sector in the lead, and then anothereach providing lessons, good and bad, for each other. Now, although French workers have leaped ahead of the rest of the world, the process will certainly not stop there.
This interaction helps explain why workers in this country, who only a few decades earlier were the highest paid in the world are now among the lowest paid in the worlds most advanced industrial societies. But that, like everything in life, is only temporary.
Moreover, the French worker upsurge has not come to an end. The sharpening conflict between opposed classes there will soon erupt in new confrontations. And these confrontations will not be restricted to France. The American working class, which has also demonstrated its revolutionary capacity more than once, will also be drawn into similar confrontations.
Finally, its safe to predict that we are on the edge of a new revolutionary upsurge of the world working class, only broader and deeper than the one that began in 1929.