French Public Sector Workers under Attack!
4 April 2018
In France the Macron Government has set in motion plans for the destruction of the terms and conditions of approximately 150,000 workers in the national rail network, the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer (SNCF). The level of workers' anger has produced an impressive response. The major unions involved have been forced into putting forward plans for industrial action and in a show of unity 13 organisations on the left have presented a joint statement of solidarity.
Huge protests took place on March 22nd in many cities and towns which mobilised almost half a million public service workers, not just railway workers but other services under threat, regional public transport employees, hospital and care home workers, Air traffic controllers and Air France employees. These were not token protests but were intended as a prelude to, rather than as a substitute for, the campaign of industrial action which commenced on April 3rd with a further 34 days of strike action planned over the next three months. Each Strike will last two days with a return to work for three days on a rolling basis with suggestions by one of the unions involved, SUD-Rail, of the need for an all out strike at that point.
Their plans for the defence of jobs and services has provoked a furious onslaught. Attempts to turn private sector workers against public sector workers are dominating the media. The railway workers find themselves on the receiving end of aggressive tactics, familiar to Irish public transport workers, portraying them as pampered, overpaid and enjoying benefits that the rest of the working class don't. TV discussion programmes have dropped all pretense at objectivity with representatives of workers' organisations receiving such a hectoring from fellow panelists and a carefully selected audience of “angry commuters” that they are practically prevented from presenting their case.
Macron's “Thatcher moment”
The capitalist drive to increase profitability by increasing the rate of exploitation of labour has in Ireland given us a “recovery” which is clearly at the expense of the working class. This same assault has been much weaker in France. The share of GDP going to wages has dropped dramatically in Ireland, down more that 10% by 2016. In Latvia it is down over 18%, in Greece 14% while in Germany the drop has only been 0.9%. Italy has fallen 0.6% but due to stalwart resistance the working class of France has been the least affected by austerity with only an 0.2% increase in exploitation.
Public sector workers in the strongest central European powers have been left relatively intact but now the assault on the working class, well progressed in the more peripheral countries, is making its way towards the core of Europe. This is a calculated set-piece assault by Macron. The French bourgeoisie, on the back of Macron's popular support, and driven by the need to increase profitability has decided to take on the workers, to test their strength and to attempt to pressurise the union bureaucrats into making concessions without too much of a fight.
A section of the French labour bureaucracy is aware of this. Bruno Poncet of the SUD-Rail union has said: “The government wants a trial of strength. It’s moving to try us out. It wants this test because it knows if it wins, the last resistance will have been overcome”. There is no doubt that this is an important struggle. If the railway workers are defeated or their bureaucracy sells them out it would be a set back for the entire European working class. Privatisation of public assets and an increase in the exploitation of labour will increase across the board and could retard the class struggle for years to come, indeed with the struggle falling symbolically on the 50th anniversary of the 1968 uprising Macron sees it as his “Thatcher moment”, a reference to the miners strike.
Solidarity is essential and not just between different sections of the working class and students in France. This is a struggle which can inflame the workers of Europe. The attack on the French rail workers is the application of the same economic logic that is behind the attacks on Irish workers pay and conditions and is a general attack on the European working class. If the rail workers are defeated the attack moves to the next phase where the weakest sections of workers are picked off one at a time as assaults on German and Italian workers are prepared.
Broader swathes of the working class are being brought into the struggle and the material conditions for increased workers' unity in action are being strenghened by this accellerating drive to increase the exploitation of labour and restore profitability in the core European countries. A drive that has remained unchallenged in Ireland by the pro-capitalist leadership of the Irish trade union movement who carefully fit their “demands” within the 'fiscal space' of the EU's recovery plans and meekly accept pension cuts, two tier pay and privatisation.
Rank and file workers must
demand that this acceptance ends. Teachers are once again preparing to
challenge the exploitative two tier pay system and the transport workers'
struggles that dominated much of 2017 and were repeatedly sold out by the
leadership have not gone away. The attacks the SNCF workers
are now suffering is driven by the same capitalist strategy for recovery
that lay behind the attacks on public transport, health, education and
air transport workers in Ireland, largely the same cross section of the
working class that was visable on the French demonstrations of March 22nd.
All the issues at Earnrod Eireann, and the privatisation of Bus Eireann and Dublin Bus routes are still in the frame and will come to the fore all the more aggressively if Macron is victorious. Airport workers and pilots have also lately been in action and as the Ryanair recognition struggle illustrated are ideally placed to build international solidarity with French airline workers and Air Traffic Controllers.
Conditions are improving for a vast mobilisation of the working class. A victory for the French Rail workers would be instrumental in raising the confidence of the greater European working class, it would dispel the myth that the workers have no alternative other than accept the capitalist strategy for 'recovery' favoured by the ICTU bureaucracy who hold firmly to that position and a victory would help break their grip on the rank and file of the Irish unions.
Victory to the SNCF workers!