France - The union machineries in the strike

Jan/Feb 1996

Rather than a collection of strikes, the strike wave should really be described as one single strike, in so far as this wave was the result of a single process which was initiated from above. Indeed the strike wave began and spread as a result of a determined drive by the union confederations, at least by FO and the CGT. While FO's statements and moves often appeared more radical than that of the CGT, it was the CGT which, thanks to having more activists on the ground, was instrumental in initiating, maintaining and spreading the strike wave.

This initiative from above should in fact be traced back long before the strike itself, to a series of national days of action and demonstrations organised over the previous weeks and months. The unions' first initiative was to call a day of action in the public sector on 10 October, against the wage freeze in the public sector. Then another day of action on November 14th, again called by all the main unions, but this time over the threats on the health insurance system. Various actions were also organised in the railways, air transport, electricity, etc.. against planned cuts and attacks on conditions. In the meantime, university students had launched their own protests against cuts in education, involving campus occupations and street demonstrations. And although the students' movement was relatively small by French standards, it contributed with the rest to create an atmosphere of protest and resistance which the CGT and FO chose to build upon.

Up to the last minute, however, the traditional bickering and rivalries between union confederations remained on the agenda with FO trying to sets itself apart from the CGT by calling for action on a different day. But by that time the CGT leadership had already chosen a course of confrontation against the government. Instead of sticking to their guns as usual, the CGT leaders supported the call issued by FO as well as maintaining their own. Thus came November 24th, the first national day of action against Juppé's plan which marked the beginning of the strike.

The role of the union machineries in building up the strike

When the CGT started talking about taking strike action among the railway drivers, they got immediate support from the overwhelming majority - despite the initial reluctance of the FGAAC, a smaller sectional union which subsequently followed in the name of unity. The argument put across by the CGT leadership, which was immediately echoed by its activists among the drivers, was to say: "We are not fighting only for our own pensions but for everyone's pensions, and in any case we will act in solidarity with all rail workers right to the end". It was on this basis, and on the strength of this argument, that the strike was able to spread initially from the drivers to the much larger ranks of the railway's workforce.

The union confederations' strategy was first to build on the mobilisation in the railways to spread the strike to other sections of workers - to all public transport in the Paris conurbation and in a few other large towns, to the post office, the state electricity and gas company, France-Telecom, the hospitals, the primary schools, etc.. At the same time, they issued various calls aimed at the private sector and organised a number of actions in some large private companies.

Initially there was not much enthusiasm for strike action amongst workers. What made workers reluctant to join the strike was the feeling that in the present context they could not win - a feeling which many kept all along, including among the strikers. This is why the strike wave should not be overestimated or misjudged. Even in those sectors where everything came to a halt, like the railways, Paris public transport and a large part of the post office, there was never more than a minority of actual strikers. This was enough to stop any real activity, but was helped by the high level of absenteeism due to the transport strike and the reluctance of the non-strikers who made it to work to do very much.

Every time a new public service sector joined the strike, the pattern was more or less the same. Initially workers were not keen to go on strike. Then, progressively, the most militant sections stopped work, followed by others who joined the strike in a half-resigned way, a bit in the same way as they had been half-resigned to the bosses' attacks in the previous period. That being said, if the unions' drive won their support in the end, it was primarily because the vast majority of workers were fed up with the repeated blows of the past years.

But little by little, people were encouraged by the pressure put on them by the unions and by the fact that, for once, the union activists seemed to be acting together. They were also encouraged by the fact that, at least initially, the unions went as far as encouraging, and sometimes initiating direct fraternal contacts between strikers and non-strikers belonging to different sections, within the same company, but also between different companies, including between public and private sector companies - a tactic against which the same unions had fought in the most determined fashion in the past, particularly during the last national railway strike, in the winter of 1986. At the same time, to keep as many strikers in activity as possible, the unions themselves took the initiative of organising the daily mass meetings which became one of the main features of the strike in which they encouraged the strikers to decide collectively on the running of the strike. In this context, the workers' determination started to strengthen by the day.

There were other initiatives taken by the CGT and FO leadership to strengthen the strike. In addition to the national "demonstration days", which allowed the strikers to measure the progress of their strike, the CGT's policy also included organising a large number of local marches, which were aimed at bringing into the movement the smaller workplaces and the population at large. At the same time, by selecting governmental targets for these local marches, the CGT certainly reinforced the political edge of the movement.

The union bureaucracy fights for its privileges

It is clear, therefore, that the CGT and FO were determined to do whatever was needed in order to build up the strike wave and to spread it - even though, once again, on the ground, the decisive role was played by the CGT. The CFDT, on the other hand, whose general secretary had supported Juppé's plan publicly, had an ambiguous position: its leadership did not openly oppose the strike, at least not initially, but it did not support it either. On the other hand several trade federations of the CFDT were fully involved in the strike, in particular in the railways. The policies of the leaderships of the other smaller confederations were different, markedly hostile, if not to the strike itself, in any case to its generalisation. Very often, however, initially at least, all union activists were just as involved in building up the strike on the ground as those of the CGT and FO, thereby giving a feeling of unity which was much appreciated by workers.

What were the reasons behind the policy of the CGT and FO in the strike wave?

In the case of FO, it should be noted that its radical statements were more symbolic than really effective. FO could even have called a general strike, for that matter. But not having the resources - i.e. the activists - to implement this policy on the ground, it would have changed nothing to the course of the movement.

On the other hand, the reason why FO sounded so radical was that Juppé's plan was, among other things, a serious attack against the interests of the union machineries. The fact that the government wanted to reduce the role played by the unions so far in the joint management of the Health Insurance system meant that the capitalist class was likely to put increasingly in question the very basis on which the union machineries exist - i.e. all the legal provisions and advantages conceded by the bourgeoisie to the union bureaucracy over the years in return for their role in worker' struggles.

In addition to the joint management of the state welfare funds, these legal provisions include, for instance, automatic state subsidies, paid positions in many state-related bodies, the management of welfare funds and in-house facilities by works committees in every sizeable workplace (which are funded by a compulsory contribution paid by the employers), the legal right to have a number of part-time officials in every workplace, whose facility time is paid by the employers, etc.. To give an idea of magnitude, the total funds managed jointly by the unions through the state health insurance system alone add up to nearly £300bn. And of course, in addition to the social weight which all these advantages give automatically to the union machineries independently from their real influence among workers, they also provide them with the resources to exist without having to rely on their members' dues.

Indeed, with the crisis, the demoralisation it created among workers and the drop in union membership, the capitalist class and the government could come to consider that they no longer needed the unions to keep the peace in the working class. They could then decide that they can afford to withdraw some or all of the legal allowances which keep the union machineries alive artificially.

Juppé's plan was, therefore, a direct attack against the very existence of the union bureaucracies - particularly against the weaker bureaucracies like FO, but also against the CGT which, despite its larger membership, depends also to a large extent on all these legal provisions.

The particular case of the CGT

In addition, in the particular case of the CGT, the union leadership may have had other motives as well.

First of all, they may have had general political motives. Despite the heavy losses suffered by the Communist Party as a result of its policy during the period when the Socialist Party was in government, its perspective has not changed. The CP still aims at being part of the next parliamentary majority, with or without government positions. And this requires forming again some kind of electoral alliance with the Socialist Party and, possibly, other minor partners.

Thanks to its control over the CGT, the Communist Party can use a wave of industrial unrest to regain some of the electoral influence it has lost over the past decade. It can also aim, at the same time, at reinforcing its credibility as a major player in the political arena, with the working class of course, but primarily with the Socialist Party. A demonstration of strength by the CP in the class struggle can indeed be also a way of showing to the Socialist Party leadership that it should not consider returning to power without the CP's support or, at any rate, that it should not take the risk of having to face the CP's opposition once in government.

On the other hand, the CGT leadership may also have had internal motives - which may either have added to their general political motives or been intertwined with them. The CGT's policy may indeed have reflected internal faction fights within the apparatus of the CP. The apparent unity achieved at the CP's last conference on the name of the new general secretary, Robert Hue, only concealed an on-going factional fight within the CP's apparatus. This internal fight came to the surface, for instance, through the public criticisms of Hue's line made recently by the CP's former general secretary, Georges Marchais - criticisms on which he had to backpeddle swiftly, but the impact sought by Marchais had already been achieved. This minor incident was only the tip of the iceberg.

Similar, if not identical fights are taking place within the CGT as well. For instance, at the CGT's 45th conference in December, 24% of the delegates opposed the replacement of the reference to "ending capitalist exploitation (..) through the socialisation of the means of production and exchange" which has been traditionally part of the CGT's constitution, with a new Blairite-type formulation - and there is no doubt that most of these "oppositional" delegates had nothing to do with the far-left.

Of course, the CP's warring factions have no fundamental disagreements on the general political orientation of the CP. But they may have tactical differences and it is possible that the CGT's attitude during the strike reflected the policy favoured by one faction within the CP apparatus - a policy which that faction considered as more effective to improve the balance of forces in relation to the Socialist Party. It is likely, for instance, that the average CP local councillor and MP would tend to see this balance of forces in electoral terms only. Whereas those CPers whose power base is the CGT apparatus would consider it more effective to remind the Socialist Party - and the present majority in the bargain - that, thanks to its influence over the CGT, the CP can create serious trouble for any government who would think of introducing major changes without proper consultation with the CP leadership.

The ending of the strike

The national "demonstration day" on 12 December marked the peak of the strike. In the evening, the CGT announced another "demonstration day" for 16 December, a weekend day for the first time, with the aim of breaking the record established on that day by bringing larger numbers from the private sector.

The next day a national call issued by the CFDT leadership to end the strike in the railways (the first time the CFDT leadership was taking such a clear stand) was rejected with anger by the mass meetings. It was clear, however, that the strike had lost some impetus, although that had nothing to do with the CFDT call. For one thing, many rail strikers were just exhausted after three full weeks on strike, with the endless walking it involved. More importantly, with just over a week before the Xmas break (which means a week-long shutdown in many private companies) there was hardly any chance of bringing out a significant section of the private sector. On that day and the next, many strikers came to the point of considering that a suspension of the strike at some point in the following week would make sense. But this was not discussed at that stage in the mass meetings, on the basis of a general agreement that the priority had to be the preparation of 16 December.

Understandably, therefore, there was consternation among CGT railway activists when on Friday 14th, early in the morning, they found a fax sent by the CGT railway federation calling for the strike to be suspended and the fight "to be pursued by other means". Initially, many CGT branch officials were convinced that this was just another forgery (there had been examples of such fake "instructions" in the post office for instance). Others, not knowing what to do or suspecting some dodgy goings-on at top level, decided not to disclose it to the mass meetings. Only in a small number of depots was the fax really discussed and, in most cases, the decision was postponed till after the Saturday demonstration. Then, from the Sunday onwards, one after the other, the rail strikers mass meetings decided to suspend the strike for the beginning of the following week.

Why did the CGT take such an abrupt turn? Certainly not out of any fear of losing control of the strike, since the climate was clearly shifting towards a return to work and the CGT leaders, thanks to the reports of their branches, were kept informed almost by the hour of the mood among the strikers. Was it out of fear of having its hand weakened in front of the government by an uncontrolled drift back to work? But in that case, why not wait until December 17, after the planned "demonstration day", if nothing else in order to ensure that this day was not overshadowed by the prospect of an immediate return to work? All the more so as the CGT's turn could only be felt - and resented - by its activists on the ground as undermining their efforts to build up for the "demonstration day". And in fact, the huge rows which broke out between CGT members in rail depots, were seldom over the call itself but over its timing.

Leaving aside a possible, but incomprehensible misreading of the strikers' mood by the CGT (who never made any mistake in that respect in the whole course of the strike), the only explanation that comes to mind is that the CGT leadership might have wanted to demonstrate to the government and to the bosses that just as they had been capable of launching the strike wave, they also had the power to stop it - and they were the only ones to have such a power. Of course, for such a demonstration to carry any weight, it had to take place before anyone returned to work, hence the abruptness of the CGT's about turn as soon as they knew that there was some talk about suspending the strike among the strikers themselves.

This is to say that, although the CGT's call did not damage the strike or the morale of the strikers, nor alter significantly the overall course of the strike, the CGT bureaucracy never ceased to be its own self even in its most radical phase - i.e. a machinery which was pursuing its own aims outside the control of the workers and independently from their interests. The same applies, of course, to its less powerfull colleagues, in FO and the CFDT.

Whether we will see other instances of such a militant policy on the part of the union bureaucracy in the near future is impossible to say at this point. But even if it is the case, it should not be forgotten that they are diffending interests which are different from those of the working class. There will still be a vital need for the future strikers to ensure that they have the means to control and organise their own strike so that they can protect it from the unpredictable about-turns of the union bureaucracy. Because behind their radical policy - if repeated in the future - could also lurk outright betrayals.

ANNEX - The main French unions

Unlike in Britain, the French unions are not divided by trade or historical boundaries, nor is their membership and influence limited by the recognition they win from individual employers. Most of the union membership is divided between a number of confederations which exist across the whole economy. Among the large unions, only the teachers have their own specific unions. Employers have a legal obligation to give recognition to any union which is declared "legitimate" by the state. These "legitimate" unions enjoy a number of privileges by law. Only "legitimate" unions can stand candidates in workplace elections (for shop stewards, works councils reps, health and safety reps) and all workers have an equal vote, whether they are union members or not.

By British standards, union density is very low in France (less than 10% of the workforce). But such figures can be misleading. For instance there was never any form of check-off system in France, let alone of closed shop (except in a handful of small industries), whereas a significant part of the union density in Britain is due to what still remains of these institutions. More importantly, despite this large difference in membership figures, there is much less difference between the two countries, if any at all, in terms of the level of activity of the branches or the number of union activists on the ground.

The main unions are:

- CGT (General Workers' Confederation): The largest union confederation, and the most influential, with around 600,000 members. Its machinery has been dominated by the Communist Party since World War II. Its weight and influence relies largely on the CP activists who form the backbone of its organisation at factory and shopfloor level.

- FO (Workers' Strength): a former split of the CGT dating back to the cold war, with a real membership which is probably less than half that of the CGT. It is mainly based among public sector workers and civil servants. Politically, its apparatus is close to the Socialist Party, although it also has a Gaullist faction and a much smaller left faction. Its machinery is deeply involved in the management of state social funds at the highest levels.

- CFDT (French Labour Democratic Confederation): it came out of the Catholic confederation CFTC in the 60s. It is about the same size as FO but its membership is more scattered in the economy. Being more recent than FO, it has fewer entrenched positions in the state machinery. Its apparatus is also close to the Socialist Party, although maybe less so since right-wing parties came back to office. For some years now, the CFDT has been "reorientating" its activity, throwing out its most militant wing in the Health Service and the Post Office for instance, and trying to set itself up as a kind of alternative partner for the bosses and the government, with a distinctly market-orientated attitude.

- FEN (Education National Federation): Organises staff across the whole education system, controlled by the Socialist Party. Dominant in primary schools

- FSU (United Union Federation): A recent split from the FEN which regroups unions dominated by an alliance of the CP and the Left milieu. It has the leading position, but not by much, in high-schools and universities.

- SGEN: The CFDT's section for teachers, much smaller than the other two. It has been fully involved in the movement and is now facing disciplinary action from the CFDT, including sequestration of its assets.