By now, virtually every single European country has officially embarked on some sort of public expenditure cuts programme. Everywhere this has caused outrage in the ranks of the working class, which is at the receiving end of austerity plans designed to make up for the damage caused by a crisis in which it had no responsibility. And everywhere workers have formulated, more or less clearly, the idea that the wealthy capitalists who were responsible for the crisis, should pay for it.
Over the past year, these feelings have expressed themselves in many European countries, in the form of large-scale strikes and street protests. The level of militancy reflected in workers' reactions to the attacks which were aimed at them has been very different in each country. But these reactions expressed the same anger against the fact that workers were being targeted again after two years of crisis in which they have already paid dearly for the bosses' greed.
This wave of angry protests started off in Ireland, in 2009. Then it went on to hit Greece, Portugal, Spain and, to a lesser degree, Italy and Belgium. Finally it reached France this September, resulting in over two months of marches and strikes. And these protests are not over, since in each one of these countries, new initiatives are already scheduled to take place in the coming weeks. Even Germany, Luxemburg and Switzerland, which certainly have no recent tradition of working class militancy on any scale, have seen large protests this year.
Among the main European countries, therefore, Britain stands out as the odd one out. The protest marches called by some trade unions in London and in a few other towns on October 23rd, certainly reinforced the few thousand protesters who joined them, but they hardly attracted anyone beyond the relatively narrow milieu of trade-union and political activists. In fact, without any real militant organisation to speak of at their disposal, the students did much better in terms of numbers on November 10th - even if their protest was confined to the narrow issue of university fees and funding.
Yet, it is not as if the British working class had no reason to be angry. Taken as a whole, the combination of the downgrading of its working and living conditions over the past two years and of the package of cuts first announced by Labour and then extended by the Con-Dems, amounts to an offensive against the working class which is at least as vicious as that faced by the Greek working class and certainly worse than the attacks faced by the French working class.
In fact, the main difference between Britain and the European countries in which large-scale protests have taken place seems to lie in the policies of the trade-union leaderships. In all these countries, the leaders of the main trade-union confederations took repeated initiatives, calling for marches and strikes, both local and national, in order to build up the momentum of the protest - and they were successful in this respect. Of course, in none of these countries, have the governments conceded much ground to the protesters - so far. But the mere fact that these attacks were not met with passivity, that large numbers of workers were involved in opposing them collectively and that they were able to measure in the process what potential strength they represent, will be, in and of itself, very important for the future, in many different ways.
So one may wonder what could possibly be wrong with the British union leaders that they do not seem capable of following similar policies. In fact, as we shall see in this forum, the British union leaderships and their Continental or Irish counterparts share more or less the same objectives and political agenda. Paradoxical as this may seem, the total passivity of the British union leaders during the last two years of Labour government and their subsequent passivity in front of the provocative attacks of the Con-Dems, stem from the very same political approach which led the French trade union leaders to pave the way for the strikes and marches of the past months - a political approach which is determined by the particular role played by the union machineries in the context of this crisis-ridden capitalist society.
As the title of this forum indicates, these are the main threads of the ideas that we intend to discuss today. To illustrate these ideas, we will go into some detail regarding the recent events in France and the policies of the French union confederations in these events, as well as the policy of British union leaders from the beginning of the crisis to today. And more specifically, what they propose to do about the present round of attacks against the working class and the reasons behind their proposals.
Finally we will discuss how workers will need to find their own way to defend their class interests, by making the best possible use of whatever space is offered to them by the union machineries to express their opposition to the bosses' and politicians' attacks, but also, at the same time, by aiming to use this space to free themselves from the straitjacket of the union leaders' policies.
New storms gather
Before this, however, it is necessary to go back to the start of the current crisis and then look at its new features.
Well, the first thing that is new is, in fact, old news - namely that, contrary to what the politicians claim, the crisis is still there. Far from patching itself up, it is causing new cracks to emerge in the capitalist system. And each new imbalance is, itself, triggering a chain reaction of its own, with largely unpredictable consequences.
When we did our previous forum devoted to the crisis, last April, the credit crunch caused by the banking crisis had already triggered another credit crisis affecting, this time, the states themselves. Given the record level of their indebtedness as a result of the bailout of the bankers, speculators were betting on a fall in the market price of government bonds. This was driving bond prices further down and, by the same token, increasing the cost of borrowing for governments. At the time, the governments of countries like Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain had already been pushed close to the brink of bankruptcy.
Since then, however, the banking crisis has re-emerged with a vengeance in several places across the world. The recent developments in Ireland, where the country's banks revealed more hidden losses, forced the government into a new bank bailout and the de facto nationalisation of Irish Allied, the country's largest bank. This, in turn, has fuelled another speculative drive against Irish government bonds.
Contrary to what the British media claim rather hypocritically, this new hiccup of the crisis in Ireland is not, in and of itself, a direct threat to the euro nor to the euro-zone states' finances - although, of course, one can never be sure as to where speculators will take their damaging activity next. On the other hand, it has generated doubt over the value of all foreign loans to Irish private businesses and individuals - around £323bn worth of loans. Three-quarters of these come from European banks, including one quarter from British banks, mostly from RBS and Lloyds. In addition, thanks to turning itself into a tax haven within the EU, Ireland has become a favourite migration spot for big British and US companies. And neither Obama nor Cameron would dream of allowing these tax refugees to suffer!
Hence the scramble, involving the euro-zone, Britain and the US via the International Monetary Fund, to get a reluctant Irish government to agree to some sort of international bailout package, in order to shore up the finances of Irish debtors.
But the crisis is also developing now in another direction, by threatening to destabilise the world's currency system. Currencies are the main weapons used by the rich capitalist classes in their trade war - a war which has been intensified by the crisis. The big currency blocks based on the dollar and the euro, as well as the smaller ones based on the Japanese yen and the pound, are now all engaged in a bitter struggle between themselves and against their smaller trading partners aimed at keeping their respective currency exchange rates down in order to keep, or increase, their share of the world market.
This tit-for-tat guerilla warfare over exchange rates remains largely hidden from the public. It involves keeping central banks' interest rates at the lowest possible level, while putting pressure on rivals to increase theirs, whether through speculative manoeuvres on the currency market or through political pressure. Obama's current vocal campaign to get the Chinese leaders to re-value their currency is an example of such political pressure.
However, this guerrilla war has all sorts of consequences. First of all, it exacerbates currency speculation to the point where even small, unexpected variations in exchange rates may trigger panic movements causing the overnight collapse of some of the weakest currencies.
Second, for the countries which cannot afford to keep interest rates at rock bottom levels, this currency war spells catastrophe. Large Third World countries like India or Brazil and isolated industrialised countries like South-Korea are seeing huge amounts of floating capital flocking towards them in search of higher interest rates. This capital fuels local speculative bubbles, potentially as dangerous as those which caused the 1997 crash in South-East Asia. Of course, if such a crash happened again, its first victims would be, just as in 1997, the populations of these countries. But it would also have worldwide repercussions, feeding back into the rich countries as fast as electronic communications between stock markets allow - meaning, virtually instantly.
The crisis in Britain
From the point of view of the working class in Britain, even in the absence of more catastrophic consequences, there will be a price to pay for this drive to keep the exchange rate of the pound low - in the form of increased prices on imported goods, including a large range of necessities.
And this brings us back to the situation of the crisis in Britain itself. For once, we will use the services of PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC), the giant accounting firm, which cannot be suspected of being on the wrong side of capitalism. We will refer to its assessment of the situation in Britain, using the latest edition of its quarterly "UK economic outlook", published earlier this month. In fact, PWC tries very hard to paper over obvious cracks which expose Osborne's fairy tale about the so-called recovery, but the least that can be said, is that it is not very successful.
For instance, this reports hails a 5.3% increase in manufacturing output over the past 12 months. Except that not only does this increase still leave manufacturing 10% below its 2008 level, but it has been achieved without one single job being created - which is hardly a sign of improvement.
Likewise PWC highlights the "almost full" recovery of the construction sector, without mentioning the fact that much of this renewed activity is simply due to the reactivation of some very big commercial business projects (including a handful of skyscrapers and giant shopping centres dotted around the City of London), which had previously been mothballed. And in fact, PWC is forced to admit that despite this so-called recovery, the industry is cutting more jobs!
Even more significant is the state of investment in things like machinery, factories, etc... PWC is keen to stress that this has increased by 1.4% during the second quarter of this year - except that this follows a fall of nearly 20% since 2008 and PWC has to concede that public expenditure cuts are bound to push investment much further down.
However, where the PWC report finds it a lot harder to dress the economic statistics in bright colours, is on the question of indebtedness. The figures are just staggering. At £7.5 trillion Britain's total indebtedness is 5½ times the annual GDP. Out of this, 68% is owed by private companies, 20% by households and the remaining 12% makes up the official government debt. Worse, although household debt has been going down very slowly since the beginning of the crisis, private companies' debts have carried on increasing, in fact much faster than government debt, and this despite the fact that companies were not investing. And even PWC has to admit that this level of indebtedness on the part of private companies is quite simply unsustainable and potentially dangerous.
So what has been happening? The banks haven't used the hundreds of billions of the government bailout to resume lending on any scale. Instead, they used the cash for much more lucrative activities, such as financial speculation. The largest companies also received their share of the bailout bounty. Thanks to Darling's "quantitative easing", they were able to borrow directly from the wealthy and from non-banking institutions, by selling an unprecedented volume of corporate bonds on the market, with the help of the banks which took a (very big) cut in the process. Hence the big increase in the banks' profits as well as in their directors' bonuses and salaries. Meanwhile, company profits soared thanks to the reduction of the share of wages in their overall costs. In fact, the capitalist class is even more awash with money than ever - with a large part of it being public money.
It is this hoarding of cash in the hands of the rich and their companies that the working class is supposed to pay for, since the only purpose of the Con-Dems' cuts is not just to make up for the cost of the bank bailout, but also to channel an even larger part of public funding into the capitalists' coffers. And not only is this parasitism threatening to come at an exorbitant price to the working class, but, in addition, the existence of this huge mass of capital, that the capitalists do not want to invest in the productive economy, is a permanent threat for society as a whole - because this is precisely where speculative bubbles such as the one which triggered the present crisis originate from.
Sarkozy's policy in the crisis
From an economic and political point of view, the situation in France is very similar to that in Britain, at least in substance, if not always in form.
The crisis broke out in France just over a year after the present right-wing majority led by president Sarkozy had come into office, in 2007. Long before that, Sarkozy was a hate-figure for many workers, due to his reactionary demagogy, often verging on racism, but also due to his overt contempt for the working class. For instance, one of his most widely quoted boasts was that "under my watch, no-one notices any more when the unions call a strike." His election slogan, "working more to earn more" was soon paraphrased as "working more to earn less" - to which people added a resounding "no thanks!"
By the end of 2008, Sarkozy had already managed to get up the noses of a large section of the public, including part of his own electorate, due to his arrogance, his permanent self-satisfaction and his ostentatious lifestyle which only the very rich can afford. And this discrediting became even deeper with time, as the austerity measures of his government began to bite.
Just as in Britain, France had its bank bailout. Finance does not play such a disproportionate role as it does in the British economy, but like in every rich country, it is a very big and rich industry. And the bailout of the banks, although it was not as dramatic as Labour's bailout, and certainly was not as costly, was just as unpopular. But, in addition, the government diverted even more public funds toward bailing out the big private companies, either through direct subsidies as in the case of the car, steel and catering industries, or through indirect funding, under the pretext of protecting jobs - which, of course, did not stop companies from closing down factories and cutting jobs. Although the figures are carefully hidden from the public, the overall cost of the capitalists' bailout was, therefore, comparable to what it was in Britain.
Very soon into the crisis, the government embarked on a long series of public expenditure cuts. They did not come in the form of massive programmes as they have here, but as a long series of measures, introduced more or less discreetly, without most people realising what their actual impact would be. So, for instance, there were massive job cuts right from the start of 2008, in public services such as the railways, the post office and the health service, achieved mostly through what they call "natural wastage" and imposing unacceptable transfers on workers for whom giving their resignation was the only alternative. In the civil service, only one in three retiring workers was replaced among a workforce which was ageing. In education, in particular, where the number of students kept increasing regardless of the cuts, this caused chaos in many schools.
Other cuts targeted the most vulnerable, particularly the sick and the aged. The existing limited funding for home care was cut even further, which could only hurt the poorest pensioners. A whole range of medicines ceased to be covered by the health service (normally you get refunded for at least part of the cost) on the grounds that they were so-called "comfort drugs" and unnecessary - but in fact, they were drugs that millions of of patients, with non-fatal chronic illnesses, have to take for the rest of their lives, in order to reduce pain or simply to prevent their diseases from getting worse.
Of course, throughout this 2-year period, unemployment increased drastically, as permanent jobs were cut by private bosses and casual jobs became more difficult to find. The rise in unemployment, combined with the on-going cuts implemented by the government, contributed to a feeling of demoralisation among workers, who felt that, for some reason, they no longer had the collective strength to oppose these attacks.
It was against this backdrop that the issue of "pension reform" started to be raised, once again, in 2009, using the very same arguments that we hear in Britain - about rising life expectancy and the "unaffordability" of the existing pension system for society. Once again, because it was, in fact, the latest development in a long saga whereby, since 1993, successive right-wing governments had tried, more or less successfully, to cut existing pension provisions.
The 1993 reform, which targeted only private sector workers, passed without much resistance. It left the minimum retirement age at 60, but increased the number of years of contributions required to get a full state pension from 37½ to 40, with big penalties for those who had not accrued enough years. In addition, the state pension was reduced by an average of 7%. This meant that, although not formally forced to stay on, many workers had to postpone retirement because they had not accumulated enough years of contributions.
Two years later, in 1995, the government came back with similar attacks against public sector workers. But for once, it came up against a huge wave of resistance which swept the country, with large sections of the public sector joining ranks in massive street protests and strikes. This time the government had to shelve its plans. But, in 2003, it was to try again and, this time, to succeed, despite a new wave of strikes which never reached the level of mobilisation achieved in 1995. These measures were to be extended in 2007 to the last sections of workers who had been spared so far - in the railways, the underground and the public sector energy utilities.
What happened this year, therefore, was another attempt to push pension cuts even further, this time by increasing the minimum retirement age to 62 and the number of years of contributions required for a full pension to 41. As a "sweetener" of sorts, the draft included the possibility for workers to retire at 67 on a full pension regardless of the number of years of contributions they have. But of course, that is assuming their bosses allow them to do so, which is unlikely at a time when most companies are getting rid of older workers in order to replace them with cheaper, more productive, younger workers. In other words, the real aim of these changes is not so much to get workers to work longer before retiring, than to reduce the overall cost of the system by cutting the amount received by each pensioner.
France's "consultation unionism"
The driving force in this Autumn's wave of protests was unquestionably the union leadership and, more specifically, those of the two largest confederations CGT and CFDT.
The largest, the CGT (General Workers' Confederation) is seen by most workers as the most militant. This is primarily due to its past association with the Communist Party, although the CGT started to distance itself from this association more than ten years ago. As to the pedigree of the CFDT (French Democratic Workers' Confederation), it is the result of the transformation of the old Catholic union confederation into a secular body, in the 1960s.
In both confederations as well as in the other four smaller union groupings, the higher levels of the organisation's hierarchy are well integrated into the institutional framework provided for them by the bosses and the state. They have long ceased to depend on the dues of their membership for their existence. In medium and large companies, the system of so-called "works councils", which gives elected union officials the responsibility of managing significant budgets (to run things like canteens or sports facilities, or organise holidays for the workforce), provides the union machineries with both a source of income - through adhoc companies they set up in order to provide services to the "works councils" - and with paid positions for their full-timers. At a higher level in the state machinery, representatives of the leading circles of these unions sit on the governing boards of all sorts of institutions - like those of the national bodies in charge of pension provisions, child benefit, unemployment benefit, etc..
Overall, the policy of the union confederations comes down to what one union general secretary called "consultation unionism" - i.e. the kind of partnership with the employers that British union leaders are so keen on. To give a recent example, since the beginning of the crisis, the CGT's main "weapon" in opposing factory closures was to approach the company concerned with what it calls an "industrial plan" designed to advise the bosses on how they could run their factory in a profitable way despite the crisis. Ultimately, the logic of this approach would be for the CGT to agree to - and, in fact, suggest - cuts in wages and/or working conditions in order to save jobs by boosting profits. Although it should be said that the bosses are rarely interested enough for the CGT to have a chance to make these sorts of proposals.
In May this year, Sarkozy announced a "general manufacturing conference" to discuss what plans should be made in order to help manufacturing out of the crisis. Representatives of the bosses and the unions were duly invited to join discussions with ministers under the auspices of Sarkozy himself. The CGT leaders - like all the other unions - immediately jumped to their feet and made a bee-line to this conference without thinking twice. Never mind that this was merely window-dressing designed to allow Sarkozy to boast about his efforts to "protect" manufacturing jobs - when, in fact, the government was subsidising bosses in the full knowledge that they were cutting jobs!
Regarding the issue of pension provisions, the CGT and CFDT both have a dubious record, especially the CFDT. In 2003, right at the moment when public sector workers were starting to move against the government's planned cuts of their pension provisions, the CFDT leaders chose to endorse these cuts through a deal which was described at the time, both by the government and the CFDT, as an expression of "responsible trade-unionism". As a result of this, the CGT leaders' efforts to try to build up a response against the government's attacks suddenly melted into thin air: they were obviously more concerned about finding out whether there might be some benefit for them in entering into such a deal than about organising a fight back.
Not really a U-turn
In this year's new attacks on pension provisions, what really upset union leaders was the fact that the government did not even go through the motions of the usual "consultations" with the unions before producing its draft legislation. One union leader complained bitterly over the fact that he and his colleagues had only received the documents outlining the government's plans at the same time as the media.
This time, union leaders could not even pretend that they had tried to defend their corner, as they normally do, since it was obvious that the government had not even bothered to talk to them. And this was true just as much for the CFDT, despite the fact that it had signed the 2003 deal, as it was for the CGT, which had not signed this deal.
In other words, given Sarkozy's attitude towards them, there was no prospect of a deal for the union leaders and no advantage for them in offering concessions, as they would normally have done. The union leaders were caught in a stalemate. If the government chose to exclude them on such an issue, giving them no means to claim that they had played some sort of a role, they would simply lose part of their credibility - both with their members and, more importantly, with the bosses. Therefore, Sarkozy had to be shown that he just could not get away with that sort of behaviour - and the only way to do that was for the union leaders to organise a show of strength which would be sufficiently impressive to be convincing for Sarkozy.
The CGT and CFDT then proceeded to convince the other unions of the need to form a single front in order to make it easier to build up this demonstration of strength. And they were able to get the support even of the middle-management confederation CGC, which is not exactly what one would call a militant union!
There were other reasons for the CGT and CFDT leaders to feel that this was the right time to embark on such a course of action.
Both confederations were confronted with internal problems. In the case of the CFDT, the leadership's endorsement of the government's pension cuts, in 2003, had initiated a wave of resignations, which, over the years, had resulted in the loss of an estimated 30,000 activists. As for the CGT, its annual conference, in January, had seen the emergence of a vocal opposition, which challenged the failure of the leadership to organise any follow-up after the very successful national days of action it had called in 2009. So, a bit of "action" at this point in time was certainly seen by the CGT and CFDT leaders as an effective means to contain the rebellious attitude of some of their members.
Besides, they probably thought that there was no risk of the action escaping their control. After all, the general mood among workers was not a fighting one. They were outraged by the idea that they might have to "retire at 67" (which was unlikely, but was nevertheless the way most formulated their objections to the government's plans), but they were not confident at all that they had the slightest chance of forcing the government to shelve its plans. Moreover, union leaders could consider that choosing to focus on pensions was a much "safer bet" - whereas the issue of unemployment, although far more pressing for large sections of the working class, was likely to open a Pandora's box of frustration which might be far more difficult to control.
Finally, another reason which probably made union leaders consider that this was the right time for a demonstration of strength, was the fact that the campaign for the 2012 presidential election has started already. And being able to expose Sarkozy's obsessive arrogance as the cause of a major social crisis was bound to revive the anti-Sarkozy vote among the electorate and be a definite vote-winner for the Socialist Party leaders - with whom the leaders of the two main union confederations have close links.
So, from the beginning of September, the CGT and CFDT leaders went on to do what they should have done and had failed to do ever since the beginning of the crisis. They organised successive protests according to a timetable that everybody knew and which allowed both activists and rank-and-file workers to prepare the next stage, in the knowledge that there would be another one after, and that therefore the protest would gather more and more momentum and would be increasingly more likely to have an impact.
But although this seemed like a complete U-turn in the practice of the CGT and CFDT leaders over the past years, it was definitely not a political U-turn. Beyond the radical-sounding rhetoric that the leaders of both unions felt they needed to use given the course taken by events, they just could not keep themselves from coming up again and again with phrases like "what we need is a 'good' pension reform" - which amounted to going along with Sarkozy's line that pension costs needed to be cut, while at the same implying that there was a 'bad' way to do it (that chosen by Sarkozy) and a 'good' way (which required, if not the unions' total agreement, at least their official involvement in mapping out this reform). In other words, militant as it may have appeared, the policy of the CGT and CFDT leaders was in no way different from the previous period - being aimed primarily at gaining recognition from the government as an almost equal partners, including in handling the wholesale attacks against the working class, like this pension reform.
How the wave of protests unfolded
It is important to note that the union machineries were not acting under the pressure of workers. On the contrary, the union machineries went out of their way to encourage workers to go on strike and join demonstrations. They displayed a very unusual level of activity, with union full-timers who hadn't left their offices for years suddenly turning up outside factories and railway stations to organise gate meetings, distribute leaflets, etc..
What really encouraged workers to join in was the fact that, on each one of the days of action which formed the backbone of the movement, the union machineries made a point of announcing a new objective, set a few days later, often at the very same time as protesters were marching in the streets. This created the confidence that there would be a follow-up and that neither the marches nor, more importantly, the money lost during strike days, would be wasted.
On the other hand, the union machineries ensured that the movement remained within the narrow remit of pensions. Union leaders were careful to avoid mentioning any other issue in public speeches. Meanwhile, in the background, union officials often came down like a ton of bricks to shut workers up who argued in favour of raising issues like jobs or wages. This did not prevent many workers and union activists from coming to marches with their own slogans and demands. But as a result, with the additional help of the media, the movement remained overwhelmingly dominated by the pension issue.
The first stage of the movement came began 7th September. This was a Tuesday. Marches were organised in the main towns and workplace union branches were instructed to organise stoppages and call workers to join the marches (according to French working class tradition, such calls would be aimed at all workers, not just union members, who would be likely to join in, if it was successful). However at this stage, the union leaders were still clearly testing the water and their machineries had not really put much effort into mobilising workers. Nevertheless, the police admitted to 220,000 marchers while the unions claimed 800,000. It seems they were rather surprised by the turnout and it was this relative success which prompted them to embark on something bigger, although the next day of mobilisation was set rather far away, for two weeks later.
On that second day, Thursday 23rd September, the same scenario was repeated. The size of the marches increased overall, but there was much bigger increase in the number of strikers involved. In some towns, there were large contingents of car workers behind their banners, with some calling for all-out strike across the public and private sector and for the total repeal of the attacks on pensions for all workers. In coastal towns big contingents of striking dockers and refinery workers appeared - who were also involved in separate disputes (over conditions of employment).
By the evening of the second day everyone knew that a further day of action was planned for Saturday 2nd October. For once, union leaders provided a clear and understandable explanation for this choice: to allow those who had not participated in the marches on the first two days, either due to lack of confidence or because they worked in very small workplaces, to join in. The numbers increased again. For the first time, there was a small participation of students. Left-wing political parties and groups had also been invited to join in with their own banners. The general atmosphere was militant, but more festive than angry, contrary to some of the previous marches.
The next protest day was 12th October, this time a week day again. There were very perceptible changes. The number of marches across France increased significantly as well as the number of strikers, especially in the private sector (so far, a majority of strikers had come from the public sector), compared to the previous comparable day of action. The youth element in the marches became far more visible. Only, they were not so much university students than high-school students. It was estimated that, on that day, 150 high-schools had been "blockaded" by striking students in the main towns. These youth joined in on the basis of two main issues: their parents' pensions and the fact that there was no job waiting for them and nothing was done about this. The significance of this lay in the fact that, although high-school youth do not often take action, when they do they tend to be more radical and dynamic than, say, university students. Besides, due to their huge numbers, a large-scale mobilisation across high-schools could have considerably inflated the marches' size and resulted in daily protests in-between national days of action. As it happened, though, the high-school mobilisation never reached such a point. But the youth's presence did play a role in boosting the workers' morale.
Strikes reinforce the protest marches
To some extent, the 12th October marked a turning point for another reason. On that day, the CGT leaders floated the idea that "renewable indefinite strikes" should start the following day, mentioning areas like the railways, local public transport and the energy industries (in addition to the docks and refinery workers who were already on strike). This form of strike is a tradition in France, dating back to the 1980s, whereby mass meetings of strikers vote for the continuation (or the termination) of the strike each day, rather than having an open-ended (indefinite) strike or one lasting a pre-set number of days.
This was by no means a clearly formulated call. Nor were the union machineries really mobilised to build up and organise these strikes. The union leaders were probably unsure of the response to such a call and could not really afford a visible flop, which would have been demoralising for the workers already involved in the marches, while providing ammunition to Sarkozy's propaganda. But, on the other hand, the CGT leaders probably did not want the development of a massive wave of strikes, with the potential risk of that they would acquire a dynamic of their own, which might prove difficult to control.
In any case, the idea of "renewable indefinite strikes" was formulated more as a suggestion and an invitation by the CGT leadership, than as a formal call. But given the contagious enthusiasm which had been building up among the most militant workers over the previous month, they seized on the idea and strikes spread during the following week, in a rather haphazard way, in the railways and urban public transport systems. Strikers were usually in a minority, but a big enough one to make the strike visible. There were delays, but still enough buses and trains to take passengers where they wanted, often for free, due to a deliberate absence of ticket controls - so that even the state TV did not manage to find its usual pick of "angry passengers".
Meanwhile, the strikes in the docks and refineries were solid and biting. On the eve of the next national day of action, on 16th October, some 60 heavy tanker ships were stranded off the Fos oil terminal, near Marseilles, in southern France (Europe's largest oil refinery). The government was in a state of complete denial regarding these strikes. Ministers kept repeating on TV that the strikes (whose existence they had denied before) were "collapsing", that there was "no problem" with petrol supply, etc.. Ironically, these claims infuriated workers so much that many joined the strike just in order to call Sarkozy's bluff!
Other areas, which were not part of the industries targeted by the CGT, were taking action as well. There were stoppages on and off in various sectors of public services: for instance, there had been no call or encouragement to take action in postal services, but here and there workers took it upon themselves to go on strike. Likewise in several airports, at the national and regional headquarters of the welfare and pension administrations, in the regional agencies of the state road and building maintenance organisation, etc... There again, these were minority strikes by workers who wanted to play the fullest possible part in the protest wave. These strikes were nowhere as massive nor as determined as in the docks and refineries, but they were visible in most towns. However there was one strike which was very solid and extremely visible, from 12th October - that of refuse workers in the Marseille urban conurbation.
As to the youth, its involvement also increased during that week. By 15th October, the government itself acknowledged that 300 urban high-schools were affected. In the big towns a pattern was developing with high-school youth going on a march every day, by mid-morning, passing by as many high-schools as they could and inviting students to join in, and then going to besiege one official building or another.
Saturday 16th October saw more marches, covering 230 towns. The next day of action was set, this time, 3 days later, for Tuesday October 19th, probably in order to ensure that the on-going strikes did not develop activities of their own. By that time, petrol stations had dried up in 2/3 of the country, especially in the big conurbations. On the 19th, big private workplaces came massively out on strike, like many car factories and the giant private utility Veolia (water and transport). 1200 high schools were affected by the strike, included 950 totally blockaded. There were marches in 277 towns and the total figure of protesters reached 1.2m according to the police, 3.3m according to the unions.
The same day, however, the pension reform was passed by the National Assembly, before being pushed through without debate in the Senate two days later. The government clearly thought that this, in and of itself, would deal the movement a fatal blow. And, the next day, it went on the offensive. The prime minister announced that the riot police was to be sent to "free" the refineries and oil depots blockaded by strikers. Meanwhile, cops suddenly appeared in large numbers outside striking high-schools - resulting in outbreaks of rioting and some looting, which, predictably, was duly blamed by ministers on the protest movement.
However, the protests and strikes took another 5 weeks to die out, with 3 national days of action organised during that period - although, for the last one, on 23rd November, some of the smaller unions had already dropped out of the, so far, united trade-union organising committee.
A balance sheet
The union leaders had made their point, by demonstrating their ability to mobilise large numbers of workers in the streets and to preside over a strike wave across different industries. This was what they had wanted and they did not particularly want to go further than that, even though they organised another symbolic day of action in December. Going further, assuming there was support for it, would have required that union leaders propose new fighting objectives to workers, which might have forced them to go down a road they did not want to go down - one that could have put them really at odds with the bosses.
The movement did not deliver any tangible gains for workers in terms of the pension issue itself - the hypocritical "concession" made by the government in favour of workers who are partly disabled and can "prove" (when most of them can't) that they have worked for at least 17 years in health-damaging jobs, is an insult rather than a gain! Nevertheless, the balance sheet of this movement is, in many respects, a positive one for the French working class as a whole, and a significant asset in preparation for its future struggles.
First of all, in terms of size, this protest wave was definitely the largest since the strikes of May-June 1968. And although the actual number of strikers is more difficult to assess, the extent of the involvement of private sector workers in the strikes was larger than anything seen since 1968. Moreover, this strike had another feature in common with 1968: it involved many workers who had never been involved in strikes or street protests in their lives, particular those from small companies and small towns. And the millions of workers and youth who got involved in the movement at one point or another and for whatever length of time, came out of it with the first-hand experience that the working class can flood the streets with its numbers and energy and make its voice heard in a way that even the most arrogant government cannot ignore. Because, although the government was in total denial regarding the strength of the movement, the mere fact that Sarkozy and his ministers devoted so much effort into playing down the size of the marches and the importance of the strikes was, in and of itself, an admission that their mobilisation was having an impact.
Of course, this is not to say that the regime itself, let alone the vital interests of the capital class, was shaken at any point. To achieve this the movement would have had to appear as much more of a potential threat than it did, and most of the participants realised that. In fact, with the exception of a minority of activists who nurtured illusions in the fighting will of the union machineries, most of the participants did not expect to achieve very much. What they did expect, though, and what they achieved, was to express loud and clear their contempt for Sarkozy's arrogance and their hatred for wealthy, who he likes so much to be seen brushing shoulders with. It was this determination to express their feelings and their dynamism, which won the support of a large proportion of public opinion for the movement, even according to the opinion polls commissioned by the right-wing press, and this despite government propaganda.
No less important in this movement was the active role played by many workers in organising the mobilisation - not on a national level, of course, but at a local level. The "union locales" (sort of French equivalents of Britain's trades councils), which are usually dormant bodies, suddenly sprung into life. They were often the focus around which the activists of the movement, whether trade-union activists in "normal" times or not, got organised.
In many towns, workers regrouped around the pickets organised by "union locale" . They sometimes went to reinforce strikers where they needed help. Sometimes they went from workplace to workplace in order to convince workers who had not got involved yet to join in. It was, in fact, this process, repeated in many places on a daily basis, which allowed the movement to spread to more and more sections of workers. This was also how the movement won the support of most of the working class: when workers saw these pickets coming to the gates of their workplaces in the small hours of the morning to explain what the movement was about and why they should support it and join it, they could see that the activists of this movement were workers like themselves and they could far more easily identify with the movement, than by just watching union leaders' speeches on TV.
In the process of organising these pickets, workers got into the habit of working together, regardless of who was their employer, which helped to counteract a lot of their sectional prejudices - all the more so because the aim they were setting themselves was precisely to rally the support of workers from many different companies and industries.
Finally, the workers' large-scale active participation in the movement also meant that they were (and are likely to remain for a long time) very proud of it, because they felt that it was really their movement, a movement which had developed and reached such a momentum primarily thanks to their own efforts.
Despite the limitations and outcome of this movement, this collective experience acquired by the French working class, this apprenticeship of organising its struggles at grassroots level, not on a sectional basis, but as a class which rejects sectional divisions, can provide the building blocks for the future, for the more decisive struggles that it will have to wage against the attacks of the capitalist class.
Britain - bidding to co-manage the crisis
Compared with France, the attitude of the British union leaders since the beginning of the crisis may appear astoundingly passive. But behind this passivity lies the same political agenda, which has nothing to do with the interests of the working class.
When the recession hit in the Autumn of 2007, it found the union leadership in a relatively marginalised state. They were neither bosses' fish nor Labour government's fowl. On the one hand, due to so many years of posing little or no threat to the capitalist class, many bosses now felt that it was possible to by-pass them and implement cuts without consultation. On the other, for much the same reason, the union leadership had found itself snubbed, first by Blair's, and then by Brown's Labour ministers. So it now had the job of restoring its credit on both accounts.
In 2007, in a wave of cost-cutting, the government imposed a wage freeze right across the public sector. That year, at the TUC's annual conference, leader Brendan Barber admonished the government from the platform: "Let's be clear", he said, "that this year's centralised attempt to railroad through below inflation public sector pay has been plain wrong - and must never be repeated. To deliver the real improvements across our public services we all want to see we need to work together on the way forward (..). So to the Prime Minister, I simply say: 'Listen to us, consult us, and involve us in shaping the world-class service our country needs".
But prime minister Brown did not take up Barber's offer to help him in "railroading" public sector conditions. So 24-hour strikes were announced in November, by the civil service union, the PCS. But in the end, as Brown's government itself looked more and more precarious, union leaders got cold feet. The strikes were called off. The leadership was not prepared to take responsibility for rocking Labour's boat, nor even shaking it slightly.
Then there were the most abject instances of unions helping to negotiate wage cuts among the workforces of the car and engineering industries, which amounted to an endorsement of the bosses' blackmail over job cuts and factory closures.
For instance in April 2008, the GMB union boasted about the "selflessness" of the workforce of JCB (the huge and highly profitable digger-maker) after recommending a deal proposing a de facto £50/week wage cut (by cutting working hours), in exchange for "saving" 332 jobs. This happened several times over at different JCB factories. In the end the whole workforce had its wages cut, while JCB cut over 700 jobs anyway, claiming that there was "extreme deterioration in business levels and confidence" - even though it had just been awarded the £23m contract for the Russian Winter Olympics! At the time the GMB's only comment was that it was "disappointed"!
The same sort of scenario was repeated at Corus, the steelmaking company, now part of the Tata business empire. It first threatened the closure of the Llanwern plant in Wales and the loss of 1,000 jobs. Apparently on the table, in exchange for keeping the plant open and avoiding any job cuts, was a 10% wage cut. However all along, unlike in the case of JCB, the union officials claimed there was no way that it was they who were proposing the pay reduction. Workers at Scunthorpe however soon found their union reps had agreed an 11.5% wage cut. Corus was to come back over the next few months to mothball the Redcar factory, cut jobs in all its plants, including Scunthorpe. Today a question mark still hangs over several plants after 4,500 job cuts.
In the car industry, as well, workers were asked to take de facto pay cuts by working shorter hours, forgoing night shifts, as at Ford, Vauxhall, Toyota, or were asked to subsist on a fraction of their wages while laid off, which was the case for 6 months at Honda's factory in Swindon. In all of these factories, temporary workers were the first victims of the knife. At BMW's factory in Oxford, this involved sacking hundreds of temps in February 2009 and then bringing them back in handfuls, over the next few months - something that BMW seems to be about to repeat in the coming weeks. And in every one of these instances, union negotiators were there to recommend acceptance to workers on the grounds that there was nothing that they could do to stop these attacks and that they represented the "least bad" option on offer.
The end of 2008 saw one of the worst sleights of hand pulled off by Billy Hayes, the leader of the CWU, when he balloted only a section of the Royal Mail workforce over the threatened closure of 8 mail centres in the North West - even though this was part of a programme to close up to 38 mail centres and cut at least 30,000 jobs. Since the result of the ballot was never published it is not known how many workers voted for strike. But the 24-hour strike announced in 5 of the 8 mail centres involved did not even materialise. The CWU called it off, only days before it was due to take place! The statement issued by Dave Ward, (the CWU's postal leader) said that the strikes were called off because "some progress had been made, justifying the continuation of more meaningful discussions." But nobody was told what "progress" this was.
Since then these mail centres have been shut. But not before another, this time, national, strike was called off before it even started, in November 2009. A series of rolling strikes involving London and several other regions were meant to be extended to the whole country. These workers were ordered back to work though, again, because the CWU leadership claimed to have "made progress". And "progress" this time, led to an agreement which was to accelerate the closure programme, result in tens of thousands more jobs being cut and which seems to have help lay the basis for the future sell-off of Royal Mail, (which had been aborted by the previous Labour government due to lack of buyers) - now planned by the Con-Dem government.
A UNITE(d) front with the bosses?
While union leaders seemed to have little to say to workers on how they could face up to the bosses' attacks, they had no shortage of advice to offer the government, which they kept inviting to step in, in order to bail out one or another section of the capitalist class - like the car industry, for instance, held to be a "special case" by the likes of Derek Simpson, the then joint leader of Unite with Tony Woodley.
In March 2009, Unite launched a campaign for aid to manufacturing ... and for jobs. A statement called it a "major drive to secure urgent and strategic assistance for UK manufacturing and a clear plan for defending and creating jobs...bringing together leading figures in business, politics and academia with the country's biggest union to press the case for a jobs strategy with manufacturing placed firmly at the heart of a national programme to propel the UK out of recession." The union leaders added: "We cannot allow this recession to destroy our skills base and our communities, and we must set out the vision for future success so that employers and workers can have confidence that the dark days of the recession will soon come to an end."
This statement was ambiguous enough, if only due to its failure to draw a clear distinction between the interests of manufacturing bosses and those of manufacturing workers - regardless of the fact that the profiteering of the former feeds on the sweat of the latter! But this ambiguity disappeared instantly when, alongside Unite's joint general secretaries, Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, emerged the figure of Lord Jones of Birmingham, better known as Digby Jones, a former trade minister and ex-CBI chief! In fact, when Unite organised a march for jobs in Birmingham in May 2009 - a hugely stage-managed affair to which other unions or workers were not even invited - Woodley even made a point of marching arm-in-arm with Digby Jones, a "first time marcher" as Woodley called him!
It was, therefore, for the sake of the manufacturing bosses' profitability that the Unite leaders were going to all this trouble - and little to do with workers' interests. And just in case anyone has any doubt, this Digby Jones in not a maverick with a soft spot for trade unionists. He is an arch-reactionary who actually has come out on radio and TV saying that although the bankers acted irresponsibly and helped cause the crisis, workers were also to blame after all - for "maxing out" on their credit cards and being just as greedy as the "rest of us" by wanting big mortgages, etc...!
One cannot refrain from comparing the Unite leaders' promotion of manufacturing profits, with their policy in the cabin-crew dispute at British Airways, which has been on-going since Spring 2009.
When it was making common cause with manufacturing bosses, Unite was willing to go all out and seek any possible ally and make as much noise as possible. But not when it came to what should actually be a trade union's job, ie., making common cause with other sections of the working class. In the case of the BA dispute, Unite leaders (initially Len McCluskey, who has just been elected to the top leadership post) chose to strictly confine the dispute to the cabin crews, despite the fact that other sections among the BA workforce were faced with similar threats and would undoubtedly have benefited from joining ranks in action with the cabin crews, just as much as the cabin crews would have been reinforced.
As a result, so far, the long series of strike days staged by cabin crews have failed to stop BA's attempts to impose both cuts in jobs and in conditions - not to mention the victimisation of union activists, nor the withdrawal of travel concessions. In fact the continued arrogance of the CEO, Willie Walsh has undoubtedly been bolstered by Tony Woodley's systematic behind-the-scenes attempts to stitch up a compromise by accepting job cuts, pay cuts, conditions cuts, behind workers' backs. The dispute only continues thanks to the air crews' own determination not to accept any of it!
From the wilderness to the palace?
Once it was clear that the Labour party was not going to win the election in the Spring of 2010, the union leadership had new possibilities to consider in terms of reinserting itself into influential positions in the party - positions from which it had been marginalised over the previous 13 years of Labour government. Its vote in the Labour leadership contest, for instance, now became rather vital.
The union leaders sprang to life - and members of Unite and Unison, the largest unions (1.5m members and 1.2m respectively) found themselves bombarded with text messages to "vote for Ed" - the first time they were ever thus contacted by the union - and probably the last!
Of course "Ed" Miliband was duly elected. What is more, the unions were "blamed" for it. And this suits the leadership, now dubbed Labour's "King-maker", even if only a tiny proportion of the union membership eligible to vote in this election actually did so! Indeed, it should be remembered that it was the union leaderships themselves which willingly stepped back from their prominent positions in Labour Party institutions at the behest of Peter Mandelson and Blair in the early 1990s, in order to boost Labour's electoral appeal to the middle class.
For 13 years the TUC and the unions allowed themselves to be sidelined by the Labour Party hierarchy. And what did they get in return? In fact they have very little to show for all this selflessness. Half a page of paper would be enough to list the so-called gains of those long years in the shadows - by which the TUC likes to justify its existence in front of the union memberships. Like a minimum wage which is still set so low that workers need additional welfare benefits to have enough to live on. Or a working time regulation which provides for opt-outs, thus allowing workers to work what amounts to life-threatening overtime, do 12 hour night shifts, etc. Agency workers have yet to get their "equal rights" - but what are such rights when the one right you don't have is the right to a permanent job?
Never mind though, these issues are not really the TUC leadership's real problem. Because they have been biding their time - waiting for the moment when they can again play a significant role in the Labour Party. And now that circumstances have changed, due, among other things, to Labour's discredit among its working class electorate, the TUC leaders' time may have come.
In particular, even though the Labour leadership is certainly not convinced of it for the time being, there is always the possibility that the crisis might trigger explosions of anger in the working class, which would give union leaders the opportunity to offer their services to the bosses as firefighters to protect their interests (whether this would be successful is another matter, of course!). In that case, the Labour leadership could be prompted to make more space to union leaders, in order to be wheeled into power to restore order.
So the TUC leaders plan to use the current crisis to restore its position in the political landscape, by hook or by crook, by creating the conditions for a return of Labour to office on their own terms. That is why they have restricted their so-called campaign against the cuts to lobbying MPs and local protests outside town halls. The last thing they want is what Bob Crow demagogically recalled at TUC conference - that is, a repeat of the poll tax riots!
But even while they look forward to their comfortable future in Labour's offices, they are quite ready to play ball with the Con-Dems. The present coalition government would be stupid not to try to utilise the TUC to stem unrest within working class ranks - and it could grant some concessions in return, for job well done. After all, Barber had talks with Cameron prior to and after the TUC conference and Cameron has appointed former Labour MEP Richard Balfe who defected to the Tories, as a kind of envoy to the unions. Even if his initial reception has not been too warm!
Keep your hats on ... till March?
But in the meantime the TUC has had to appear to be doing something against the huge and unprecedented barrage of attacks against he working class, announced day after day under the "Comprehensive Spending Review" in order to be taken seriously as the de facto leadership of the class.
So, at the start of the annual TUC conference in September this year, its General Council issued a statement on the economy, in which it called - and I quote - "for a great national campaign against the cuts that will galvanise opposition through both community organising at grass-roots level, and well-planned national initiatives, including a rally and lobby of parliament in October and national demonstration next March."
A great national campaign would have been good. But this was the last thing that the TUC actually had in mind. And it certainly did not envisage anything like the mobilisations which were going on at the very same moment in European cities, including most vociferously, in France. When asked by journalists about this, the TUC's leader, Brendan Barber, said very clearly that in Britain we really do not do things that way...!
Instead, Barber addressed himself, not to the working population, but to the ruling coalition's prime minister David Cameron, in his conference opener, saying: "Real terms pay cuts, privatisation and restructuring, job cuts and threats to pensions all adds up to a volatile cocktail that could give rise to difficult and damaging disputes, and the TUC stands ready to support and co-ordinate union action where members decide that industrial action is necessary to defend services and those who deliver them."
Yes, rather than the declaration of war that the Con-Dem's austerity plans warranted, this was a way of warning the government that it was unwise on its part to create a "volatile cocktail" and that, although the TUC itself would not take the initiative of organising industrial action, it would support and co-ordinate actions that might take place spontaneously, in order to remain in control.
Barber finally announced on the 23rd October, that the TUC's proposed national march, in March 2011 was to be on Saturday the 26th. He did this while addressing the Greater London Trades Council's 150th conference at Congress House in London having totally ignored - and refrained from supporting - the demonstration called that same day by several London unions and most prominently the Firefighters' union, which was on 24-hour strike!
Throughout November the TUC plans were as follows: "Continuing analysis of the effects of the CSR on different sectors and localities with local and sectoral action to follow. Already planned are: UCU/NUS action on cuts 10 November, FBU lobby of parliament 17 November, Special Wales TUC conference 26 November."
Obviously through its mouthpiece in the National Union of Students the TUC has distanced itself from the rather riotous occupation of Tory Party HQ during the 10 November Demonstration!
For the rest, "the General Council encourages unions to use the impact of the CSR to build local campaign groups to maintain pressure on MPs - particularly coalition MPs that we have targeted - and to work with other unions and others on a sectoral basis to build awareness and opposition to the cuts announced in the CSR."
In other words, keep it confined, "disciplined" and local. What is meant to take place between November and March? Christmas, obviously. But for the following three months what will the TUC be doing? It will be trying to put out any fires which might burst out in streets and workplaces and increasing as much as possible its grip at every level of the movement.
In the meantime several sectional struggles continue. Mutual support and solidarity as far as the union leaderships are concerned has up to now, at the very best, entailed a visit to a picket line - as has happened from time to time when Bob Crow, the rail and tubeworkers leader has arrived to shake hands with strikers from the FBU or CWU and invite them for a drink in the local pub. True, the current London Underground dispute does involve both the clerical union, TSSA, and the RMT in joint action for the first time since 1926, but it's not a fight back when it takes place one day a month, it is merely a gesture.
The capitalist class and their politicians only get away with their present offensive against the working class, because the resistance they face is defensive and atomised at best, and more often than not, non-existent. This is not due to workers' resignation to take these attacks lying down, but to a lack of confidence in their collective capacity to fight back. Far from helping to rebuild this confidence, the union leaders' tokenistic gestures can only demoralise the most militant workers and entrench the idea that resistance is pointless.
The TUC policy of subjecting any resistance to the Con-Dems' attacks to Labour's drive to return to office, is an obvious dead end for workers. Not only did Labour initiate the present attacks since the beginning of the crisis, but the Labour leadership makes no secret of the fact that, come what may, it intends to make workers foot the bill of the capitalists' crisis. In this respect, there may be differences in language and packaging between Labour and the Con-Dems, but there is no difference in content, which is all about anti-working class austerity. No, the working class has nothing to expect from another Labour administration, even one in which union leaders would be given some prominence.
Hopefully, the TUC March demonstration will offer an opportunity for workers to measure their collective strength and voice their opposition to the capitalists' offensive and government's austerity - and for this reason alone, it will be worth making the best of it. But it is clear that, for the TUC leaders, the only purpose of this event is to demonstrate their ability to mobilise workers in the streets - not to use this ability in order to build up any kind of fight back.
Nothing will come out of the March event, unless initiatives are taken by workers themselves. If the capitalists' offensive is to be stopped, let alone reversed, the balance of forces between the bosses and workers in society needs to be reversed - meaning that the capitalists must be made to fear that they have been going too far and that their attacks could trigger a backlash large enough to threaten their profits.
For this to happen, large sections of the working class will have to unite in a joint fight behind common objectives designed to really address the attacks of the bosses and the catastrophic damage caused by the crisis. in particular:
- against the parasitic greed of the bankers, the nationalisation of all banks without compensation, and their merger into one single entity under the control of the population with the help of bank workers.
- against unemployment, the banning of redundancies under threat of nationalisation of private companies without compensation, and the re-allocation of public funds currently wasted in state handouts to the tiny minority of capitalists, to fund a massive recruitment programme in public services and social housing building, to serve the interests of the majority.
- against the rising poverty among welfare claimants, the funding of living pensions and welfare benefits from the current profits squeezed by companies out of workers' labour.
- against the degradation of the standard of living of the working class, the upgrading of the minimum wage to a decent level and a sliding-scale of wages, whereby wages increase automatically on the basis of a verifiable cost-of-living index, controlled by workers' price committees across the country.
The main issue for workers, therefore, has to be to take hold of their own struggles, find leaders within their own ranks whom they can trust and control, and set objectives which can begin to transform not only the way they fight, but inform what they are fighting for. The working class has the social weight and the collective resources to carry out these tasks. Its future and the future of society depend on it.