Macron’s Anti-Worker Attacks
Lessons of the Rail Strike
The following article is an edited translation from Le Bolchévik No. 225 (September 2018), newspaper of the Ligue trotskyste de France, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist). For other articles in French on the recent railway workers strike, see Le Bolchévik No. 224 (June 2018).
It was a somber anniversary of May ’68. The French capitalists, whose rule was badly shaken 50 years ago, took revenge against the rail unions this spring. The government is trying to take back perhaps the most important thing the bourgeoisie had been compelled to concede: strong trade unions in the workplace. In the 1970s and right up to the beginning of the 1980s, the working class and the oppressed had been able to wrest a series of gains until Socialist Party president François Mitterrand, with the complicity of the trade-union bureaucracy, turned the tide in favor of the capitalists.
Today, President Emmanuel Macron intends to ratchet up his attacks, and all the more so because the weakening of the unions gives him hope that the most difficult task is already done. For more than 30 years, railway workers have often been the backbone of major class battles, particularly the 1986 and 1995 strikes that brought right-wing prime minister and then president Jacques Chirac’s attacks against the workers to a stop. The bourgeoisie hopes that by breaking the railway workers unions, it can head off the specter of wide-scale upheavals against its efforts to increase the rate of profit on the backs, and with the blood, of the workers. But no matter what Macron thinks, the balance of power between the working class and the capitalist class is not set in advance nor for eternity. It is the class struggle ahead that will determine that.
The bourgeoisie now wants to complete the destruction of the entire social safety network set up after World War II (which was, at the time, to neutralize the working class and derail any struggle for socialist revolution). Pensions and the health care system are in the crosshairs. People are already working longer and longer, while life expectancy and the remaining years retirees can expect to be in good health have dropped. By lowering net pension payments and increasing co-pays for treatment in a health care system that is increasingly privatized, the government is pursuing a goal that is as blatant as it is unspoken: to make poor pensioners die faster because they have the misfortune of no longer producing profits for the capitalist class! We say: let capitalism perish!
This horrible cruelty is not a personality trait of Macron or, for that matter, of the defectors from the Socialist Party who joined him. Nor is it a “neoliberal” aberration of capitalism. The very laws of capitalism itself drive these policies. If one accepts the idea that capitalism can’t be overcome, these measures become “necessary” to increase the rate of profit of French capitalism. Otherwise, faced with its German and other rivals, it would ultimately sink, with the social safety net alongside it.
The rate of profit tends to fall as capital accumulates, which ends up causing crises of “overproduction.” It’s not that too many goods are produced with respect to the basic needs of the working class and the oppressed: these crises break out when the capitalists can no longer sell their goods at the expected rate of profit. The only way the capitalist class can extricate itself from economic downturns is by shutting down factories and provoking trade wars that lead to shooting wars.
Capitalism is a system as deadly as it is irrational, fraught with unsolvable contradictions. Production is socialized in large-scale industries, but profit is privately appropriated by the capitalists who own the means of production. While production is organized on an international basis, capitalism is based on the nation-state; therefore the imperialist national bourgeoisies engage in a continual battle to dominate and redivide the world.
Only the working class, whose labor is the source of capitalist profit, has the social power to overthrow this system. For humanity to progress, the world economy must be reorganized on a planned and collectivized basis. Applying the most advanced science and technology will greatly increase labor productivity. In meeting the needs of the entire population, socialism will lay the foundation for putting an end to poverty, social and class oppression, war and other scourges inherent to class-divided societies.
The Russian Revolution of October 1917 was the first to point the way to end this system. That is why it remains our model and why we are fighting to build a party of the same type as Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, without which the revolution could not have triumphed.
Down With the European Union!
Macron’s campaign in favor of the European Union is actually a statement of the government’s determination to make full use of the EU’s arsenal against the workers and the oppressed. With regard to the national railway, the SNCF, the government is implementing the EU’s “railway packages,” which, like all EU directives, aim at liquidating public services, fully subjecting them to the law of profit and busting the unions. Down with the European Union! Down with its financial instrument, the euro, and its neocolonial sub-currencies like the CFA franc! [The CFA francs are still controlled by the French state and used mainly in former French colonies of Africa.]
The European Union is an unstable consortium of imperialist powers (essentially Germany and France, who are its main architects) that also includes a number of dependent countries in the East and South, notably Greece. This conglomerate of separate nation-states has the objective of strengthening the competitiveness of the European imperialists against their rivals by maximizing the flow of capital to wherever the rate of profit is highest. Thus, it is a powerful weapon against the unions and against the working conditions and wages of workers throughout Europe, including in Germany and France. This is why the French bourgeoisie today swears by the EU, even though it is dominated by Germany and constantly increases Germany’s advantage vis-à-vis declining French imperialism.
The Rail Strike and the Road Forward
After a three-month strike from April to June, railway workers suffered a serious defeat. But they fought with courage and determination. A large number of them remained on strike until the end, especially drivers and ticket collectors, who may be among the first to be transferred to small, anti-union companies (subsidiaries or affiliates of large transportation companies, including the SNCF). The rail workers showed that they will fight tooth and nail to defend their gains. An orderly retreat absolutely requires defending the trade unions so that they can engage in future struggles.
What was lacking to consolidate and extend the strike was a class-struggle program that can effectively rally wider layers of workers, in the SNCF and beyond, for a general confrontation with the capitalist government. This is the type of program we sought to put forward in our propaganda before and during the strike.
To begin with, a class-struggle union leadership would have categorically said no to the French legislature’s enactment of the EU’s anti-union “railway package,” which mandates the introduction of competition in the rail industry. But this would raise the question of smashing the EU through class struggle, and that’s the last thing the leadership of the CGT (or SUD) trade-union federations wanted. Indeed, it was Thierry Lepaon, a CGT bureaucrat who, before becoming the head of the union, was assigned to the government’s Economic, Social and Environmental Council and co-authored a 2012 report on how to implement the EU directives against the railway workers.
For the capitalists, with Lepaon as their accomplice, the implementation of the directive was about how to make it the most profitable for French capitalism against European competitors. That meant putting an end to the railway workers’ special set of benefits in exchange for contracts referred to as “high-level collective agreements.” These contracts by industry are increasingly undermined by sellout local “agreements,” starting a race to the bottom that is fatal for the workers. Macron’s anti-union attacks against railway workers are basically the realization of the EU recommendations as laid out by…then CGT bureaucrat Lepaon.
Current CGT leader Philippe Martinez finally pushed Lepaon out of the union’s leadership in early 2015. But he called for a vote for Macron last year and he refuses, like his predecessor, to say no to the EU. His program for the railways is also reduced to pushing a “high-level collective agreement,” which in fact accepts the destruction of the rail workers’ gains.
The warm welcome the French railway workers gave to their German and other union brothers and sisters at the May 29 rally in front of the Senate showed the potential that existed for joint struggle with trade unionists in other countries who are being attacked in the name of the same deadly EU guidelines. But the French left—whether the French Communist Party, the New Anticapitalist Party, or Lutte Ouvrière—surely won’t address this kind of issue because they support the European Union as much as the bureaucrats do!
Lutte Ouvrière (LO) seeks to conceal this capitulation to its own pro-EU bourgeoisie with “internationalist” verbiage, claiming that opposing the EU would play into the hands of racist populists like Le Pen in France, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain or the Alternative for Germany party. But LO and other pro-EU forces are actually putting the wind in the sails of these reactionary demagogues by giving them an apparent monopoly in opposing the EU; some workers who understand to a degree that the EU is attacking their gains will look to those who claim to oppose it.
LO fundamentally shares the worldview of the reformist trade-union bureaucracy. In fact, many of its supporters in industry are part of it (some LO supporters who are SNCF railway workers have moved in recent years from the CGT to the SUD union federation). Since they cannot attack the bureaucrats on the fundamental questions, LO now blames the leadership of the CGT for the losing tactic of “two out of five,” i.e., rolling two-day strikes followed by three days of work, instead of a “renewable” strike that could be continued until victory. But what else did LO have to offer that the CGT railway leadership didn’t? LO acknowledges that it is not a question of “opposing a tactic in and of itself, such as a renewable strike instead of the ‘two out of five,’ as if this were a fool-proof recipe, valid at any time and in any place and especially regardless of what workers are ready to do” (Lutte de Classe, July-August 2018).
However, regarding the CGT leadership, in reality LO had nothing else to counterpose! We observed in the general assemblies at some train stations in Paris how LO supporters encouraged more militant strikers to also strike during the non-strike days in order to build, little by little, “a dynamic.” In vain. The rail workers wanted the unions to remain united. The CGT tops cynically presented themselves as the best defenders of unity, arguing that their tactics allowed for a solid strike in which all workers participated, even if it was only two days out of five.
The rail workers have amply shown that they are ready to endure hardships, but the union leadership was clearly lacking the perspective and determination for a general confrontation with the government. And the rail workers understood that. A class-struggle program could have rallied larger layers of workers behind the railway workers still covered by their special set of benefits. Just a few months ago there was a strike of cleaners at Reinier-ONET, a large SNCF subcontractor employing mainly immigrant workers. Down with the piecemeal privatization of the SNCF! The SNCF must directly rehire subcontracted workers! Organize the unorganized! For one union to unite all railway workers, including cleaning and catering staff, second-tier and temporary employees, posted workers, etc., with one benefits package for all!
The current leadership of the unions could not put forward such a perspective because they are dedicated to class collaboration. Recently, in Paris transit (RATP), the bureaucrats capitulated to management. However, back in December 1995 the joint action of the RATP transit workers and the SNCF railway workers had succeeded in getting the government to back down. But the benefits of transit workers are in immediate danger if the railway workers’ benefits are scrapped! And now the pensions of those workers with the special benefits, including in the RATP, are openly targeted in order to destroy the pensions of all.
In the face of government attacks that will hit hard this autumn, the lesson drawn from the rail workers strike must not be defeatism, but the need for a revolutionary strategy and leadership. The fight for a class-struggle leadership in the unions is an integral part of the struggle for a revolutionary workers party.