First posted 20 November. Six days into their strike, French transport workers are refusing to back down. In spite of constant attacks in the press, and union leaders trying to weasel their way out of a fight, rail workers are keeping up the pressure and the leading the public sector fightback against Sarkozy's reforms.
The strike is being directed by mass meetings in workplaces, who are now electing strike committees to carry out their decisions independently of the big rail unions. Rail workers are going to talk to mass meetings of students, and representatives of other workers from the public sector, in particular teaching staff, in an attempt to link up the various struggles and prevent any one industry from becoming isolated.
Before the General Assembly at the Sorbonne university today, I met up with some train workers from the Gare Montparnasse (one of the major Paris train stations) outside a lecture theatre. They had been invited by the students to come and report to the General Assembly, and listen to what was going on in the student movement. I asked them about the precise demands that the railway workers are making. "We have three demands," said one of them. "First, we want to defend the Special Regimes – we don't want them to be cut. Secondly, we want everyone to get a full pension after 37.5 years of contributions [that's how the French retirement age is calculated], public and private sector. We want this pension to be calculated based on wages, not on prices [see below]. And the third demand is that if someone leaves the job, they shouldn't lose all the money in their pension pot that had been built up." In 1993, a large portion of private sector transport workers had their pension payments changed: from that point on, their pension entitlements were to be calculated on 1993 prices, and not on workers' wages, which rose with inflation. As a result, these private sector workers have lost 20% of their pensions in real terms since 1993. The state rail workers and other public sector workers are aware that if they lose this current battle over their special regimes, this model could be extended to them as well. They are also aware that members of the French bosses' union, MEDEF, have said that they would like to extend the period of pension contribution from 37.5 years to 45 years. "They're keeping quiet about that during the negotiations now", one worker told me, "but you can find it on the internet, they said it a couple of weeks ago."
The rail strike has now been going on for 6 days, and is taking a heavy toll. An older activist pointed out, "Sarkozy has taken a beating. He knows that the railway workers are solid, and he can't beat them in a straight fight. So he's taking a back seat for the time being, and putting the spotlight on the unions, trying to put pressure on them to control the grassroots for him." The union bureaucrats, taking their lead from Sarkozy, are doing everything in their power to rein the strikers in, in an attempt to keep control as the principal negotiators in the strike. François Hollande, leader of the Parti Socialiste, has weighed in too, saying on Wednesday that "the strike must end". The CGT union's leader, Bernard Thibault, is trying to cultivate a respectable appearance, saying "We're not strike-mad [nous ne sommes pas des grèviculteurs]". The leadership of the rightwing union CFDT has said that they will withdraw their support for the strike and demonstrations on the 20th if there are any irregularities – the union tops warned workers against trying to "link up" different disputes!
But the rail workers are keeping the strike up. "The daily General Assemblies at Gare Montparnasse haven't got any smaller since day one. We've been having about 200 people along every day to vote on the strike. It's always just about unanimously in favour of carrying on, although not all of us can take part in the strike. It's been a week, and some people are really caught by the throat financially. They have to work because they can't lose the hours, but they strike for a few hours at a time during a shift." Management have been trying to demoralise the strikers, but without much success: "They spread disinformation internally and externally. About 60% of railway drivers struck to begin with, and now it's fallen back a bit – management say that it's down to 30%, but anyone can see from the General Assemblies that the real figure is much higher. They're also telling people that the votes to continue the strike are being won by tiny minorities, but that's clearly a lie, too. They're trying to break the strike by using young office workers as scabs, but they can still only keep a very limited service going."
All over France, and in all the big stations in Paris, striking workers have started to elect strike committees, as they did in 1995. "It became clear that the big unions didn't want to carry the fight through right to the end", said one, "so we started electing committees of people from the big morning meetings to carry out our decisions. They write pamphlets to communicate our point of view to passengers and other workers, and organise leafleting sessions. They organise delegations to go to other workers' meetings, and to talk to the students. The strike committees also organise discussion meetings of workers after the General Assemblies to talk over politics and educate each other about the situation in a more detailed way. The union leadership would prefer us members not to do all this, and to just hand out official union leaflets, not stuff we've written ourselves. They just want to stay in control of the direction of the movement. That's why strike committees are necessary if we want to get this stuff done!" These committees have been met with hostility by both union chiefs and rail bosses, who refused to admit a representative of the strike committees to negotiations for the Paris region.