The French workers’ mobilisation really can stop the pension reform

For the last few months, we have had the impression that nothing is going right in France: this summer, for the first time, hospital emergency services closed for lack of staff, hundreds of classes had no teachers at the beginning of the school year, we were told that electricity would be cut off during the winter because of a lack of sufficient production capacity, and practically all public services are in the same state of disarray. So the speeches about “efforts” and “reducing expenditure” are not so easy to understand, they are no longer credible – says Laurent Brun, secrétaire général de la fédération CGT des Cheminots, General Secretary of the CGT Railway Workers Federation, at the day of the second major mobilisation against the reform of French pension system proposed by Elisabeth Borne more than two weeks ago. Where could this fight lead in the future, what kind of alliance have the French unions created?

Interview by Wojciech Albert Łobodziński.

Do you believe that this mobilisation against pension reform will stop Macron?

Yes! The government faces several major difficulties.

Firstly, it cannot justify its reform. Neither the demographic forecasts, nor the financial problems of the system (which are very limited and temporary) justify further degrading the pension rights of employees. Secondly, according to the latest polls, 72% of French people are opposed to the reform. This figure has been rising steadily for a fortnight. And it even rises to 93% among full-time employees!

And thirdly, because he has to face a united front of trade unions.. 

Even if not all the unions have the same objectives, we saw the members of the CFDT (a reformist union) reject any extension of the retirement age at their recent congress, against the advice of their confederal leadership, which leaves them much less room for manoeuvre to accompany the reform. They are forced to be in the fight, which was not the case in 2019.

There is also a fourth reason why Macron can fail: because the government has only a relative majority in the National Assembly. Most of the opposition groups have shown their hostility to the reform. And under public pressure, even the parliamentary right and part of the presidential party are backing down. So the government will probably have a hard time getting its text adopted. According to the French Constitution, it could force it through, but this will probably add to the discontent in the country.

I don’t think anybody has expected such a big mobilisation, what is the reason for such an anger of the people?

It’s certainly because the subject of pensions is unifying. For many employees, retirement is a liberation that is impatiently awaited while working conditions are deteriorating and pressure is increasing in companies. So everyone feels hurt by this attack.

There is probably also a “too much reforming” effect. For years we have been subjected to one reform after another. We are told that this and that is a disaster.

We are told that we have to reduce health insurance, that we have to lower the protection of the unemployed, that we have to retire later and many other things. And at the same time, the big multinationals and their shareholders are breaking record after record in paying dividends. In 2013, the 40 largest companies paid 43 billion euros to their shareholders, this year it will be 80 billion!

There’s no crying out for the capitalists!

Nothing was going right in the last months.. 

Exactly! For the last few months, we have had the impression that nothing is going right in France.

This summer, for the first time, hospital emergency services closed for lack of staff, hundreds of classes had no teachers at the beginning of the school year, we were told that electricity would be cut off during the winter because of a lack of sufficient production capacity. Virtually all public services are in the same state of disarray. So the speeches about “efforts” and “reducing expenditure” are not so easy to understand, they are no longer credible.

The mobilisation on pensions is a kind of sum of all these discontents.

The trade union alliance you have struck is very unfamiliar with what we know from the day-to-day reality of working places. How is the collaboration with such a wide range of unions going?

There is total unity at the moment, but the reformist unions want to limit their actions to isolated strike days, which reduces the possibilities of amplifying the balance of power. The risk is that these unions will abandon the mobilisation if the law is voted, according to the principle of respect for republican institutions.

What are the ideological affiliations of the unions?

The CFDT is the main reformist union in the country. With its social-democratic ideology, it has accompanied practically all government reforms for 20 years. In 2019, it was the only organisation to support point-based pension reform. The FO was formed from a split in the CGT in 1947. It is also a reformist union with many ideological currents ranging from Trotskyism to the far right. The CGC is a reformist union that defends only professional and managerial staff. The UNSA is a collection of autonomous unions. The Solidaires is a libertarian-inspired union. The FSU only organises civil servants, especially in education.

Can it be maintained in the coming months, with the main objective of reversing the proposed reform?

That is our objective. The CGT is not doing anything that could break the interprofessional trade union unity. 

But at the same time, this does not prevent us from mobilising employees more intensively in certain professional sectors where we are well represented.

In the energy sector, the CGT is calling for a renewable strike with work stoppages decided locally to reduce production. In the chemical industries, a call was made for a 3-day strike sequence on 6, 7 and 8 February. Port workers and railway workers should join this call on 7 and 8 February. There is a search to go beyond the interprofessional days.

CGT marching in Paris, 31 January 2023. Photo: CGT Twitter.

In general, how does the current cost of living crisis and general uncertainty, inflation, etc. affect ordinary workers?

The cost of a long strike is holding back many workers, especially in the current period of high inflation. When workers are depoliticised and don’t necessarily see the situation as a power struggle, they are tempted to go on strike for only one or two days to show their discontent. They don’t necessarily understand that it’s necessary to block the economy and therefore block the production of their company in order to have a real impact.

So we have to win them over to this analysis and to these sacrifices. It is not easy. But in 2019, against the previous reform, the railway workers had a month and a half strike, so we are confident.

What measures would you actually expect from the government to fight against the cost of living crisis? 

The main measure expected is the increase of the minimum wage (the SMIC) and the minimum social benefits. In France, the minimum wage is indexed to official inflation. But this is not enough to compensate for the real impact of price increases on the purchasing power of the poorest households.

In the official index, all types of purchases are taken into account (e.g. the purchase of household appliances, computers and various capital goods, which may weigh heavily on the expenditure of well-off households, but much less so on low-income earners). To take account of the weight of food and energy expenditure, the minimum wage would have to be increased much more.

We also demand the alignment of the minimum wage in collective agreements with the minimum wage. This would mean that all pay scales would at least be indexed to official inflation and to all increases in the minimum wage, so that all employees would benefit.

Are you expecting strong repressive measures from the government, like those taken earlier against Total workers, or like the proposed anti-strike laws in the UK? 

The government has talked about tightening the right to strike and requisitioning certain professions, but as far as we know, this is not being translated into legislation at the moment. However, some provisions have already been integrated into the law on “daily security”, such as the creation of a fine for occupying places not open to the public on the SNCF (which is directly aimed at our actions to invade company headquarters).

The government is also deploying more and more police forces during demonstrations, and we have more and more reports of police violence.

How do you intend to counter such measures?

The main obstacle will not be the repression but rather the vote of the law in the National Assembly, which could happen at the end of February. The government will try to send the discussions back to each professional branch, which would scatter the movement and condemn it to accompany the reform. The less politicised employees could consider that the vote of the law makes it useless to continue the mobilisation. This is probably what the government is counting on.

For us, the solution is to make demands that go beyond the simple rejection of the current project. We consider that the retirement age must be reduced to 60 for all, to 55 for professions with a proven excess of mortality and even to 50 for certain professions with a high level of hardship.

Of course, this is based on an ideological battle over the distribution of the wealth produced by work, in which we include the question of wages. If we manage to transform the defensive struggle into an offensive struggle, we will have the ingredients to win.

What is the general state of the French trade union movement? 

The French trade union movement has been in crisis since the 2000s. We had our last major global victory back in 1995. The principles of organisation, collective action and strikes are in decline among employees. This does not prevent us from having important conflicts, but we still struggle to have sufficient strength to win.

Trade union action is not completely ineffective, since during the previous five-year term of Emmanuel Macron, we defeated the restructuring of the public energy sector, the privatisation of airports and the reform of point-based pensions. But we have not managed to block all the social setbacks and win significant progress for employees.

The number of unionised workers is falling, and so is the overall fighting spirit in the companies. The trade unionism of social transformation, which the CGT embodies, has been shaken by the retreat of revolutionary ideology in society, and it is struggling to recover. 

But the reformist unions do not benefit significantly from this. Their membership is also shrinking. The trade union movement tends to crumble with the rise of non-universal or autonomous unions.

So our main issue is to find a meaning for trade unionism of social transformation. When we still talk about abolishing the wage-earner, we no longer really have a project for society to replace it. When we criticise the private management of companies and the capture of wealth by capital, we do not really have an alternative. 

We need to rebuild a coherent ideological corpus that will enable us to convince employees to join our trade unionism.

Do young French people join trade unions, are more union sections being created in the private sector? 

Young people are generally less unionised than older people. However, they do take part in strikes and demonstrations. 

Young people marching in the Lille demonstration against the reform/ photo by Maxence Guillaud

One of the major points of weakness among young people is the virtual disappearance of student unions since the 2000s. The unions that existed at the time have merged and have been very marked by social democratic practices and ideology, which has led them to practically disappear. However, starting to be active when you are in high school or university makes it easier to get involved in the union when you enter the world of work. Moreover, during the major inter-professional conflicts, the link with a student movement was often decisive for winning. We miss that. We are debating it in the CGT to find the best way to relaunch an effective student unionism.

The public sector is the most unionised in France. On average in 2019, 10.3% of employees said they belonged to a union (18.4% in the public sector, compared to 7.8% in the private sector).

What about organising people who work from home or on platforms – like Uber – are there offers for them?

The CGT has a federation of temporary workers, a national committee of unemployed and precarious workers, and several professional federations that deal with home workers.

In the last two years, we have also created several unions for bicycle delivery workers (Uber) and for workers in logistics platforms (Amazon). In April 2022, the first nationally coordinated strike was organised in Amazon warehouses. More than 1,200 employees participated, out of the 15,000 employees in our country. In January 2023, Uber was ordered to reclassify the employment contracts of 139 delivery drivers and to pay them 17 million euros.

How long can this fight against the Macron government last, and what could it lead to?

This fight could last at least a month, maybe longer. And I believe it could lead to the failure of the reform and the fall of the government, which would be totally discredited by this outcome.

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