On Apr. 5, the day prior to the eleventh day of action against the Macron government’s pension reform, French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne will meet the leaders of the ‘intersyndicale’, a coalition of French trade unions. “Everyone will be able to discuss the subjects they want to,” she has said. That’s very kind of her. The union leaders will be able to reiterate their opposition to the reform, and the prime minister will be able to reiterate that she couldn’t care less.
So the question arises: what is the point of such a meeting? And why has so much fuss been made in the media? Why have so many articles been written about it? The answer is that, from the point of view of our class enemies, the importance of this meeting lies not so much in its content, but in the mere fact of its taking place.
The objective is to show the youth and workers that have been mobilised that ‘social dialogue’ has not broken down. From the government’s point of view, this is fundamental – the ‘negotiation’ of counter-reforms with the trade union leaderships is a central element of their implementation. At the same time, it is a question of crushing the mood of militancy in our class – because if there is ‘dialogue’ at the top, what’s the point of mobilising?
For their part, the reformist leaders of the unions fear nothing more than a mass movement escaping their control. But the use of the Article 49.3 of the French constitution on 16 March to push through the pension reforms without a vote in the National Assembly gave a boost to the mobilisation. It brought new layers of workers and youth into the movement, mobilising not only against the pension reform, but against the government and the regime as a whole.
The leaders of the intersyndicale were mortified by this. In their communiqué on 28 March, on the evening of a massive day of action, they deplored “a situation of tension in the country which worries us greatly” and were alarmed at the “risk of a social explosion”. At a time when the government is engaged in brutal police repression of demonstrations and pickets, they asked it to “guarantee security and respect for the right to strike and demonstrate”!
The role of the intersyndicale
The strategy of the leaders of the intersyndicale weighs heavily on the movement. Since the beginning, it has hampered its enormous potential.
On the one hand, these leaders are content to organise ‘days of action’ – one per week, on average – and do nothing to develop indefinite strikes. Only the extension of these strikes to a growing number of sectors could make the government back down. By planning days of action on 28 March and 6 April – i.e. with nine days in between – they have deliberately turned their backs on the ongoing indefinite strikes.
On the other hand, by confining the objective of the struggle to the withdrawal of the pension reform, they limit the potential of the movement of indefinite strikes. The explosive mobilisation of a part of the youth in the wake of the use of Article 49.3, demonstrated that if the trade union leaderships broadened the objective of the struggle, they would encourage millions of workers and youth to take action. This would also require them to call on the people to mobilise against the government as a whole and put forward a programme to break with the policies of austerity. If they don’t do this, it’s precisely because they fear losing control of the movement.
The organisation of the movement
As of 2 April, the renewable strikes have been losing steam, with the exception of certain sectors. However, the situation remains explosive. The enormous reserves of anger and militancy that have been manifested since 19 January are far from being exhausted. A major incident – such as the death of a demonstrator or a striking worker at the hands of the police – could easily trigger a new upsurge of the movement.
The fact remains that after more than two months of struggle, many young people and mobilised workers are asking the question: how can we win? To answer this question, we must first complete the question: how can we win, given the counter-productive role played by the leaders of the intersyndicale?
It is difficult to change the union leadership in the middle of a mass movement. It is true that the left wing of the CGT came close to achieving this end in March, during its congress. But workers and youth cannot wait for decisive changes at the top of the unions to seize the chance to defeat this government of the rich. They must take their struggle into their own hands, organise and control it for themselves from the bottom up. But this will not come from nowhere. The initiative must be taken by all political and trade union activists who understand the need to break with the blind strategy of the intersyndicale movement.
This question is not a new one in the history of the workers’ movement. Here is what Leon Trotsky wrote in his Transitional Programme in 1938:
“In periods of acute class struggle, the leading bodies of the trade unions aim to become masters of the mass movement in order to render it harmless… Therefore, the sections of the Fourth International should always strive not only to renew the top leadership of the trade unions… but also to create in all possible instances independent militant organisations corresponding more closely to the tasks of mass struggle against bourgeois society; and, if necessary, not flinching even in the face of a direct break with the conservative apparatus of the trade unions. If it be criminal to turn one’s back on mass organisations for the sake of fostering sectarian factions, it is no less so passively to tolerate subordination of the revolutionary mass movement to the control of openly reactionary or disguised conservative (”progressive”) bureaucratic cliques…”
We are not suggesting that this quote be taken literally. It is not enough for a small group of activists to proclaim the creation of ‘independent militant organisations’ for these to take shape – other than on the internet – and play a significant role in the struggle of the masses. On the other hand, many trade union structures, starting with those that form the left wing of the CGT, could and should play an important role in this. Of course, militants of the ‘radical left’ should also contribute to this process.
At the end of February, we saw the beginnings of such an approach. In light of the big day of 7 March, and in a complete break with the official strategy of the intersyndicale, five CGT federations called on all workers to put indefinite strikes on the agenda.
Then, at the recent CGT Congress, the union federation’s left wing (Unité CGT) strongly opposed the extremely moderate stance of the outgoing leadership. At the end of this Congress, Unité CGT claimed to have the support of 205,000 CGT members in many sectors of the economy. This is a considerable potential force. At the very least, it is a good starting point for developing a leadership of the movement among the workers and youth themselves.
At the 53rd Congress of the CGT, its left wing emerged as a growing and militant force – a force that can and must play a central role in the development of the class struggle in France. With success comes responsibility. The delegates of Unité CGT must find a way to explain the perspectives they put forward at the CGT Congress to a larger number of workers and youth in the neighbourhoods, workplaces and universities. This must be done with the aim of allowing the movement to organise itself without waiting for the direction of the intersyndicale.
Above all, the comrades of Unité CGT must illuminate the path to victory throughout the country, which they formulate as follows:
“The task is not only the rejection of the 64 years [retirement age]. The task is to return the retirement age to 60. To establish a minimum wage of 2,000 euros. To renationalise/expropriate the motorways, industries and plundered assets of the people. To repeal the anti-unemployment laws, end state aid to companies, and answer all of our social needs. The task is a change of regime. This social order has lasted too long.”
Yes, this social order – capitalism – has lasted too long, and it is high time to engage in a decisive struggle for its overthrow.