movements in France and elsewhere

A New Period of Struggles Has Begun


In November-December 1995, in France, over a period of more than three weeks, more than two million strikers defied the austerity measures concocted by the French government. From the railroads, the strike gradually extended to the whole of the public sector, here and there even affecting the private sector. In France, though also in other countries, the working class rediscovered the path of unified class struggle, and realized that resignation leads nowhere: only determined struggle and solidarity can unite the class and make the bourgeoisie backdown. A new period of struggles has begun. But what are its perspectives?

In our December 7 leaflet, distributed at demonstrations in France and Belgium, and reprinted in this issue, Internationalist Perspective responded to that question, and pointed out that "The future rests entirely on the capacity of the workers to create a free and conscious association working for the transformation of society with a view to the satisfaction of human needs. Communism is not dead; it has not yet begun! We are not fighting for the status quo, but for other perspectives."

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In France, protesting against the austerity measures decided upon by the Juppe government, the railway engineers went on a general strike at the end of November. Besides the measure for the "rationalization" of the French railroads, the Juppe plan included an attack on social security, and in particular delayed in the age at which workers are to be entitled to their pensions. While the unions undertook the task of dividing the workers (the leadership of the CFDT accepted the spirit of the Juppe plan, FO and especially the CGT canalized the workers bitterness), the engineers spontaneously extended their protest to the whole of the rail system.

The engineers demonstrated that opposition to the Juppe plan need not be a sectoral or corporatist reaction, but rather a response to an anti-worker attack affecting not merely the whole of the public sector, but indeed the whole of the population. The delay in the pension-entitlement age illustrated the contradictions of the bourgeois system. While unemployment figures have only grown, it appears senseless to most workers to put off the year of retirement, a step which can only be to the detriment of the young.

The message was received loud and clear: the Paris metro, the post office, teachers, government workers, EDF (the electricity utility), France Telecom, Air Inter, indeed the great majority of "public services" rapidly joined the movement. More than two million strikers thus paralyzed the French economy for several weeks. On several occasions, very large demonstrations mobilized workers in the principal cities of France: Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Nantes, Bordeaux. These were massive demonstations bringing together workers in the public sector, but also numerous delegations from the private sector, as well as students. The movement thereby revealed its unitary character.

The strike movement of autumn '95 was massive, developed in a determined manner, and encountered - here was something new - considerable support and sympathy on the part of the general population. The demands put forward by the strikers constituted a rejection of austerity for anyone. It was only after three weeks that the bourgeoisie succeeded in disarming the movement, thanks to the efforts of the unions to sabotage it. Throughout the strike, the unions were extremely active: the base unionists (in particular the CGT) supported the movement, participating in its growing radicalization, but canalizing it, little by little, towards the classic objectives of the defense of the existing conditions of the public services. This permanent presence of the unionists would prevent the emergence of more independent initiatives on the part of the workers, and the creation of autonomous organs of coordination, as had been the case in the last strike by engineers in France.

The Importance of the Autumn '95 Movement

The movement of November-December '95 is the most important movement of the working class in France since May '68.

Numerous examples demonstrate the above. In our leaflet, moreover, we highlighted this fact: "The only possible way forward is the one taken by the strikers: as large as possible a generalization of the movement; its extension to other sectors, and even beyond national frontiers! To do this, we cannot rely on the union apparatus, ever ready to restrain and divide us. Self-organization of workers, outside of any kind of political or union control!"

These struggles represented an important step beyond the existing situation: the determination not to continue to bear the burden of an austerity policy imposed by the employers and the state; a refusal of atomization, manifest in a return to collective struggle, to massive mobilizations, and by new sectors joining the struggle. For the workers, all that meant the appearance of a new consciousness: it became possible to take up the struggle, to make demands, to mobilize and demonstrate its discontent, often in a violent fashion, as in Italy and Spain, but above all, massively. And for the first time in many years, an international extension became possible: in Western Europe, notably in Belgium, other workers reacted at the same time against austerity measures.

After more than three weeks of struggle, far from a breaking of the ranks, far from being discredited in the eyes of the populace, far from being demoralized, the strike in the French public services was still mobilizing new sectors, despite the maneuvers of the unions, thereby creating new possibilities - at the moment of public demonstrations - for the expression of solidarity between the workers of diverse enterprises. Besides, far from being contained within the borders of France, the strike movement had a real echo, and provided the impetus for a renewal of struggles on an international scale. In Belgium, attacks on social security were also on the agenda. Belgian railway engineers went on strike in November and December, at the same time as the strikes in France. Thus, not only was the French rail network paralyzed, but Belgian rail was too! Strikes also broke out in Italy, Spain, and even in Luxemburg, where public service workers stopped work in protest against the government's austerity policy. There existed a real potential for an international extension of the struggle.

All of these struggles shared the same dynamic: a rejection of what the bourgeoisie liked to call "social peace." In their rapid spread, they reinforced a major contradiction within capitalist society: that between capital and wage labor. The autumn '95 strikes highlighted the fact that class struggle is an essential component of the contradictions inherent in capitalism, and that the past, and momentary, weakness of the workers in no way meant the end of the fundamental contradiction between labor and capital.

But this moment also indicated the present limits of working class combativity. Despite the worker's determination, and the massive character of the strikes, the movement could not provide itself with a real autonomous organization, organs of struggle independent of the unions. And despite certain local initiatives, the movement lacked the strength to extend itself to the whole of the private sector. Similarly, while the international situation was propitious, the social movement was largely confined to France. A reaction to austerity, the movement in France could not mobilize itself behind new perspectives, could not expand the horizon of the struggle.

The Premises of the Movement

The French autumn did not come out of nowhere, nor from chance. Throughout the world, workers reacted, putting an end to the passivity of the '80s. This had been going on for several months, as we pointed out at our public meeting in Paris in June 1995.

If the working class still bore the scars of a social recomposition produced by the ongoing economic transformations, and the closure of the traditional type of factory and office, a change had nonethelesss occurred within the working class, notwithstanding the weaknesses which persisted. We could make a long list of struggles which, taken in isolation, had little or no significance, but which can be seen today to have constituted the premisses for the movement which exploded at the end of 1995. Numerous struggles broke out over a period of six months, indicating a new level of activity within the working class; the relative apathy of the '80s was over.

Indeed, the very social climate had changed. The triumphal declarations of certain politicians regarding the crisis were modulated little by little. Despite the maneuvers of the bourgeoisie, the workers reacted more and more openly. New sectors engaged in struggle, such as the technicians, and staff, at Alsthom or Air France. Often, it was a simply a matter of wage ajustments which indicated a rise in the temperature of the class. Similarly, the most marginal sectors, such as teachers and students, experienced - for more than a year in Belgium, over several months in France - the limits of any union-organized mobilization, and the refusal of the state to accept any demands, even those that were relatively minimal. The absence of any perspective offered by bourgeois society appeared more and more clearly, and indisputably galvanized the workers into refusing to continue to bear the costs of austerity. The "changes" promised with such fanfare (as in France) at the time of recent electoral campaigns, turned into the same thing in France, Belgium, Spain, and Italy: continuation of the austerity policies mandated by the very logic of the capitalist crisis. The worsening of the world capitalist crisis, meant - for the workers - a still more incessant assault on their living conditions: reduction of wages, and of the social wage, loss of jobs, an increasingly precarious existence. Strikes continued during the elections in both France and Belgium, clearly showing the lack of credibility of all of the candidates. Six months after the formation of new majorities, and new governments, in France, Spain, and Belgium, the workers were out again, thereby indicating how little impact the traditional discourse of the bourgeoisie still had on them.

Behind these struggles, questions were imperceptably posed as to the perspectives for the future: unemployment, austerity, refusal to accept the present situation. And these could only further the development of class consciousness. The struggles put an end to the past inertia and, moreover, no longer unfolded in an isolated fashion: a territorial multiplication of conflicts occurred, struggles were no longer confined to one region. Clearly, the times were changing, even if it was not yet possible to speak of a fundamental transformation in the balance of forces between the classes. In comparison with earlier struggles, where the workers essentially reacted to factory closures and to lay offs within the "possibilist" and legalistic framework of the unions, the recent struggles posed not merely wage demands, but demands for the improvement of labor and living conditions which put in question the totality of the austerity policies of the bourgeoisie. From the resignation of the '80s, the working class had passed to a new will to react globally, to a new determination no longer to accept the costs of the crisis of capital. The strikes in France therefore revealed a maturation of consciousness, a will and a possibility to struggle anew, and no longer to accept as coin of the realm the promises of the bourgeoisie.

A New Period of Struggle Has Begun

The times have changed. What we have previously analyzed asa downturn in struggles during the period 1985-1994, is clearly over. For many months, workers have no longer been immobile, have no longer accepted the discourse of the bourgeoisie or the effects of the crisis. Within the working class, there is a new determination to demand a better tomorrow. Only the working class, through the intensification of its struggle, can interrupt the catastrophic spiral of the capitalist crisis, and lay the bases for a new society.

These kinds of changes were germinating in the struggles of 1995, and were fully expressed in the autumn movement in France. For millions of workers, what is increasingly obvious is that capitalism no longer has anything to offer:

As a result, the workers of France reacted massively, and with real solidarity, even if they were still burdened by the weight of the past. In other countries, the reactions were no less determined, although less radical. It was no longer a matter of corporatist demands, but rather of a movement responding to the needs of the whole population. The stakes of the struggle were thereby transformed, and expressed a general repudiation of the policy of austerity. The elements of real change were therefore brought together: a new combativity, spontaneity, the massive nature of the strikes, their extension, generalization of the struggle, rejection of corporatism. A new period of struggle was opened by the autumn '95 movement, closing the phase of lethargy of the '80s:

More than ever, our slogan "communism is not dead, it has not yet begun!" indicates the path to take.

F.D.

December 20, 1995

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