FRANCE WITNESSED two of the most extraordinary mass strikes since May 1968 in the fight against pension reform. At the heart of the battles in the winter of 1995 and the spring of 2003 was the fight against increasing the retirement age—just as in Britain today.
In 1995, after three weeks of an all-out strike by transport workers and nationwide one-day strikes and demonstrations, the government caved in.
In 2003, despite equally massive demonstrations and an ongoing teachers’ strike, the government won the battle and their reforms went through.
The differences between the two provide lessons for workers everywhere fighting neo-liberal attacks.
In 1995 a one-day national strike quickly snowballed into an all-out strike by transport workers. It gradually drew in some postal workers, teachers and other public sector workers. Small, but very active, inter-sector strike committees mushroomed across the country, and weekly national strike calls saw huge demonstrations from the largest cities to the smallest towns.
In some areas it seemed even that the spirit of May 1968 had returned. A vital mistake the government made was to combine a general attack on public sector pensions with a specific attack on the special pension rights and jobs of the strongest section of French workers, the transport workers.
The government also threatened attacks on union representation in health and social security. Under pressure for their own jobs and influence, the union leaders threw themselves into the strike. The dynamic of an unbridled strike by the rank and file did the rest.
Despite concessions from the government on their special rights, transport workers stayed on strike in solidarity until the pension reform for all public sector workers was defeated.
It is an example of how determined action can defeat a central plank of government policy over pensions.
Eight years later, a newly elected right-wing government was set on revenge. This time, with their fingers still burning from 1995, they planned things more carefully.
From the outset they insisted that neither transport workers nor gas and electricity workers would be involved. They hoped to slip legislation through in July with most people on holiday, and shelved other planned attacks.
Despite these precautions, the workers’ movement came within inches of the general strike which could have swept aside the reform and the government with it. A two-month strike by teachers in the spring of 2003 was followed by an official one-day general strike.
The energy of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements brought dynamism to the mood with more workers on strike than at the height of 1995.
As then, the huge demonstrations were followed by a general transport strike and increased involvement of private sector workers—who were directly affected this time. The potential for a general strike seemed greater than eight years before. For three or four days the railworkers held out as the government held their breath. As in 1995, the role of the union leaders was the crucial factor.
In 1995 the local and national leadership of France’s major union federation, the CGT, went to the transport workers and helped organise the pickets and meetings to develop the strike. In 2003 they went to the same stations to argue for an immediate return to work.
The battle was clearly lost in those few critical days. An all-out transport strike would have had every chance of drawing in many other sections of workers across the country.
The union leaderships’ alternative “strategy” of one-day strikes, despite the massive demonstrations, just fizzled out at the end of June. The law was passed in July. The bosses won because they were clear how high the stakes were, and they were single-minded in their determination to win. Our side had needed equal clarity and determination.
A sizeable minority of rank and file activists knew that an all-out general strike was needed from the start but they didn’t have the numbers or the strength to swing the balance in the major unions. The incredible spontaneity of the strikers needed shaping by conscious rank and file militants.
The bosses won an important battle on pensions but the war is far from over. In Britain the movement can take heart from how close we came to beating the attacks on pensions in France and build the independent networks of militants who could ensure your battle is victorious.