By Denis Godard, L\'etincelle (the Spark), Socialist Worker\'s French sister paper
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Rank and file took the lead in France

This article is over 20 years, 11 months old
Socialists from France and Germany spoke to Socialist Worker about the struggles in Europe and the lessons to be learned
Issue 1859

THE STRIKES in France during May and June were amazing. Some people have compared them to the public sector workers’ strikes of December 1995. In many ways they were better. On 13 May, for example, there were at least eight million on strike.

The feeling, the energy and the rank and file organisation were incredible, especially among the teachers who were the heart of the movement. The teachers started fighting over the issue of decentralisation in education. From the beginning they were self organised, with what we call AGs (general assemblies), and rank and file committees in each school.

Then the issue of the Tory government’s attack on pensions came along, which brought other people out and the spirit of the teachers infected the whole movement. On the big demo in Paris on 13 May it was just incredible. The teachers’ contingent was the spirit of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements coming into the heart of the workers’ struggle. You have a young, new generation leading.

I just stood there watching as they jumped up and down, shouting and running with their home-made banners. The demos were every few days. At the end of every demo in Paris there was a coordination – a mass assembly of teachers from different schools. It was completely democratic. People went through the crowd at the end of the demo announcing that an AG would be held in a university nearby and it was open to everyone.

You had assemblies with people from over 200 Paris-based schools. The same thing was happening elsewhere. In Marseilles the committees were ‘inter-professional’ – not just teachers but involving other workers. A core of teachers in each school were out indefinitely, but as the unions called each day of action more would come out.

In some places parents occupied the school in support of the teachers. There is not a big tradition of picket lines in the French working class. But this time you had teachers joining bus workers on picket lines and confronting the police!

There was a huge politicisation. The revolutionary left, organisations like Lutte Ouvriere and the LCR, played an important role. Some strikers are looking to them now. During a big meeting in Marseilles, Thibault (the CGT union leader) could hardly speak because people chanted ‘General strike! General strike!’

It was a rank and file movement on a large scale, involving tens of thousands at the core. Of course there were limits too. The core of the movement was restricted to teachers and was learning for the first time how to organise strikes. That meant they didn’t know how to deal with the union leaders trying to control and then restrict the movement. The union leaders didn’t control the teachers and knew if they called a general strike it could escape all control. It certainly wouldn’t have just stayed on the issue of pensions.

A few days of a general strike and a new dynamic would have been unleashed. This terrified the union leaders, and they were determined to stop it. Among many groups the union bureaucracy had enough strength to hold back workers. After 13 May you had the CGT sending teams workplace to workplace on the rail telling people not to come out on indefinite strike.

The rank and file, despite all its impressive qualities, didn’t have enough of a structured organisation to be able to offer the whole movement an alternative leadership to the union leaders.

That’s why the government was able to push through its pension plans. In some ways this is a defeat, as the plans are really horrible. But the people active in the strikes don’t feel it is a defeat. There is a big sense of generalisation – a feeling that this is part of a wider assault by the government that we are fighting.

We may have suffered a setback in this particular battle, but the war continues and new battles are likely very soon, which this movement has shown we have the strength to win.

The feeling is much more ‘we’ll be back’ after the summer. I don’t know what will happen, but the government is frightened, and it is right to be!

Struggle has changed our ideas

THE government hasn’t retreated, but there isn’t a feeling that the struggle has been defeated.

We have learned a huge amount. We have learned to organise ourselves in strike committees, through mass meetings. We have learned to spread struggles to other workers. We have had joint pickets with tax workers, disrupted postal depots with postal workers and blocked rail lines with rail workers!

We have learned politics. And we have learned that those we are fighting are dangerous, that they have the media and the police to lull us to sleep, to intimidate us, to divide us.

It’s not just a question of fighting to keep the social rights we have, but going further to develop a struggle for an egalitarian and democratic society. The ideas of my colleagues have changed. The issue of pensions and centralisation in education have become the basis for wider discussions on what kind of society we want.

Do we have to accept working all our lives just to make profits for the bosses?’
Leila Soula teacher

German union leaders were frightened of winning these


WHAT HAS happened in Germany with the end of the metal workers’ strikes is of real historic importance. In the old East Germany wages are 70 percent of those in the West, and they work 38 instead of 35 hours.

The engineering industry in the east is really productive and new. All the firms made big investments there because of the cheaper wages. Strikes to win 35 hours in the east started in the steel industry, where they won a success with a deal to bring in 35 hours over the next few years. But when it came to engineering the bosses really wanted to stand firm.

They launched an offensive with the government and the media attacking the strikers, saying they were damaging the economy and so on. The union leaders in IG Metall were just fighting for a 35-hour week. while the employers and politicians made the fight political.

The strike was not popular among people in general because of the media campaign, though if arguments were put people could be won to support it. But among the strikers the fight was really solid and very effective. You had about 10,000 people out and their action cut off supplies to key car plants, for example, across Germany and across Europe. The media and some on the right wing of the unions claimed the strikers were split and the strike was weakening. This just wasn’t true.

The problem was the union leaders, including the more left wing ones, didn’t respond to the political offensive. You also have the fight over Agenda 2010, which Schroeder’s Social Democrat (Labour) government is pushing. This is the biggest social and welfare cuts package we have ever seen in Germany. What happened was that all the main union leaders (including Zwickel, who heads IG Metall) met with Schroeder.

They simply agreed to give up resistance over Agenda 2010. Then the very next day Zwickel went to the press and just called off the engineering strike, without any debate or discussion. Then the following day the head of the giant Verdi public sector workers’ union made a deal in Berlin which will cut public sector workers’ wages, again with no discussion or voting.

The decision to end the strike was political, and it is a serious defeat which will make things difficult. Schroeder basically said that if the unions fought and won on Agenda 2010 then his government would fall.

That’s why the union leaders backed off. They were frightened of winning! They weren’t prepared to politically confront Schroeder head on. But it is important to understand the feeling on the ground. Most strikers are bitter and see they have been betrayed, but that is not demoralisation. There is now a lot of debate – you have the anti-capitalist movement, the battles over welfare cuts which will take place, plus new issues which are coming up.

And, of course, we have the anti-war movement which was amazing here in Germany. The experience is that we can fight and be effective, but we have been betrayed. It is not a defeat like the miners in Britain in 1984. There will be new fights.
Werner Halbauer Linksruck (Left Turn), Socialist Worker’s German sister paper

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