By Dave Sewell
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Huge strikes shut France down—and could bring government to its knees

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Issue 2505
Part of a 100,000 strong demonstration in Paris yesterday, Thursday
Part of a 100,000 strong demonstration in Paris yesterday, Thursday (Pic: Force Ouvrière)

Electricity production across France dropped yesterday, Thursday, after workers in all 19 nuclear power stations voted to begin strikes to defend workers’ rights. Around 80 picketing workers set up a barricade of burning tyres in front of the Gravelines station.

The government is already scrambling to cope with strikes in all eight oil refineries and blockades of fuel depots. Dipping into France’s strategic oil reserves hasn’t stopped an acute petrol shortage. A vote to strike by workers at France’s main oil import terminal will only increase it.

CGT union spokesperson Marie-Claire Cailletaud said, “All the nuclear stations have voted for strikes and 12 reduced production overnight.

“The rest were to follow this morning. Electricity will certainly have to be imported.”

Striking workers and supporters cut off both fuel depots on the island of Corsica. CGT official Jean-Michel Biondi said, “We’re joining the national protest movement against the Work Law and our action will continue.

“There aren’t many workers in the depots and the bosses want to intervene to make sure the fuel gets out, but we’re not going to let them.”

Part of a 100,000 strong demonstration in Paris yesterday, Thursday

Part of a 100,000 strong demonstration in Paris yesterday, Thursday (Pic: Force Ouvrière)

The escalation of strikes against a proposed Work Law last week has demonstrated vividly how workers keep society running—and how they can shut it down.

Thursday was the eighth day of nationwide mobilisations in the two month revolt. Only one newspaper was in shops, the left wing l’Humanite. Print workers refused to print any of the others after they refused to publish an article by CGT union leader Philippe Martinez.

Strikers blocked the Normandy bridge over the River Seine, telling press they were motivated by the “arrogance” of prime minister Manuel Valls.

Strikers blockade the road in Besancon, east France

Strikers blockade the road in Besancon, east France (Pic: Force Ouvrière)

Fabien Gloa, CGT rep at the nearby Renault car factory, said, “The police turned up en masse, so we’re going to the bridge to avoid a confrontation. If they go to the bridge too it means they’re looking for a confrontation.”

Jeff Vapillon, secretary of the Force Ouvriere union branch at the Feyzin refinery, said, “About 200 people come to the picket line every day – and not the same 200. They are people who support us, and don’t have the same means to put pressure on the government themselves.”

Blockades were set up around the airport of Nantes.

Pascal Bousson, secretary of the CGT branch at the Airbus factory in Nantes, said, “We held a general meeting at the factory yesterday, and about 200 workers came and voted unanimously to begin continuous strikes – and blockades at the airport.

“We’ll stand alongside the airport workers, people who work at nearby businesses, the dockers.”

Workers not on continuous strike joined the day of action. Ferries from Portsmouth to France were cancelled and flights were disrupted due to strikes by dockers and air traffic controllers.

Rail and postal workers have held one day strikes and bus workers and others are set to join them next week. The revolt against the Work Law has also inspired more workers to come out over their own demands.

Tax workers are now on strike against office closures. Peugeot car factory workers struck against an attack on their conditions and Amazon workers besieged their warehouses for better pay.

The energy and fuel shortages are forcing many businesses to scale down their operations. The effect of strikes even led to a lower turnout in the audience of the French Open tennis tournament.

That’s a warning to the government of what could happen to the much larger Euro 2016 football tournament next month if it doesn’t back down.

The government has tried to demonise unions—particularly the CGT, which is leading the action—as a “minority” that is “holding the public to ransom”. Valls thundered in parliament that, “The CGT doesn’t make the law in this country.”

But polls show clear majorities are sympathetic to the strikes, blame the government for the shortages and want its Work Law dropped. It aims to make it easier for bosses to drive down workers’ hard-won conditions, work them longer for less and sack them more cheaply.

President Francois Hollande was forced to insist earlier this week that this movement was not a repeat of the general strike in May 1968.

Employment minister Myriam El Khomri, who is promoting the new law, had to abandon a TV interview last night. Protesters banged on the windows of the studio and interrupted filming.

But his government is in a tight spot with little room for manoeuvre. Making concessions to some workers has given others a reason to fight—and led the bosses to drop their support for his law.

Hollande and Valls have sunk to their lowest ever poll ratings with a new election just a year away. They want to show they can deliver the attacks the bosses demand while keeping the support of workers. So far they are doing neither.

So Valls has told unions his “door is always open”. But he shot down suggestions from backbenchers to head off the rebellion with a referendum.

He was even more adamantly opposed to watering down the measure that most angers unions, allowing workplace agreements to override national and sectoral agreements. He insisted, “That’s the philosophical heart of the bill.”

The government is trying to bring union leaders back into talks. But the strike is spreading. More action could make sure the leaders won’t back down.

Revolt spreads to Belgium as rail workers fight attack on conditions

Striking rail workers in Belgium

Striking rail workers in Belgium (Pic: LCR/SAP)

Rail workers in Belgium walked out on an indefinite strike at just a few hours notice late on Wednesday evening. It came after bosses announced a cut to their time off.

Turnout is high across the country and all the main train stations are blocked.

Train guard and CGSP union rep Jordan Croissaerdt told Socialist Worker, “The workers in the machine shops went out first. They work together for long hours and there’s a strong sense of solidarity.

“And it was like they’d lit a fuse, other sections started to go out after them. There’s a network of solidarity among train workers and now we’ve seen that it works.”

Rail bosses want to remove days off that are granted to compensate workers for overtime and give them a chance to recover. It follows staffing and funding cuts.

It follows a demonstration 60,000-strong in the capital Brussels on Tuesday against a reform intended, like the one in France, to attack workers’ rights.

Jordan said, “This government of hooligans is on the attack against workers. For many people the government is illegitimate, based on a coalition with a far right party that we were promised wouldn’t happened.

“So Wednesday’s announcement was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Jordan said, “Now we’re organising general meetings so that workers can democratically take control of the struggle. Our aim is to make it a continuous strike that can keep going until we beat the government.

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