PARIS, October 26 — The October 18 nation-wide strike of thousands of transport and utility workers revealed both the strength and the weakness of the working class in France. Strength in the strike’s potential: 73.5% of the railroad workers went out, as did 58% of the Paris commuter train workers and 45% of the gas and electricity workers. These percentages greatly exceeded past strikes to defend workers’ pensions. Accompanying protest marches in dozens of cities totaled 300,000 demonstrators. But weakness was seen in the complete sellout by union misleaders and their deal with right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy. The workers showed tremendous fighting spirit, but all in vain.

Workers here are taking a beating. Sarkozy is successfully playing the union hacks against one another, taking away 60 years of gains.

On September 9, French Prime Minister François Fillon announced that the government had — without negotiations — already arbitrarily written the law eliminating the special retirement plans that were established to compensate for hardships endured by railroad, commuter-train, gas and electrical workers and sailors, among others. They allow retirement at 50 or 55.

In 1995, Prime Minister Alain Juppé attempted a similar attack, but two months of strikes, especially among railroad workers, forced him to back down.Ending these special benefits is a necessary first step in the bosses’ breaking the working class’s unity and fighting spirit, since next year the government intends to raise the years of dues-paying required for full retirement from the present 40 to 41 (effective in 2012).
Most union hacks reacted mildly, one favoring “progressively changing” the retirement plans instead of abolishing them, while another tried to play Sarkozy against Fillon.

But Christian Mathieu, a leader of the SUD-Rail trade union, denounced Fillon’s announcement as a “declaration of war” and called for a strike, forcing the others to participate to save their credibility.They immediately sabotaged the strike. The CFDT and the CGT unions (which, combined, comprise over half of France’s 1.8 million union members) limited the strike to those directly benefiting from the special retirement plans, and then for just one day.Clearly, then, the railroad workers would spearhead the strike, especially the train crews; 87% of the train crews support three unions: the CGT, SUD-Rail and the FGAAC (a narrow craft union of train crew workers). If the FGAAC workers scabbed, it would break the strike.

On October 17, Sarkozy secretly offered FGAAC general secretary Bruno Duchemin’s train crews retirement at 55 (instead of 50) while the other rail workers would retire at 60 (not 55). After allowing the FGAAC to strike on October 18, Duchemin called it off, hailing the sellout of his own union’s members and of all workers as a great victory.

This betrayal broke the back of the strike movement, enabling the CGT and CFDT to stick to their losing one-day walkout strategy. Following strike balloting by several workers’ general assemblies, SUD-Rail, UNSA and FO, representing 35% of the rail workers, nonetheless called for the strike to continue. For the next five days, rail traffic remained disrupted in the Paris area and two outlying regions.

On October 22, the union hacks said they would give the government nine days to revise its attack on the special retirement plans or risk another one-day walkout. They’ve abandoned keeping these pensions intact. Instead, they will mimic the FGAAC, hailing the government’s takeaways as a “triumph,” arguing that “it could have been worse.” These spineless bureaucrats are wasting the energy and self-sacrifice of the working class in France.

Unfortunately, CHALLENGE was exactly right in its prediction (5/23) following the French presidential elections: “The working class here faces a period of sharpening struggle…. Years of reformist politics and business unionism have taken their toll. The union hacks won’t fight against the massive capitalist attacks on workers or against racism and imperialist preparations for endless wars. Only dedicated revolutionary work to strengthen class consciousness can rebuild the unity and combativeness the working class needs.”

One bright spot was the October 20 demonstrations defending immigrant workers. Some 3,000 marched in Paris while demonstrations occurred in 30 other cities. Two days later, one charge against schoolteacher and immigrant rights activist Florimond Guimard (see CHALLENGE, 10/31) of “willful violence with a weapon, to wit a vehicle” was dropped, but he still stands accused of “resisting the police.”
Seven federations of civil servants have called for a one-day public-sector strike on November 20, demanding higher wages, jobs and defense of social services. Five of the teachers’ craft unions joined the movement, notably to condemn the government’s plan to axe 11,200 education jobs next year. This strike can help workers regain their self-confidence and militancy.

However, only much bigger, longer and tougher strikes have a chance of breaking the government attacks. For that to happen, traitorous union hacks must be dumped. Lasting victory can only come from smashing the government and the capitalist system it represents. For that, workers, soldiers and students must organize for communist revolution.

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