It’s almost as if the “Gray Lady” -the New York Times – is warning the US capitalist class. “A quiet fear gnaws at [French] households: What happens when the money runs out around the 20th? What do I put in the refrigerator with nothing left in the account and the electricity bill to pay? Which meal should I skip today? How do I tell my wife again there is no going out this weekend?” they write about the situation in France. “We live with stress,” said Fabrice Girardin, 46, a former carpet-layer who now looks after other people’s pets to get by. “Every month, at the end of the month, we say, ‘Will there be enough to eat?’ ”
These are the conditions that have created France’s “yellow vest” uprising, rocking the second largest country in the European Union. French president Macron, known for his imperious attitude, has seen his approval ratings drop like a stone, down to 26%. (Even Trump’s were never that low!) Meanwhile, a reported 80% of French people support the movement.
December 1 Protests
On Saturday, Dec. 1, thousands and thousands of “Yellow Vests” streamed into Paris to protest the gas tax that Macron had imposed. They were attacked by the police (a fact hardly reported) and responded in kind. Zcomm quotes a protester: “They threw so much tear-gas at us that we ran like rabbits.” He then held out a rubber cartridge. “They even fired Flash-balls at us” he added as two nearby women nodded. “Who are the Vandals?”
“Another would-be demonstrator, Franck, from nearby Seine-et-Marne, added: “We came to the Champs-Elysées this morning and when we tried to approach the entry-points, we were immediately inundated with tear-gas, 300 meters before the check-points.” Furious, he spits out “Macron gasses his own people like Bashar el-Assad!” Another woman is quoted as saying, “Marie Antoinette was living high off the hog just before the Revolution also. And they cut off her head.”
Background: Union Leadership Stifles Workers
Just like always, there is a back story to all this:
Elected to keep out the far right chauvinist Marine Le Pen, Macron was always seen as a lesser evil. As soon as he was elected, he set about instituting the neoliberal cuts to make France “competitive”. These are the same cuts that have swept the world, drawing ever-increasing numbers of workers into that disastrous “race to the bottom”. Last Spring, he made some moves in the direction of privatizing France’s railroads. ZComm explains: “The railway workers were indeed struggling to preserve an essential public service, which the government clearly had plans to privatize once the struggle was over. But the railroad workers remained isolated and grew discouraged, while the CGT [the main union federation] kept a firm grip on the leadership tactics. The French union leaders failed to organize the promised “convergence” with other striking groups (hospital workers, civil servants, students) not even calling symbolic one-day demonstrations in solidarity with them. The stop-and-go strike partial railroad strike (grève perlée), organized by the CGT union leaders, never effective, dragged on for months, annoying commuters and exhausting the workers economically. Up to 80% of the engine-drivers were striking on any given day (and losing their pay), but thanks to an arrangement with the CGT, the SNCF railroad management was able to keep most of the trains running using managers as scab drivers! So the workers, not the SNCF, were loosing money.
“This was a demoralizing lose-lose situation for both workers and commuters, but the union leaders were unwilling to do the obvious: shut down the railroad in an open-ended strike and call out the other workers in solidarity. Nor did they allow General Assemblies of workers to take over, as in past struggles. Instead, the leaders met regularly with government ministers behind closed doors, sparring verbally in public while pulling their punches.
“Eventually the CGT and the other railway unions agreed to open negotiations with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who had said on record that he would hold talks only if the unions agreed to an EU-mandated opening of the railways to competition, the scrapping of the rail workers’ favorable retirement statute, paving the way for cuts in wages and conditions, and the privatization of the SNCF. However, the CGT had the workers continuing the stop-and-go strike all through the Summer, even after the parliament had passed the reforms, slowly bleeding out the last of their militancy.”
In other words, the union leadership did not simply avoid building a wider struggle; they actively did their best to prevent it. This is why the movement against this race to the bottom in France has broken out in such a disorganized, even chaotic, way. All the power of the organized working class – the unions – was throttled by their leadership. Despite them, this mass movement has shown the potential:
From having sworn just a few days ago that no protests would cause him to back down, Macron has not only put off the gas tax increase for at least six months, the Wall St. Journal reports that he is discussing whether or not to actually increase taxes on the wealthy – reinstitute a “wealth tax”.
Today, a similar situation is building in the United States. Last winter, we had the series of teachers’ strikes, first led by the teachers in West Virginia. These strikes, in general, were carried out against the wishes of the union leadership. But it’s not just teachers. Take the situation among carpenters: The construction industry has been booming the last few years. Yet the carpenters union leadership has been participating in the race to the bottom also. In Seattle WA, carpenters twicevoted down a contract proposal that they felt was inadequate. In New York, carpenters have been working for a year and a half under an expired contract and haven’t gotten any raise during that time. It is feared among some members that the leadership will try to push through an actual cut in pay.
Meanwhile, the police continue to run rampant on the streets, abusing and even killing with impunity. And the most recent
elections saw the most widespread voter suppression seen since pre-Civil Rights days. These developments involve but are not confined to the racism that has always pervaded US society. And, as is typical, the union leadership more or less ignores this. As far as the organized “left”, they issue ritual complaints but do nothing to organize a movement against it. Meanwhile, they more or less ignore the role of the union leadership.
This situation cannot last forever. In France, just a month or two ago it might have seemed that Macron and the French capitalist politicians had things well in hand. In this, just like in the US, they were joined by their representatives inside the unions – the union leadership. The pressure built up and built up and eventually found another route, another means of expressing itself.
The result also contains some dangers:
In France, the failure of the workers organizations – the unions – to lead the fight back has meant that the protests lack a clear, working class character. This has given an opening for all sorts of
far right groups, including the chauvinist RN of Marine Le Pen. We have seen how discontent has helped build the far right, as for example the far-right populist Five Star Movement in Italy, which along with “The League” is now in power in Italy. Infact, in the United Statesthe mass rejection of the bank bailout ten years ago led to the rise to the rise of the far right Tea Party, exactly because of the silence of the union leadership. And especially if the Democrats return to power in 2020 and lead similar cuts, the union leadership will be complicit again. That is why it’s important to learn the lessons of the “Yellow Vests” in preparing for the coming storm here in the United States.
- Help build an opposition among the rank and file of the unions.
- Oppose all cuts in pay and benefits.
- Fight for an immediate pay increase of at least $5/hour for all workers.
- Link the fight with the struggle against racism and against police abuse and brutality.
- Build an organized fighting alliance of workers and youth around these issues to build a movement in the streets, working class schools and communities, and in the unions.