Spartacist Canada No. 167
Workers Fight Capitalist Austerity
French Strike Wave: No to a New Popular Front! For a Revolutionary Workers Party!
The capitalist rulers worldwide are unleashing savage attacks on jobs, working conditions and social programs amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Unlike in Canada and the U.S., where labour struggle remains at a low level, the austerity attacks have precipitated waves of class struggle in Europe. This has been particularly intense in Greece, where the government is headed by the populist PASOK party (see “Workers Protests Rock Greece, SC No. 165, Summer 2010), as well as other countries on Europe’s southern tier, notably France and Spain.
In early December, the Spanish social-democratic government sent the army to break a walkout by air traffic controllers protesting massive wage cuts. This came just over a week after millions of Portuguese workers joined a countrywide general strike. More than 100,000 protesters marched in Dublin on November 27 against the harshest attacks on workers’ living standards in the history of the Irish state. Earlier, millions of workers and students shook the French government with weeks of strikes and mass protests against its attacks on pensions.
For all the workers’ combativity, the effectiveness of their struggles has been undermined by their reformist misleaders, who accept the inevitability of capitalist austerity while seeking only to soften the blows. What is needed is the forging of a new, revolutionary leadership of the working class based on the understanding that there are no common interests between the working class and the capitalist exploiters and their governments.
We reprint below an article on the French strikes by our comrades of the Ligue Trotskyste de France, first published in Workers Vanguard No. 968, 5 November 2010.
PARIS, November 1—The fight by French workers to defend their retirement pensions against government attack has been one of the sharpest class battles this country has seen in years. Strikes by workers at oil refineries and strategic fuel terminals, which were at the core of the struggle, eventually shut down all 12 of the country’s refineries before being called off last week. Strikes by railroad, subway and airport workers crippled transportation, while shortages closed gasoline stations across the country and threatened the fuel-needy industrial sector. A 33-day-long strike by fuel terminal workers in the Marseille area stranded some 80 vessels offshore in the Mediterranean. Sanitation workers struck in at least ten cities. In Marseille, 11,000 tons of uncollected trash piled in the streets.
In protests held in September and October, millions mobilized throughout the country. Yet in the face of overwhelming public opposition to the pension “reform” pushed by right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy, parliament gave final passage last week to a law increasing the minimum retirement age by two years to 62 and the age to receive a full pension to 67.
Determined to make French capitalism competitive against its imperialist rivals, Sarkozy played hardball with the strikers. Hundreds of riot cops were mobilized to forcibly disperse picket lines blocking refineries, fuel depots and other industrial sites. Near Nantes, the entire town of Donges, which has one of the largest refineries in the country, was placed under a state of siege by an army of riot cops. Strikers at the Grandpuits refinery near Paris were ordered to return to work in the interests of “national defense” or face six-month prison terms. Since mid October, the government has arrested at least 2,500 people.
These attacks on strikers—and on the very right to strike—coincided with systematic police violence against high school youth, particularly those from working-class trade schools with a strong minority component. Youth joined the protests in large numbers, conscious that extending the retirement age would further increase youth unemployment, which stands at 23 percent for those under 25. The last few years have seen countless protests by high school youth, including against the slashing of jobs in education. Some 50,000 teachers’ jobs have been cut since 2007, with the only new spending for education going to “security,” police patrols and private security guards. We demand: Drop all charges against the strikers and high school students! Free the protesters now!
Across Europe, the capitalist rulers are determined to make workers pay for the world economic crisis by gutting pensions, slashing the wages of public sector workers and taking an ax to what remains of “welfare state” social programs. This has provoked a series of one-day general strikes this year—half a dozen in Greece alone—with another called for later this month in Portugal. However, the workers’ combativity runs up against the political program of the labor bureaucracies, which seek only to soften the “excesses” of capitalist austerity.
In France, the union movement is broken up into various federations under the influence of one or more reformist parties. For these reformists, the workers struggle against the attack on pensions should serve to “weaken” Sarkozy and lay the basis for the election of a “left” government in 2012, when presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled. This was expressed by the spokesman of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), Olivier Besancenot, who declared in August that “much of the outcome of 2012 is playing out over the fight on pensions. It’s now that we must weaken the government and the right.”
The workers’ militancy has been undercut by the servility of the trade-union leaders. Committed to defending the interests of French capitalism, these bureaucrats accept the necessity of “reforming” the public pension system in order to cut costs—they simply demanded a seat at the negotiating table. For months, the trade-union tops have insisted that they would accept an increase in the number of years of work needed to qualify for a full pension (the position of the CFDT union federation) or an increase in the pension taxes that are deducted from workers’ wages (the position of the CGT federation). An aide for CFDT head François Chérèque told the Paris daily Libération: “Secretly, several leaders of the confederation wouldn’t look unfavorably on a petering-out of the movement.”
From the outset of the fight over pensions, the intersyndicale—a coalition of bureaucrats representing the various trade-union federations that has been supported by the left-wing organizations including the NPA and Lutte Ouvrière (LO)—centered the mobilization around a series of single “days of action.” These events were largely staggered according to the rhythm of the parliamentary debate on the pension “reform” bill—as the National Assembly debated the bill, as the Senate voted, etc.—with the aim of wringing some concessions on the wording of the law.
After this bitterly fought wave of strikes, many returned to work angrily cursing Sarkozy and pledging that he will be out of a job when the next presidential election rolls around. But the question is: in what direction will this anger be focused? Will it be channeled into supporting a new popular-front government in which the reformist workers parties manage the affairs of the bourgeois state in alliance with the parties of the capitalist class enemy? Will the bourgeoisie and union bureaucrats channel the workers’ anger into anti-immigrant racism and national chauvinism? Or will the proletariat mobilize independently in defense of its class interests? At bottom, what is posed is the question of leadership. This underlines the need to forge a revolutionary workers party grounded in the Marxist understanding that the capitalist system must be overthrown through socialist revolution.
Particularly since the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92, the reformist workers’ leaders and the “far left” have imbibed the capitalists’ “death of communism” crusade that falsely portrays communism as, at best, a “failed experiment.” In our interventions in the recent strike movement, as in all our work, the Ligue Trotskyste de France, section of the International Communist League, has sought to reassert the revolutionary program of Bolshevism and the liberating ideals of communism.
The capitalist rulers have time and again demonstrated that they are enemies of human progress. Against the reformists who uphold the inviolability of the capitalist order, our aim is the building of a revolutionary multiethnic workers party to lead the struggle for socialist revolution. As Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky underlined in the 1938 Transitional Program, written amid the Great Depression, “If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish.”
The Popular Front: A Deadly Illusion for Workers
The capitalist government, whether administered by parties of the left or right, serves the interests of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the workers and oppressed. To see how a left government would seek to dismantle the gains of the working class, one need only look beyond the Pyrenees to Spain, where the government of José Luis Zapatero’s PSOE (Socialist Workers Party) is also seeking to impose austerity measures, including an increased retirement age. The PSOE’s new labor law could be characterized as the CPE—but for everyone, not just youth. (The CPE was a 2006 French law, withdrawn after protests, that stipulated that new workers under 26 years of age be subject to a two-year probationary period, during which they could be fired without cause.) When workers staged a one-day general strike in September against the new labor law, Zapatero sent cops to smash the picket lines (they went so far as to use firearms against picketing workers at the CASA aircraft plant near Madrid).
Yet the Spanish union tops preach to workers that the PSOE in power represents “their” government. When Zapatero announced his labor law in June, Spain’s union officials called for a one-day general strike to be held…three months later, which amounted to seeking the government’s permission for the strike. The government responded to the September 29 general strike by appointing a representative of the UGT union federation, Valeriano Gómez, as the new labor minister in charge of pension “reform”!
In France, left bourgeois governments take the form of “popular fronts”—i.e., coalitions between the reformist working-class parties and outright representatives of the bourgeoisie. Revolutionaries are unconditionally opposed to these alliances, which chain the workers to the capitalist class enemy through the open class collaboration of their leaders. Historically, the popular front has served to short-circuit workers struggles, including by heading off the prospect of workers revolution, and set the workers up for often bloody defeat. In the French general strike of June 1936, the popular front—a coalition of the social democrats, the Stalinist Communist Party (PCF) and the bourgeois Radical Party—stifled a pre-revolutionary situation by channeling the upsurge onto the parliamentary plane, ultimately leading to the 1940 granting of full powers to the pro-Nazi Marshal Pétain.
The destruction of the Soviet Union has led to a profound, though uneven, regression in political consciousness internationally, with even the more advanced workers no longer identifying their struggles with the ultimate goal of socialism. Today, though the West European bourgeoisies have no immediate fear of Red Revolution, popular-front governments have nonetheless often proven themselves more effective than right-wing regimes in pushing through anti-working-class measures. It was a 1991 “white paper” published by the popular-front government of François Mitterrand/Michel Rocard that two years later served as the basis for an increase—from 37 and a half years to 40 years—in the number of years of work needed to qualify for a full pension in the private sector. In December 1995, a wave of militant strikes forced the right-wing government to back down on plans to pare back public sector pensions. But the misleaders of the working class betrayed the workers’ militancy and self-sacrifice. The result was new elections that in 1997 brought into power a popular-front government under Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, which included PCF ministers in the government. It was under Jospin that the “Charpin Report”—which, among other things, effectively called to raise the retirement age to 65—was published, providing the framework for today’s attacks on pensions.
The Fight for a Revolutionary Leadership of the Proletariat
In the face of Sarkozy’s determined attack on pensions, many militant workers clearly understood that isolated “days of action” were not sufficient. Small locally based and generally brief initiatives mushroomed, including by rail workers, like an anarchic ferment lacking a plan. However, unlike December 1995, when rail and transit workers were in the vanguard of the struggle that effectively spelled the end of the right-wing government of Jacques Chirac/Alain Juppé by shutting down public transportation for over three weeks, the situation today is far more difficult for railroad workers. In line with the 2007 law on “social dialogue,” the union bureaucrats have negotiated with the bosses the maintenance of a minimum level of rail service during strikes.
The union bureaucrats accept the framework of capitalism and only dare to demand what they consider to be compatible with the maintenance and prosperity of their own national ruling class, from whom they hope to gain a few crumbs. Thus by its nature, trade-union opportunism is narrowly national. And the bureaucrats themselves contribute to the spreading of chauvinist poison within the working class.
This directly undercuts the struggles of the working class, such as the recent strikes by refinery workers who, while in the forefront of the struggle to defend pensions, were also combating threats to their own jobs. From the capitalists’ viewpoint, with fuel exports to the U.S. having collapsed due to the recession, there are a dozen too many refineries in Europe. French courts recently authorized the shutting down of the Dunkirk refinery, and Petroplus has announced the closure of the Reichstett refinery, near the eastern city of Strasbourg.
It was necessary for French refinery workers to appeal to their class brothers in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and elsewhere to stop delivery of refined products to France intended to break the strike. According to Le Monde online (26 October), Belgian trade unionists picketed a Total-owned fuel depot at Feluy, Belgium in order to stop deliveries destined for France. But the possibility of internationalist class struggle is undercut by the nationalist perspective of the trade-union bureaucrats, whose view is: if there must be plant closures and job losses in Europe, let them be in other countries (in opposition to this, see the joint statement by the ICL’s British, French and German sections, “For United International Class Struggle Against Airbus Bosses!” WV No. 889, 30 March 2007).
The situation cries out for a new, revolutionary leadership of the proletariat. Forging such a leadership requires a political struggle against the workers’ present leadership, and in particular against those like the NPA and LO, which work within the unions to provide a left cover for the bureaucracy.
A revolutionary leadership would fight for a series of transitional demands that start from the current consciousness of wide layers of the working class, addressing their daily struggles against the capitalists, and lead to the necessity of proletarian revolution. It is essential to fight to eliminate the myriad differences in contractual status among workers—temporary employees, trainees, those with fixed contracts—as well as opening up full-time jobs for all those, especially women, who can now only find part-time work. That means fighting for free, quality childcare, open 24 hours a day. Faced with mass unemployment, which has disproportionately hit older workers and youth, it is necessary to share the work among all available workers, with no loss in pay.
There must be a struggle against racist discrimination in hiring and for an end to all work restrictions imposed on workers from East Europe (which notably target Roma from Romania). More broadly, this means a fight for full citizenship rights for all those who are in this country, whether they are documented or not, employed or not, wear the veil or not. The government-led racist “war on terror” targets those of Muslim origin in the first place and ultimately the entire working class. On September 14, the French parliament passed a law forbidding women, including French citizens, from wearing the face-covering Muslim niqab or burqa in public. In the name of defending the “equality” of women, the government is stigmatizing Muslim minorities as the “enemy within.” Down with the racist law on the burqa!
It is also necessary to put a stop to the attacks on the education and health systems as well as other social programs, which hit working-class and minority neighborhoods hardest. This requires a program of major public works to build or rebuild housing, transport infrastructure, schools and high schools, hospitals and health centers that the capitalists are in the process of shutting down. The goal of the capitalist production system is to pocket profits rather than address the needs of the population, meaning that the capitalists are incapable of responding to such a set of demands. But for the working class, what is ultimately posed is the question of survival, which is why the workers must understand that the capitalist system must be overthrown by workers revolution.
For the Independence of the Trade Unions from the Bosses and Their State!
In one of his final writings, Leon Trotsky observed that a common feature of modern trade unions “is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power” (“Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” 1940). Trotsky emphasized that to “turn the trade unions into the organs of the broad exploited masses and not the organs of a labor aristocracy” requires the “complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state.”
France has one of the lowest rates of unionization of any industrialized country, with as few as 5 percent of private sector workers organized. Furthermore, it is the norm for this small minority of organized workers to be divided up among several competing unions in the same workplace, which often scab on each other during strikes. The unions depend more on subsidies from the capitalist state and the bosses than on their own members’ dues. How those subsidies are distributed depends largely on the various unions’ relative vote totals in workplace elections, in which all workers—not just the small minority who are unionized—can vote. This means that the bureaucrats do not have the perspective of organizing the unorganized, but rather of maximizing their vote totals in workplace elections—which are run by the bosses and the state—in order to obtain a larger slice of the pie than their union competitors.
A key part of the struggle to overcome the divisions between competing union federations is the fight to forge industrial unions that unite all workers from the same industry into a single trade union, regardless of their political affiliation and work status. This is inseparable from the struggle to build a revolutionary leadership of the working class.
All the union federations—particularly the CGT, FO and UNSA (but also the SUD and CFDT)—have cops, customs officials and/or prison guards in their ranks. These bodies of armed men, who have a monopoly of armed power to enforce the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, constitute the core of the bourgeois state, an instrument of class oppression against workers and oppressed. The cop terror that has been meted out against strike pickets and youth in the banlieues (suburban ghettos) provides very tangible proof of the fact that police are on the other side of the class line. The bourgeois state and its armed gangs must be destroyed through a workers revolution that replaces the rule of capital with the dictatorship of the proletariat, which will have its own armed bodies. These will come from the workers militias and other red guards forged in the struggle to defend the working class against police strikebreaking and fascist terror. Foremen, cops, prison and security guards out of the unions!
Reforge the Fourth International! For New October Revolutions!
The intersyndicale coalition of union bureaucrats was seen by many workers as a guarantee of working-class unity. In fact, it has served as a means for the bureaucrats to coordinate their actions on the basis of the lowest common denominator and to mask their treachery behind the facade of “unity.” The role of the “far left” in the recent strikes has been to sell the line of the intersyndicale bureaucrats to restive workers. Thus Lutte Ouvrière (22 October), writing about the union bureaucracy at SNCF (the nationalized railroad system), declared:
“The attitude of the union leaders has also reassured the strikers. So far they have all pushed for strengthening, if not broadening the movement. This is contrary to the policy they held in 2003 and 2007 when they opposed rallies bringing different services together, visits by strikers to other sectors and even jointly held demonstrations. The movement has thus refound the tones of 1995 with the famous ‘All together, all together’.”
What LO leaves out is that the “All together” unity of 1995 was channeled into electing the Jospin popular-front regime—indeed, what the reformists are angling for today is another popular front.
LO has lately been fond of repeating that the elections won’t change a thing and that what matters is struggle. But this is belied by their practice, which helps tie the workers to the popular front. For the past two years, LO has helped administer capitalism as part of municipal governments, including by voting for local budgets. When the Communist Party mayor of Bagnolet—a municipality in the Paris suburbs where LO is in a governing coalition with its senior partners in the PCF—forcibly evicted the tenants of an apartment building partly occupied by African workers last winter, LO condemned this racist action. But they treacherously remained in the coalition, providing a left cover for their municipal partners (see “Lutte Ouvrière’s Municipal Antics,” WV No. 960, 4 June).
LO recently signed on to the popular-front slate for the December municipal election in Corbeil-Essonnes, south of Paris, in order to “fight the right.” Alongside the PCF, the PS and the Greens, LO has set out to locally manage capitalism on a program that denounces the right-wing municipality’s “failure regarding security” and pledges to “put in the resources” to change this situation—in other words, more racist cops to terrorize the ghetto. At the national level, the next alliance of class collaboration being planned for the 2012 elections between bourgeois parties and workers parties looks set to take on a pink-green hue, with reformist workers parties like the PS, the PCF and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Left Party joined by the Green Party and some other bourgeois forces (like the Left Radicals and supporters of capitalist politician Jean-Pierre Chevènement).
This class-collaborationist lash-up can be certain of receiving the electoral support of Besancenot’s NPA. The NPA was founded in 2009 out of the thoroughly social-democratic Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR). In founding the NPA, the LCR openly renounced Trotskyism, revolution and communism—after having done so in practice for decades—in a rare mark of honesty demonstrating the extent to which they imbibe the bourgeoisie’s “death of communism” myth. They also inscribed in the NPA’s “founding principles” their openness to participating in a bourgeois government, declaring: “We will contribute to their implementation [of progressive measures] if the voters give us such a responsibility.” During the 2007 elections, Besancenot stated his willingness to join a bourgeois government coalition, provided it called itself “anti-capitalist,” declaring, “the LCR will assume its responsibilities in such a government.”
For decades, the LCR voted for the candidates of successive popular-front coalitions, from Mitterrand to Jospin to Ségolène Royal in 2007. They also voted in the 2008 Marseille municipal elections for the slate led by Socialists that included right-wing bourgeois politicians—these same Socialists recently called on the state to crush the Marseille port workers strike. The NPA, whose forebears in the LCR voted for the right-wing Jacques Chirac in 2002, when he was opposed by the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen, should hardly have a problem stomaching a vote for a Socialist candidate—including current IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who openly supported Sarkozy’s attacks on pensions.
LO, NPA, et al. have something fundamental in common: They reject the 1917 October Revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. They all supported the various counterrevolutionary forces that destroyed the Soviet Union and deformed workers states of East Europe in the late 1980s-early 1990s. To the extent of their limited forces, they thus contributed to the victory of capitalist counterrevolution. The working class must reappropriate Marxism and the lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution. The International Communist League, of which the LTF is a section, represents the programmatic continuity of the Bolshevik party of Lenin and Trotsky. We fight to build the internationalist revolutionary workers party that is indispensable for leading the next revolutionary uprisings of the proletariat to victory.