The Internationalist  
November 2010  

As Striking Sanitation Workers and Students Hold Firm

Paris Workers’ Assemblies Declare “We’re
Continuing to Fight,” Call for General Strike

Hundreds of students marched from the Jussieu campus of University of Paris to garbage incinerator in
Ivry-sur-Seine to meet striking sanitation workers, November 2. Banner says: “Students, Workers of
Paris On Strike Against the Smashing of Our Pensions.
(Internationalist photo)

PARIS, November 3 – After the big marches which brought out 2 million opponents of the French government’s anti-worker pension “reform” law last Thursday, October 28, the bourgeois media declared it was time for a wrap-up. The protests had “run out of steam” said the right-wing business paper Les Echos; “the conflict takes time off” was the verdict in Libération. Far from it. The last two days have seen an ebb and flow of the battle, but there has been plenty of action. Around France, blockades of several universities have held firm in the strongholds while retreating under right-wing attack where they have been weaker. Police continue to break up blockades of fuel depots as new ones break out. And while refinery workers and Marseille port workers voted under pressure from the union bureaucracy to go back to work, Paris sanitation workers are still going strong after two weeks on strike. Yesterday hundreds of students marched to their picket with a banner proclaiming “On Strike Until Withdrawal” of the pension law.

On Saturday, October 30 the first regional coordinating meeting for the Île de France capital region was held with nearly 100 delegates from “interprofessional assemblies” (made up of trade unionists and other activists in the struggle against the pension law) in a number of Paris arrondissements (districts) and surrounding départements. Also attending were delegations and representatives of assemblies of rail workers at several Paris train stations, hospital workers, municipal workers, show business workers, teachers, university students and high school students. The assembly issued an appeal titled, “They Voted the Law, We’re Continuing to Fight.” The statement declared its conviction that the government could be defeated over its attack on pensions by bringing together all employed, temporary and unemployed workers in order to “extend the movement and block the economy.” In an implied rebuke of the trade-union tops who on Friday called off the refinery and port strikes, the appeal declared:

“We support the strike pickets and blockades and we particularly call for solidarity against the repression against youth and workers in struggle. Contrary to certain trade-union leaders, we do not want to ‘go on to other things’ nor ‘change change the mode of action.’ We remain firm in the objective of a general strike until withdrawal of the law is achieved.”

A national meeting of representatives of “Interpro” assemblies which have sprung up in various towns around France has been called for this coming weekend in Tours.

Student Strike Solid in Saint-Denis

Entrance to the University of Paris VII campus in Saint-Denis, November 2. No one was about to take
down this barricade.
(Internationalist photo)

Sunday and Monday were pretty quiet. Then yesterday, Tuesday, November 2 in Nantes 800 students voted to continue their strike for another week, in what leaders of the local student union called “the most important general assembly since the start of the pension struggle.” In Mans, nearly 400 students voted by a three-to-one majority in favor of blocking the campus. In Grenoble, a general assembly of 500 students voted to continue the strike and extend the blockades to all university buildings. (However, today the blockade was dissolved.) In Pau, Saint-Etienne and Toulouse, assemblies voted in favor of blockades. Here in the capital, an attempt was made to blockade the elite Sorbonne campus of the University of Paris I for the first time, with partial success in the morning. At the Tolbiac campus of Paris I, an assembly voted to end to blockade after right-wingers unblocked the doors. At the Paris X campus in Nanterre, where last week right-wing students physically attacked a barricade the day after a jammed general assembly of over 600 students voted two-to-one to continue the blockade, this time a smaller assembly voted to end the blockade but continue the strike (which we’re told means that there may be some classes, but attendance isn’t required).

However, at the Paris VIII campus in Saint-Denis, to the north of the capital, the blockade continues without weakening. On October 28, the last national “day of action,” a joint assembly of students and workers brought 400 people into the auditorium. Saint-Denis is a historically “red” city, with a Communist Party (PCF) mayor. The University campus is bounded by Avenue Lenine and Avenue de Stalingrad, and a street has been named after Mumia Abu-Jamal, the renowned black radical journalist on death row in Pennsylvania (which caused the U.S. Congress to pass a resolution condemning Saint-Denis). In this municipality with large numbers of residents of African and Maghreban (North African) origin, a referendum in 2006 voted to allow immigrants to vote in local elections (this was overruled by an administrative court). The Saint-Denis campus has been on strike for the last two weeks. When The Internationalist visited it on Tuesday morning it was solidly barricaded, with piles of tables and chairs at every entrance and several dozen students handing out leaflets, making signs and preparing for a general assembly. As a student striker said in an interview, “They’re hardly going to try to take down this barricade.”

A bulletin from the Mobilization Committee of Paris VIII gave an update on the political situation. However, the bulletin implicitly supported the sellout of the refinery and port workers’ strikes, arguing: “The strike was running out of steam since last week, let’s not forget that some of the workers have been on open-ended strike for almost a month, and they still have to pay the rent and eat. The decline in the number of strikers doesn’t in any way mean acceptance of the law, only a need to work in order to survive.” This is apparently the position of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), which has only said that ending the strikes “marks a pause in the mobilization.” And it’s certainly the line of the PCF and CGT union leaders. But it is not what happened, and it’s not what we (and others) heard from refinery strikers at the Paris march on Thursday, when they were full of determination, while saying they were coming under pressure to go back. Certainly being on strike pretty much alone for a month takes its toll, but the CGT and CFDT leadership pushed the members to return to work. Even then between a quarter and a third of refinery workers voted to stay out. The vote at the Grandpuits refinery outside Paris was 58 to 27, according to Le Parisien, while at Donges near Nantes it was 286 to 68, according to L’Humanité.

Paris Sanitation Workers Hang Tough

Strike camp in front of garbage incinerator at Ivry-sur-Seine just outside Paris,
November 2. Striking
sanitation workers hung tough and were backed up by effective solidarity action, winning settlement

for early retirement at higher pay.
(Internationalist photo)

On Tuesday afternoon there was a march by striking students from Jussieu (University of Paris VII) to the garbage incinerator just over the city limits in Ivry, to the south of Paris. This is the largest garbage processing plant in Europe, handling more than 1,500 tons of garbage a day. The 5,000 sanitation workers of Paris have been on strike against the pension law “reform” since October 19., with dozens of strikers camped out at the incinerator day and night. In addition to demanding that the retirement law be withdrawn, they are calling for “bonuses” that they have received instead of wage increases to be rolled into their basic pay, so that they would count in calculating their pensions. The Internationalist interviewed Régis Viceli, the general secretary of the CGT Sanitation union. “If this law passes, it will be bad for working people in France and everywhere in Europe,” he said, adding that the CGT had proposed other means of financing pensions. “If we go over to a system of pensions by capitalization [individual retirement accounts], as you know very well [in the United States], it will be very hard.” To defeat the attack “the workers have to unite,” because there is a push to smash the present retirement system “in the interests of capitalism.”

While garbage workers in Marseille went back to work last week on orders of the Force Ouvrière union federation after being requisitioned by the Socialist mayor, due to what union bureaucrats and the city administration called a sanitation emergency, strikers in Ivry told the press they could “hold out until Christmas” (Libération, 30 October). In our interview, Viceli complained that the Socialist Party mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanöe contracted private companies to pick up garbage and undercut the strike, while refusing to even discuss their demands about converting bonuses. “This mayor, who says he is of the left, calls himself a ‘liberal socialist,’ and we know what that means.” Since the beginning of his second term, Delanöe has been privatizing and laying off (he wanted to get rid of 113 garbagemen, and even after a fight, 58 sanitation workers’ jobs were lost).

On the other hand, there has been an outpouring of support for the strike. “From the very first day, the solidarity has been tremendous. We have received 10,000 euros in contributions.” The previous Sunday, hundreds of Parisian workers, students and supporters came out to Ivry for a barbecue at the garbage incinerator! A great time was reportedly had by all, but alas, no Claude Monet was there to paint this modern-day Dejeuner sur le pavé (picnic on the pavement).

After a while, the student demonstrators arrived, some 400 or more, chanting “Tous ensemble, tous ensemble, grève générale!” (All out together, general strike). As the column approached, the sanitation workers and marchers applauded this demonstration of student-worker solidarity. Viceli addressed the students thanking them for their support. “There is no pause,” he said, only “preparatory actions. They’re trying in the shops to rally some more people to go out, because the only support we can get is when people go on strike.” The student demonstrators read a communiqué noting that that blockages were important, but it was necessary to stop production in order to strike at capital.1

In the evening, back at Paris VIII for a meeting of the Saint-Denis Interpro general assembly, the discussion was about how to keep up the momentum. One thing that was striking was that in this meeting in a municipality many of whose residents are of black African or North African origin, as well as in other assemblies, we have seen no representatives of these workers and youth. Yet it is precisely the youth of immigrant origin in the working-class housing projects, the cités, who have been singled out for repression and denounced as casseurs (smashers) by the authorities. Some student activists use this loaded term themselves, even as the government is now labeling student strikers bloqueurs (blockers). In an interview with a student activist after the meeting, we asked about ties to youth in the projects and about mobilizing to defend the several hundred facing trial and possible imprisonment, as a way to appeal for common action. In fact, students are distributing a leaflet of the “Anti-Repression Committee of Saint-Denis,” although it doesn’t mention the clear ethnic character of the repression.

A statement the Saint Denis Interpro assembly issued Wednesday morning took a harder line on the union tops than the student Mobilization Committee bulletin the day before:

“If the number of strikes has in fact gone down, it’s because the strategy of the Intersyndicale [the coordinating committee of eight union federations, including the CGT, CFDT, SUD, UNSA, CGC and others] of calling for one-day strikes and demonstrations spread out over time leads to the isolation and wearing down of those who were on open-ended strikes (refinery workers, railroad workers)….

“A very large majority of the population supports the movement, and the striking workers who went back say that they’re ready to go out again if other sectors enter the fray….

“In the face of part of the Intersyndicale that has started to talk of ending the movement … we reaffirm our struggle for the withdrawal of the law without negotiation, which can only be achieved by a general strike.”

Yet the ending of the strikes is not only due to the policies of “a part of the Intersyndicale” but to the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy as a whole. While the Solidaires and Force Ouvrière federations sometimes make noises about a general strike, they have not seriously fought to prepare for one. They look to maneuvers at the top rather than calling for elected strike committees. What’s needed is to build a revolutionary opposition in all the unions, one that fights to oust the bureaucracy – the labor lieutenants of capital – and to forge a workers party like the Bolsheviks under the leadership Lenin and Trotsky, capable of waging the class struggle through to the end, to workers revolution.

“We Want Some Envelopes, Too”

CGT demonstration outside Medef (bosses association) headquarters, November 3. Women workers have played leading role in strikes and protests against pension “reform.” (Internationalist photo)

Today, Wednesday, November 3 there were two demonstrations. The first, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, went to the estate of Liliane Bettencourt, the second richest person in France, whose tax evasion and payoffs to government politicians and parties set off a national scandal last summer, particularly since one of her financial advisors was the wife of labor minister Eric Woerth, the treasurer of president Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, who presented the pension “reform” to parliament. Responding to reports that Woerth had  received an envelope stuffed with €150,000 in cash from Bettencourt, the humorous demand of the demonstrators was, “We want some envelopes, too.” When two guards came out to remove stickers and signs from the front gate, the crowd chanted “Flunkeys, join us!”

At noon, the CGT and FSU, the main education union, held a rally outside the offices of the employers’ association, Medef, in the posh 7th arrondissement. Medef president Laurence Parisot bragged of being the force behind the pension “reform” law. The elegant avenue was completely blocked off by a metal barrier and buses of the CRS riot police. Only about 300 unionists showed up, however, and it had a routine flavor. At least in Le Havre on Saturday (October 30), where the port oil terminal workers had been on strike since October 12, the unions walled in the local Medef headquarters with concrete blocks, while the windows of the building still showed traces of the eggs that had landed there during earlier demonstrations.

The CGT leaflet calling for today’s action noted that the deficit in the national pension fund (CNAV) was 10 million euros last year. The employers are demanding that workers give up two (or more) years of their lives supposedly to fill this deficit when France’s top corporations, the CAC40 (equivalent of the Dow Jones Industrials in the U.S.), made €43 billion last year, in the depths of the capitalist economic crisis, and in January 2009 the government funneled €360 billion into the coffers of French banks. Just putting one million of France’s jobless workers back to work would wipe out the deficit. But while exposing the bosses’ numbers racket, the CGT still does not call for withdrawal of the law, only to negotiate about refinancing. And it only says it will keep up struggle until the law is promulgated in a couple weeks.

The struggle is indeed continuing. Tomorrow, Thursday November 4 starting at 10 a.m. the five unions of Air France have called on airline workers to make Thursday “a great day of mobilization and strikes in the French airports” in order to “maintain and accentuate the pressure on the president and the government” over the “unjust and ineffective pension reform.” At the same hour, there will be a mobilization to blockade the incinerator in Saint-Ouen where the scab garbage trucks have been going. In the afternoon, high school students, back from their two week vacation, will mark their return with a march and demonstration/mass leafleting at the Austerlitz railway station. Interestingly, even trade-union spokesmen are saying the lycéens will be key to continuing the strike movement. But for bureaucrats, of course, that is a way of ducking their own responsibility.

1 On November 8, after more than three weeks on strike, Paris sanitation workers agreed to return to work in return for a settlement on their key local demand, to fold bonuses into their basic wages. Under the deal, 400 workers nearing retirement age would have their basic pay used in calculating pensions increased by €1,100 a year. And despite the defeat of the struggle against raising the retirement age nationally, in view of their difficult working conditions (pénibilité), they will still be able to retire at age 55 (Le Parisien, 9 November). Holding out a week longer than sanitation workers in the rest of France, the Paris strikers were backed up with effective solidarity action. The city administration agreed to negotiate when after several attempts strike supporters managed to blockade the second incinerator at Saint-Ouen on November 2, and to keep it shut for the duration of the strike. With garbage piling up on the streets, the “Socialist” city administration finally saw the light. Even with this initial victory, the sanitation workers said that they would keep up the pressure by striking 55 minutes every day for the rest of their demands.

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com