Britain, France and Germany - Same Fight, Same Problems

After decades of submitting to layoffs, speed ups, real wage cuts and a general reduction of the standard of living so that two wages are needed where one almost did before, workers in many regions of the planet but particularly in Europe are saying enough is enough. British workers, after their epic defeats in the 1980s have been particularly slow to recover but they have one lesson for the rest of the working class in Europe. The bourgeoisie never halt their attacks. As labour creates the real wealth of society the capitalists can only get more of that wealth by reducing its costs and increasing its productivity.

The working class can accept defeat and wait for better times only to find that better times never come as all passivity invites is yet another attack. In the fightback in Britain, Germany and France the themes are unremarkably similar. Government plans (Plan 2010 in Germany, Sarkozy’s “break with the past” in France, and Brown’s 2% wage ceiling for public sector workers are all aimed at lowering our living standards). And in all three cases the unions fragment and prepare to betray the all-out fight against these plans. The lesson everywhere is the same. Workers need to take control of their own struggles and create their own means of coordination and unity. In these strikes they represent society, the Government represents only the state standing over that society. With a united fight there would be no contest. And with a united fight which linked up internationally we really would be looking at a brighter future for all...

Public Sector Strikes in France

Based on information from the comrades of Bilan & Perspectives, France

Public sector workers in France are also facing a worsening of their pay and working conditions as new President Sarkozy attempts to implement the attacks he promised in his electoral campaign. Last week it was mainly the workers on the Paris urban transport system (RATP) and the train drives of the national railway (SNCF) who led the way with a series of strikes. By the end of the week they had been joined by students in 40 universities who are protesting against the two-tier education system Sarkozy plans to offer with some universities designated “élite” (sounds like Oxbridge here) and from which graduates will enter the best paid jobs. At least ten universities have been occupied in what could be a repeat of last year’s protests against the CPE As we go to press the fight against the new attacks on the working class in France has reached a critical point.

The French bourgeoisie have been attempting a wholesale attack like this for over a decade. In 1995 the workers defeated the Juppé Plan but in the years since there have been piecemeal “reforms” (this is the modern Blairite version of the word which means “things get worse”) so pay and pension conditions have been eroded for wide groups of workers. And as in Britain the unions are playing a game altogether different from the defence of their members interests. Whilst there is the usual attempt to mobilise everyone else against train drivers with propaganda about the train drivers being “privileged” because they have the right to retire at 50 (but no-one asks about the really privileged in the ruling class) there is also a campaign to pretend that the unions are behind the strikes. The unions are frequently referred to as being “hardline” (no doubt to polish up their image to the working class), but the fact is that the union leaders are already signalling that they want to sell out the workers. Whilst the workers are striking to get the “reform” withdrawn altogether the union leaders are saying that they do not object to the idea of change but they do wish to negotiate on how it is to be carried out. The workers’ general assemblies voted not to return to work but the day after meeting the Government the CFDT union was calling for a return to work. The unions have also divided up the strikes. So that last week it was the train drivers and the Paris transport workers whilst on Tuesday of the week following it is the turn of civil servants and then it will be teachers, doctors and postal workers. Collectively this is a huge chunk of society which if it acted together would be unstoppable. But the unions are doing their best to avoid this. It is clear that the workers have to do what they have done in previous strikes (20 years ago the train drivers set up their own committees of coordination to get round union manoeuvres) and that is take the struggle into their own hands. Last spring the Airbus workers in St. Nazaire and Nantes organised their own strike committees to do exactly that. The election of strike committees directly responsible to, and recallable by, mass meetings of workers with one central committee which alone is allowed to negotiate for all workers facing these attacks is the only way to guard against another union betrayal and send Sarkozy’s “reforms” the way of many previous attacks. It is the capitalist’ who caused the crisis where they cannot allow a minimum of civilised existence to the workers so they should ay for it. And if capitalists say they cannot satisfy the workers demands it is time they were swept aside to allow a better system to operate.

Background to the French Strikes

During the years of post-war reconstruction French workers succeeded in obtaining a pension scheme in proportion to the number of years paid-in.

Each year corresponds to 2% so you have to pay in 37 1/2 years to reach the maximum of 75% of the qualifying salary (that is to say, wages over the best ten years). This is for the “general scheme” which applies to non-agricultural wages in the private sector. Public employees had their own scheme (with the last six months as the qualifying salary) but there were a certain number of other special schemes for certain public sector workers (SNCF,RATP,EdF-GdF, Paris Opera, MPs ...) the legacy of previous struggles or of specific circumstances.

In the context of its agenda of pushing back the “welfare state”, the ruling class is concerned to reduce spending on pensions. Rather than question the retirement age - which would risk creating strong opposition - the government has decided to focus on the length of contributions. Workers would thus still be “free” to work longer in order to get the same pension or else they could retire at sixty but with a pauper’s pension. In any case, given the present level of unemployment, few workers reach sixty without being put into early retirement. Consequently they are worse off and have to find “jobs on the side” once they retire.

In 1993, by decree in the middle of August (so that the majority of French people didn’t notice), the Balladur government changed the conditions of the general scheme: lengthening the duration of contributions to 40 years and the qualifying salary to 25 years.

In 1995 the government tried to do the same thing with other wage groups, public employees and those in special schemes. On top of that they added reform of social security, reducing payments and undermining the power of the unions to manage social security funds. An important movement of essentially public employees and rail workers forced a withdrawal over the question of pensions.

In 2003 the Raffarin government re-launched the pension issue. This time only the civil servants’ scheme was targeted. There was a significant mobilisation in the National Education sector but not enough to annul the law. The 40 year rule was generalised, with the option of extending it, bit by bit, to 41 years, 42, etc...

Now it is the special schemes that are being targeted. They must also be brought under the 40 year rule.

Over the past six months there hasn’t been a week, and at the moment there isn’t a day without ministers, economists, experts on this or that, explaining to us that the special schemes must be done away with. This was Sarkosy’s election promise. Given this, the unions are apparently rallying, such as the CFDT which has taken on the role of a yellow union since 1995 and is itself prudently opposed, like the CGT, which must strike a difficult balance between its membership and its desire to be responsible (that is to say to allow the bill to pass). The situation becomes clearer if you remember 2003: then the government had taken on the public employees, the rail workers took part in the strike while the government assured them that the special schemes were not affected. But the workers knew very well that they would be next in line and they rejected all the CGT’s efforts to persuade them to break the solidarity strike. Now the rail workers are well and truly isolated. The pension system has become the bar of the "reform" high jump which is continually being raised. That is to say it is, for the counter-reform of pensions, for new increases in the duration of contributions, and so on.

Thus the unions, headed by the CGT, proposed a one-day strike in October and then another for 14 November. Faced with the pressure from below, it is difficult for them not to go along with the movement. But above all without giving it any perspective. No calls for its extension, there will only be this minimum unity of workers under special schemes, no clear guidelines, other than that of “open real negotiations”. (1) Up to now the workers remain isolated. In the SNCF the strike’s general assemblies do not want to give way on the essential (the 40 years). The government is therefore playing for time and waiting for it to burn itself out. In the EdF and the GdF the strike ceased some days ago. Whereas at other times there were power cuts and periods of reduced power this time there has been nothing of the sort. It has to be said that such actions were always tightly contained by the CGT. This time, though, it certainly does not want to use the only lever it has over the economy.

Briefly, when faced with ruling class (2) pressure workers can only hope to win through if they have clear guidelines:

  • Support for workers’ interests as against the interests of the firm or the country and against the union drive towards negotiations.
  • The resolve to extend the struggle. Unity of the special schemes and unification of all workers around the slogan of a return to 37 1/2 for all.
  • Organisation into sovereign General Assemblies, coordinated by branches and locally, in order to circulate information and organise the generalisation.

A Compact French Dictionary For 2007!

Equité: (equity, fairness) Although the word is reminiscent of “equality” it differs in that it only applies to particular cases. When certain people have privileges “equité” implies that they should be cancelled, by equité. Thus fairness (or equité) demands that everyone works for 40 years, not that everyone returns to 37 1/2 years. In the same way, it is not a question of increasing the minimum wage to €2900, that is to say the increase of 172% which Sarkosy has decided for his salary, for this is a fair increase for such exceptional work.

Incontournable: (irreversible) The reform of the retirement laws is incontournable. The dismantling of Social Security is incontournable. The freedom to lay off workers is incontournable. Increases in the hours worked are incontournable. Deteriorating working conditions are incontournable.

Privilège: (privilege, prerogative) Privilège relates to a worker who has a right that other workers do not have. For example the 37 1/2 years of pensions contributions of SNCF workers while other French workers must pay in for 40 years. The golden handshake of the PDG (président directeur général or chairman), for example the 8 million euros for the chairman of Airbus - who has failed to keep the company solvent - is not a privilège: this constitutes the just reward for exceptionally competent persons.

German Train Drivers’ Fight to Avoid Isolation

29th October, 2007

For weeks, the wage struggle between the train drivers’ union (GDL) and the Deutsche Bahn has determined political events in Germany. The DB management has decisively opposed the wage demands of the GDL and seem determined to make an example of the train drivers. With the support of the media, politicians and the representatives of the German Union Federation (DGB) too, nothing has been left undone to discredit the train drivers’ struggle as the struggle for a bigger slice of the cake by an excessively selfish group in a supposedly privileged profession.

The extent of the offensive carried out by the capitalists in recent years is clearly reflected in the example of DB. Since the first phase of the railway privatisation the bosses have annihilated more than half the jobs - from 380 000 down to 180 000. While the employees have had to accept a reduction in real wages of 9.5% since 1994, according to the 2006 DB company report, the salary of the board members has increased by 62.5%, and that of the supervisory board by almost 300%. The trend towards further wage and job cuts, and the worsening of working conditions will continue as a result of following the railway privatisation plan.

Until now, a train driver has received about €1500 per month net. With a 41-hour week, train drivers must work two hours longer than their colleagues. On top of this, there are irregular shifts and change-overs with work starting and ending at any time of the day - or night. No wonder, therefore, that the mood of the train drivers and other train crew has already been at boiling point for some time. In 2003 there were short wildcat strikes on the Berlin S-Bahn, which then ebbed away. The decision of the labour court to ban the strike on goods trains with the bizarre reasoning that the economic damage caused by a strike would not be in the common good is particularly explosive. This is the first hesitant attempt (but it must be taken seriously nonetheless) of the German bourgeoisie to further undermine the right to strike. Given this situation, the limitations of the unions, who are sworn to respect the law, become even clearer. In particular, the split in the railworkers into three unions competing among themselves is fatal. For example, while the workers organised in the GDL strike, the workers organised in the other unions carry out strike-breaking duties. All in all, a bizarre situation, which deepens the chasms between the rail workers, and which will lead to further quarrels. It can be foreseen that the DB management will use these fracture lines and set everything on further isolating the train drivers, in order to deliver the decisive blow against them. The train drivers’ struggle is a further indicator of the sharpening of class conflict in Germany. In the legalistic and narrow-minded union negotiating framework of the GDL, however, this struggle is confined within narrow limits. If it does not succeed in breaking through these limits, in spreading the struggle, and politically generalising it, then a defeat threatens the train drivers which will have heavy consequences for the German working class as a whole.

Gruppe Internationaler Sozialistinnen

Stop Press

The ban on strikes in the goods and long distance trains has been overturned by a different court. Nevertheless, it was a first attempt to restrict the right to strike. Furthermore, there are now more and more calls for the state to ban the strikes.

At the moment, there will probably be a new offer by the DB. It is uncertain whether the GDL will agree. If it doesn’t, there will probably be an indefinite strike - and that will be a bitter confrontation (perhaps with the dimensions of the British miners’ strike - but, at the moment that is speculation).

What is important is that the GDL strike reflects an enormous sharpening of class confrontation in Germany. In the media there is downright rabble-rousing against the strike. Just as in France, every thing is being done to isolate the train drivers.


(1) Easy, since there is always something to negotiate: a small wage increase, for example, even if it will be eaten away in less than a year by inflation and a wage freeze. At the SNCF one can always negotiate over goods traffic, which governments have been dismantling for 30 years under pressure from the road transport lobby. This is an economic aberration which is expensive for businesses and costs the collectivity dearly in terms of road accidents and pollution. The CGT would thus trade the development of the SNCF against the lowering of pensions.

(2) And nowadays within the expression "ruling class" it can be clearly seen that it is necessary to rank not only the “classical” bourgeoisie, but all the other hierarchical levels of its apparatus, including petty bourgeois intellectuals, journalists, economists, and university experts in Human Resources, etc ...

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