By Joan Trevor
The workers of the SNCM ferry company have voted a return to work after 24 days’ strike. They had been protesting against government plans to privatise the company. They voted to stop their protest only after the government threatened to put the company into liquidation. The vote was 519 for a return to work and 73 against.
It is disappointing, if not surprising, that the dispute ended in defeat. Especially since throughout Marseille there were a number of disputes ongoing, against, effectively, the same government policies.
The union federations, however, are not uniting the many struggles as they might.
The CGT representative at the Port Autonome in Marseille, itself in dispute, insisted to the press: “We are not striking in support of the SNCM.”
Strictly speaking he was right, but members of the same union were in dispute at SNCM. Little was being done to unite the struggles.
In the wake of the SNCM workers’ return to work, the government announced partial privatisation of the state electricity company, EDF, not a coincidence.
The SNCM dispute was not about the privatisation or economic viability of SNCM alone, it was about the readiness of the working class to resist privatisation throughout society. The SNCM workers could not do it by themselves. The trade unions as a whole need a strategy against privatisations.
At the same time, tram and bus workers – again, led by the CGT — were on strike in Marseille, and they still are.
Their protest against plans to move towards privatisation of the service, reached its 29th day on 1 November. The prefect of the region, Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur, is threatening to requisition buses and force workers to work if the conflict continues any longer. Meantime, a mediator has been called in.
Against this background of unrest, the unions are not saying clearly that the government and the bosses are engaged in one, united struggle to defeat the working class. The unions are misrepresenting the danger. In fact, the government and the bosses they represent are very happy to pick away at the fabric of the social movement dispute by dispute.
When Chirac won the presidency and his party the majority in the parliament, commentators spoke about the possibility that he would “do a Thatcher” on the French working class: smash their unions, fillet their welfare state, demoralise them utterly.
Fighting and winning the miners’ strike was the means Thatcher and her government used to defeat the working class in Britain. What is happening in France is more insidious: lots of little battles that go down to defeat, making the words of resistance coming from the unions sound more and more hollow, demoralising the workers instead of rallying them.
In Seine-Saint-Denis, the department north of Paris, there have been several nights of disturbances between youth and the police. These follow the deaths of two young men, Ziad, aged 17, and Banou, aged 15, and the serious injury of their friend, after they jumped into an electricity sub-station and fell against the generator. They believed they were being chased by the police at the time.
At a march to protest against the deaths, mourners wore t-shirts that said “Dead for nothing”.
What these events tell us is about the alienation of many young people, many of them the children of immigrants, in France’s poorer suburbs. Few of them have work, they are despised and feared by French society generally, and harassed by the police. If some of them are not angels it is no wonder.
The trade unions have to organise these young people. The social movement is for them as well.