Ed Maltby met with Natacha, a member of the Trotskyist organisation Ligue Communiste Révolutionaire and a worker in the Austerlitz train station in Paris. She told him about the difficulties faced by the workers.
“It’s tough. The unions are calling for a return to work during negotiations.” These negotiations will go on for three weeks (until 18 December), and “the government is offering nothing. They see that the union leaders have got the strike movement back under control. They’ve even withdrawn some of the offers of concessions they made us during the strike! We’re looking at a 20-30% cut in our pensions, and the government is trying to keep us calm by offering us a one-off Christmas bonus of 80 euros (about £50) to keep us quiet. It’s ridiculous. But it’ll be difficult for workers to go out on strike over Christmas.”
The financial situation for some rail workers is tough too: “Two weeks of strikes and that can start to weigh heavily on your wallet. Colleagues of mine have lost between 500 and 750 euros (around £300-500). There has been no strike fund organised by the CGT, but a lot of people had been saving up since the summer. Now people at Austerlitz station are talking about setting up our own strike fund in preparation for the next strike.”
“The role of the CGT is crucial in the campaign. They have major sway in the rails, much more than anyone else. If they don’t call a strike, then there is no strike.”
But the CGT is trying to sidle out of a fight. “They’re changing the tone of the leaflets and statements they’re putting out. They’re not arguing against the politics of Sarkozy’s reforms any more; they’re not arguing for us to keep our 37.5 year pension plans. They’ve given up hope on that, they’re just looking for smaller concessions. They’re acting like the student unions in that respect, just trying to stay on side with the government, as mediators.”
Unions have also been reticent in fixing a date for strike action. They have organised pickets and demonstrations, knowing that these would fail, as it is very difficult to mobilise workers during the week when they’re not on strike. They keep claiming to be preparing a call for a strike at some point in the future, but “perhaps it’s got lost in the post. Honestly, waiting for the CGT to call a strike is like waiting for Godot!”
“Throughout, they’ve been calling for ‘negotiations’, as if they only problem with the reforms was that they hadn’t been negotiated! But if the membership isn’t in control of negotiations, you get nothing, they go nowhere. You need to be able to bring great industrial strength to the negotiating table to get what you want. And ordinary workers want the complete withdrawal of these reforms.”
Union bureaucrats have made themselves unpopular in the membership: “Colleagues in the stations are following the negotiations, they’re keeping their ears open, even though they see that there’s very little coming of them. When Thibault [the leader of the CGT] called for negotiations, that was widely regarded as a betrayal”.
At a demonstration on 20 November, Thibault was booed by an angry crowd of rail workers; and leader of the union CFDT François Cherèque was chased by demonstrators, having to run some distance through the streets to escape them.
Yet in the face of these attacks, the rail workers are not losing heart. “The enthusiasm for the strike was so great that the movement cannot but erupt again.”
Workers have learnt a great deal from the last round of strikes: “Last time, the rail workers didn’t elect strike committees. Bus and metro workers did, they elected bodies to carry out the decisions of the daily general assemblies in the workplaces, and so they could control their struggle better, and do what they wanted to, not just what the union tops told them to.”
But rail worker general assemblies didn’t organise action independent of the unions or elect strike committees; they just sent motions to the union bureaucrats, condemning or praising the statements of the leadership. “More and more on the shop floor, you hear people saying, ‘Next time, we’ll elect strike committees like in the metro. Next time, we’ll control our strike.’ People have learned. It’s going to be impossible for the government to stave off a strike in January.”
The experience of inter-industry general assemblies, and meetings between shop-floor activists from different sectors had a great impact upon young workers in this struggle. “It was mostly young workers who went to talk to people from other stations, to teachers, to students and to energy workers in the inter-industry meetings. That experience taught a lot of young militants a lot about how workers have to fight. Everyone in the union has the will for a big industrial fight on pensions, everyone’s ready for that.
“But the young colleagues who talked to other sectors in struggle really understand the politics behind the fight. That’s what’s new, young people talking about the politics of it, understanding that Sarkozy’s attacks are part of a much broader political project. The LCR has received a lot of requests for membership from rail workers, and people are approaching our activists in the stations to talk politics with us.”