What France teaches us

Submitted by AWL on 5 February, 2020 - 11:40 Author: Rachael Baylis
hospital strike

My decision to go on the delegation to France organised by AWL on 25-26 January had its roots in what happened on 12 December.

As a Labour activist and socialist for two years, I had a flame of hope that a left-wing government could triumph. As we all know, it didn’t. Facing an 80-seat Tory majority which will destroy communities, workers rights and environmental protections the question became — what next?

The possibility for resistance still exists and always will, so when I saw the opportunity to go and learn from the French strikes in Paris, I jumped. The only way we can resist the onslaught ahead and mobilise against the power of capital — and simultaneously right wing governments — is through the organisation of workers and communities.

On the first morning, we headed to a small café near the metro where we met with Kisky, a member of the French group Étincelle, who explained that, contrary to what some might assume, the majority of workers on strike are not actually members of a trade union.

The French have the constitutional right to strike, unhindered by the anti-union laws we face in the UK. When asked how France maintained their unions, a comrade responded along the lines of “Thatcher destroyed our unions in the 80s, the attempt in France failed”. From how I understood this, it has resulted in a culture whereby striking is seen as fundamental to the idea of liberty that is enshrined in the slogan “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”.

I’m speaking as someone who grew up in a small semi-rural city in the West Midlands where my family only mentioned the unions when they said “they were too powerful” and that “Thatcher did what needed to be done”. Even within the labour movement, more specifically the Labour Party, I’ve encountered countless people who are almost afraid to stand up for trade unions because the winning narrative for 40 years has been that they disrupt “business as usual”.

My assumption was that it’s the unions who push for strikes and resistance, but Kisky told us that trade unions in France can still be very conservative when it comes to their taking action.

In Britain, I know from my limited experience with attempting to unionise in the hospitality industry in Brighton that the reliance upon the meeting of thresholds for recognition and the necessity for membership fees immediately act as barriers to people making the commitment.

I don’t claim to be an expert on trade unions or how the internal bureaucracies work but what I’ve gathered is that they are still locked into a routine of gaining the threshold, balloting, reballoting and then finally taking strike action. Trade unions are rightly seen as, and rightly so, pillars of the labour movement. However, when the gig economy is so fluid, are the routines of trade unions today a hindrance when having to organise fast?

Deliveroo and Uber and McDonalds have managed to unionise and strike across the country, but are there ways in which it could be made easier? E.g. a six-month free trial of membership for those on minimum wage to enable the meeting of the threshold without costing already poorly paid workers, more income than is strictly necessary? Bigger unions can certainly afford it. This fear of judgement for taking strike action is something that I feel has been allowed to stifle not just action but also debate around trying and testing new methods of strike. Organised acts of resistance to the powers that be, such as corporations and bad bosses, are not limited to withdrawing labour.

In Japan bus drivers refuse fares. In Asia, workers in a condom factory, after being banned from striking, put a pin through one in ten condoms. The company had to release a statement and everyone stopped buying their product.

We need to get creative if we are to address the gig economy, rebrand what being in a union means. A key point for me is to address the rise of the consumer as a factor in modern society.

Following the meeting with Kisky, we headed to another café to wait out the gap between our first meeting and what was to be the highlight of the trip — the Gilets Jaunes demonstration.

After a serious briefing of what to do if it turned violent and a reassuring text from dad to not get my limbs maimed by smoke grenades, we hopped on the wonderfully efficient metro toward the protest. As we neared the back of it, the flashing blue lights of roughly 15 vans signalled we were going in the right direction.

As we legged it up the parallel street to overtake the demo, the back of it had a regiment of riot police armed with batons and shields. Helmets strapped to their midsection like babies in slings. The eerie in-step footfall that unified the mass of at least 40 riot police at the back was something out of a dystopian film except — spoiler alert — this is Paris in 2020, not some post apocalyptic Hunger Games world. Slipping through a small gap between the robotic and austere looking men who refused to make eye contact, we melted into the crowd to the shouts of “na na na leeeesss Gilets Jauness” and what must have been a lot of swear words followed by “Macron!”.

As we proceeded, apartment windows opened. Lots of cheering and shouting and my favourite moment was when a woman waved her own yellow jacket out the window in solidarity and was received by enthusiastic cheers.

The march overall turned out to be one of the tamer ones but despite that, the ratio of riot police to protesters must have been one-to-three. The violent arm of the state was flexing itself and ready to start crushing should the opportunity arise.

The last leg of the day was to be spent at a workers’ conference in the outlying district of St. Denis. It was held in a community building in the banlieue. Free coffee and stickers abounded. As we listened to the speeches from the panel and the floor (translated by Ed and Kisky), the arguments they were making reminded me a lot of some of the arguments you hear at Labour Party conference, in terms of democracy, representation, and decision-making.

Since we left Paris, the strikes have continued, the French living up to their reputation as a revolutionary people. For the UK, a Tory Brexit poses the biggest threat to workers in this country. The focus for the next five years and further should be to build an active, diverse and inclusive workers’ movement.

There are plenty of issues to campaign on and as socialists it is up to us to agitate, educate and organise. In a world where apathy on politics is a growing sentiment, it is vital to give people confidence in their own power when working as a part of a collective.

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