Following the massive strike movement of last Autumn which ended in stalemate, French rail workers are preparing for the next round. Off The Rails’ ‘man in France’ met with Joachim, a union activist and member of Marxist group LCR at Gare Montparnasse in Paris. He described the atmosphere at the station in the wake of November’s battle with management over pensions.
“It’s over for now, and we didn’t win, although we did get some concessions out of the employers. For instance, originally they wanted us to retire at the age of 60, but we fought them down to 57. So, people don’t feel beaten. But people do recognise that we made mistakes, and are talking about how to do it better next time. People also recognise that LCR was the only political party really fighting their corner, as opposed to the union tops or the Socialist Party (the major New Labour-style ‘left’ party in France).
“For one thing, workers realise that we put too much store by what the union said. We held daily meetings at each station during the strike, to vote on what to do next. But we let these meetings be directed by union full-timers, regional organisers, who often hadn’t worked on a station for years. Members are saying that in future, we mustn’t let that happen, we have to take what CGT (union) leaders say with a big pinch of salt. Some people were so disgusted with what the CGT did in the strike that they just tore up their membership cards. What I say to people at my station is, ‘if you leave the union, you drop out of activity, you become isolated. Stay in the union, but keep criticising the leaders, keep an eye on full-timers.’
“Another thing is that rail workers found ourselves isolated in the strikes. We were concentrating too much on narrow demands of our own, when the whole public sector was ready to strike. We should have broadened our demands, sending people to talk to workers from across the public sector like the teachers and gas workers, thinking bigger. As it was, the union leaderships and management could just make deals industry by industry, sometimes even grade by grade, and pick us off piecemeal. Together, we could have won more.
“A common gripe at the moment is pay. As a ticket inspector, I have quite a low starting salary, but you get a lot of bonuses, for things like sleeping away from home and early starts. These take my pay up from 1,300 euros to 1,700. Management are encroaching on those bonuses, one by one. This month they’re trying to cut overnight bonuses for ticket inspectors; next month they’re ‘reviewing’ a different bonus for a different grade. A lot of public sector workers are being squeezed like this, and you’re also seeing strikes in the private sector, like cleaning staff at airports, and Renault employees. We have to seize on this.”