France: migrant workers' strikes demand rights and regularisation

Submitted by Matthew on 10 December, 2009 - 1:51 Author: Michael Elverton

Migrant workers in France have stepped up their campaign of strikes and occupations. Nearly 6,000 workers are now involved in a strike wave that has spread from Paris out into Oise and Orléans, demanding rights at work, regularisation papers, and a fairer system for regularising migrant workers.

The step-up in action follows a recent government circular offering to make minor changes to the immigration system. The strikers considered new criteria for regularisation (secure legal status) were considered to be too restrictive by the strikers, who voted to reject the “deal”. One union activist told Solidarity, “Some conservative elements in the CGT [union federation] tried to present it as a great victory but were quickly silenced by outrage from other CGT activists and the sans-papiers strike delegates themselves — because they can read too!”

The strikers have adopted the tactic of occupying a temping agency and bringing isolated sans-papiers workers from other workplaces to join the strike there. This tactic enables the strikers to identify places where migrant workers work, and build up networks through which those new workplaces can be organised. As the movement spreads out to other cities in the provinces many of the migrant workers who had come to Paris from the provinces to take part in the movement will return to their original places of work to conduct agitation there.

The French headquarters of the ISS cleaning contractor is, as we go to press, occupied. In total around 1,800 workplaces have been affected by the strike, and roughly 30 workplaces are under occupation. As soon as one occupation is cleared out, the workers go to occupy another.

The strikers have begun to organise a rank-and-file network independently of the leaderships of their unions. One SUD union activist explained to Solidarity: “It’s like Lenin said, one week of general strike is a better education than any congress. There are about 170 representatives of the different strike committees around France who are learning very rapidly how to lead a strike. They are representing their struggle to the media, navigating union structures, and sharing information out horizontally between workplaces rather than only communicating via official union structures. They have begun to organise their own migrant workers reps’ caucus. That’s not an anti-union move, it is just a logical demand of the situation on the strikers.”

In addition to the reps’ network that has grown up, a complicated proliferation of organisations are supporting the strike. The migrant workers’ organisations have grown up on the back of traditional migrant collectives, whose initial purpose was, in the words of one activist “a sort of collective way of managing their poverty, a support structure”.

In addition to the migrant collectives and the trade unions, a variety of community campaign groups and NGOs are offering help to the strikers. That level of self-organisation and general social mobilisation through a number of different channels is what is giving the migrant workers the strength to continue after a month and a half of bitter strikes.

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