The generalised attack on public sector pensions that the UK government is pushing through now is not unprecedented.
The French government did the same, going for wide-ranging “reforms” of retirement law last year, pushing up the retirement age, and reducing workers’ pension entitlements.
The major difference so far is that the French government was met with a massive strike wave which came close to bringing it down.
The French union leaderships first co-ordinated single strike and protest days in April and May — these were spaced far apart, and although massive, were intended to be limited, controllable shows of force by union leaders to strengthen their hand in negotiations. But as 2010 wore on and it became clear that Sarkozy had no intention of negotiating, union leaders worried that their prestige would be damaged. The action was intensified, with general strikes tabled for September and October.
There was a general political disgust in the French working class at Sarkozy, the “bling-bling” president driving through the cuts.
Combined with pressure from the lower levels of the union structures — regional executives, shop stewards’ committees — on the union leaderships, this opened the way for the extension of the strikes.
By 8 October, rail, road and dockworkers’ unions, as well as oil refinery workers, were issuing notices that they would be taking indefinite strike action – voting in workplace “general assemblies” each day on whether to strike. After the 12 October one-day strike, there began nearly a month of all-out indefinite strikes in several industries — parts of the rail network, oil and docks in particular.
Another key factor in the dispute was the youth movement. As soon as the strikes began, there were walkouts every day in dozens of universities and hundreds of further education colleges, with students demonstrating and making links with workers. This gave a huge boost to the morale of the strikers. Soon, the strike had spread beyond the “core” sectors and extended across most of the public sector, some workers coming out for one day, others staying out for days or weeks.
By the middle of November, however, the strikes were running out of steam. The union leaderships weren’t fighting to stop the strikes, exactly — but they weren’t leading, either. Rank-and-file organisations were not strong enough to continue the action when union leaders went in for sell-out negotiations, effectively pulling the plug on the strongest sectors of the strike. However, rank-and-file networks had begun to spring up. In Rouen, a daily inter-industry strike bulletin was being published. Inter-industry general assemblies were being organised effectively in other areas as well. A whole swathe of young workers had come of age in the strikes, joined unions and learned how to organise.
The French strikes did not come out of nowhere. French workers are not all super-militant strike-enthusiasts (unfortunately!). French workers did not go into October with buckets of confidence.
They were hesitant. They found their confidence from three sources. The first source was leadership from the local structure of their unions. The strike was “union-led” — local shop stewards and regional committees went out and fought for the idea of a strike. Secondly, they drew inspiration from the strikes of the most militant sectors — the rail, docks and oil workers. The workers in these sectors understood that they were giving an example to the rest of the class, and said as much in their strike meetings. That was one reason for the strength of the transport, oil and dock strikes. The third source of confidence was the youth revolt. Seeing the youth — in many cases, their own children — fighting in the streets had a big impact on French workers’ confidence.
Workers in Britain can find the same confidence to fight, from the same sources. We can fight like the French!