Since 12 October, a new wave of strikes by around 4,000 undocumented migrant workers (sans-papiers, “without papers”) has swept France. At the time of writing, over 40 workplaces have been occupied by the workers, who are demanding “regularisation” (legal status), employment rights, and changes in immigration law to make life easier for France's hyper-exploited immigrant workforce.
The French labour movement has learnt its lessons from previous sans-papier strikes in May 2008 (see Solidarity 3/133), and has rallied to support them. The movement is using a variety of imaginative tactics to beat the bosses’ repression, and the French government is now coming under increasing political pressure. Most of the strikes are concentrated in the Paris region, but they are also taking place as far afield as Essonne.
Some strikers are in workplaces that employ a large number of migrant workers; others either work alone, or have been sent to a particular workplace by an unscrupulous employment agency, where they have a different contract to all their workmates. The movement has organised these “isolated” workers and helped them to find a collective strength.
For instance, the offices of several employment agencies have been occupied by hundreds of “isolated” sans-papiers workers, some of whom work for them, others of whom are employed by a different agency. When one occupation is cleared out by the police or bosses, the workers go and take over another building. Many temping agencies are now refusing to open their offices, for fear of being overrun by strikers! Elsewhere, pickets are set up at a particular workplace, and isolated workers from across that district are invited to attend.
Undocumented migrant workers are some of the most exploited workers in French society. Prevented from organising by fear of deportation, obliged to pay social security contributions but barred from access to benefits or health insurance, they live a twilight existence in Victorian conditions. They are employed in dangerous and dirty jobs — security, construction and cleaning. Although invisible, they work at the heart of the French economy. Their industrial muscle is huge. Employers are begging the government to intervene. The Sarkozy government has made a lot of political capital out of scapegoating migrants. Now, in the face of the economic chaos and the political pressure generated by the strikes, Sarkozy's racist chickens are coming home to roost.
In the May 2008 strike wave around 600 workers, mainly concentrated in Paris, staged a series of workplace occupations. Those occupations did not involve “isolated” workers, and had more limited demands. However, they solidified networks of communication and organisation between sans-papier workers in Paris and also introduced organisers in the main union federations to the sans-papiers communities and the neighbourhood collectives which had previously been the focus for migrant organisation. Those strikes were organised almost entirely without union involvement until just before the strikes began.
Now, networks of sans-papiers exist in workplaces and through union structures, which makes co-ordinating action easier and faster. In addition the NGO-style groups that have traditionally supported sans-papiers, like the Collectives, or the sans-papiers school-student organisation RESF, have played an important role in solidarity work. As one union militant put it, “What the movement is, is not just trade unions, but a social movement analogous to the LKP alliance that animated the Guadeloupe general strike, between unions, associations, NGOs and community groups, which forced the Guadeloupe government to make a deal. This is neither pure political pressure, nor pure industrial pressure, nor NGO-style 'awareness raising' or 'issue creation', but a mixture of all three, in a way which complements each other. What you have is an active movement based on industrial muscle, a political agenda and an emotive, moral case. That is truly indomitable. That is where I think we can see the strength of the movement.
“The tramway occupation at Porte des Lilas is kept strong because all the bakers in the district bring them their unsold bread every evening. People are always there with support — there have been thousands of euros donated, just from solidarity donations on this one picket line, this one part of this whole wave of disputes and strikes. They've got tents and sleeping bags from the NPA, the PCF, there are union members on the picket line every day, and massive general support.”
Sans-papiers workers are also organising alongside French-born workers in their workplaces to demand basic working rights and to “civilise” the most exploitative industries where they are employed. This movement will not just change the law on immigration in France, but will act as a major organising drive in some of the least-organised, most-casualised sections of the French economy.
As one union activist from the Solidaires union federation put it, “The sans-papier movement was defined by what was lacking, what made you different or inferior to others. But this fight is being conducted on the basis of what you have in common with others — the fact that you are workers. So at the end of this struggle they will get their papers, sure, but they will still be workers and they will not leave the struggle.
“There can be no doubt in light of this struggle, that unions have their faults, but they are the universities of the working class. They have shown that they can take the least educated members of the working class, show them that a union is what they need, and leave these workers in the driving seat of a major mass movement and contribute to a major advance in struggle.”
Interview with some of the strikers: www.workersliberty.org/story/2009/11/06/strikers-speak-out