France - "Loi Travail", the lessons of four months of protest

Summer 2016

For nearly 4 months, workers have been staging stoppages and protests across France, including a dozen national days of action and strikes, against a draft law, officially known as the "law for the modernisation of the labour code". This draft was released on February 17th by the Labour minister and was soon called simply the "Loi Travail" ("Labour Law") since it involves a major overhaul of the country's Labour Code.Detailing a comprehensive list of all the changes contained in this draft which are unfavourable to workers is beyond the scope of this article there are just too many. But just to mention the most important changes:- So far one of the main pillars of employment law in France was the fact that, when it came to pay, working, and employment conditions, workers would automatically benefit from the provisions of the law, industry-wide agreements and local agreements whichever was most favourable. This law will end this old principle by giving priority to local agreements on most issues, thereby allowing bosses to take on workers one workplace at a time, in order to get what they want.- What's more, when local agreements cannot be reached with the unions, for instance over cuts in working conditions, this law will allow a referendum to be organised to bypass them thereby giving the bosses the means to blackmail workers into agreeing to major concessions, under threat of closure, for instance.- Employers will be able to unilaterally change workers' employment contracts, as long as their total monthly income does not change for instance by increasing the number of working hours, while reducing their hourly rate. Those workers who refuse this change in their employment contract, will be considered as resigning from their jobs. They will, therefore, be entitled neither to redundancy payments nor to unemployment benefit.- More generally, this law will give bosses a considerable amount of leeway to play with working hours, overtime, overtime premiums, part time jobs, etc., according to their needs, as well as to sack workers more easily.- This law will also change the whole concept of "economic redundancies", whereby employers had to provide solid justifications for making workers redundant while having to go through the motions, at least, of helping them to find alternative jobs and submit their plan to the scrutiny of the Labour ministry. With this law, a company will just need to be able to show a fall in its cashflow (or its orders) over the previous 2 to 4 months (depending on its size) in order to be automatically entitled to cut jobs on economic grounds, without having to pay any compensation.These are just some of the main attacks in the "Loi Travail". Some of these were directly borrowed from plans that the previous right-wing administration did not have time to implement. Others seem to have been written directly by the MEDEF, the French equivalent of the CBI. In any case, there is no doubt that this law represents a major attack on the French working class. And the reaction it sparked off, was proportionate to the threat it represents. [Class Struggle]

The mobilisation against the "Loi Travail" was a reawakening of the collective militancy of the working class. This draft law caused a significant number of workers to react. It was the last straw. And their reaction expressed the discontent stoked up as a result of the Socialist Party government's long series of anti-working class measures which, so far, had remained unopposed. The union confederations especially the CGT (General Confederation of Labour, the largest French trade-union confederation), which played the most prominent role in this movement used different tactics at different moments. Sometimes they emphasised the specific demands of particular sections of workers who were already mobilised particularly those of the railway workers whereas, at other times, they threw their weight behind the common demand that the draft law should be withdrawn. But beyond these tactical variations, this movement has been, de facto, a movement of the whole working class: whether different sections of workers joined the struggle one after the other, or whether they combined their forces, they always influenced one another. One can say, therefore, that after years of keeping its head down in front of the bosses' and government's attacks, the working class has finally made its voice heard.

Almost four months of mobilisation

The main feature of this movement is its duration. It never had an explosive character and never involved the whole of the working class at the same time. In the big private sector companies, in particular (although in many cases there were workers who did take part in stoppages and demonstrations), they only represented a small minority of the workforce. But the duration of the movement allowed many different sections of workers to express themselves through the actions that were organised, whether it was against the "Loi Travail" itself, or against specific implementations of this law. Initially, one of the features of the movement was the involvement of various other social layers, such as school and university students, as well as some intellectuals, who were shocked by the government's policy. The initiatives taken by these participants played a role in increasing the momentum of the movement. One of their first initiatives was an e-petition entitled "Loi Travail: no thanks!", launched by former Socialist Party activist, Caroline de Haas, which received 1.3m signatures. Other initiatives launched by intellectuals such as "Nuit Debout" ("Night on our feet" involved the nightly occupation of Paris' Republic Square by a mostly young milieu of protesters) from March 31st were imitated in various provincial cities and concealed the rising mobilisation which was taking place among workers. With time, however, the movement appeared increasingly as what it really was the expression of the growing anger of the working class. The duration of the movement allowed different sections of the working class to get involved simultaneously or one after the other. Some sections were involved virtually throughout the movement. Such was the case of the railway workers, even though their unions only issued a general call for strike action rather later from May 18th in the case of SUD and FO and from June 1st in the case of the CGT (besides the CGT, the main union confederations are the CFDT, FO and SUD; in addition the FSU organises only teachers at every level). Other sections of workers, on the other hand, only joined the movement more than two months after it had begun this was the case for the refinery workers, the petrol truck drivers, the refuse and incineration station workers, etc. The movement also involved workers in middle-size and even small companies. Many among them were taking industrial action for the first time. A number of young workers also experienced their first stoppage and demonstration during this movement. Everywhere those who took part in the movement were in a minority. But, despite this, they were never ostracised by those of their workmates who did not participate quite the opposite, in fact. According to opinion polls, 60 to 70% of the public approved of the movement at its peak. This meant that the overwhelming majority of the workers supported it regardless, whether they participated or not. This general sympathy of the working class for the movement was one of its assets. But, at the same time, it showed its limitations. The workers who were mobilised enjoyed the moral support of the rest of the working class, but while agreeing with the objectives of the movement, it was not prepared to take an active part in it. It was as if the majority of the working class was taking part in the movement by proxy.

The policy of the union confederations

While all the union confederations took exception against the draft law when it was announced, none of them demanded its immediate withdrawal. This did not last though. Soon the CFDT went one way, while the other main unions CGT, FO, SUD, FSU went the other way, followed by the students organisations UNEF, UNL and FIDL (UNEF is the main students' union whereas UNL and FIDL organise school students; their leaderships are connected with the dissident wing of the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Left Party, another small political party to the left of the Socialist Party). The CFDT promptly chose to distance itself from the movement and in fact to oppose it in return for the government agreeing to tweak the draft law on minor points. Not only did it thus condone the government's policy, but it became its mouthpiece. By the time the unconditional withdrawal of the draft law had become the common objective of all the strikes and demonstrations which were taking place, the CFDT's general secretary, Laurent Berger, went so far as to declare, on May 25th, that "withdrawing the draft law would be unacceptable", adding that "this would be a blow for workers because they would lose the chance of benefiting from the new rights it contains". The CGT, together with FO, SUD and the FSU, made the opposite choice. These four confederations formed a joint coordinating committee which took over the leadership of the movement and went on to play this role right until the end. Unquestionably, it was the successive days of action and demonstrations called by this committee which provided the movement with its backbone. With time, as its power struggle with the government was unfolding, the CGT appeared as the decisive factor in the movement. This was due to the number of its activists on the ground and its greater influence in the working class. In fact, the CGT leadership's choice to undertake this role had already manifested itself at its annual conference in Marseille (April 18-22), where the general tone had been unusually dynamic. There had been talk of strike action if not a general strike, at least renewable strikes. Whatever the internal reasons for the choice made by the CGT whether their aim was to consolidate the position of its newly-elected general secretary, Philippe Martinez, or not the fact was, that it demonstrated that the CGT's militant base had had more than enough of being made to sit on its hands, as had been the case since the Socialist Party had been elected into office, in 2012. By and large, as soon as the CGT leadership opened the way for industrial action, the confederation's activists jumped at the opportunity, including many of its officials. Some did it enthusiastically, but others, of course, retained their bureaucratic habits their usual distrust of the workers and fear of losing control, even though this was highly unlikely given the nature of the movement. These habits resulted in attitudes which were often ambiguous and contradictory. These officials were chronically distrustful of mass meetings and, more generally, of any form of framework in which the mobilised workers might have been able to express themselves. And the fact is that the union apparatuses were able to retain full control from beginning to end, because the movement itself did not have the power which would have been needed to impose its own dynamic on these apparatuses. It should also be recalled that, once it had made the choice of taking the lead, the CGT leadership adopted a strategy which fitted in with the nature of the movement as a whole the only exception being the CGT railway federation which, initially at least, focused on the specific problems faced by railway workers. In particular, the organisation of regular mass protests and the simultaneous announcement of the date for the follow-up protest, provided a backbone to the movement, allowing it to last longer and to broaden its reach by allowing various sections of workers to join in at various points. The policy adopted this time round by the CGT leadership highlighted what it could have done but failed to do in the past. In this movement the CGT demonstrated its mobilising capability. This shows how, by adopting a more militant attitude combined with a correct policy from the day the Socialist Party got into office, the CGT could have helped to rebuild the self-confidence of the working class. Such a policy could have got workers to realise earlier what they know for a fact today that they cannot consider the Socialist Party government as an ally against big business, and that it is the instrument of the bosses' offensive against them. Of course, no-one can say whether, had this moral and political preparatory work been done before, workers' involvement in the movement against the "Loi Travail" would have been more massive and powerful. But it is obviously difficult to make up for all these years during which the union leaderships kept quiet in front of the attacks aimed at the working class, just because the government claimed to be on the left. If the CGT was able to lead the present movement to its very end, it was first of all because its leadership knew that they were taking no risk of losing control of the rank-and-file. In fact the policy that the CGT was proposing corresponded to what the movement really was and to its level of mobilisation. But the CGT's policy in this movement also reflected the fact that it had chosen to break with the government, and for a simple reason: it did not want to be dragged into a likely debacle and share its discredit among the working class. Another factor that must be taken into account is the competition between the union confederations, in particular in the run-up to the trade union elections, which are due to take place in the very small companies (less than 10 employees) in November 2016. In this competition, the CFDT leadership has made the choice of betting on workers' resignation. This was explicitly stated by general secretary Laurent Berger in the interview quoted above: "I am betting on the collective intelligence which involves seeking balanced compromises". But, of course, to promote a "balanced compromise" between a government which wanted to introduce yet another anti-working class law and the workers who rejected it, amounts to siding with the government. Obviously, the fact that the CGT took an opposite line did not make it revolutionary. Given the government's discredit, it had become a liability for the CGT and it was in its interest, as a union machinery, to be seen taking its opposition as far as possible. Will this present policy benefit the CGT in its competition with the CFDT? Only the future will tell. But, unquestionably, this policy and the fact that the CGT held on to it for over 3 months, corresponded with the interests of the movement and of the working class in general. There was another significant factor, however, which encouraged the CGT to keep to this policy the fact that the government focused its attacks on the CGT alone, in an attempt to isolate it. However this manoeuvre failed, as FO, SUD and the FSU remained on the CGT's side throughout the movement. As a result, given the support the movement had among the overwhelming majority of the working class, it was the CFDT which appeared isolated by its support for the government.

The lessons of the movement

The main point to bear in mind is that this movement, its demonstrations and its protests, prompted hundreds of thousands of workers to take up a vast array of issues that they had never considered before. Collective struggles, no matter how limited they may be, always bring workers to seek solutions for all kinds of problems. It is during such struggles that workers are able to gauge the value of the policies on offer, to realise who is on their side and who is against them, and to assess how the struggle should be conducted. The workers who took an active part in this power struggle with the government but also those who felt in solidarity with it and followed its developments will have learnt many things. They were faced first with the ministers' lies and then, as the protests were gathering momentum, with the anti-working class venom of a government which claimed to be socialist. They were able to see how bourgeois democracy operates: while the "loi Travail" was rejected by the majority of the population and the overwhelming majority of those who will be subjected to it, they saw how, by using article 49.3 of the Constitution (this article defines a procedure allowing the government to rush the adoption of a draft bill through Parliament], the government was able to impose on its own parliamentary majority a law dictated by big business. They saw the government using every trick in the book in order to get its pro-business legislation agreed against the will of the working class: how it tried to stop the movement under the pretext of supporting the victims of the floods; by warning against the damage it was causing to the international image of the country and by calling for a truce during the World Cup. They saw how, having failed in all its attempts, the government and the media unleashed a flood of slander against the unions which were involved in the movement, especially the CGT, but more generally aimed at all those workers, whether unionised or not, who were fighting its attacks. They saw how the government tried to use the damage caused by a few hundred hooligans on the margins of the demonstrations, to conceal the reasons why hundreds of thousands of workers had been staging protest after protest for so long. They saw a prime minister who calls himself socialist, threatening to ban a trade-union protest on June 23rd something no government had ever done since the Algeria war and how, in the end, he was forced to withdraw his threat and agree to a compromise. They saw how the Socialist Party ministers and leaders lined up against them, with the support of right-wing politicians. They saw how the opinion-making machinery of the capitalist-owned media was mobilised against them. This was an extraordinary political lesson for the working class and it won't be forgotten. At the same time, the developments of the movement itself offer many other political lessons. While, initially, the students' mobilisation, and even the occupation of public squares, played a role in the movement, this stage was short-lived. In the next stage, which came after the CGT and FO had chosen to fully join the movement, workers became the dominant force in the demonstrations. Nevertheless, for a long time the media remained focused on the public square occupations, while the government was looking on with a tolerant and amused attitude. As part of the "Nuit Debout" occupation, abstract debates were taking place day after day on how to tame capitalism, on the virtues of refusing political labels or on the "horizontal approach" that should be opposed to the government's "vertical approach". However, these debates only exposed the fact that this section of the intellectual petty-bourgeoisie had no policy nor perspective to propose to the working class, even though, to its credit, it was opposing the government. As to revolutionary activists, their aim had to be to take the emerging political consciousness among the workers who were put into motion by the movement, as far as possible. This had to be achieved within the objective which both corresponded to the wishes of the workers and was defended by the union leaderships the withdrawal of the "Loi Travail". To this end, revolutionary activists had to act so that workers got involved as actively and consciously as possible. In and of themselves, the numbers who took part in the protests and stoppages do not say very much. But behind these numbers, there were tens of thousands of workers, many of whom were activists who had stopped doing much, due to the disappointment and disgust they felt as a result of the Socialist Party's policies in government and who regained hope and, above all, the will to act, thanks to this movement. But, there were also thousands of others, young workers in particular, whose life experience had been limited to being subjected to exploitation in precarious employment. Their idea of the world in general and social relations in particular, had been entirely shaped by the media's way of portraying society according to what suits capitalist interests. And this included, in particular, the idea that decisions should be made by the great and powerful the capitalist class while the role of workers is to submit to these decisions. Well, the mere fact that workers began to act collectively demonstrated their ability to do so. And, on the basis of this realisation, everything became possible. At every stage of the movement, it was necessary to understand its dynamics, where it was at and what possibilities it had and to get workers to acquire this understanding, not only with respect to the movement as it was, but also, more generally, to any movement in which they might be involved in the future. Let's take the example of the blockades (it has been a tradition for a long time for strikers and protesters to set up roadblocks, to block the circulation of trains or the gates of factories, using burning tyres, etc.). In the case of this movement, where the majority of workers were not actively involved, it could seem more effective to put up a road block at a cross roads or to blockade the gates of a factory than to try to convince more workers to join in. The activists who had been shaped by the Stalinist or reformist machineries, were keen on spectacular actions decided from above. And they were comforted in this respect by the successful oil refinery blockades which were organised to stop petrol and fuel supplies. We explained the limitations of such actions, in the May 30th editorial of our workplace bulletins: "The riot police can dislodge a few hundred workers who are blockading a refinery or a railway track. But they cannot replace striking refinery workers nor become improvised train drivers, signalmen or air pilots. "Nor can they replace the assembly line workers, employees, technicians or engineers, without whom no company is able to operate." These blockades were part of this movement as it was. There was no point in rejecting them. But it was necessary for workers to realise their limitations. It may not always be possible to do what would be right and necessary. But it is always possible to explain and convince of what would be necessary, in order to raise the workers' level of consciousness. Embryonic as it still may be, the level of political consciousness acquired by the working class during these nearly 4 months of struggle is infinitely more important than the numerous ways in which this "Loi du Travail" is tweaked. It is infinitely more important than the parliamentary circus taking place around the use of article 49.3. And it is infinitely more important than the frantic competition taking place between the many left cliques which contributed to Hollande's election in 2012, and are now trying to save their careers. The "Loi Travail" will have been only one battle in the war between the capitalist class and the working class and this war is not over. The offensive waged by the bourgeoisie, big business and their lackeys in government will carry on, due to the economic situation and crisis. The exploited will have to fight many other battles, including more important and decisive ones. The experience acquired in the battle around the "Loi Travail" and the resulting increase in political consciousness, will be useful in these future battles. By sparking off this movement, Hollande and his government may prove to have set alight a fire which will not die any time soon. 24 June 2016