Last Saturday, 8,000 people took to the streets of Belfort (eastern France) to protest against the 1,000 layoffs that General Electric (GE) has planned there. The workers fighting to save their jobs got thousands of people involved who know that this concerns them just as much. As a woman worker employed by a sub-contractor said “We’re fighting the same battle”.
The yellow vests were in the street, as were the tradespeople with a banner that read “tradespeople are angry”. Stores closed their shutters in a gesture of solidarity. As one butcher who has had a shop in Belfort for 20 years said: “This is going to have a huge effect on local shopkeepers”.
Massive demonstrations like this have taken place in many French towns over the years, whenever the closure of a large plant has threatened to ruin a whole region. Every time, the workers have drawn the rest of the population into their fight.
GE is one of the largest industrial groups on the planet. Its profits for the first quarter of this year were 954 million dollars. The cost of keeping on 1,000 jobs is just a drop in the ocean for this kind of multinational. But what do workers’ lives and the future of a whole region matter? The dictatorship of big business rules; and not only does the state do nothing to stop it, it actually helps it along.
When GE bought one of Alstom’s Belfort sites in 2015, the group promised to create 1,000 jobs over four years. It created none and paid a fine of 50 million euros. The government did nothing to hold the group to its promise. Faced with people’s emotion and mobilization, French president Macron and his ministers are behaving as though they care about what happens to the workers. But what they really want is to get the workers to back off and then attack them.
The government is hitting the unemployed at a time when job cuts are being planned on all sides, not only at GE but also in New Look retail shops who have just announced their plan to throw out 400 people. You now have to work 6 months out of the past 24 in order to qualify for unemployment benefits. It was previously 4 months out of 28. And a new method of calculation means that the amount paid is going to be reduced.
The first ones to be hit by this are the millions of workers who alternate between short-term contracts of a few weeks, or even a few days and periods of unemployment. But it’s really an attack against all workers. The message is clear: now more than ever, you must accept no matter what job, in no matter what conditions and for no matter what salary!
There can be no fight against unemployment without standing up to the job cutters and banning layoffs. It means creating jobs in public services e.g. in hospital emergency rooms where nurses and nursing aides have been on strike for a month now, asking for 10,000 hires. And this means opposing the interests of big business and taking the necessary money out of its profits.
Last year, the top 40 companies on the French stock market handed out 51 billion euros in dividends to their shareholders, an historic record. That’s the equivalent of 1.5 million jobs at 1,800 euros before tax, i.e. after paying social contributions.
Big business and the government are allies waging a class war on workers. The war is relentless because the economic crisis is getting worse so commercial rivalry is getting stronger. In order to increase their margins, the capitalists are coming down hard on the workers. Meanwhile, the government has them tied up and is hitting them hard too. On the one hand you have the bourgeoisie getting richer than ever and on the other, the working-class condition is regressing and society is dying from the roots up.
Workers can call the power of big business into question because, in all companies, it’s their work that produces all the profits and all the capital
The Belfort demonstration has shown how workers can draw the rest of society into their fight. To do this, they must be prepared to speak with their own voice and highlight their own class demands. First and foremost, a decent job at a decent wage for everyone. And they mustn’t let anyone stop them by saying that it’s unrealistic. It’s up to the workers to say and to impose what they need.