The public sector workers turned out in massive numbers last week against the ongoing liberalisation pushed by the Raffarin government and to protest against the meagre wage deal they had been offered.
Postmen, Railway workers, employees of the gas and electricity company, teachers, nurses, surgeons,…and many more public sector workers took to the streets of France in massive numbers. The strikes and demonstrations, organised over a period of five days, are the first mobilisations of this magnitude since the movement against the pension reform in the spring of 2003. On Thursday 20 of January 328.000 people took part in demonstrations across France. More than 50% of all teachers went on strike. Across the public sector the average participation of the strikes reached 25%.
The 5.2 million of public sector workers have been offered a wage increase of 0.5% on the 1 February 2005 and another 0.5% on 1 November 2005. The trade unions are translating the enormous anxiety amongst private and public sector workers about the erosion of their incomes. Official figures show that overall inflation reached 2.1% in 2004. More prominent however are the big increases in energy prices (+10.2% from December 2003 to December 2004) and in particular the price of oil products (+14.6%). The second biggest hike in prices is the price of tabacco (+9.5%). The rises in housing costs (rents went up with 3.4%) and transport costs (+4.5%) are also eating into the available household income.
The worries about income are combined with the resistance against government plans to continue public sector liberalisation, the loss of 7188 public sector jobs in 2005 and the plans to cancel the law on the 35h week. The French government intends to leave every employer to negotiate with its workers about the length of the working week. This will set of an avalange of initiatives, especially in the private sector, to lenghten the working week without any real compensation in the wages.
The mood on the demonstrations was very combative. The participation, larger then generally anticipated by the trade unions, points to a regained self confidence amongst public sector workers in their long struggle against the Raffarin government. This confidence to struggle has to be translated by the trade union leadership in an effective fight. It is highly unlikely however that they will do this if not pushed by the shopfloor activists. The railway workers have been a significant and influential force in previous movements. They are aware of this fact but so is the government and the trade union tops. When the Parisian railway workers came out on strike in Paris on the 19 February they found that no demonstration was organised in the capital. This was almost certainly an attempt by the trade union apparatus to keep the lid on and avoid a spontaneous prolongation of the one day strike.
For most public sector workers it is clear that in order to win they need to link up with the workers in the private sector. The trade unions are calling for a day of demonstrations on Saturday 5 February against the attacks on the 35 hour week by the French government. This will be seen as the next stage in the build up towards a more generalised movement in the public and private sector to defend incomes, stop the long list of redundancies and call a halt to the neo-liberal policies.
The comrades of Gauche Révolutionnaire, the French section of the CWI, participated in the demonstrations in Rouen, Marseille, Paris, Le Havre, Caen and Evreux. We called for a one day general strike of the public and private sector. We got a warm reception distributing our leaflets and selling our paper, L’Egalité. At the demonstration in Marseille about 100 schoolstudents decided to show support for our demands by wearing our leaflets as a badge, sticking it to their coats.
To develop a unified strike of private and public sector workers we need to prepare it by building general assemblies and strike committees, democratically controled by the workers, in each sector. These assemblies and committees can organise the struggle by discussing the necesarry demands and actions to unite public and private sector workers and start the mobilisation.
The demonstrations being called on 5 February are a starting point. There is no need to wait on the trade union leaders to prepare and call for unified action. Their failure to prepare a demonstration of railway workers in Paris shows that they can act as a break on the development of a generalised movement against Raffarin, Chirac and the attacks of the bosses.
A unified struggle of public and private sector workers can stop the attacks of the government and the ruling elite. It is no guarantue however that at some later stage the same measures will come back onto the agenda. This is a result of the increased competition driven by the multinationals. It is the logic of capitalism itself that while shareholders and bosses increase their wealth the working masses and unemployed foot the bill with increased exploitation, poverty and unemployment.
We need a new party who organises workers, youth, unemployed …and all those who have enough of the relentless drive to squeeze the poor. A new party of those who do not accept capitalism and the misery it brings. Such a party will organise itself around demands that unite the workers in a struggle for a society that really satisfies the demands of the majority of the people. A democratic socialist society based on nationalisation, under workers control and management, of the key sectors of the economy. Such a party would be an immense instrument for the workers. It could, for instance, play a decisive role in preparing the one day general strike of private and public sector workers.