Carribean workers give lesson in fighting back
For more than six weeks, the island of Guadeloupe, in the ‘French Caribbean’, has been gripped by a mighty general strike, which spread to the neighbouring island of Martinique and, since 5 March, to the East African Island of La Reunion. On 4 March, an agreement was signed between the LKP (‘Committee against exploitation’ – representative of the mass of Guadeloupean people) and the bosses on the island.
The deal represents an impressive victory for the working people of Guadeloupe. It includes a pay increase of €200 per month for the lowest paid workers, as well as concessions on the price of bread and air travel. Negotiations are also continuing on other demands of the movement, including the lowering of prices on the most needed products. The strike’s militancy and ultimate success stand as a shining example to workers internationally of how to fight the effects of capitalist crisis.
Guadeloupe has around 440,000 inhabitants, contrary to the image of it portrayed in the media, of a tiny insignificant piece of land. Historically, developments in Guadeloupe, a French ‘overseas department’, have been closely linked with the situation in mainland France.
In 1794, slavery on the island was abolished, following the French revolution, only to be reinstated, through bloody repression, with the coming to power of Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1802. Thus, the struggles of ordinary people in Guadeloupe’s history has always influenced, or been influenced by, those of their French counterparts. The fact that many Guadeloupeans work in mainland France reinforces this link. However, the origins of Guadeloupe’s capitalism in the history of slavery and colonial oppression gives it a more arrogant character, which explains its failure to act, for three weeks, in response to the movement.
The media are trying hard to tell us that the movement must end, because the population no longer supports it, and that the LKP is an undemocratic organisation. The ruling class is using all its tools to defend itself from the workers, whose solidarity has shown their strength. If the LKP lead a new mobilisation, it could be unstoppable, due to its strategy and mass support amongst the population, which give it incredible strength.
An example of the militant strategy employed by the LKP is shown by the workers of Carrefour (a supermarket, owned by the richest man in Guadeloupe, Hayot, who has a personal fortune of €350 million). They went on strike, in order to force Hayot to sign the LKP’s accord; a strategy which will be applied in workplace after workplace.
Sarkozy himself has appealed to the bosses to accept the LKP’s proposals, in the interests of the French state, despite it not being in the local bosses’ interests. The bosses’ thirst for short term profits could lead them to make a terrible error. If they do not let the LKP have what it wants, by not living up to their agreement, they may regret it.
The agreement, which was signed last Wednesday evening is very detailed. It is composed of 165 paragraphs, which cover a wide variety of issues, from the price of baguettes to teachers’ employment conditions. Elie Domota, the leader of the LKP, asked a mass demonstration in front of the venue of the negotiations if he should sign the agreement, after reading it aloud. The population showed their approval. Domota replied, “Comrades, we can be proud of what we have achieved, but it’s only the first step! “. He announced that the General Strike had ended, but not the mobilisation. He said that “mobilisation is the only way to win” and that they would continue to struggle, in order to make the bosses apply this agreement and in order to win new victories. But the question is, what is the last step?
The MEDEF (bosses’ organisation) is not the most powerful organisation in Guadeloupe any more. The LKP gathers all of the working class under one banner. If the bosses are so arrogant to think that they are still able to impose their will, they are wrong.
“We have been in a movement for 40 days. The LKP won’t dissolve, we have 40 years work left to do.” – Elie Domota (LKP leader).
Socialists cannot disagree. There is no need to dissolve this organisation because the general strike has ended. It organised the working class, united it and gave it some political direction. That is necessary for as long as the ruling class is organised against us. The message given by the French state to Guadeloupean bosses was very clear. To compensate for the general strike that the ‘poor’ bosses suffered, the French government has written off the penalties Guadeloupean bosses would have had to pay for the delayed payment of taxes, caused by the strike.
The bosses symbolically tried to reopen a supermarket, with hundreds of policemen, but could not, because of the masses’ reaction. This shows that they cannot do what they want anymore.
Patrick Karam, interministerial delegate for so-called ‘equality of opportunity in overseas departments’ said during the negotiations, "everybody has the opportunity to be victorious". Contrary to his wishes, the masses won! The real problem; the reason there has been no agreement until now, is that the bosses have not been able to accept their defeat. Even now, they continue being arrogant and say that they will announce large-scale redundancies, following the agreement. If they do, they will get another general strike!
The bosses do not really understand what is going on, as shown by their proposal of Wednesday 4 March. They proposed that the agreement would last only 36 months (the period that the Government had agreed to pay most of its cost) and that the agreement would benefit fewer people. This shows that they will do anything to take away what the strike has won. The capitalist system never allows the working class to keep anything it has won for any length of time.
Martinique and Reunion
In the beautiful island of Martinique, where nearly 400,000 people live, an agreement between the bosses and the strikers has also been reached. Workers who are paid less than 1.4 times the minimum wage will get between 130 and 200 euros per month, as a pay rise. This is a victory, but not as much as was demanded. The bosses will only pay between 30 and 100 euros of this. The rest will come from the state. Therefore, it is taxpayers who will pay their own wages. Some trade union organisations like the CGT (General Confederation of workers) and FO (Workers’ Force) did not sign, as they want to consult the rank and file and to see what will be agreed on the issue of prices. So the strike continues. On the island of La Reunion, on Wednesday 4 March, a collective of 40 different organisations called for a massive strike for 5 March.
The magnificent victory of the Guadeloupe general strike presents a dilemma for French capitalism and the Sarkozy government. At a time when French workers and young people are being asked to accept savage attacks on their jobs, services and living standards and are intent on fighting back (as seen by the massive national strike of 29 January), a mass militant movement in the French Caribbean has forced huge concessions from the French government. Sarkozy is now threatened with the dreaded scenario of mainland France’s workers doing the same! In the build-up to the next national day of strike action on 19 March, developments in Guadeloupe will surely give workers renewed confidence.
During the strike, Olivier Bescancenot, of the French NPA (New Anti-capitalist Party) visited Guadeloupe to express solidarity with the movement, correctly calling on French workers to emulate their militant movement, in defence of their jobs and services against the onslaught of the French bosses and Sarkozy government. However, in order to effectively fight the attacks of capitalism, more than this will be needed. Though general strikes show, in a clear and powerful way, the immense power of the working class and can win huge gains, as long as the capitalist system prevails, any gains won will be continuously attacked. In order to achieve lasting gains and to stave off the bosses’ attempts to make workers and poor pay for their crisis, it is necessary to fight for an alternative to capitalism, i.e. the domination of the lives of the majority by big business’ thirst for profit. In order to do this, workers in Guadeloupe and the French Caribbean need an independent political voice; a mass party which can represent them in their struggles and put forward a socialist alternative to crisis-ridden capitalism. In France, Gauche Revolutionnaire is fighting for the NPA to become such a party.
The only way to guarantee provision for people’s needs in Guadeloupe, Martinique and internationally, is to change the system under which society is run. Socialism, a system where the economy and society are controlled by workers democratically, is the only alternative capable of satisfying people’s needs. If the bosses do not live up to the agreements they have signed and continue with their arrogance, in trying to make the majority pay for the crisis of their system, we must build an international movement for socialism. In Guadeloupe and the French Caribbean, this means mass mobilisation to break the power of local and international capitalism and build a socialist federation of the region.