FRANCE: 45 STRIKE DAYS FOR A DIGNIFIED LIFE

THE PENSIONS’ REFORM : 45 STRIKE DAYS FOR A DIGNIFIED LIFE: From 5 December 2019, Emmanuel Macron and his government successfully galvanised and joined-up the many social sectors angered by their pensions’ reform project. In Paris, the central protests started with the railway (SNCF), metro and bus workers, the teachers, the lycées’ students and those in higher education. They broadened their demands to include higher wages and better working conditions; then the doctors joined in, the public hospitals’ workers (whose emergency departments have been struggling for more than 9 months), the power-plant and hydro-electric workers, the oil refineries, the dockers, the port employees, the seafarers, firefighters, waste collectors, labourers and fishers, artists and spectacle operators, lawyers – and even a sector of the national police.

This is now the 45th day of the strike throughout France to get the project withdrawn, punctuated by daily demonstrations in Paris and the big towns. According to the media, this is the longest conflict since May 1968 (which lasted more than 30 days) and the big 1995 strike that fought the previous pension reforms of Alain Juppé.

Anger about what ?

This is a new reform that, once again, endangers all the social gains won by working class struggle since the end of WW2. It is a retreat even greater than that imposed by the previous reforms, those of 2003 and 2010 in times when the working class had won the fight for the pension at 60, instead of 65. Bit by bit, our unique system of social protection ‘by repartition’ is being destroyed. Put in place by the Communist Ambroise Croizat in 1946, this was a system of solidarity between workers and pensioners, the latter seen as workers in their own right, and for whom “retirement must no longer be the anti-chamber of death but a new stage in life”.

The government’s arguments to justify its changes are completely false and hypocritical:

Equal Treatment – The universal system based on points should provide the same rights for all

Far from what we are being told, the ‘capitalisation’ [2] of this system is going to deepen the level of inequalities between workers, and at the great cost of women in part-time work and career breaks.  And the value of the ‘point’ [3], in not always being known, there is no guaranteed pension. This is made worse by the power of the political class to lower it.

There is also the separate issue of the ‘special regime’ pensions. These were granted in the past to workers and employees when they won the right to early retirement, as for example when the job had been too exacting and impactful on health. The ‘universal system’ being introduced here is going to cause to these people losses even greater than those that followed the Macron’s Labour Code Executive Orders [4]. “If we lose our pension rights, we are as good as dead!”. This is what you hear from those involved in this struggle today.

By taking account of the whole career, the system will serve even the small earners

But this reform is a levelling down. Since the contributions calculations will be based on the 25 best years instead of the best 10, all sectors stand to lose by it. As the demonstrators say, here we have “to work more to live less!”

The legal pension age will stay at 62 and consider the whole career

But this is another ploy. The legal age stays at 62, but it is from 64 that you get a deduction if you leave earlier, or an increase if you leave later. A recent impact study in Le Monde shows that this new ‘pivot age’ will not even be 64, but 67, for those born after 1990. These people will lose 3 years.

The minimum pension will be set at 85% of the minimum wage

This measure applies to a complete career of 43 quarters of pension contributions. This is the way it was these last 10 years; but 1,000 Euros a month is far from a breakthrough for those who have nothing else. This was going to be improved and surpassed in 2003 when a law was passed to this effect, but it was never implemented. How can you live today in France with 1,000 Euros – with housing beyond the reach of so many, some even dying of cold in the streets or in homes that they cannot heat? What this pension reform ‘universalises’ is the worsening of poverty and indecent conditions.

A class war :

With this reform and the dismantlement of social security, the government builds a single system under State tutelage free of any negotiation with the trade unions. The large financial groups, the banks and the insurance companies are on stand-by, with their eyes on the 300 billion pensions pot. Companies like BlackRock, Axa and others wait in the wings to lay their hand on this and the saving funds of the population.

This government does everything to break the inter-generations solidarity. In December, Prime minister Edouard Philippe announced the reform applies now to all those starting work. There will be three categories. Those born before 1975 will remain in the present system. Those born between 1975 and 2003 enter the new ‘universal regime’, and those born in 2004 will have the new regime applied to them in 2022. People feel that their future, that of their children and that of their grand-children is being mortgaged. “The future of our children is not for sale” they say when they join the demonstrations.

It is this situation that moved the strikers to keep going over Christmas. Now they are unanimous in their determination to continue until the project is withdrawn. Actions called “gréveillons” [5] were set up to spent Christmas on the piquet line. The population showed its solidarity by bringing food to the strikers and toys for the children. The strike-funds set up all over the country where important to those going short.

In the way of best wishes for the New Year, Emmanuel Macron announced he was changing nothing to the reform and that he was going to see it through. This supreme contempt did little to appease a social movement where the Gilets Jaunes now intervene alongside the trade union militants. At the start of January, the continuation and acceleration of the strike was announced with a renewed determination to keep up the fight until the Reform is withdrawn.

As new sectors join the strike, the new forms of action go for power centres:

  • Blockading the 8 oil refineries led to petrol shortages in 700 gas stations

  • Mobilisations in the ports with dockers, sailors and port employees in several big towns like Le Havre, Marseilles, Dunkerque, Fos-sur-Mer

  • Announcement of an illimited “hard strike” by lawyers who threw their black robes at the foot of the Palais of Justice in Lyon. They prepare a non-conformity challenge between the Reform and the Constitution. They reject the Reform because it will worsen the inequalities and lower some people’s access to justice

  • Strike of the pilots, stewards and hostesses at Air France who fight for their rights

  • Strike at the Banque de France and related activities, cash supplies, security agents, bank notes handling and printing and offices working 24/7.

  • Support organised for the workers in the private sector. The Auchan employees (Toulouse region) against restructurings; the Airbus workers and those at Sanofi (pharma). The chambermaids at the Hotel Ibis Batignolles in Paris who have fought these last 6 months against unendurable speed-ups, unpaid overtime and slave-like working conditions

  • The artists, dancers and musicians at the Opera de Paris. They fight by offering spectacles for free to the public and demonstrators. The employees of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France have gone on strike, and those of Radio and TV have been out since 25 November 2019

  • Those employed in energy production and nuclear-power stations have turned electricity off in areas, as in the big commercial centre of Parinor near Paris, and the Commissariatin Bordeaux. For several days, the electricity workers have conducted “Robinhood” actions in Clermond-Ferrand and other parts

  • Fire workers, refuse collectors, sewer operatives and all those who do the hard and heavy work, bring their anger to the streets.

France-petition-retraite-img-300x180

There is a resurgence of actions and mobilisations. All over the country, the social movements dig in as anger deepens against the repression and the forces of order. The Gilets jaunes were first to face police violence back in November 2018; 2.200 of them have received jail sentences (between 1 to 3 years), with electronic tags for some and deferred sentences for others. Many have been crippled by guns fired at them directly.

Ever since the 2005 revolts in the banlieues, unprecedented repression has targeted the social movements, to smash their solidarity ties. There is a high price to pay for anyone who takes to the streets or supports the strikers. Acts of civil disobedience have a cost, as in the case of the climate militants who took down Macron’s portraits in Town Halls to protest government inaction. They were charged. But then they were released because “it is justified to oblige the State to act if this saves humanity from harm”. The repressive measures and confiscation of rights – individual and collective – are not stopping the movement’s determination to have the government withdraw its bill.

To break the trade union front in every way possible, it is sector by sector that the government negotiates matters related to wage levels and the arduousness of work (pénibilité). This is how announcements have appeared with offers of bonuses and wage rises to the teachers, and “special offers” to the firefighters, the police, the prison wardens and the military. The latter however has just declared through its Superior Council that it rejects the Reform and does not believe in the repeated promises.

At trade union level, the CFDT [6] decided to join the fray by placing “the pivotal age” [7] at the core of its opposition. It is the first time in ten years that it answers the call of the ‘intersyndicale’ (body for inter-union cooperation) and the other workers. In the hope of having the union signed-up by the end of April, the Prime minister pretended to be “provisionally” withdrawing the incentives of his government to induce people to work until 64. For Laurent Berger, wouldn’t this be a great victory? But a part of the union’s base disagreed. It does not believe that the government is stepping back. The base of that union is extremely critical of the weakness of its leaders. It calls them “neo-liberal syndicalists”. This is how certain sectors, like the one on the railways, continue the strike against their own leadership and take part in the demonstrations by the side of the ‘intersyndicale’.

What perspective beyond the strikes?

This strike of the French working class is a collective product that combines trade unions, left political parties, Gilets jaunes, citizens’ associations. It is very important because it leads the combat on behalf of everyone’s social rights, as much in France as on European and world level. It defies the neoliberal policies decided by the top bourgeoisie and finance. It gives centre stage to the fight for a dignified life. And this is happening everywhere in Latin America, the Middle East, the United States. The populations demand that this society is transformed because it takes no account of what is human, no account of the consequences of climate disorder, and no account of the need for emancipation, social justice, direct democracy and citizen participation.

By the way it uses police and army violence, the government shows its inability to master the situation. It reveals a system with no future. Other solutions exist, but these require a new form of society, that taxes the dividends for instance. This is heretical as far as the bosses and the bourgeois class are concerned, but the Social Security coffers could do with a 31 billion injection for the elderly. In 2018, the CAC40 shareholders drew 300 million in dividends; but with this amount ploughed into jobs and training, you soon have enough to pay the pensions. Along with higher wages and pay-equality between men and women, there would be more contributions paid, and unemployment could be reduced.

After 45 days on strike, the Paris rail, metro and bus workers declared their return to work. They need to gather strength to continue the fight in other ways. The movement has not ended, it is setting its sights above the pensions’ reform. We all face the question of what sort of society we want to live in, our uppermost concern being to defend the public services, uphold justice and maintain the social rights. The neoliberal policies seek to have every public service turned private, but large layers of people reject this, the society that does this. The campaign against the privatisation of the Paris airports proved it. It ended in victory for a popular referendum that more than one million people signed.

The pensions’ reform project is to come before the Council of Ministers as from 24 January 2020, following which the National Assembly will debate it. A big new mobilisation is planned for that day. The 45 days of strikes and demonstrations will have had their impact on the MPs. There must be divisions in the République en Marche, the movement of Macron, because he is already hinting at shoving the whole thing through ordinances (by decree).

The March 2020 municipal elections are drawing close. They will be an important test. There will be leaders losing their positions. We are no longer in the political situation of a few months ago when the left was divided. Now the left comes closer together again, particularly in the big towns, offering new hopes for the future.

With this pension’s matter, it is the first time since Macron reached government that all the left has united, and with the trade unions. It achieved three unitary meetings, and six unitary national mobilisations of the ‘Intersyndicale’ between 5.12.19 and 16.1.20. This comes from the strength of the social movements, like the Gilets jaunes, which brought together all the of sectors of society unused to fight together. They gave expression to the huge feeling of ‘enough is enough’ (ras-le-bol) that has prevailed non-stop over the last year. They opened the new road for the struggle on the ground, moved by the craving for another society of justice and of peace.

Les Posadistes – 20.1.2020

[1] The pension by repartition arranges for each worker’s contributions to accumulate in a ‘fund’, the revenues of which pay the pensions. It differs from the pension by capitalisation in that it provides solidarity supports for those unemployed or on parental leave, the elderly below a certain income and the like.

[2] In this system, the worker is penalised when the company fails.

[3] In France, the basic pension is supplemented by a mandatory additional pension calculated in points. The pension received depends on the number of points and the retirement age.

[4] In 2017, Macron pushed these laws initially outside parliament. They give more freedom to the employers to fuse companies, scrap work contracts, fire workers, cut the compensations. The trade unions lose many legal rights and protections against the arbitrariness of the employers.

[5] Réveillon is the long dinner in the night before Christmas, and Gréveillon is a play on word with ‘grève’ which means strike.

[6] CFDT, Confédération Française du Travail, created 1964, Laurent Berger its leader. A more ‘moderate’ union.

[7]  It is the ‘pivotal age’ for retirement that is in contention. It is 62 officially; the Macron government wants it at 64.