In France, A Glimpse of Labor's Power

— Mia Butzbaugh

"THE STRIKE’S LIKE a bomb with a long fuse," Air France worker Michel Bousquet explained the second week into the work stoppage. "Each time [Prime Minister] Jupp<130> makes a concession, it’s like he’s cutting off part of the already burnt fuse. It’s too late. And as we get closer to the `bomb,’ it becomes more dangerous, the demands higher."

The "bomb," of course, didn’t go off in France this fall. It was not, I was reminded more times than necessary, May-June of 1968. Yet as a child of the bleak Reagan era, visiting Paris during the strike’s final week, I was intrigued less by this strike’s "failures" than by its promises as a response to the social crisis, in France and internationally.

This strike should be appreciated as a first step—not as a pale reflection of 1968 but, instead, as the first big movement after nearly a decade of downsizing and paralysis.


Some on the left have chosen to emphasize an armory of criticisms about this struggle, one of which centers on the union bureaucracy’s unwillingness to call for a general strike. The condemnation of the bureaucracy’s role is appropriate; but the certainty that the private sector would have struck merely because of a call to do so forgets the vulnerable reality of many private sector workplaces, where union representation is less than the national average of ten percent and where the restructuring has already been implemented.

People were walking several hours a day to work in part because they must go to every extreme simply to keep the jobs from which they are increasingly dispensable. It’s exactly this fate against which the public sector is defending itself.

Additionally, unionists in the auto industry, who would prove crucial to a general strike, have recently suffered the paralyzing effects of labor-management cooperation schemes. Such considerations illustrate that workers’ realities are primary, even when momentum burns the fuse faster.

The December 21 Rouge, the Communist Revolutionary League’s (LCR) periodical, remarks, "People have had enough, period. They want to keep la Securite [pensions, health care, and family aid] and retirement, and people want steady work, and to be paid fairly, and to no longer be treated like dogs. Voila."

This generalized disgruntlement perhaps lacks the political sophistication for which some on the international left hoped. Yet these were the common sense demands that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets during bi-weekly rallies and that put rank and filers, not the organized left, at the forefront of a struggle that will not end with this strike. One unionist told me, "In `68, the left gave energy to the struggle. This time, it’s getting energy from it. That’s the state of things these days."

The general assemblies (organized across union lines at each work site) provided a forum for workers to concretely direct this strike. Rank and filers met daily to debate and vote whether to strike the following day. Only sporadically operative since the mid-1980s, general assemblies’ consistent presence in this strike promises them
as permanent fixtures in future ones.

The cross-union and intergenerational relationships developed during these weeks are particularly significant for France, whose union structure guarantees divisive rivalries. Unionized workers in a workplace—all open-shop—can be represented by any of the three major unions (established along political lines) or the countless smaller ones.

Despite bureaucratic infighting and historical animosities, rank-and-file solidarity was definitive, taking seriously the strike slogan "tous ensemble" ("all together"). At rallies, rank and filers carried banners with all the major unions’ names listed—even the CFDT’s, the Socialist Party-linked union whose president, Nicole Notat, supported the Plan JuppĂ©.

CFDT members defied their leadership by striking, and some militants forcibly chased Notat from a rally. The CFDT is now in open crisis, and its shakeup could have significant repercussions for the French union movement. If the opposition takes over the CFDT, rather than splintering from it, unionists might coordinate to push a more progressive agenda, especially now faced with the Maastricht Treaty (on European unity).

Though strikers did not articulate their demands as a response to the treaty, this massive mobilization represents the first against the implications of the European open market. Importantly, it was expressed in social, not nationalist, terms.

The day after the train workers voted to go back to work, rallies assembled in 167 cities nationally. Two million people were in the streets, all privy to the transformative effects of struggle. French workers, no longer content to leave politics to the politicians, have laid important groundwork for future battles.

ATC 61, March-April 1996