Why are the French unions limiting their fight to preserving the existing pension age?

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Ken Burch Ken Burch's picture
Why are the French unions limiting their fight to preserving the existing pension age?

The workers of France have staged an impressive mobilization, and it's far better than anything we could manage in North America at the moment.

But why are they restricting their goals to the relatively small point of simply maintaining the existing retirement age?

Why don't they use this moment to push for a real social transformation?

I don't understand the weird combination of militance and limited objectives we're seeing in France.

KenS

Ken Burch wrote:

Why don't they use this moment to push for a real social transformation?

I don't understand the weird combination of militance and limited objectives we're seeing in France.

What do you think this moment is?

Its a serious question. Where did the moment come from?

Do you see this as something like, "weve got all these people in the streets, lets gather around and have a discussion of what we can achieve."

Ken Burch Ken Burch's picture

It's a moment where the whole country, most of Europe, and a good part of the world are watching and listening.  It's a moment in which there's a strong and growing resistance to the austerity consensus, a resistance that would only grow it the leaders of the French labour movement are willing to let it grow. 

This is a moment where life could, in fact, be changed.

It won't be if they let it go at saving the current pension age(which they aren't actually likely to do, since the French Senate is almost certain to pass the pension changes when it votes today.

KenS

I'm puzzled.

It makes me think that armchair notions about transormational processes are even more pervasive than I thought.

There is a strong and growing resistance to the austerity measures. Dont leave out that the popularity of the austeruty measures is pretty deep and I have seen no evidence that has changed. As far as I can see, most of the people who voted for Sarkozy still support him. Thats not the main point, but not to be ignored either.

One thing that is interesting is how young people have taken up the fight. They have much more immeidate grievances than when they can retire 40 years from now. For many of them, the oil industry workers and others paralyzing the economy have jobs that look out of reach for them. Let alone pensions.

They seem to be approaching the fight about the pensions as emblamatic. Austerity sucks. Thats not just more radical than what you'll find here, its juts plain broader in its thinking.

But most of all I'm puzzled by what you think is possible.

There is just no way that this moment around this struggle is going to be continuously maintained and go straight into protests and demands that broaden.

IF this is transformational- and it might turn out to be- the struggle on the streets and the refusals will still cool down to nothing. If its to be transformational we will see a thread picked up, but later.

ygtbk

It might be because only 8% of French workers are unionized. I know, I was surprised too. See: http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/eiro/studies/tn0901028s/fr0901029q.htm

KenS

Membership in French unions is voluntary. I dont know how that works for collective bargaining, or for taking action. But there are clearly many more workers engaged than just the actual members.

The CGT- still the most militant federation- is down to few members more than staff and elected officials. But it obvioulsy mobilizes a lot more workers than that.

I know that when the schools close, they virtually all close. There are many different levels of public schools in France, and I think some of them dont even have a union- let alone the colleges that have unions only have a percentage of teachers as members. But the local schools all close in the rotating walkouts.

The works councils play an important role, and it isnt infrequent that non-union lists win the workplace elections. And those non-union works councils take job action too.

Can I explain any of this? No.

Hey, its France.

autoworker autoworker's picture

It seems to me that it's transformational change that's being resisted-- with unions being the avant garde of that resistance.  It's a tribute to French youth that they haven't fallen for Sarkozy's attempt to drive a generational wedge between workers.

Sven Sven's picture

KenS wrote:

One thing that is interesting is how young people have taken up the fight. They have much more immeidate grievances than when they can retire 40 years from now. For many of them, the oil industry workers and others paralyzing the economy have jobs that look out of reach for them. Let alone pensions.

They seem to be approaching the fight about the pensions as emblamatic. Austerity sucks. Thats not just more radical than what you'll find here, its juts plain broader in its thinking.

I'm not so sure it's youthful altruism expressing a long-term view of things.  Instead, although they may not be representative, a couple of the comments I've heard from protesting students indicate that the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62 simply means that the older folks will be in their jobs longer and that will mean less jobs for the students in the here and now.

NDPP

French Fury in the EU Cage

http://www.counterpunch.org/johnstone10212010.html

"The French are at it again - and on strtike, blocking transport, raising hell in the streets, and all that merely because the government wants to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, They must be crazy.

That I suppose, is the way the current mass movement in France is seen - or at least shown - in much of the world, and above all in the Anglo Saxon world..

A propaganda simplification of a very complex issue.."

al-Qa'bong

Quote:

But unions, who say the reforms unfairly penalise workers for the failures of global finance, showed no sign of easing their campaign to bring Sarkozy, whose poll ratings are at an all-time low, to the negotiating table.

On Thursday, at the end of another day of clashes between youths and police in cities across France, unions called for workers to join two new days of nationwide demonstrations next Thursday and on November 6.

"Strengthened by the support of workers, the young and a majority of the population ... the labour organisations have decided to continue and to broaden the mobilisation," the main labour groups said in a joint statement.

French Unions: We Won't Pay For 'Failures of Global Finance'

remind remind's picture

Funny I see no condemnation here of their torching cars and street store destuction going on.

jacki-mo
N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

Let's see how well the English gits fight back against the currently planned multi-billion dollar cuts to education.

KenS

Sven wrote:

I'm not so sure it's youthful altruism expressing a long-term view of things.  Instead, although they may not be representative, a couple of the comments I've heard from protesting students indicate that the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62 simply means that the older folks will be in their jobs longer and that will mean less jobs for the students in the here and now.

You're right, its not representative. And its probably not even anyone saying its their main concern. More in the order of "on top of that...."

Like autoworker said, its interesting form our perspective that the wedge politics has not worked with younger people. You see plenty of "we have to pay for the boomers" comments here, let alone what you'd find elsewhere.

And by the way, thread drift... for those are inclined to fall for that, here's the actual crass generational economics in a nutshell. Boomers primarily funded their own future public old age incomes. To a degree they also subsidized that of their parent's generation. As did their parents subsidize that of their parents, whose transfers could not be paid entirely out of the then brand new social programs.

What is happening to the boomers is that after we've paid our dues, the powers that be are saying this is too expensive [for them, not for younger workers as they imply]... lets move the goal posts.

I'm guessing that younger people in France know that score. That many can explain it to to you, and the rest just smell a rat even if they cant explain the mechanics. And if you know its a con job, you know you are next up for the fleecing... even if you have nothing at the moment to be fleeced off of you.

al-Qa'bong

Funny you should mention the English:

Red Hot France; Tepid Britain

By TARIQ ALI

Quote:

More than three million people a week ago. Hundreds of thousands out this week, a million yesterday, and more expected this weekend. And what a joyous sight: school students marching in defense of old people's rights. Were there a Michelin Great Protest guide, France would still be top with three stars, with Greece a close second with two stars.

What a contrast with the miserable, measly actions being planned by the lily-livered English trade unions. There is growing anger and bitterness here too, but it is being recuperated by a petrified bureaucracy. A ritual protest has been planned, largely to demonstrate that they are doing something. But is this something better than nothing?

Perhaps. I'm not totally sure. But even these mild attempts to rally support against the austerity measures are too much for dear leader Ed Miliband. He won't be seen at them.

 

kropotkin1951 kropotkin1951's picture

I think the reason they have limited demands is just good strategy.  Open ended demands leave people wondering about their real motives. Keeping it a narrow focus will get them support from a broader range of people than any demand to over throw a government's whole agenda when an election s not in progress.

Unionist

KenS wrote:

Like autoworker said, its interesting form our perspective that the wedge politics has not worked with younger people. You see plenty of "we have to pay for the boomers" comments here, let alone what you'd find elsewhere.eced off of you.

No kidding, Ken... you see young vs. old wedge politics "working" in Canada? The union movement has a massive drive on to double CPP/QPP benefits, plus other protections for existing DB plans. You see young workers pushing back against that? I talk to 20-year-olds, fresh into the workforce, who after 5 minutes of explanation wouldn't dream of selling out pensions for some short-term illusory gains. Likewise, two-tier wage proposals, or proposals to reduce or eliminate DB plans for the "unborn", haven't made much headway anywhere.

NDPP

remind wrote:

Funny I see no condemnation here of their torching cars and street store destuction going on.

NDPP

excellent point duly noted

Snert Snert's picture

Could that be because of the broad support base behind it?

If you've got some rocks burning a hole in your pocket here in Canada, why not start by getting a million other Canadians to march with you when you throw them?

Doug

France has a history of movements that promised to change everything but ended up changing relatively little. There might be a virtue in being less ambitious.

Merowe

Doug wrote:

France has a history of movements that promised to change everything but ended up changing relatively little. There might be a virtue in being less ambitious.

 

....or not.

autoworker autoworker's picture

Unionist wrote:

KenS wrote:

Like autoworker said, its interesting form our perspective that the wedge politics has not worked with younger people. You see plenty of "we have to pay for the boomers" comments here, let alone what you'd find elsewhere.eced off of you.

No kidding, Ken... you see young vs. old wedge politics "working" in Canada? The union movement has a massive drive on to double CPP/QPP benefits, plus other protections for existing DB plans. You see young workers pushing back against that? I talk to 20-year-olds, fresh into the workforce, who after 5 minutes of explanation wouldn't dream of selling out pensions for some short-term illusory gains. Likewise, two-tier wage proposals, or proposals to reduce or eliminate DB plans for the "unborn", haven't made much headway anywhere.

Unionist:  As much as I'd like to agree with you on this, I see the camel's proverbial nose under the tent.  Two-tier wage structures are already here in union shops, as are differential pensions and retirement benefits for new hires (witness the CUPE defeat in Windsor last summer, on that very issue!).  As for the proposed underwriting of DB plans (from which I stand to benefit, and for which I attended the Queen's Park protest), I think that Labour has a long row to hoe in reminding the general public (who are loath to pay for them, because most don't have them) of their Government's obligations.

No doubt something needs to be done to strengthen and increase CPP/QPP benefits for all.  I think the current 57 billion EI surplus is a good starting point for discussions about funding a guaranteed annual income that would benefit workers across gererational lines.  I think we need to rethink and restructure both funding and allocation for all mandated programs.  As in France, it's more than a pension issue-- but that's the current rallying cause.

Also, please bottle your "5 minutes of explanation" and expedite a truckload of cases to Windsor...most 20 yr. olds I encounter are clueless about the issue.

 

Roberteh

Surely, as well the issue is how to unite most people...the pension age is what unites them...it is a simple reform that can trigger massive social upheaval.  I don't know much about Europe but it seems like they are suffering from the same sorts of greying demographics as Canada.  Whereas, the Europeans starting with Greece, a few weeks back wish to draw a line in the proverbal sand and say no further...although, the pressures to stay competitive means rolling back the welfare state just as it was here in Ontario under Harris to applease the Financial markets which tends to reward austerity...povertization...such is the way with the IMF as Latin America amply proves.  Should not cut back they are faced with Capital Flight...otherwise the rolling in of the Tide...and one thing the Left has not done is speak of alternatives to capital flight...

So, I think, France is a bellweather test, if they can do something like this in a core country of the EU, then it gives the green light for similar intitatives across the Eurozone...yet, another stick to bully the smaller and failing economies of Spain, Portugal, Greece and not to mention the whole of ex Communist Europe whose currencies are pegged to the Euro.

So, go France show the British how it is done...activists should travel across the whole Europe a create one beautiful flame of unity.

Iwant Liberty

Ken Burch wrote:

But why are they restricting their goals to the relatively small point of simply maintaining the existing retirement age?

It appears that the ruling class in France is preparing the population for a scaling back of spending to a much larger extent, and it is doing things one at a time to prevent a recurrence of the French revolution (I am sure they are very sensitive to that posibility). 

Their finances must be hurting severely because it seems like political suicide to even entertain the idea of increasing the age of retirement.  They're stuck between a rock and hard place:  raise taxes too high, and they risk revolution; decrease spending too much and they risk a revolution; and they can't print their own money anymore but Germany is doing that for them which will devalue the currency, and they risk a revolution.   And it's the people who get screwed.

al-Qa'bong

Quote:

But why are they restricting their goals to the relatively small point of simply maintaining the existing retirement age?

 

What the hell do you want from them? They're fighting against a piece of proposed federal government legislation and have shut down the country. What's your union up to?

 

My union may go on strike at any time. Our goals aren't terribly lofty: just keep our head above water and not allow Brad Wall to take anything more away from us.

 

 

NDPP

French Senate Votes Pension Cuts Over Mass Opposition

http://www.wsws.org/articles/2010/oct2010/fran-o23.shtml

"The unions have emerged as the critical line of defense of Sarkozy and the French ruling elite, under conditions where workers are striving to extend the struggle in the directions of a general strike.."

NDPP

Thank God for France - by Mike Whitney

http://www.counterpunch.org/whitney10222010.html

"The state isn't moved by lyrical editorials or prosaic manifestos. It responds to force alone, which is why it takes people who are willing to 'throw themselves on the gears' of the apparatus and stop it from moving forward. Unfortunately, most of those people appear to live in France..."

 

Ken Burch Ken Burch's picture

al-Qa'bong wrote:

Quote:

But why are they restricting their goals to the relatively small point of simply maintaining the existing retirement age?

 

What the hell do you want from them? They're fighting against a piece of proposed federal government legislation and have shut down the country. What's your union up to?

 

My union may go on strike at any time. Our goals aren't terribly lofty: just keep our head above water and not allow Brad Wall to take anything more away from us.

 

 

I admire them for shutting down the country.   And I hope your union is successful in its actions.  I was just wondering why, when shutting the country down over THIS issue, they don't also seem to be using the moment to actually fight for a real alternative to the existing order. 

But I suppose they have their reasons.

laine lowe laine lowe's picture

I think the single focus, and it is an important issue, is what makes these demonstrations so noteworthy and powerful. The last effective demonstration march that I attended was the one right before the invasion of Iraq. These demonstrations were relatively massive in almost every major city across the world and there was a single focus. Other demonstrations that I've attended over the years tend to have multiple messages which dilutes their impact. One clear, easily understood message draws out more supporters and facilitates media coverage.

Unionist

Hey, Ken Burch - I agree with everyone who's disagreeing with you. Smile

And for many of the same reasons given.

When the "revolution" comes, don't even try to predict what the triggering issue will be. You'll be wrong.

And don't urge people who are in motion and struggle that they should change - er, "broaden" - their goals, unless you are in fact one of them - and even then, think long and hard about the risk of demobilizing a hard-won coalition which actually threatens the state and replacing it with a smaller confused movement with ambiguous aims.

Just my two cents.

 

Fidel

Why? Because the protests are an awesome show of solidarity and a reminder to the right that this is just a sample of what they can expect given any real fascist shananigans.

6079_Smith_W

I don't mean to imply that I think these protests have more or less significance than they really do (I'm not there, so I can't really judge), but they do tend to go out more often and in greater force than in most western countries. I am just remembering that of the eight or so times I have been to France, I have seen street action and violence on the part of the police or protestors on probably half those visits.

It's not something I follow, so I don't know how many of these actions accomplish anything, but I do remember talking to a very bored cop one time who was watching over the ruins of some burning Spanish produce trucks. "Every now and then the farmers get fed up and do this - happens all the time," he said.

Another time I was in Paris on new year's eve and was surprised to see buses full of riot police. standing by. When I asked about it, given the large but very peaceful crowd, a very unconcerned fellow told me "They might come out and start smashing heads, or they might not." They didn't.

So perhaps I'm wrong, but given the issue I'm not really paying much attention to this one. That said, I'm not pretending that there is no "triggering issue" and this is all just bluster. After all, there's a reason why Baron Haussmann gutted Paris and rebuilt it so it could be controlled by artillery from those neat plazas that are now used as roundabouts.

 

 

 

Sven Sven's picture

laine lowe wrote:

The last effective demonstration march that I attended was the one right before the invasion of Iraq.

In what way was that demonstration "effective"??

laine lowe laine lowe's picture

So sacraficing workers' security to protect the wealthy elite is perhaps a little bit more than bluster?

And why shouldn't farmers' protest encroachment on their livelihood thanks to free trade agreements?

If anything, seems to me that the French take their democracy VERY seriously.

6079_Smith_W

@ laine lowe

I said that I am NOT making the assumption that it is all bluster, and I also said that I'm not presuming to pass judgement on what is going on over there, for a number of reasons.

All I am saying is that from what I have seen they do in fact do things a little differently, and have a different way of looking at it, and I think it would be a mistake to make too much of a comparison between the scope of their actions and what people do here.

And the truck burning I saw was in 1981.

Ken Burch Ken Burch's picture

This will probably be my last post in this thread.

It was not my intent to ATTACK the French unions, whose militance on this issue I admire.  Just wondered about their strategy.

Also, I wonder what they'll do now, since it appears this particular fight has just been lost(barring a reversal of the result in the process of reconciling the pension bills the Senate and National Assembly passed).

Unionist

Sven wrote:

laine lowe wrote:

The last effective demonstration march that I attended was the one right before the invasion of Iraq.

In what way was that demonstration "effective"??

Everyone in Canada knows the answer to that question, Sven - as do you, even from afar.

al-Qa'bong

Well, the demonstrations may not have been terribly effective, but the attack on Iraq has been doing a good job in clearing Arabs from Mesopotamia:

 

WikiLeaks says logs show 15,000 more Iraq deaths

 

Quote:
(Reuters) - WikiLeaks said on Saturday its release of nearly 400,000 classified U.S. files on the Iraq war showed 15,000 more Iraqi civilians died than previously thought.

Uploaded on the WikiLeaks' website, the files detailed gruesome cases of prisoner abuse by Iraqi forces that the U.S. military knew about but did not seem to investigate.

 

God Bless America.

May you bastards burn in hell.

KenS

Ken, this struggle has not been 'lost'. For quite a while, demonstrations have been planned knowing there is little chance Sarkozy was going to back down from legislating the reforms. And next weeks demos were planned after knowing Fridays Senate vote was a certainty.

Even2 years from now the reforms could be reversed with little short term fiscal effect.

Skinny Dipper

Two other things about French unions are that there is strike funds (or they are really small), and only the union leadership decides on when to strike.  That is why strikes are short, dramatic episodes such as strikers blockading oil refineries, border points, and other major landmarks.  In Canada, unions have strike funds which means that strikes can last longer than in France.  Also when the need arises, the unions will only strike over matters realted to employer-employee issues.  If Canada were to raise the pension age to 70 from 65, the unions would likely have a major protest on a weekend.  However, their members would not likely strike because of government action.

Fidel

NoDifferencePartyPooper wrote:

Thank God for France - by Mike Whitney

http://www.counterpunch.org/whitney10222010.html

"The state isn't moved by lyrical editorials or prosaic manifestos. It responds to force alone, which is why it takes people who are willing to 'throw themselves on the gears' of the apparatus and stop it from moving forward. Unfortunately, most of those people appear to live in France..."

Good article by Mike Whitney.

Vive la France. Vive la Résistance.

NDPP

French Government, Unions Seek to Limit Strikes Against Pension Cuts

http://www.wsws.org/articles/2010/oct2010/fran-o26.shtml

"Government officials struggled yesterday to limit ongoing strikes against President Nicolas Sarkozy's pension 'reform'. With repeated police raids on oil blockades and high school protests halted due to All Saints Week holiday, ministers are seeking to demoralize the workers, declaring strikes to be over..

The are aided by the unions, which have isolated strikes in the oil and transport sectors and at French ports..

On France 3 Television Sunday, Labor Minister Eric Woerth arrogantly declared. 'There's no point to striking today...After the law was voted, it's the law'

8 Universities remain blockaded and university student unions have called for a national strike day together with high school students on Nov 4...

Polls cited by business daily Les Echos show that 61 percent of the population supports continued strike action against the cuts."

NDPP

Millions March in France Against Pension Cuts

http://wsws.org/articles/2010/oct2010/fran-o29.shtml

"Millions of workers and students took to the streets across France Thursday to protest final approval by the National Assembly of President Nicolas Sarkozy's pension 'reform' bill...The demonstrations had overwhelming popular support with 65 percent of the population approving it, according to the most recent La Parisien poll.

Many press accounts spoke of an angry mood at the demonstrations with protestors dismissing government claims that the strike movement was over and criticized the unions for not organizing more effective protests..."

 

Sarkozy's Bad Week  - by Gamel N'Krumah

http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2007/868/in2.htm

"The latest hazard facing the French president has been his socio-economic policies. Sarkozy's showdown with the trade unions threaten to turn into a deciding moment for France..."

this moment, predicted in 2007, comes now

2dawall

I am no Leninist but there are some details here that I cannot find elsewhere. Found this from a link on New Socialist:

 

http://leninology.blogspot.com/2010/10/french-union-leadership-raises-white.html

 

...

 

and to contradict that anaylsis ...

 

http://socialistworker.org/2010/10/25/the-struggle-is-far-from-over

 

 

 

NDPP

New Anti-Capitalist Party Covers for Union Betrayal of French Oil Strike

http://wsws.org/articles/2010/nov2010/fran-n01.shtml

"After 2 weeks of strikes and police strikebreaking, against which the unions organized no mass protests or sympathy strikes, the oil workers voted Friday to return to work. A significant political consequence is the exposure of the class collaborationist politics of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) of Oliver Besancenot.

The exposure of the NPA's politics is a critical question of class strategy for workers. Their objective function is to prevent workers from breaking with the union bureacracy, which has made its stragegy clear: to isolate and sell out every section of the working class that struggles against Sarkozy's cuts...

claiming that the unions 'got close' to a general strike is to lie shamelessly about their betrayal of the workers' struggle.."

Doug

In short, "We're the real revolutionaries, you're class collaborationist reformists, nyah nyah nyah nyah nyahhhhhh!" Not too useful.

Jacob Richter

Doug wrote:
France has a history of movements that promised to change everything but ended up changing relatively little. There might be a virtue in being less ambitious.

I know you're a hardcore soc-dem, but aiming lower and lower gets you the scumbag likes of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder: "reformism" without reforms.

2dawall

Doug wrote:

In short, "We're the real revolutionaries, you're class collaborationist reformists, nyah nyah nyah nyah nyahhhhhh!" Not too useful.

... and this means that ... not sure what this leads to or the point being made?

If one union or one set of unions and organizations wants to continue the fight and array of the other unions, political parties, and organizations seek to bring it to a halt, is it not worthy to highlight that difference?

If one group or side is actually connected to the IMF, is that not relevant?