France leads the way

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With unemployment rising, along with the cost of living, trade unions in France are planning a second one-day general strike for March 19, following a successful action on Jan. 29 in defence of citizen purchasing power and against corporate bail-outs. Despite having the lowest rate of unionization among industrialized countries (one-half of the U.S. rate), when asked, 69 per cent of the French population said, yes they supported or sympathized with the union-led strike action, which saw 2.5 million people walk off their jobs in January.

While influential observers are saying the global economic crisis, though unexpected, could have been prevented if monetary policy had not failed, the facts suggest otherwise. As the French job action suggests, the global crisis is a major event in a long war of attrition between salaried workers, and employers over the division of income, and the control of wealth. The misappropriation and abuse of power by the financial sector is the most recent form taken by the crisis, which emerges from a deeper, longer conflict within capitalist economies.

The origins of the present crisis are the growing unequal distribution of income and wealth, and the overproduction of manufactured goods a growing number of people cannot afford to buy. Behind the sub-prime mortgage fiasco is a social reality: many people working in the U.S. were not being paid enough to be able to afford the house they were duped into buying.

When the people who have the money do not spend it, and the people who would spend it, do not have it, you have macroeconomic decline. Boosting purchasing power for those without is not enough to resolve the crisis, but does not make it worse, and it definitely eases the situation for the unemployed and vulnerable.

In France, it is standard practice for companies to distribute productivity gains three ways: one-third to workers, one-third to shareholders and one-third goes back into the company. This is unheard of in Canada where management attributes gains to itself first, then to shareholders; and goes on to convinces governments to reduce business taxes, and cut government spending on unemployment insurance and other social programmes.

The French president took to the airwaves last Thursday and called for a social summit Feb. 18 to consider boosts to unemployment benefits for the young and part-time workers, upping the family allowance, tax cuts in lower brackets, aid for seniors and money for single parents. The French newspaper Le Monde reports that French union leaders consider President Sarkozy's policy proposals to fall well short of what is needed.

Every French company with at least 10 employees has an elected representative mandated by law to present grievances for adjudication, and meet with management at least once a month. An "enterprise" employing over 50 people must, under French labour law, create a joint committee of workers and management. On the agenda is corporate policy, and workers are entitled to all information available to shareholders.

While in Canada and the U.S. the economic crisis can be traced back to underpaying large numbers of workers, in France it is the stubbornly high unemployment numbers, particularly for the young, which have revealed shortcomings of French policy. To draw attention to the contrast between corporate bailouts, and material discomfort for many, the French trade unions want the population to manifest their discontent with the current government. Out of job action it is expected will come wider understanding of what a better deal for workers and their families would look like, and how to get it.

At the time of the "events" of May 1968, the trade unions were said by student activists to be part of the problem. The Communist trade unions were laughed at because they refused to recognize, let alone endorse, the revolutionary activity going on around all around them.

Forty years later, people in France are receptive to trade union leadership. Indeed strengthening working peoples' organizational capacity may be the most important task in the months to come as the recession throws people out of work around the world.

Once again, people in other countries can take heart from what is taking place in France. A one-day general strike hardly qualifies as revolutionary action, but it does help to establish a new balance of social forces. The trade union announcement of another one-day strike puts the French government on notice seriously. Taking to the streets in a peaceful show of force is worth doing, as the Sarkozy government prepares a conciliatory social summit, because the strike becomes about building commitments to making things better among the population at large, commitments which no government can ignore.

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