The struggle in France and Europe against the pension reform and social cutbacks

Below is the presentation at the Detroit Workers' Voice Discussion Group meeting of October 31, 2010, edited for publication. At the time of the meeting, the reformist and revisionist leaders of the main unions had just called off the surging mass struggle, but promised to hold a big demonstration on November 6. This is what they always do: stop a struggle at its height, and claim they can continue it later at will. But what happened was that the momentum of the struggle was broken. Although many people came out on November 6, there were fewer demonstrators than at the height of the struggle, and the class-collaborationist union leaders then scheduled the next demonstration for weeks later on November 23.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The meeting today is on the struggle in France and Europe against austerity. In one country after another in Europe, the governments are demanding cutbacks, and in a number of countries the workers have responded with strikes and demonstrations. The latest upsurge is in France. The government has been putting forward a so-called "pension reform", which means increasing the age of retirement. Actions against it began with a demonstration on June 24. July and August are French vacation months, so not much happened then. But the next big demonstration was September 7. And then, when the reform was taken up by the legislature on October 12, major actions began. By October 19, several million people were in the street.

The actions have included strikes at oil refineries and of workers in transport, garbage collection and other fields. Air and train transport has been affected, with many flights and trains canceled. A shortage of fuel has spread throughout the economy. The strikes took on some other issues as well, such as against the partial privatization of gasoline refineries. It includes teachers strikes at the universities, and massive mobilization of students themselves. It included mass demonstrations about which the press, the unions, and the government argue over how many million people came out. The government proceeded to pass the bill, but the popular opposition keeps growing.

But a funny thing happened in the short period between when I sent out the notice for this meeting on Thursday, and the meeting this Sunday. The French unions, right in the midst of a growing struggle, called it off on Friday. Of course the unions say there will be future sporadic actions, like a day of action on November 6. But the union leadership has broken the momentum of the mass struggle.

The fact is, sporadic actions haven't won demands in France. They haven't in the various mass strikes and demonstrations over the few years. When the workers have won demands was in 1995, for example, when they struck, spearheaded by the railworkers, for 24 days on end until the pension reform of that time was dropped.(1)

Does this mean that there's no sense discussing the French upsurge any more? Not at all. In my notice for the meeting, I pointed out that the French workers face the same obstacles in their struggle as the workers of other countries. The Greek workers earlier this year staged massive demonstrations throughout Greece against austerity. And there, too, the union leaders called it off, and sat down and told the workers to accept big cuts. And then up to the half the workforce struck against Spanish austerity on September 29, but the unions then went back to supporting the government.

It's important to see why this is happening. Once one sees this, we will realize that the working class may face a lot more setbacks before successfully fighting back against the austerity drive. But this struggle is going to continue, and gradually increase, and be much more profound than one might have imagined. It may well lead to the development of new political trends among the workers, trends that condemn the treachery that has been revealed in the austerity fight.

So I'll deal first with why this treachery occurs, and then come back at the end to the sweep of this struggle in France, and what it shows about where things are headed.

The first issue is to know who is bringing austerity measures to Europe. It's common to picture that Europe is the land of the great welfare state, a reformist paradise where the social-democrats have tamed the capitalists. The struggle in Europe is supposed to be between keeping the social-democrats in power, versus the rightist parties who want to dismantle the social programs.

And it's true that various rightist parties have been involved in austerity. The Conservative Party in the UK wants to carry out massive cutbacks in social programs over the next four years of 20% to 40% across the board, although it is notably doing this in a coalition government with the left-posing Liberal Democrats. And in France, it is the rightist party of Sarkozy which is pushing the pension reform.

But when one looks closer, one sees that all across Europe the social-democratic parties are also pushing austerity. The massive cutbacks in Greece -- in retirement benefits, in wages, in pensions, in everything that goes to the workers -- have been pushed through by the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) led by George Papandreou. Earlier this month his government actually put forward a 2011 budget draft that called for cutting the government deficit even faster than demanded by the European neo-liberal institutions.

And in Spain, the cutbacks are being implemented by the Socialist Workers Party of Spain.

Another example comes from Germany. In 2004, there were large demonstrations against the slashing of unemployment benefits under a program called Hartz IV. Let me take a moment to explain this. Hartz IV has nothing to do with "heart"; it's named after a heartless government-appointed commission headed by a man called Peter Hartz. It was supposed to reform labor laws, and it issued a number of reports which were implemented in four parts. The last part was Hartz IV. Up to then, if you had worked for some time, and then were laid-off, you were first eligible for short-term unemployment benefits of 60-67% of your previous pay that might last, if needed, perhaps up to three years, depending on how much previous work time you had. After that, if you were still unemployed, you went on long-term unemployment insurance, which was 53-57% of your previous pay, but was still much better than welfare. Hartz IV cut the short-term insurance for most workers to at most one year. It slashed the long-term compensation to the level of welfare. And it imposed conditions. For example, if you were offered a job anywhere in Germany, you had to take it. Did it have to pay minimum wage? Oops, there's no overall minimum wage law in Germany, and under Hartz IV, many workers ended up being offered 1 euro/hr jobs.(2) They had to take it or lose their benefits. Moreover, if the offered job was in another city, you still had to take it. It's sort of like the post office here, where they say they aren't laying you off but you have to pick up and relocate to North Carolina or Pittsburgh or wherever. And just like the post office, they could even send a husband and wife to different cities. There's more about Hartz IV, but the point is this: which party implemented it?

As you might guess from the fact I'm including it in this list, it was the Social-Democratic Party. But since the Social-Democrats didn't have a majority in parliament at that time, they needed help. Now, where else in Germany could you find such a heartless, cynical party as to implement Hartz IV? If you know German politics, you might think they turned to the free-market party, the Free Democrats. But no, while the Free Democrats have nothing against squeezing the workers, they weren't in coalition with the Social-Democrats. Or you might recall the "grand coalitions" between the Social-Democrats and the Christian-Democratic Union. But no, it wasn't the Christian-Democrats either. It was the Green Party of Germany, and it was the so-called red-green government that carried it out (in power for 1998-2002, and then 2002-2005). No doubt the majority of Greens around the world don't like or accept the stands like these taken by the Green Party in power, but they have to look at why this has taken place.

In France, it's the Sarkozy government that is carried out the pension reform. But the Socialist Party holds that a pension reform is necessary, only that it shouldn't be quite like Sarkozy's.

So all across Europe, it's parties who claim to speak in the name of the working class and to be socialist, who are carrying this out. It isn't simply the fault of a single party or of some individuals. When the Panhellenic Socialist Movement brought austerity, the Socialist International didn't expel it. In fact, George Papandreou, the head of the Greek austerity government, is the current president of the Socialist International.

So why are these parties doing this? Is it because the economic situation is so bad that there is no choice? No, it's because they want a place at the bourgeois table, and they accept bourgeois priorities and bourgeois politics and bourgeois economics. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a major figure in the French socialist party, and a possible presidential candidate for it in the next election, is even the current managing director of the IMF.

The Socialist International, and the Greens as well, stress that they have values, and they claim that their values and choices differ from those of the conservatives. But their participation in the austerity drive shows that their economics are basically the same as the conservatives. Underneath the clash of party rhetoric, there are class realities. And the class reality is that the Socialist parties are on the side of the bourgeoisie in this clash.

The bourgeoisie says, and is echoed by the "socialists", that there has to be pension reform in France because there as so many more pensioners per active worker than before. True, there are more pensioners per active worker than before. In 1983, when the retirement age of 60, and 65 for full benefits, was set, there were 4.4 workers per every retiree. In 2010, there are 3.5 French workers per every retiree. But French productivity per worker has increased so much that this alone wouldn't be a problem. It would only take a productivity increase of 8/10th of a percent a year to be able to handle this decrease in the number of active workers per retiree. In fact, French productivity has increased much faster than this, and faster than the combined amount needed to deal with pensions, wage increases, and worktime decreases all together.(3)

So the pension reform isn't required by the aging of France. Something else is spurring it. This is the general offensive to squeeze worker's wages, and increase the profit margins of the bourgeoisie. And today, when the economic crisis is breaking, the bourgeoisie is partially using it to squeeze the workers, and partially hoping that squeezing the workers will solve the crisis. This can be seen in the US too. The profits of the banks have been restored, and the large corporations are flush with cash as well, so they think all's well, and just keep squeezing the workers.

In fact, these austerity measures are liable to deepen the crisis, and eventually effect the bourgeoisie as well. But for now the bourgeoisie wants to cling to neo-liberal measures. And what is going on are austerity measures, not forced by physical realities, but by the drive to maintain neo-liberalism. What we have is a class battle between the bourgeoisie, which is insisting on neo-liberalism the more strongly the more it fails, and the working class, whose members want to have something to eat, a home to live in, clothes to wear, and schools to send their children to, to say nothing of a retirement.

But, one may say, all this may be well and good, but what does it have to do with the French unions? The main Greek unions were attached to the ruling party, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, and similarly in Spain. But the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), which helped call off the French strikes, is attached to the revisionist, supposedly Communist Party of France.

But in Europe, as in the US, the main union leaders are class-collaborationist, just as the social-democratic and revisionist parties are. They want, not to storm the barricades against the bourgeoisie, but to sit down at the same table with them. If these unions fight to the bitter end against the reform, they might win, but the bourgeoisie will be suspicious of its leaders for a long time. So instead, by having the unions fight sporadically, well, the leaders seek to show the bourgeoisie that "we can bring millions into the street, and we can cool them off and take them back home again". That's why they argue so much with the government and the conservatives over how many million people were in the street -- they are seeking to impress the bourgeoisie. If they were seeking to fight the bourgeoisie, they wouldn't care so much about how the bourgeoisie counted their numbers, but mainly about how they were bringing more and more workers and students into action.

So what's going to happen? Is the working class doomed with all these forces against it?

Not at all. We are going to see increasing waves of struggle. There may be ups and downs, but on the whole, each wave will bring further sections of the population into struggle. And eventually this will lead to a major change in the political alignments of today. It will lead to the rise of new political and organizational trends in the working class, trends that will stand for class struggle.

Let's look at what happened in France.

In France, the strikers met with the sympathy of the large majority of the French population. The unions in France comprise only 8% of the workforce, but they are located in a number of strategic areas, such as transport and refineries. However, that alone isn't why strikes are powerful in France. It's because the unions have wide support when they strike on just issues. When they go on strike, they can cause tremendous bottlenecks, and they can maintain this, but only if they have popular support.

In this case, strikes at refineries helped bring slow transport, causing cancellation of large numbers of plane and train trips. Ships waited to unload. People had a hard time getting to work. Yet the result wasn't a loss of support for the strikers, but a gain in support. Polls aren't a very reliable source of information. And the polls we have from France are from pro-bourgeois and even pro-rightist sources, but they show support for the strike increasing as time went on, reaching up to 71%. Meanwhile opposition to the pension reform itself was even higher than that.

Moreover, the strikes spread to the schools. And it wasn't just the teachers, but the students. There were many pictures on youtube or otherwise circulated on the internet of student and youth action. Among other things, the students argued that the pension reform affected them, and that keeping the older workers from retiring would increase unemployment and keep youth for being able to find jobs. Youth closed schools, came out into thee streets, and demonstrations also extended into the banlieues or working-class suburbs, and reached a high level of bitterness.

Now, there are many trade union federations in France. The CGT unions associated with the revisionist CP of France are supposed to be among the most militant. But this wasn't because of the CP leadership, but despite it. It was noted by observers that the workers in the CGT were, as regard all the union federations, most likely to defy their union leadership.

What does this all this mean? Well, with the stopping of the strike, this mass struggle has been betrayed by the "socialist" and revisionist leadership. This may lead to demoralization at first, but eventually this situation will lead to struggle against the old leadership. In Greece, during the major strikes, some workers threw yogurt at Mr Papagopoulos, head of the GSEE, the General Confederation of Greek Workers, which is the largest federation of private-sector workers in Greece. And it wasn't tea partiers doing this, but militant strikers. True, so far the working class doesn't yet have a clear alternative to the reformist leadership. But sooner or later, reorganization will take place.

In the Great Depression of the 30's in the US, the situation led to a growth of communist influence, and also a major shakeup in the unions, with the large-scale unionization of the mass production industries and the growth of the CIO. The eventual switch of the Communist Party of the USA in the latter-30s to backing the liberal bourgeoisie and the reformist leaders rather than fighting them limited how far the political shift went, but the tremendous upsurge of the 30's gave an impetus to struggle that lasted some time.

The struggle against cutbacks is going to be here for some time. The masses are going to get angrier, and the bourgeoisie is likely to become disoriented as the deficit-cutting policies lead to a deeper and prolonged crisis. For now the bourgeoisie thinks it can make money off the crisis; the financiers are pulling in huge bonuses again; and the largest corporations are swimming in money which they are hoarding. But if the crisis deepens, it will take down more firms and affect the bourgeoisie as well. The days of neo-liberalism are marked. But victory won't come automatically to the working class. Neo-liberalism will pass, but whether it is replaced by something equally oppressive, or whether benefits and freedoms are won by the workers, depends on whether and how fast they learn the lessons of the French, Greek and other upsurges, and build organizations oriented to struggle. This is what the Detroit Workers' Voice seeks to play a role in, and it is the task before progressive activist and class-conscious workers. We can expect more struggle, and we have to help it by encouraging alternative organization that really stands on the side of the working class, so as to end the cycle of struggle followed by betrayal.


(1)See Detroit Workers' Voice, Jan. 1, 1996 for more on the struggle against the extensive cutbacks put foward by then-Prime Minister Alain Juppe. Juppe's pension reform of 19995 was defeated, but various other aspects of the extensive social and welfare cuts proposed by Juppe were put in place as the union leaders called off the struggle part-way -- promising, of course, to hold future actions.

(2)The discussion went into this further. A Hartz IV worker forced to accept a 1 euro/hr job keeps Hartz IV benefits. Some 1 euro/hr jobs are simply punitive. Others serve as a subsidy to employers, who pretend they are providing job training or satisfying some other condition and are then able to get Hartz IV workers at 1 euro/hr in place of regularly-paid ones.

(3)As well, as was pointed out in discussion, the pension reform wouldn't help provide more material resources for the pension system, since it wouldn't increase the amount of work done. By keeping workers from retiring, it would increase the workforce. But given the present depression, this would result in more unemployment and impoverishment, not in more material production.

Back to main page, how to order CV, write us!

Last changed on December 24, 2010.