France railway workers' strike overtakes trade union control
Since 21 October, workers at the railway maintenance centre in Châtillon, the high-speed rail network's linchpin in western France, have been on strike without prior notice independently of the unions. They stand up against the appalling working conditions and union control that led to the disastrous strike of 2018.
Communiqué of the Strikers of the Technicentre of Châtillon (Paris)
We, striking employees at the Maintenance Centre in Châtillon TATL, on the Atlantic TGV network, have stopped working massively since Monday evening, October 21, without consulting or being supervised by the unions. Management considers our strike illegitimate because we would not be within the 48-hour deadline for minimum service, but it was the only way to make our voice heard. But does our management itself respect the daily service provided to travelers?
Our anger is real and deep, we are determined to fight to the end for our demands, for respect and dignity. We can no longer accept to work with salaries close to the minimum wage and frozen for 5 years, understaffed and with fellow workers who are resigning more and more. We are ashamed to see how the SNCF plays with the safety or comfort of the passengers, for reasons of flexibility and profitability. We will respect the notice strike periods when the management itself will already respect the employees but also the passengers who are paying more and more for trains, with less and less service, outdated seats, oars sometimes with condemned toilets, blocked doors, or even out of order air conditioning during heat waves.
We demand that we exercise our profession with respect and dignity, this cannot be done with fine words and speeches, but with the improvement of our working conditions. Tired of reorganizations, low wages, job cuts and under-staffing!
We call on all railway workers to rise up with us, because the situation in Châtillon today is in fact the reflect of a national policy. The management has no qualms about making us take the blame for its policy, just like the right to withdraw against EAS 1 and for the safety of users.
We have allowed this to happen for too long without saying anything, but today at the TATL we are saying stop to this company's policy. We will not sell off our dignity, our safety, or our health!
The railway workers on strike of the TATL, Paris October 27th 2019.
In addition to this statement, let's hear what the striking workers themselves have to say (transcribed and translated into English under the video):
To begin with, our 140 hours of rest were attacked, they wanted to take them away. We are under very complicated living conditions, we are undermanned but the work still comes on time, there is a lot of professionalism in what we do. The working conditions are already very complicated.
Here they only hire you if you have at least a high school diploma and you start below the minimum wage. I work weekends, holidays, nights. They wanted to increase our work nights from 70-90 (per year) to 124, that is, half of the year I would not be able to sleep with my wife. Why should we respect them if they do not respect us?
It is necessary for everyone to understand something today, in the SNCF we are not the only ones in this situation and that, unfortunately, this bad situation is happening not only in the Technicentres, but in the SNCF as a whole. What we have done I hope will serve all the colleagues who suffer from this. To them we say: you can defend yourselves, and we have shown them how we did it. We have been supportive and we have been together from beginning to end. And that's something the management wants us to pay dearly for.
How did this situation arise? The SNCF is not only undergoing large-scale dismantling by the French state but has always been one of the flagships of French trade unionism. Its workers are more than framed, they are bound in a multi-layered union straitjacket designed to dissipate any class struggle directed towards positions outside union-aided state control. Hence the media's surprise at the Châtillon strike.
There's something wrong with SNCF. Within a week, the railway company has suffered two social movements in unprecedented forms: a massive "right of withdrawal" and an unannounced strike. This is something the unions have never seen since at least 1986. Without warning, the railway workers have stopped working, "posé le sac", according to French railway jargon. A real break! Since 2004, in order to avoid untimely strikes affecting passengers, a legislative framework has been put in place to make social dialogue the rule. A sign of a deep weariness within the company, this social contract has received two successive stab wounds.
The workers have risen up against the containment measures, the so-called "social contract" that the unions negotiated with the state to tie the employees to the state-owned company's profits.
Company and trade union are both playing tricks
The last workers' struggle prior to this new flare-up occurred in the first half of 2018. At that time, the most "radical" union within the SNCF (SUD-Rail) managed to drag the CGT and the other unions into an "inter-union committee" that would take control and drown any attempt by the workers to organize themselves. Through "rotating strikes" instead of continuous strikes and negotiations with the SNCF, the "inter-union committee" managed to stifle workers' demands and obtain an agreement with the government... in exchange for improving the company's profits.
The effects were not long in coming. To begin with, massive layoffs. Among those dismissed were unionists from SUD-Rail itself, unbelieving at the results of their own trickery:
Abandoned railway lines, trains lying in locomotive graveyards, passing from a minimum of two to a single operating agent per convoy... And it is this last measure that has rekindled the fuse of SNCF workers' combativeness. On 16 October 2019, a passenger train struck a truck at an Ardennes level crossing, derailing immediately. On that train was only one operator, the driver, who was forced to leave the train injured, walk up to the communications booth and send a warning to stop the trains. On October 18, hundreds of railway workers used their "droit de retrait" to leave their posts as a sign of protest against the dangerousness of the single operator system. The "droit de retrait" allows railway workers to interrupt their work immediately if they feel they are in danger, instead of sending a notice 48 hours in advance.
The state responded in anger, with the French prime minister calling for legal action against the railroaders. Not only are the railwaymen not scared but both the Belgian company SNCB and the French labour inspectorate itself consider that the single operator system is a real danger... The anger of the workers has been increasing because of the inhuman conditions and the treatment received from both state and unions, anger that is crystallizing today in strikes like those of Châtillon that bypass union controls and tear the union straitjacket.
To try to stop the movement, the state has been lying by spreading in the media that the workers of Châtillon wanted to cash-in on the days of the strike, something they have never asked for but which could inflame public opinion. The unions, for their part, are trying to stifle the movement initiated by the workers of Châtillon by calling for a strike under union control. All this started by the same SUD-Rail union, the gravediggers who put an end to the 2018 movement.
The strike is spreading, the unions and the state are rushing to frame the movement
On Monday November 4, the strike spread to the Technicentres of Landy and TSEE... However, it is unclear whether this extension occurs under union control or not.
Meanwhile, the state openly declared its objectives. SNCF President Farandou insisted on "competitiveness":
Reorganisations, changes in organisation charts, hierarchical relations and responsibilities have been too frequent in recent years. For each new project, I will request the managers to ask themselves two questions. Is it good for the client, is it good for the company's competitiveness?
The leader of the second SNCF union replied by praising the president in statements to Libération:
Farandou plays the role of a president who calms the game and avoids inflaming the situation. He wants to break with the methods of the past by bringing trade unions together to find a way out.
The Eternal Trade Union Trap
The play between unions and the state to frame workers by cornering them in an impossible position has already begun. The priority of the union-state partnership will be to stifle the Châtillon movement by taking it to the safe port (for the state and capital, that is) of enslaving human needs to the profitability of the enterprise. It is the "common sense" of "only with profits alone the company can satisfy the needs of the workers", inevitably followed by "social justice", translated: a "redistribution" of those profits that is "fair" with capital, that is to say, that ensures a profitability equivalent to the average of the other alternative destinations for investment.
Where lies the trap?
The exploitation of workers is not the sum of individual "exploitations" company by company. Capitalism is a system of exploitation of one class by another. From the point of view of capital, the "business fabric" is a system of communicating vessels through which capital moves. A system that equalizes the results of each investment application according to its participation in the total of national capital given an average productivity, rewarding the "improvements" in exploitation as deviations from the average and punishing the deviations below average.
Therefore, to affirm that without profits the demands of the workers cannot be satisfied is the same thing as saying that the company "cannot" lose positions in the relative ordering of total capital. To say that the "inflexibility" of the workers "condemns to closure" is the same as saying that the national capital is willing to cut one of its own tentacles rather than lose global profitability.
The difference between a class struggle in the sphere of a single enterprise and a struggle as a class is that the former, enclosed within the walls of the enterprise, questions the profitability of a single application of capital and only potentially to capital as a whole. The latter, the struggle as a class that extends beyond enterprises to present a united front of human needs, questions capital as a whole to the point where capital cannot choose to sacrifice any particular application.
How do we escape from this trap?
Soviet assembly in Shush (Iran)
Today more than ever, to understand the class struggle as a struggle limited to the company or even the sector is to get into the union trap of one's own accord. Our way out is to extend the struggles. But the struggles are not extended by the idealism of forms, but by the materiality of their contents, contents that are expressed in slogans and demands. That is why we communists must not only call for the unification and extension of the strike, but also to give it a political meaning by contributing slogans that allow us to articulate an extension not only in SNCF but beyond, putting an end to the union logic of subordination. To begin with: Fired and precarious workers back into their workplaces! Less work hours and more pay!