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Macron declares war on railway workers

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On March 22, strikes and demonstrations took place across France. They were called by a united front of most public sector unions representing rail workers, school and hospital staff, civil servants, air traffic controllers and Paris metro workers. Their target was the “Project of Law for a New Railway Pact” issued by President Emmanuel Macron, the pin up of the international bourgeoisie.

It consists of just four pages and 8 short articles but it contains a real declaration of war. With it, Macron has opened hostilities against railway workers with a wide-ranging attack: changing the status of SNCF (the state-owned railway group, employing 146,000 workers) towards becoming a private company, opening the French railways to competition (at present it is a state monopoly), cutting 4000 to 9000 km of secondary lines, and stopping recruitment of new workers under existing SNCF collectively agreed working conditions.

The latter is at the heart of the attack. Railway workers, as a result of many past struggles, do benefit from good working conditions as well as compensation for night and week-end working. These “privileges” have been under media and political attack for decades, despite the fact that salaries correspond to the national average and the workers have already lost special retirement conditions. However, the main reason for the attack is that SNCF workers remain a stronghold of militant trade unionism, indeed, one of the last well-organised and combative industrial sectors in France.

Flushed from his success in the autumn, when his government imposed a new labour law (Code du Travail), totally favourable the bosses, without any serious opposition, Macron is out to impose a major strategic defeat on this vanguard of the French working class, the core of resistance within the various social movements of the last two decades. Everybody still has in mind the long strike of 1995, when the railway workers paralysed the country for three weeks and in the end inflicted a humiliating defeat on the right wing government of Alain Juppé.

Macron, benefiting from an exceptionally strong parliamentary majority, would like to force through this new “reform” without public debate, by means of executive orders, just as he did with the Code du Travail. These will be short enabling laws, in effect giving a blank cheque to the government to do whatever it wants. This haste has no real justification apart from trying to cut short the debate in parliament and the country, and to face workers with a “fait accompli”.

He also intends to take advantage of the political crisis wracking the workers' movement. Its traditional parties, the Socialist Party, PS, and the Communist Party, PCF, are in total disarray while the New Anticapitalist Party, NPA, is severely weakened. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s attempts to usurp them with his populist La France Insoumise movement has never really got off the ground, despite repeated inflations of rhetorical hot air.

While the requirements of the European Union are cited as the cause of the change, this is just an excuse. The EU is so weakened today that it would have to accept France choosing another option for the rail sector. The truth is the government wants to transform this public service into a private company, focused on making profit. It would like the rail network restricted to high-speed links between main cities, with local trains in dense urban areas. Users in rural, working class and impoverished areas are clearly outside the scope of this new business plan.

The opening of the market, as well as a clause that will oblige railway workers to accept any new job in the sector, including with private companies, will result in a worsening of their working conditions, and whatever will remain of the current conditions will be in constant danger. By attacking SNCF, Macron is also pursuing a major political victory that might open the way to further “reforms” against the public sector.

One of Macron's campaign promises was to cut the number of public sector workers by 120,000. Similar “reforms” are in preparation, including local authority administration, school and health services. Macron aims to undermine “jobs for life” for the state employees, replacing them with “precarious” workers with lower wages and low, or no, pensions.

An unashamed champion of neoliberalism, praising individual economic success as the only important criterion, Macron dreams of a major reshaping of the French economy, which still relies on an important public sector. So far, he has met little resistance to his shock tactics.

However, the current wave of attacks will not go through without some serious class struggle. The day of action and strikes on March 22 was a clear success, but it raised the question of what should be the next steps, indeed the last similar day of action was in … October 2017.

All the unions on the SNCF have rejected the reform and the strongest unions, including CGT, are calling for strikes in April and May. Unfortunately, the chosen strike tactic is bureaucratic from the very start. It consists of two days per week on strike, decided in advance by the TU leading bodies. The French union tradition, especially on SNCF, is for unlimited actions, where the strike is decided collectively each morning in each work site by the general assembly of the workers. By planning the strike in advance for the next few months, the union bureaucrats are imposing a stricter control of the struggle from above, useful if they decide to end it.

As might be expected, Laurent Brun, head of the CGT-Cheminots is talking a good fight. “We will take up the challenge. This will certainly be one of the biggest social movements in the history of SNCF”, he said. But it seems Macron may have lost the support of Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT federation who has accused government of “spitting in the face of railway and public sector workers”. On the Code du Travail “reform”, Macron used Berger to split the unions and isolate the CGT.

In fact, the struggle of SNCF workers is so crucial that it is necessary for all French workers to actively support it, best of all by going on strike on their own demands. Indeed, in several other sectors, workers have been or will be mobilised recently: in Air France, the giant retailer Carrefour, EHPAD (workers caring for elderly people) and school teachers. Students have also been active in the last weeks against a reform of their lycées that will severely restrict access to the universities.

In this context, the appeal for solidarity initiated by Olivier Besancenot of the NPA and signed by 16 groups including the PCF, is a step in the right direction. A mass movement and a victory for the railway workers would be a rallying point for the divided French left as well as the unions.

March 22, the day of the strike, was the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the Nanterre university campus, which began the movement that culminated in the general strike and barricade fighting of May 1968. Today, French workers and youth need to follow the example of that strike with mass street mobilisations, workplace occupations and a general strike controlled by the rank and file. Indeed, only a movement of that strength can defeat Macron's entire package of reforms. In the struggle, workers and young people need to create organs of self-organisation to take control of the strike and impose their demands not only on the government but on their own national leaders.