France: Railroad Workers Lead the Way

Tens of thousands of workers demonstrated across France on May Day protesting the policies of the government and their rightwing president, former investment banker Emanuel Macron. Since Macron’s election a year ago, his government has attacked the rights of workers, retirees, immigrants, and students, trying to cut jobs, reduce social services and end protections that workers won years ago. Meanwhile Macron has given big tax cuts and gifts to the 1%.

In February the government announced plans to reduce railroad workers’ rights, privatize the railroads and introduce competition in rail transport. The railroad workers have been one of the most militant sections of the working class, organizing ongoing strikes six times between 1999 and 2016 against government attacks. The railroad workers have a strong democratic tradition, holding meetings of all railroad workers on the job to organize their fights and vote to continue their strikes. The government is attacking them first because it fears their fight could encourage others to fight too.

There has been a response to Macron’s attacks. In April, the major unions called for railroad workers to began a series of rolling strikes, two out of every five days scheduled through June. The strikes have disrupted rail traffic throughout the country and from abroad. There have also been strikes by Air France pilots, supermarket and healthcare workers. There are strikes scheduled for public service workers, teachers and retirees in the coming months. On March 22, public service workers and railway workers organized demonstrations of over 300,000 people all over France. On April 19, there were national demonstrations of tens of thousands as well.

The government also announced a major reform of the French educational system to limit access to higher education. Currently, French students who pass a high school exit exam have the right to go to the university. The new system will make that process more diffiicult, especially for working class students. High school and university students organized protest demonstrations. There have been mass meetings and occupations in dozens of universities. The government sent riot police on several campuses to throw the students out, injuring several students. These police actions were shocking for the French population.Macron and his government are really hated by the workers since they act in the same arrogant way as the bosses.

The anger against the government and the bosses is there and so is the desire to fight together in what people are calling a “convergence” of struggles. But up until now the union officials and the major left parties have organized separate actions for each group, as well as short strikes and demonstrations with all the dates announced in advance. The main goal of the union officials is to force the government to negotiate with them to modify the agreement. This means that the decisions and the organization of the fight is not in the workers’ hands. With this strategy it is very likely the workers will be defeated.

Some railroad workers and some students have gone to each other’s meetings or gone to speak with other workers. They have marched together in demonstrations. But up until now they have not found a way to organize the fight themselves as a common struggle that goes beyond monthly days of protest and limited isolated strikes. But the fight is not over. Hopefully the activists in rail and in other workplaces can organize with the activist students, and other sections of the population under attack. The workers produce all the goods and provide all the services of society. If they use their power, they can certainly make Macron back down.