France: We Stand With the Vertbaudet Workers!

Signs from the Vertbaudet strike. The sign on the left reads: "0% pay raise = 0% production = 0% in your...". The sign on the right reads: "Poverty wages + mortuary retirement = STRIKE, STRIKE"

May 22, 2023 editorial of the Workplace Newsletters of the Etincelle fraction of the NPA, translated from French.

Last Tuesday, May 16, the police intervened to break up a picket line of workers at the warehouse of a children’s clothing company, Vertbaudet, in Marquette-les-Lille (northern French town). One worker was rushed to a hospital with a neck injury resulting from police violence. The day before, two militants who had come to support the picket line had been arrested. And the following day, one of the company’s trade unionists was assaulted by individuals on his way home. But the strike continues.

This strike, which has been going on for two months, reveals the anger of working people faced with the rapacity and brutality of employers and the government today.

11 Million Euros in Profits, 0% Pay Rise

Vertbaudet is owned by a wealthy investment fund, Equistone Partners Europe, with 5.5 billion euros in investments. Vertbaudet alone generated 11.4 million euros in annual profits for this fund. But management announced a 0% increase at the NAO, the compulsory annual negotiations. Only a few random bonuses, depending on performance, and the right to work an extra hour a day on a voluntary basis. The infamous “work more to earn more”… and ruin your health.

Management had the unfailing support of the public authorities. Support from the courts, which ruled in favor of the bosses when they hired temporary workers to replace the strikers, flouting the law’s right to strike. Support from the police, who intervened several times against the strikers in mid-April and this week. As for the three individuals who assaulted a union activist on May 17, claiming to be police officers and calling him a “dirty striker,” it’s hard to know whether they were really police officers, working overtime, far-right employers’ thugs, or both!

Pensions, Wages, Unemployment Benefits: The Same Battle

This behavior on the part of the police, the judiciary and the state apparatus in the service of employers is a replica of what we saw throughout the struggle against pension reform, with the government’s arrogance, the violence of its police and the partiality of its Constitutional Council. They are all in league to make us work ourselves to death until we’re 64, or even 67, in order to get our years of pensionable service.

And President Macron, who no longer dares to announce his visits to different parts of France ahead of time, in fear of a chorus of boos, took refuge in Versailles (formally the palace of the kings) on May 15. At the castle he welcomed a batch of wealthy bosses, to whom he extolled France’s “attractiveness” to investors. In other words, the appeal of the frozen salaries and job insecurity that he hopes will tempt the likes of Elon Musk.

As a “pro-social” move, so that the bosses don’t have to increase wages, he promised a tax cut for “the middle classes”: those who, in his view, are “too rich to be helped and not rich enough to live well.” He does this as if the poorest wage earners, the ones forced to work for pennies so they can collect welfare payments for the destitute, were being “helped.” The tax cut in question – 2 billion euros – would represent at most 75 euros per person; whereas for those who are really too rich – the bosses – it’s 162 billion euros in aid from the state.

Our anger, which we’ve made loud and clear since January, is still with us. The workers at Vertbaudet are proof of this. But they are not alone. The same is true of the temporary workers at PSA Stellantis (French auto manufacturing), whose pay is cut for every day the company declares a public holiday, and who are fighting back despite the threat posed by their precarious status. It is also true of the railway workers who are fighting against the deterioration of their working conditions, and the postal workers who struggle against the permanent hiring of temporary workers. The fight against pension reform is not over, and the upcoming strikes and demonstrations on June 6 must be massive, despite those who want to silence us and those who want to resume a “social dialogue.” All of us, employees and young people revolted by the injustices of society and the rapacity of capitalism, have not said our last word.