France: How union leaders destroyed the movement against El Khomri

A militant reflects on the struggle against the Socialist Party’s El Khomri law attacking working rights, which brought 1.2 million workers into the streets last year and sparked widespread resistance.

Unions played a key role last spring in the movement against the “work” law. But their political gymnastics of collaboration with the government cost us the fight. Let us organise ourselves now, autonomously, to control our political objectives and our means of struggle! For the many affronts to come, let’s prepare the riposte!

On January 30th, after a five-month truce in struggle, a coalition of trade unions CGT-FO-FSU-UNEF-UNL-LDIFs (SOUTH abstained) met to “revive a dynamic struggle in a context of electoral campaigns where the social question remains in the background,” but also to ask for “the repeal of the work law.”

While many of the provisions of this Act came into effect on January 1st, the question must be asked: why did the major unions leave the street after September 15th? After the government passed the legislative power without a vote, using Article 49.3 of the French Constitution, it was still possible to force the executive to turn back by intensifying the struggles, as had been the case during the movement against the CPE in 2006.

It must be remembered that the demonstration of September 15th, the last of this cycle of mobilisations, was a huge success, despite fierce police repression. But this did not stop Jean-Claude Mailly, secretary-general of union confederation Force Ouvrière, from putting an end to the all-union demonstrations and letting the impressive social movement that had been launched since March rot away.

Two phenomena can be discerned through this defeat, announced by the leaders of the traditional unions. The first is that despite their powerful capacity for mobilisation, the trade union confederations did not wish to make use of it.

When half of the gas stations were dry and the nuclear power stations stopped on April 28th, it was believed that the movement was certain to win. The demonstrations of March 31st and June 14th bringing together more than one million people are also irrefutable evidence of trade union power in France. But these unions never wanted to enter into a real struggle with the government, despite this ability to mobilise.

While some autonomous collectives, inter-professional GAs and several minority trade unions called for a general strike, the traditional unions did not want to take this step, preferring to call timidly for sporadic strike days. The movement against the law coincided more widely with other struggles, including those of railway workers and of course with Nuit Debout. But the unions had no desire to bring these different struggles in a general strike and although CGT union general secretary Philippe Martinez was seen as representing the “hard” line of the union, (he went went to Nuit Debout on April 28th), the liaison between workers and citizens never happened.

When the union leaders had the capacity to close the country’s nuclear power plants, which would immediately have beaten the law, why did not they act? One can only perceive a lack of political will, and the complete absence of wanting to create a protest dynamic against the neoliberal policies and security of the State.

This brings us to the second phenomenon characterising the conformist zeal of union leaders. Beyond a lack of political will to pursue a truly contentious line, the unions saw their hold on the movement slipping between their fingers. The successive overflowing spring, the constitution of the head of processions, and the willingness to act outside the framework set by the unions have definitely not pleases the traditional holders of the social protest monopoly.

The opening of these autonomous spaces enabled the many people wishing to emancipate themselves from the burdens and constraints of the large organisations, and there was participation from determined trade unionists alongside students and high-school students in radical actions. Faced with this new autonomous impetus, the trade union centrists became frightened, and knelt before the government before losing all control.

Thus, the “cage” demonstrations of June 23rd and 28th were unprecedented concessions to the executive and the police to support trade unions in their approach. When the Parisian parade of September 15th brought together more than a quarter of the total demonstration, unions sounded alarm bells, putting a permanent brake on the movement. While the autonomous groups that formed in the spring persisted in their revolt, now targeting presidential elections, the withdrawal from the struggle by the unions has dampened the movement.

The inter-union meeting of Monday, January 30th appears therefore as a farce: those who had put an end to the movement claim today to incarnate its continuation. Certainly, the CGT has brought certain sections of the work law before various courts, but the street remains the most radical and unifying medium of dispute. The leaders of the unions waited until the autonomous forces lost momentum so they could restart a tamed and controlled “mobilisation.”

France’s imminent presidential elections do not bode well for the future, especially with the main candidates who promise us a neoliberal, safe and racist business as usual. As can be seen in the US, the major unions do not hesitate to negotiate with Trump. The French Democratic Federation of Labour‘s political gymnastics, which saw it collaborate with the government throughout the movement, is another example of trade unions adhering to clearly anti-working lines.

It is therefore more important than ever to emancipate themselves from these trade unions and to form autonomous forms of organisation in the workplace, study and life. Criticisms by philosopher Simone Veil of the Popular Front and the reformist trade unions after the movement of 1936, and the anarcho-syndicalist experience in Catalonia 1936, not counting the many reflections  [1]  [2]  [3] from the movement last spring should serve as historical and theoretical lessons for us that change.

For the many affronts to come, let’s prepare the riposte!


This article is an edited machine translation from a submission to Paris-Luttes. If there are any mess-ups in this feature let us know!