The below article is a translation of an article appearing in French on the Mediapart website:
(CGT, Force Ouvriere and CFDT are the three main and separate union congresses in France, broadly-speaking divided along political lines, SUD is the common name for some more radical independent, breakaway unions. It is difficult to really know how best to translate “gilets jaunes” (yellow waistcoats), which applies to both the fuel-tax demonstrators and their “uniform”, the hi-viz safety jacket.)
“Hi-viz vests”: Unions slow to join the dance
23 November 2018: By Mathilde Goanec and Dan Israel.
If most national trade union leaders hold their noses when the “hi-viz vests” are mentioned, activists locally are taking the plunge citing the levels of social crisis. Nevertheless, there are still raw edges, mainly because of instances of racism and some of the demands about cutting taxes.
When we called CFDT member Pierre-Gael Laveder off the cuff, he replied (hi-viz vest on his back) straight from the Magny road-block at at Montceau-les-Mines (Saone-et-Loire). Last year, this man was one of the main actors in the fight against the closure of the Allia factory at Digoin. Now “newy redundant” he is a “hi-viz vest”.
However, Laurent Berger, the national secretary of his union, has not called on his troops the join the movement. On Monday 19 November he even denounced the “totalitarian” tone of some of the meetings. Nevertheless, concerned about the movement’s increasing popularity, the leader of the CFDT on Saturday proposed to Emmanuel Macron to quickly unite unions, the employers and associations “to set up a social pact for ecological conversion”, a proposition which the government turned down flat. All this means little to Pierre-Gael Laveder, who wears no label when he goes to the “hi-viz vests” meetings, quite happy to play locally the role of go-between his national secretary hankered after.
“There’s a bit of everything on the road-blocks: tradesmen, shopkeepers, public service people … and quite a few trade unionists”, Laveder explains. “I think it’s important to be there because what we’re fighting for here are things we stand up for in everyday union work: an increase in buying power and a wage rise. It makes sense to me”.
Like the CFDT, most union leaderships are hesitating, while on the ground many union activists have taken the plunge, even though the “hi-viz vests” always start a lot of arguments. The CGT position, for example is somewhat embarrassing. Less than a week ago Philippe Martinez was hammering out the line: “The CGT does not march alongside either people on the far right or bosses who talk about taxes but also mean social (National Insurance) contributions.”
All the same, on 20 November the national union published a statement calling on the government to respond to the “urgent social situation” which the “hi-viz vests” emphasise. Visiting Rouen last Thursday, Philippe Martinez went further, conscious of the pressures in his own organisation: “What worries us is not the ‘hi-viz’ movement but those who try to exploit it”.
There was the same shilly-shallying at Le Havre, a town the authorities are keeping a very careful eye on because it hosts a port, docks and refineries. A general assembly of the local CGT discussed “hi-viz” on Wednesday 21 November. Activists didn’t want to “be associated with ‘hi-viz’”, but planned to carry out a series of actions in parallel, especially since some of them are already out on strike over wages, for example at Total (six of whose seven French refineries are affected this Friday). On Thursday morning a two-hour leafletting session and a partial roadblock took place at the Oceane roundabout, where “hi-viz” have been setting up off and on since Saturday.
Sandrine Gerard, the secretary of the local CGT branch, has also informed Mediapart that there will be “growing popularity” from Monday 26 November with a possible blockade of “the economy” at Le Havre, almost certainly referring to the refineries. According to our information, the Le Havre CGT docks and harbour group, which has an extremely high percentage of union membership but is very tight-lipped where the media are concerned has been even clearer and passes the line on to members calling on them “not to let the caravan of anger pass by” but mix “their red vests with the yellow vests”.
For all their concern about who might be trying to exploit the movement, the group believes “there is a place for the CGT in this movement” and calls on “all members to participate in progressive assemblies”. Their comrades in La Mède (Bouches-du-Rhone Department) have already taken the plunge: they have been blockading their Total refinery alongside “hi-viz vests” since Thursday 22 November.
Even before 17 November, the union’s chemical industry group was warning that the “hi-viz vests” anger was not “illegitimate” and calling for a mobilisation a mobilisation in all the main sectors such as transport, oil, energy, ports … and the Lavera refinery and the fuel depot at Fos-sur-Mer in Bouches-du-Rhone have been regularly blockaded by “hi-viz vests” since Saturday.
Force Ouvriere union’s national leadership is undergoing a big internal crisis and has not really adopted a stance. However, their Transport section, which is the strongest union in road transport and ambulance drivers, has officially called on members to join the “hi-viz vests” and join in actions in favour of greater buying-power. “We call on them to come to the support of existing movements” General Secretary of the transport section of the union, Patrice Clos, explains, one of three candidates standing to replace Pascal Pavageau at the head of the national union.
If the unions are going forward on tip-toe, the official reason given for that is first of all the occasionally racist, sexist and homophobic tone of a very disorganised movement which is pulling in all kinds of directions. The CGT is sticking to its guns: “This period of powerful contrasts of light and shade can give birth to monsters, and citizens should not allow their anger to be diverted by those pushing xenophobic, racist and homophobic ideas”, the union says, referring to instances of physical and verbal violence experienced at a certain number of assemblies since 17 November.
Specifically the CGT section covering Customs Officers responded in a very lively way to publication on social media of a Facebook video showing “hi-viz vests” at Flixecourt (Haute-de-France department) congratulating each other on discovering migrants in the cistern of a tanker lorry and calling the police, and by the way making fun of the customs service. “Confident in their racist convictions, they preferred to call the police rather than an aid organisation which could have helped them”, the union group says in a press release. “This video shows protagonists calling for a ‘giant bonfire’ All this is reminiscent of very sad and inglorious events in our history”. The union follows up with an official complaint for slander and defamation of their service and incitement to racial hatred.
CGT activist Vincent Labrousse was prominent in the struggle to save jobs at the La Souterraine factory (Creuse Department) in September. Now sacked, he too is careful in discussing the composite character of the movement. “I can’t march with people from the fascistoshpere. It goes against nature”, this activist explains. “But they are not the only ones in the movement. Others simply want to denounce the society of exclusion we are being led into. I support them”. Moreover, about fifty of his comrades were present at the road blocks on Saturday. “In our CGT industrial group there is no rejection. Some of us support it but don’t go. Some do go there. Others will go”.
The sociologist Jean-Michel Denis, who specialises in trade unions and social movements, points out that most trade union bodies are in “horror of spontaneous movements”. “Most of those demonstrating here are wage-earners”, CGT member Fredo, who we met in Rouen, states simply. “What do they want? More purchasing-power. Our job is, without imposing anything, to get them to think about the question of wages. After all, that’s the heart of the matter.”
Activists also claim that the movement can also help to restore faith a little. “I’m really struck by the conviviality, the atmosphere … We’ve obviously got a lot to tell them, but a lot to learn as well”, explains Manu at Rouen. “What’s not to like about blockading Disney, supermarkets, petrol stations?” notes Laurent Degoussee, who is a member of the independent union SUD Commerce in Paris and one of the founders of the social front “Front Social” “In any case it’s very effective. 2000 people gathering together on 17 November. If it works, it’s mainly because you can come as you are and its on your doorstep. These are lessons for the social movement to bear in mind”.
Xenophobic, sexist and homophobic language which does occur in certain assemblies also do not discourage this “Solidaires” (independent union) activist, although he too mentions strong pressures within his organisation, which is used to sticking close to the social movement but is also involved in particular in anti-fascist and anti-sexist struggles. “Concretely, it’s not enough to say ‘that stinks’ and ‘that’s infected by the far right’, and in any case that’s not the atmosphere on the road blocks. Even if it can crop up, since there is all sorts of everything in this movement, which has neither structure, leaders, or security stewards. But I think the determining factor is the rejection of Macron’s policies and his very person”. On Saturday he will put on his violet vest (union colours) to join in with the yellow crowd. “If you go there to play the red professor, it’s guaranteed that it won’t work, so no preachy-preachy”.
“Solidaires” in any case spoke along more or less the same lines on 19 November, but without an official call to demonstrate. This trade union body firmly opposes neo-liberalism and the far right and its representatives, but it proposes to draw all forces together and to “look for what we agree on”. It has also, in vain, invited the other national union bodies to meet to discuss possible mobilising strategies.
The national unions are just as much at sea as the political leaders. They are grappling with contradictions and prepared to adopt fairly acrobatic postures in the process. “Some trades unions have had such a hard time of it in recent years that they are telling themselves, for once things are moving, let’s not miss the boat” notes researcher Jean-Michel Denis. “But it’s still very complicated. The values expressed by the demonstrators are very mixed in character, not to say pretty reactionary.” For example, what they have to say about fiscal matters, often anti-tax, doesn’t go down well with activists very attached to the public services and a redistributive system.
“In other spontaneous movements like the ‘nuits debout’ (when protestors spent entire nights awake in crowds) or the indignados, there was a kind of left-wing consciousness, a shared culture which made a link”, Denis emphasises. “Nothing like that here. The people we are dealing with don’t seem to have any habit of mobilising, or to have lost it. In their yellow vests, you also see small-scale craftsmen, home helps, liberal nurses, etc. these are categories of people who don’t work in big businesses with big groups of trade unionists, and where they live, work has been more and more de-structures. That doesn’t help when it comes to building bridges with traditional organisations.
A few trades unionists on the ground admit to a little bitterness at seeing struggles which have for years been carried on in the shadows suddenly emerge into the light – outside of the trade union field. “We fight year-in-year-out in the workshops, in the street, for wages, pension rights, against unemployment. When we go and ask the ‘hi-viz vests’ to help us against the reforms of pension rights, will then turn up?” asks Jean-Luc Bielitz, CGT delegate at Smart on the Moselle. But he won’t throw everything overboard: “I think we should jump onto the movement if it heeps going. The union is there to walk with them. Who in this crowd is going to negotiate with the government? Who is the leader today!”
Nevertheless, the period resonates as a lesson for Pascal Raffanel of the CFE-CCG at Bosch. “Trades unions have a few questions to ask themselves. If the resistance struggle is carried out solely on the basis of social networks or citizens’ movement, that could be the death of trade unionism. “. Laurent Degoussee, who has long campaigned in the Front Social for a very aggressive trade unionism, is even clearer: I think that because of our repeated setbacks on the social level, we have created a monster, and the void has been filled s best it could. It is mainly the people in power who are responsible, including those we have been walking with in trade union work and politics for 15 or 20 years.