Interview with a French Trade Union Leader

Interview with Matthieu Bolles-Reddat   

November 9, 2014
Paris, France

Matthieu Bolles-Reddat is a railroad worker in Paris and General-Secretary of the CGT (Confédération générale du travail) of railroad workers in Versailles.  He is also a member of the PCF (Parti communiste français) in the 15th Arrondissement.  This interview by MLToday's Roger Keeran occurred in Paris on November 9, 2014.

MLT:  Today is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  What thoughts do you have on this occasion?

MB-R:  For me the end of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union that accompanied it was not good news for workers worldwide.  It has ushered in two decades that have not been good for workers. The Soviet Union was the shield for the working class of the world. 

Of course, the Soviet Union was not a paradise, but it was on the side of workers.   Workers and Communists must look at the mistakes that were made in the Soviet Union, but we must keep in mind that they were our mistakes.  We do not need bourgeois commentators to try to tell us what was wrong. Rather, it is for us to examine. 

I went to Berlin a few years ago, and the workers there told me a joke.  They said. "During socialism 50 percent of what we were taught in school was propaganda. When they told us the GDR was a paradise it was not true.   But when they told us that capitalism was hell, that was true.  We know, because now we have capitalism."

Nowadays,  emboldened by the collapse of socialism, the capitalists are on the attack.  They tell us now you see socialism was wrong.  Before this, we had a model.  Now we don’t.

MLT:  How would you characterize the situation facing French unions today?

MB-R:  First, you have to understand that the general situation of French unions is completely different than what workers have in Germany, England, and the United States.  There you have one or two federations that are dominant, and you have a tradition of negotiating with the bosses over wages and conditions. 

Here it is not the same tradition.  For one thing,  we have six or seven different federations linked with different political orientations.  The biggest union is the CGT, which has links with the French Communist Party.  But there are many rightist trade unions. 

Moreover,  the French trade unions have a smaller membership than in other European countries.  The CGT, which is the largest union has only 700,000 members.  All the trade unions in France have only 2 million members.  Contrast that with Germany, where the largest union has 6 million members.  

In spite of such differences in size, there is another difference.  What trade union in England, or Germany, or the U.S. can put 3 million people on the streets like the CGT can?  That is because French trade unions have a tradition of political struggle,  that is, struggle over government policy, more so than unions elsewhere.  

Historically, the French unions took up the struggle for world peace, against colonialism, and against the war in Algeria, and French unions were in the vanguard of the resistance to the occupation of German fascists.  My federation has a huge tradition of political struggle.  The General Secretary of my union was murdered by the Nazis.   Eight thousand of our members were killed during the Second World War.   Today, everyone knows the sacrifices of those who went before. 

This tradition influences our struggles today.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was for many unionists the collapse of hope and the strengthening of reformist thinking in the unions.  Now there is the idea that unions today must be “modern,”  that they must work together with the bosses.  But the base of the unions is still healthy.  Workers realize we must struggle not just against the bosses or the government but against reformism in the trade unions, because we cannot do battle with the bosses with these kind of reformist ideas and leaders in our ranks.

MLT:  Last Wednesday, your union had a demonstration in Paris. What was that about?

MB-R:  What we are trying to do is organize a “rassemblement” [MLT:  a regrouping in a common front].  Last June, we had a two-week railroad strike, and we lost.  In Marseilles, there was a two-week strike on the docks, and they lost.  In September, there was a three-week strike of airline pilots, and they lost.  So, we say, “Stop!”  Let’s all fight alongside each other and win. We need a convergence of struggle.  All of these strikes were over the same thing, the attempt of the European Union to break the working conditions in each country. 

This was the main purpose of the creation of the European Union.  We now have this European Union law that relates to railroads, ports, and airlines that proposes to create private companies and “concurrence” (competition) in these public sectors.  This is just a way of cutting workers’ pay, benefits, and pensions. 

Railroads, airlines and ports are a public service.   They are not profit-makers.  They take huge public investments to run.  The trains serve small, remote places, even with only a few passengers, because they are a public service.  It is the same with safety.  Safety does not make profit, but it is obviously good for the traveler.  French railroads are the safest in the world, because they are run as a public service and not for profit. 

The French did not create railroads.  They started in England, which is why our trains drive on the left side and why our rails are exactly the same width as England’s, the width of the wheels on the Queen’s carriage.   But we are very proud of our railroads, and safety is very important for us.

Another issue for us with the European Union is a law that allows an employer to pay an immigrant worker wages comparable to the normal wages in the worker’s home country rather than the normal wages in the country where he is working.

MLT:  Do the various confederations of workers cooperate with each other?

MB-R:  No.

MLT:  How important is international trade union solidarity?  How are you and your union participating in international solidarity work?

MB-R:  The CGT left the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) in 1995.  It was part of the fallout from the Soviet collapse.  The leaders of the CGT decided, instead,  to join the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (IFCTU) with the idea of taking it in a more progressive direction.  But as George Mavrikos, the General Secretary of WFTU asked,  “Who took whom, and where?” 

The IFCTU is for the collaboration of classes.  It is imperialist.  It supported the coup by Pinochet against Allende, the coup against Chavez, the Vietnam War, the Israelis against the Palestinians and so forth.  This is why our union,  the CGT of railroad workers in Versailles, is part of the WFTU.  It is a way to have a debate within the CGT.  The WFTU is not perfect, but it is family.  We need international solidarity in the class struggle.  We need to share our experiences and our ideas. 

For example, last year the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union of Great Britain had the WFTU hold a meeting in London for delegates of transport unions of the WFTU in France, Cyprus, Greece and Italy.  We talked about how to combat the liberalization laws.  On May 27 in France we organized a demonstration against these laws and delegates came from Italy and the UK.  Where was the IFCTU?  Solidarity in action is better;  this is the best.  Lenin said when you have ideas, you have the way.  Now we are raising funds to give to Palestinian workers because in the last conflict the Israelis destroyed not just schools and hospitals, which everyone knows, but also the trade union buildings.

MLT:  Thank you, Mattheiu.  We hope to continue this discussion and have you meet some American trade unionists when you come to New York next June.

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