My name is Axel Persson. I am a train driver in France and the general secretary of the CGT Railway Workers Union in Trappes, a city in the southwestern suburbs of Paris.

The past years have seen French workers in general, not only public sector workers but private sectors workers as well, join multi-industry strikes to fight together under a united front across private and public sectors. In that context, railway workers have often fittingly enough embodied the role of locomotive, dragging other industries into joining the strikes. That has been the case for example in 2016 when the employers tried implementing a law that would allow employers to circumvent the national collective agreements that currently cover 95 % of the workforce in France and of course during the strikes where French workers have defended their right to retire at a decent age. More specifically in the railway, workers have also been facing specific attacks aimed at preparing the privatization of the railway that has been nationalized and run as a public service since 1938.

The last of these major strikes was the one that begun in early 2023 against the French governments and employers plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. In December 2019, the same government had already been forced to scrap another pension reform after an almost two month long strike that paralysed public transport and many other industries, just before the COVID pandemic hit.

After a series of 24 hours strike in January and February that were massively followed with millions of workers taking strike action and demonstrating, decision was made to call out starting on the 7th of March 2023 for indefinite strike all workers as across as many industries as possible, both private and public. Oil refinery workers, railway workers, transport workers in Paris, dockworkers and energy workers in the nuclear plants were at the forefront of the strikes, alongside garbage disposal workers in Paris and other cities. Leading to massive shortages in fuel, tons of waste piling up in the streets of Paris, public transport that was either halted or severely reduced, with university students and high school students joining the demonstrations, bringing several millions into action over a course of several weeks. A powerful demonstration that when we withdraw our labour together for an indefinite amount of time, society, the economical machinery is either severely slowed, sometimes outright halted but it any case massively disrupted. It reminds everybody in society that without us, without our labor, nothing can function. That aspect is as important as the solely economical one as it moves society forward politically. The entire society is then focused on the subject put forth by the strikes, everybody is debating it and everybody is discussing it as workers set forth their own agenda and their own interests. It is also at these times where the reactionary and racist forces almost completely disappear from the media. As far as the strike over the pension is concerned, I am happy to share with you the very recent news, where after having organized a new set of strikes within the railway in February this year, we have forced the corporation to sign an agreement with the CGT union that once again guarantees us the right for an earlier retirement in the railway.  I for example, will be able to retire with a full pension at 54 years old through this agreement. It is not yet the retirement at 50 which is our demand, but only four years left to win back! And the rest of the working class needs to do the same!

Although union density in France is low with only 11 % of the workforce being a member of the union, it is vital to understand that all workers in France, regardless of whether they are a member of a union or not, benefit from the collective agreements, will get assistance from the union in case of problems at the workplace, will even get strike pay when we have strike funds, can join the strikes and be legally protected. In the workplace, elections are held every 4 years where all workers, whether they be members of the union or not, elect the union representatives they want to be represented by. I myself for example, am elected by union members to lead the union as its general secretary, but I am also elected by the entire workforce who elected me and other CGT union members in general elections to represent them nationally when it comes to bargaining, disciplinary matters, trade union representation pertaining to social and economic matters. That is where we draw our legitimacy from. Those who join the union join it because they want to support it financially, because they want to be active in it, it is a militant gesture. By definition, a successful strike is when union members manage convincing the non-union members to join the strike and the struggle.

From this also stems a method in organizing: Every day at 10:00 a.m. during general strikes, we call for general strikers assemblies in all workplaces across the country, where the daily matters pertaining to the organization of the strike are discussed and decided, and most importantly, where the decision to pursue the strike is voted on by all the strikes who are present, whether they are a member of the union or not. It is also the general assembly that decides on matters such as the use and distribution of the strike fund and it is there where we organize actions to fill our strike funds. For example, one of the actions we regularly organized to fill our strike funds was to storm highway tolls with hundreds of workers, forcing the barriers open and telling the car drivers that the highway was free today, but that they were invited to give the amount they had planned on paying to the strike fund. Which they gladly did, often giving more to us than what the highway costs.

I must also stress the importance of international solidarity. Through the contacts we have built up as a union through the World Federation of Trade Unions, we have had unions organizing blockades of trains headed to France from Italy when we were on strike organized by our comrades in Italy, comrades in Turkey demonstrating in front of the French consulate in support of us, and workers in Sweden, Cyprus, Italy, South Africa organizing fundraising campaigns in their countries to channel money to our strike funds that were then directly redistributed to striking workers under the supervision of the worker’s assembly. I cannot stress how important these actions, underlining how workers who do not know each other personally and are sometimes separated thousands of miles from one another, are yet ready to support and make sur their sister or brother on strike in France can pay the rent and put food on the table for their dependents, help bolster morale and keep the spirits up.

Public sector workers across the world face similar attacks. In many aspects, they are identical to the one faced by private sector workers. Our foes are simply put emptying our pockets by all imaginable means (either by slashing our terms and conditions, our real-term wages, our pensions, social security, employment security so forth) in order to fill their pockets at our expense in this never ending race for higher profits.

What we need to work on is a strategy to organize a counter-offensive that not only reclaims the lost ground but also heralds a new future in which workers can hope for. A future that is built on our terms, based on our interests, that will be brought forth only through the means of class struggle, strikes, insurrections and direct confrontation with the state and capitalists. It will be that or the barbarism the capitalist system is trying to ram down our throats. Let’s live up to our responsibility brothers and sisters, the clock is ticking.

Remarks to the 2024 Labor Notes Conference on its first day’s (4/19/2024) mid-afternoon workshop “Public Workers Around the World on Strike(s)”. The Labor Notes Conference was held April 19-21, 2024 at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare Chicago hotel in Rosemont, Illinois.

Other workshop panelists were Shannon Ikebe, FNEEQ-CSN from Quebec, Canada; Juan Bautista Welti, ATE-Rosario from Argentina; and, Jamie Woodcock, University College Union, UK.