EDITOR’S NOTE: MLToday made it financially possible for Axel Persson to attend both the Railroad Workers United (RWU) and Labor Notes conferences in Chicago.  Special thanks to Walter Tillow, Rich Giovanoni and Chris Townsend.

 

Remarks to Railroad Workers United’s Ninth Biennial Convention on April 19, 2024 at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare Chicago hotel in Rosemont, Illinois.

Brothers and sisters, comrades and friends,

My name is Axel Persson. I am a train driver in France working for the French national state company, the SNCF and I am the general secretary of the CGT Railway Workers Union in the city of Trappes. Trappes is a railway city located in the southwestern working-class suburbs of Paris that was built around its railway yard. A city and a train yard with a long history of social struggles, strikes, demonstrations, insurrections throughout the history of the French labor movement.

I am extremely happy to have been invited to speak at your conference and to be given the opportunity to lay the foundations of what we hope will be a thorough and fruitful cooperation between militant French railway workers and American railway workers focused on concrete actions.

The French railway workers have been under constant all-round attack for the past two decades, as has the entire French working class. The ruling class has been on the offensive to try to destroy everything French labour has fought to win with the CGT union since the aftermath of the Second World War. In the crosshairs of our class enemies is our social security system, our right to benefit from pensions at a decent age, our right to job security and protection against unfair dismissal, and our capacity to forge collective agreements that currently cover 95% of the workforce, both in the private and public sector.

The underpinning principle upon which they are building their policy is simple to comprehend by any worker. The class enemies are trying to empty our pockets by all means imaginable and in all aspects of our lives in order to fill their pockets at our expense. And I am pretty sure this will sound familiar to many workers across the world because we live in a globalized capitalist world where those who own the means of production base their decisions solely on how to maximize their profits.

In the railway, specifically, (which  was nationalized in 1938 after the bankruptcy of the previous private rail corporations) the governments are working on implementing the re-privatisation of the railway, as dictated by the major French corporations, and the European Union Commission. In order to secure sizeable profits for private operators, they are setting up a business  model where the heavy investments needed for the building and maintenance of the rail-infrastructure would be ensured by taxpayers’ money and a public company on one side.

On the other side, private companies would operate the majority of the passenger services that would be subsidized by public authorities such as the region or county or even the central state depending on the type of traffic and that would all be subjected to public tenders. On top of that, these private operators would not only rake in the subsidies that come with the tender, the necessary railway workers needed to run the service would be forcefully transferred from their company into this new subsidiary, along with the rolling stock, and without any of the terms and conditions that were previously applied to them.

In the freight industry, the situation is worse. Despite growing calls from the general public for an efficient railway freight transport system as climate change awareness has risen, the national state company has methodically destroyed and shut down all services it deemed not profitable enough and transferred them on trucks it owns itself through a major subsidiary called GEODIS CALBERSON. A subsidiary of the French national state railway that operates even here on US soil. This has led to only 11 % of the goods being moved by rail in France as it has narrowed around heavy industries like steel, automobile or coal. Currently, they are working on dismantling what remains of the freight division of the national state railway and transferring the most profitable traffics to private operators who have been complaining about their inability to compete on par to the authorities.

 But railway workers have not stood idly by and have instead fought heroically. Since 2014, railway workers have gone on week-long strikes almost every two years nationally, notwithstanding local strikes, in order to thwart these projects. We have managed to postpone the attacks for approximately a decade and are now readying ourselves for the next phase. And we have also proven that we can in some cases force our foes to back down and retreat. For example, in 2016, through our three-week long strikes we forced our enemies to back down and maintain the entirety of our terms and conditions in the railway when it comes to working hours and rest days. Now they are going to try to attack us depot by depot as they aim to sell us network by network. They want us workers to be de facto on call 24/7, to extend one-man crews, to implement backward attendance policies, etc, etc., in order to squeeze out even more profits from our labour. But we will oppose them once again with the proud and determined solidarity of French railway workers – because “an injury to one is an injury to all “is not just a slogan, it is a concrete reality for us.

In general, the resistance that has been offered by the French working class to this political agenda has slowed down the pace at which our enemies have advanced when we compare it with the situation in most countries in the world. For example when it comes to pensions, we led a 30 -day long continuous strike that started on the 7th of March 2023. In February this year, we launched a new set of strikes that forced the company leadership to back down and enshrine a possibility for earlier retirement for railway workers. I, for example, will now be able to retire with a full pension at 54 years old as a train driver even though the government has tried to force me to work up until 64. The older generations of railway workers could retire at 50 years old for drivers and 55 for the rest of the workforce up until 2008. While we have not yet fully recovered that right, there is only 4 years left to win back for me! And so help us with the power of the union, we will get there!

In all the struggles we have led, let me emphasize  the importance of internationalist solidarity. My union is a proud member of the World Federation of Trade Unions. Only two weeks ago, a delegation of Swedish and British railway workers organized in the WFTU visited my train yard and several others around it. They met rank and file workers, union members, held meetings directly in the workplace to share their experience of what a privatized railway meant for workers and passengers alike and in order to highlight the importance for French railway workers to fight by all means necessary these nefarious attacks that they had already suffered from in their own countries.

And during the month long strike in 2023, Swedish railway workers affiliated with the WFTU held rallies across railway depots and stations in Sweden to collect money for our strike fund for the workers in my train depot, collecting tens of thousands of euros. And many other comrades from across the world did the same. Combined with the money we collected through our action in France, we were able to secure a massive strike fund for all strikers. This is internationalist solidarity in action, in a very concrete manner, showing that workers who do not necessarily know each other personally have their hearts attuned to one another, and while thousands of miles may separate us physically, we are no more distant than the five fingers of a clutched fist. This is internationalist solidarity in action. This is the type of bond we seek to create with our brethren all across the world through the World Federation of Trade Unions.

 And as the great Eugene V. Debs himself once said, “We have organized industrially, we have learnt that we can manage as well as operate our industry. We do not need the idle masters and exploiters, they are simply parasites. They do not employ us as we have been taught to believe. They live off our labor and are there to take from us what we produce, and that is how they function in industry. We can never be free while we work and live by their sufferance. We must own our own tools and then we will control our own jobs, enjoy the products of our own labor and be free men and women instead of industrial slaves”.
That, brothers and sisters, is our common objective, from Chicago to Trappes!

 *****