By Matthieu Bolle-Reddat
September 19, 2022
The Struggles of the Railroad Workers of France between 2014 and 2020
France is, together with Portugal and Belgium, one of the last countries in the European Union where the historical railway company is still 100% public and where the network has almost totally remained under the public monopoly regime.
This is due to the great fighting spirit of the French railway workers and their federation CGT des Cheminots, the majority, class-struggle union.
It is combativeness for the defense of their status, their collective guarantees acquired in past struggles and the defense of the public railway monopoly in the service of the popular interests.
This combativeness in job struggles proved to be the backbone of the general struggle of the workers of France, from December 5, 2019 to March 2020, against the pension reform wanted by the French employers and President Macron and which resulted in the withdrawal of the reform.
At the end of World War II, throughout Europe, the working class, strengthened by its role in the resistance against Nazism and equipped with the powerful tools that were the communist and workers’ parties and the class struggle unions, was able to conquer many economic, democratic and social advances among which the nationalization of major public services, high-level statutes and collective agreements, and social security organizations allowing workers to have health insurance and advantageous pension schemes.
The employers and the liberal, conservative or social democratic governments of the European countries have always wanted to destroy these workers’ achievements.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp in Europe, there has been a lasting weakening or even disappearance of the communist and workers’ parties and the loss of influence of the class unions in Europe, many of which have moved away from the values of class struggle and towards bureaucratization, opportunism and reformism.
Created by big business and to respond to its interests, the European Union became the pretext and the means used by the Western European governments in the 1990s to carry out a real neoliberal counter-revolution in the countries of the former socialist bloc and to attack all the post-war workers’ conquests in the countries of Western Europe.
This was the beginning of an international wave of privatizations in the energy, communication and transport sectors (air, sea and rail).
In France, a first attempt to break up the social security system and privatize the railway network was defeated by a general strike lasting several weeks in December 1995, with the railway workers in the vanguard.
This explains why successive governments did not dare to reopen the privatization of the railways in France until 2014.
The CGT Federation of Railway Workers is a powerful trade union organization in France, with a glorious history in the struggles of the French working class.
Historically, in 1920, following a very important strike in all the French railway companies for trade union freedoms and the nationalization of the railroads, the unique status of railway workers (the forerunner of collective agreements) was obtained (the nationalization of the railroads was only obtained in 1938).
Following this strike, the “revolutionary” tendency, led by people close to or affiliated with the French Communist Party, became the majority.
The opportunist and reformist leadership of the CGT confederation, fearing revolutionary contagion spreading to other federations, decided to exclude the CGT Federation of Railway Workers. Many revolutionaries of the CGT joined the excluded federation and together created a new revolutionary confederation, the Confédération Générale du Travail Unitaire (CGTU), in 1921.
Pierre Semard, then general secretary of the railway workers’ federation, became general secretary of the CGTU and met Lenin in Moscow to organize the CGTU’s membership in the Moscow Red Trade Union International (RSI or Profintern).
The CGTU railway workers’ federation was extremely active in national struggles as well as in international solidarity (strikes, demonstrations and sabotage against the occupation of the Ruhr and against the Rif Mountain war in Morocco). Although the CGT and the CGTU reunited in 1935 in the face of the fascist peril, the reunified CGT railway workers’ federation remained animated by communist militants and strongly oriented towards “class struggle.”
It was very involved in the resistance against the Nazi occupiers and the heroic acts of resistance by French railway workers under the leadership of the “illegal” CGT railway workers’ federation and the underground communist party had a considerable impact against the occupiers, given the strategic importance of the French railway network.
Thousands of militants of the CGT Federation of Railway Workers were arrested, tortured, deported or even murdered, like Pierre Semard. Working class yowth must not forget that when General Leclerc’s Second Armored Division entered Paris, Paris had already been liberated thanks to an insurrectionary strike that was launched on August 10, 1944 by the CGT railway workers’ federation.
The youth of the working class must not forget that when General Leclerc’s second armored division entered Paris, Paris had already been liberated thanks to an insurrectionary strike that was launched on August 10, 1944 by the CGT railway workers’ federation.
Since then, the CGT Railway Workers’ Federation has always been extremely solid and in the vanguard of social struggles in post-war France, but also in internationalist struggles (solidarity with strikers in other countries, struggle against colonial wars, against apartheid…)
Like almost all CGT federations, it left the World Federation of Trade Unions after the decision of the 1995 Confederal Congress and joined the ETF (transport branch of the ETUC), then the ITF (transport branch of the ITUC), while maintaining links with WFTU-affiliated unions, such as the CTC in Cuba and the Vietnamese union, but also the Portuguese SNTSF or the British RMT; and its current General Secretary, Laurent Brun, is one of the main leaders of the CGT’s solidarity campaign “Containers for Cuba”.
Note that the debate about re-affiliation to the WFTU has been present in many member unions of the CGT Federation of Railway Workers since 2013 and that several of them have already formally re-adhered to the International Union of Transport Unions (WFTU Transport ISU), such as those of Versailles, Trappes or the UFCM Paris-Montparnasse.
2014: Social Democracy Starts the Assault
In 2014, the government of François Hollande with its “left-wing” pretensions, kicked off the “rail reform” aimed at dismembering the SNCF (French rail system) into two companies.
On the one hand, the infrastructure (construction and maintenance of the network, which are not profitable, which would remain public) and on the other, the operation of the network (the most profitable activity), which would become private.
This is France’s application of the European Union’s fourth “railway package” and the application to the railroads of the old neo-liberal principle aimed at keeping debts under the State’s control in order to privatize profits.
The railway workers’ strike lasted 10 days, and even if the government took a first step backwards by claiming to keep the two companies (network and operation) together in the same holding company, the dismemberment of the national company is advancing.
The strike was strong among railway workers, but not very popular because it was little understood by French citizens who do not see the danger to the public service.
2016: Second Movement to Attack the Working Conditions of Railway Workers
In 2016, still under the leadership of President Hollande, a bill was introduced, aiming to “harmonize” the working conditions of railway workers from below in order to allow the arrival of new private operators, because this was the second objective of privatization: to destroy the working conditions and collective guarantees of employees, under the pretext of an opening to competition.
The mistake of the Hollande government was to have wanted at the same time to promulgate the labor law, supported by the Minister of Economy Emmanuel Macron, which aimed to lower the social safety net for all workers, which allowed the railway workers to integrate their own struggle against the breakup of their working conditions in the framework of an all-industry struggle against the labor law: this made their strike very popular!
This strike in France had a worldwide repercussion and was supported by the workers of many countries, particularly by the affiliates of the WFTU, multiplying the delegations to come and demonstrate in France alongside the railway workers, but there were also rallies in front of the French embassies all over the world, or even the blocking of the Milan-Paris line by our comrades from the Italian trade union USB, who occupied the tracks in the station of Milan Garibaldi
The government was forced to give in by signing a company agreement that retains the same rights for SNCF railway workers but manages to get the yellow railway unions to sign a much lower level collective agreement that will apply to future private operators.
2018: President Macron’s government learned from the failed attempts to privatize the SNCF directly because of the resistance of France’s railroad workers.
The government, through its “New Rail Pact” law, changed its method by relying on the directives of the fourth rail package.
There is no longer any question of privatizing the historical operator SNCF, but rather an indirect privatization, line by line, by abrogating the SNCF public monopoly and authorizing the opening up to competition line by line, to allow private operators to run the national rail network.
Private operators would be given concessions, public service delegations on each part of the network, in which employees would be subject to collective guarantees and salary scales lower than those of SNCF railway workers, as allowed by the collective agreement that the Hollande government had imposed in 2016.
Let there be no mistake! The “opening to competition” was a decoy because there will be only one operator on the network thus transferred. It is therefore a privatization, by transferring a public monopoly to private monopolies.
The only real “competition” would be between employees through social dumping [the practice of allowing employers to lower wages and reduce employees’ benefits in order to attract and retain employment and investment]
To make these transfers possible, knowing that no private company was going to enter the market with its own employees, the government planned that each time an operator wins a tender for a section of line, all SNCF railway workers on that line will have to be forcibly transferred to the new private operator and will be subject to the new operator’s working conditions and salary scale. The SNCF also announced that it would apply for these tenders through its private subsidiaries.
It was therefore a project to privatize the SNCF.
The French railway workers have therefore engaged in a “strike of more than three months with strike actions, blockades, demonstrations for 48 hours every three days, which has allowed them to be in the long term.
Isolated in the struggle, their strike failed in the face of the determination of the Macron government, but these three months of mobilization allowed them to win the “battle of ideas” in public opinion, which gradually understood that by defending their public monopoly company against the privatization wanted by Macron, they were defending the general interest and public rail transport services.
The strike was popular and supported in France as well as from abroad.
2019-2020: Strike against Pension Reform
Macron’s government, as determined as ever to defend the interests of Capital, decided on an unprecedented attack on the pay-as-you-go pension scheme for workers in France.
The aim was to introduce a “points” system that will increase the retirement age indefinitely and reduce the pensions of current and future retirees.
The most militant sectors of the CGT (railway workers, chemicals, energy, transport, trade, etc.) pushed for an unlimited general strike.
Finally, the National Confederal Council (CCN-Parliament of the CGT) decided on a call for a national all-industry strike beginning from December 5, 2019.
An unlimited strike movement began, of which the national strike of the railway workers was the backbone, to which could be attached all or some of the industry sectors.
The daily renewal of the movement by the general assemblies of strikers in all the stations, depots and railway yards of France was the locomotive of the big train of the struggle.
After only 10 days of strike, the government took measures to remove some industries, including the railway workers, from its reform in order to divide the movement.
Despite this, the railway workers continued the strike for more than 40 days, showing their solidarity. The arrival of the global Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 gave President Macron a pretext to withdraw his project by calling an end to the movement in the name of “national unity.” This was the total victory of the strike!
This victory was erased by the media and by the news of the pandemic. We must draw several conclusions from the study of the history of these recent struggles:
1. After the mine closures and the great offshoring movements in the textile, steel and metal industries, the transport workers (dockers, tramway workers or railway workers) are the last great industrial working communities in the Western countries to have a strong power of force through strikes.
2. Their strong working class identity and their capacity to organize can be decisive in the struggle if they have organized and determined class organizations.
3. The firepower of their strike actions and the number that these industries can give to mass actions gives them a vanguard place in local and national multi-industry struggles.
4. The attacks on these workers in all European countries are the same and use the same levers constituted by the liberal directives of the European Union, so the class solidarity between railway and transport workers in all countries is an important lever for them to win.
5. Beyond that, we have to ask the question of a coordination of these strikes, all together and at the same time in each of the countries of Europe, to push back the employers’ agenda of privatization and the breaking of collective agreements in each of the countries. This is the role and the raison d’être of the World Federation of Trade Unions, and particularly of its Transport TUI and its European office.
-Matthieu Bolle-Reddat is a member of the WFTU Secretariat and General Secretary of the CGT Cheminots de Versailles.