French Workers Are Refusing to Pay for Inflation
Recent oil workers’ strikes in France are at the cutting edge of a rising wave of industrial action. CGT union leader Philippe Martinez told Jacobin how organized labor can lead the fight against the rising cost of living.
- Interview by
- Cole Stangler
As wages lag behind rising prices, strikes for higher pay are bubbling up across France. In the most high-profile of these struggles, workers at Total and ExxonMobil refineries have sought a 10 percent wage hike, with employer opposition ushering in a nationwide fuel shortage. But they’ve been joined in recent weeks by bus drivers, subway conductors, warehouse workers, secondary school teachers, nuclear plant operators, supermarket cashiers, and others — and the street pressure is mounting.
In October, France’s united left coalition, the Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale (NUPES), organized its own protest march in Paris “against the high cost of living and climate inaction.” Led by the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), the more militant of France’s two major labor confederations, unions have led several days of nationwide protests and strikes: September 29; October 18; October 27. They’re gearing up for another one on November 10.
For more insight into the strikes and France’s turbulent political conjuncture, Jacobin’s Cole Stangler spoke with the general secretary of the CGT, Phillipe Martinez. They discussed the current industrial action, the importance of broadening the confederation’s traditional sources of strength, its relationship with the parties of the NUPES parliamentary coalition, and why Martinez believes in international solidarity, from Palestine to Ukraine.
This interview has been translated and edited for clarity.
Why are French workers going on strike at the moment?
The reason is simple. There’s a wage problem for the large majority of French workers. Things were already difficult at the beginning of the year. There were some strike movements then around the question of pay, but the rapid increase in prices has made the situation worse. The demands are essentially about pay increases.
The CGT has called for several days of nationwide strikes and protests. In the most recent one on October 27, turnout wasn’t very strong. Why isn’t the movement being followed even more?
There are protests and there are workers on strike. These are not the same thing. The demonstrations have visibility, but the demonstrations are the visible part of the iceberg. There are a lot of strikes in companies, but not everyone on strike comes to protests. When there’s a picket line, they sometimes prefer staying at their workplace instead of going to the protest.
The second thing, is we’ve talked a lot about the strikes at the refineries because they directly impact the life of the country. It’s similar when there are transit strikes. But a lot of companies have had longer strikes than the ones in refineries, though they get less media coverage. It’s not for me to say why. What I will say is there are a lot of strikes at the moment for wage rises, and there’s a gap between the number of demonstrators and the number of workers on strike who don’t attend demonstrations — that’s maybe even more important at the moment.
What are some of the other strikes you have in mind?
There are strikes right now at Safran, which makes aircraft engines. There are strikes at subcontractors for Safran — at Lisi, for example. There are strikes in the energy sector: Électricité de France [EDF], Réseau de Transport d’Électricité [RTE, France’s electricity transmission system operator], and Gaz Réseau Disrtibution France [GRDF], which is the gas network in France. There are strikes at [supermarket chain] Carrefour. I won’t name all of them because it’ll take a lot of time! But there are strikes in many different sectors. Sometimes, they’re for an undefined period of time, sometimes they’re more limited actions, but there are a lot.
These strikes show the CGT’s ability to mobilize its base in certain parts of the French economy — in the public sector, in transit, in energy — but there are other sectors where you have more difficulty establishing a presence. This obviously goes beyond the CGT. How do you expand the base of members and supporters you do have?
There are few different things in that question.
The first is, like I said, the media tends to focus on the strikes that have consequences on people’s daily lives. When there’s no fuel, everybody knows about it. I’ve talked before about a strike that took place in a small company in the Hautes-Pyrénées, in the town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre — a forty-five-day-long strike that nobody talked about, at a subcontractor for EDF.
The second thing is, strikes aren’t necessarily linked to union density in France. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any at all. A lot of colleagues abroad don’t understand how there can be so many strikes with such a low union-density rate. It’s one of the characteristics of France. The unions put out the call to strike, but it’s the workers who go on strike; even if they’re not union members, they go on strike.
The third thing is, there is diversity in strike movements. It’s not only the CGT. For example, the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail [CFDT, the other main union confederation] recently led a strike for higher pay at a thermal bath center in Cambo-les-Bains.
Putting aside the question of strikes, how do you unionize these sectors of the economy where membership remains low and there’s not this union culture that exists in certain companies? I’m thinking of logistics, large retailers, restaurants, and the construction sector.
We have some work to do when it comes to the transformation of business and the evolution of our trade unionism.
Forty years ago, there were more large companies and within those companies, most people had the same employment status. Thanks to outsourcing, a lot of workers, even at the same workplace, have different employment statuses.
The CGT needs to take into account this reality, which it certainly doesn’t do enough. We need to go see these workers and show the union is interested in everyone — not just workers at large companies, or public-sector workers, or workers with employment contracts of undefined length. Trade unionism needs to be in the image of the workplace today, not the workplace that we dream about. It’s a real challenge facing us.
There are shifts, and the shifts that we’re making aren’t taking place as quickly as the upheaval in the workplace. That’s a real challenge for all of unions, not only the CGT.
You’ve mentioned the media coverage of the recent strikes. It can be very harsh. Over the last few weeks, the CGT has been referred to as “hostage takers” and accused of “blocking the country.” What do you make of this hostility in the press? Has it always been like this or do you feel like it’s getting worse?
I don’t put all the press in the same bucket. There’s national media, there’s TV, there are regional outlets that cover things differently because they’re closer to the stories. I don’t want to generalize about “the media.”
The CGT has never been appreciated by certain outlets. If I tell you that [conservative newspaper] Le Figaro doesn’t love us, that’ll be no surprise to you. But the coverage of the CGT has gotten worse as a result of the increased concentration of the press within the hands of a small group of people. Media barons with names like Dassault and Bolloré are not friends of the CGT.
There are also debates within newsrooms themselves. You saw the story about my interview in Le Parisien which was censured [scheduled to run before being spiked entirely]. This provoked a significant reaction in the newsroom from journalists who thought it wasn’t right.
It’s not acceptable that there’s so much hatred. At the same time, it does make me laugh because in certain outlets you can read that the CGT doesn’t exist anymore, that it serves no purpose, that it has no members, whatever — then the moment there’s a strike, we’re responsible for all the evils. There should probably be a middle ground somewhere.
Another topic generating interest abroad is the relationship between unions and political parties — and more precisely, the relationship between the CGT and NUPES, which has seen some tensions. A few weeks ago, NUPES organized their march against the rising cost of living in Paris, without the support of your confederation. The other day, NUPES leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon published a post on his blog where he seemed to announce he was abandoning his strategy of building what he’s called a “Popular Front” with trade unions, and was critical of you. I know I’m simplifying things, but I want to ask you a question people often wonder about outside of France: Why can’t you just get along? Given the stakes of the moment, the rise of the far right, a government that wants to weaken you, why can’t you just get along?
This is another specificity of France. I think we spoke about it the last time we talked as well. Unlike in many countries, the labor movement remains very much independent from political parties. It’s not like in the United States, where unions regularly call to vote for the Democratic Party or campaign for the Democrats, or in Germany, where the links between the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB) confederation and the Social Democrats are very strong, or the UK, where the Labour Party and union movement are very close. In France, there’s a culture of independence — even if it hasn’t always been true for the CGT. [The CGT was historically aligned with the Communist Party, with the confederation’s general secretaries holding posts in party leadership until 1996.]
We’re very attached to this independence. In the name of this independence, we believe common work is possible, but that it’s not up to politicians to call for “general strikes” for example.
You’re thinking of Sandrine Rousseau [a prominent Green MP]?
Social demands are the domain of union organizations. We’ve discussed this with the leaders of NUPES. The slogan “Fighting Against the Rising Cost of Living” did not seem to be a slogan that corresponded to our demands. We’re fighting for wage hikes. I’m not saying it’s what they intended, but the “fight against the rising cost of living” could be interpreted as similar to what the government did with their law on purchasing power this summer, which NUPES rightfully voted against.
The demands need to be clear and the collection of demands is the domain of labor organizations. We’re not opposed to there being links between social movements and political movements. In fact, there need to be links, but while respecting the independence of labor organizations, building upon their demands, and without trying to do it in their place.
As you saw in Mélenchon’s post, he has his own interpretation of how the relations should be between unions and political parties. He considers, almost openly, that it’s up to him to lead all this. We don’t agree about this.
Do you see the existence of NUPES — a united left coalition — as something positive?
Of course. Political forces put forth the social demands that we defend. Whether it’s on retirement, pay, raising the minimum wage, etc. Of course, the left coalition parties are a greater source of leverage than the parties that support Macron and even more so than the Right, which has even more economically liberal positions.
I also wanted to ask your thoughts about the role of the other main union confederation, the CFDT, which has been critical of the CGT-backed refinery strikes, generally opposes street protest, and emphasizes its commitment to negotiations with employers and the government. Is it an ally? An adversary? Both?
It’s neither an ally nor an adversary. It’s a labor organization that’s important in France because it recently became the top union in terms of voting for workplace representatives.
There are points of convergence. On retirement, we agree on the fact that we’re opposed to raising the retirement age or increasing the minimum number of contributions to obtain a full pension.
We have important divergences, for example on sectoral bargaining. The CFDT believes that negotiations need to take place, first of all, at the company level, and without a common framework for all. We have an opposite position, which is that there needs to be a common framework for all of the workforce — and that after that, in different professional sectors and companies, negotiations allow us to build upon that. These divergences were expressed very clearly during the debate around the [labor law reform] in 2016, and then Macron’s executive orders. This is a barbaric term and I don’t know how you’re going to explain it, but it’s what we call the inversion of the “hierarchy of norms.” We believe in a common framework — there’s the law, collective bargaining agreements by profession improve upon the law, and then in companies, we improve upon those agreements. The CFDT believes everything needs to start at the company level. We don’t agree because when everything happens at the company level, it creates differences in pay and standards. That’s the main difference between the CGT and the CFDT.
What do you make of Macron’s second term so far?
[Before the election], he was crying from the rooftops, if you will, that he’s changed. Our analysis is he’s about the same but worse. He doesn’t listen.
To finish, I wanted to talk about international affairs. You were recently in the West Bank.
We’ve had relations for a long time with Palestinian unions and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions [PGFTU]. I want to clarify, too, that the mission was also in Israel.
In a world shaken up by a number of conflicts and one conflict that’s close to Europe — the one in Ukraine — this can erase a problem that’s very old: the situation in Palestine, the West Bank, and Gaza. In our international relations, we talk with everybody and we also want to bring attention to the situation in the West Bank. After the last time the CGT was there in 2013, we felt the need to return to see the evolution of the situation, which has gotten a lot worse since then.
I think it’s part of the tradition of the CGT to go and be in solidarity with peoples, populations, and workers who are struggling — in particular, in the West Bank where they’re very, very fragilized by the development of Israeli colonies. It’s in the tradition of the CGT, just as we stand with the Uighurs who are also suffering from repression. We want everybody who’s suffering on the planet to be treated equally by international law and by United Nations resolutions. Nobody can deny there’s a difference in the coverage of Putin’s scandalous invasion of Ukraine and the situation in Palestine. Just as we went to support the Ukrainian people with a humanitarian convoy, with union organizations bringing aid to the Ukrainian people, a mission went to Palestine to see the situation lived by workers on the ground.
In the United States right now, there are organizing drives underway at Amazon and Starbucks. Are they on your radar at all?
We’re not just following them, we actively support them.
We’ve had regular exchanges with the Fight for $15 campaign. That interests us and we support them. We have regular exchanges with our colleagues in the United States about Amazon and McDonald’s. The links are strong, and despite attempts to try and oppose workers from each country, we see that they have demands that are similar when it comes to labor rights — the right to organize.
Just as we organize American companies in France, we have campaigns with American labor unions at French companies in the United States — for example, about the simple right to form a union at the workplace. A few years ago, I was able to visit the Nissan factory in Canton, Mississippi where I met workers and union activists who were fighting to form a union with the United Auto Workers. [Note: The French state indirectly owns a stake in Nissan, through its 15 percent stake in Renault.] We have relationships with workers at this factory and we’re in solidarity with all the struggles taking place across the United States.