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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: http://www.humanite.fr/2009-01-06_P...

by Olivier Mayer

Trade Unions: René Mouriaux says, “The workers cannot win unless they unite.”

Translated Monday 12 January 2009, by Amanda Cook

For René Mouriaux, a political scientist who studies the history of political ideas and unionism, the recent alliance between French unions is historic.

L’HUMA: Is the agreement to hold a general strike on January 29 and the unified platform, made public yesterday, an important event for French unions?

RENÉ MOURIAUX: Some are comparing its impact to the 1966 agreement between the CGT and the CFDT (the two largest French labor conglomerations). From 1966 to 1977, with the social movements of 1968 and the Grenelle agreements [1], unions experienced a period of great strength.

However, after that, their unity was weakened. From 1986 to 1995, the unions were plagued by constant rivalries. These were sparked by an effort to reorganize and regroup reformist union forces. This caused divisions in the CFDT, leading to the creation of the SUD and the collapse of the FEN in 1992 [2]. The attempted reorganization crumbled, causing tensions in the CGT.

1995 to 2007 was a period of unstable alliances. The CGT and the FO reached a truce in 1995. In 1998, the CFDT agreed to a rapprochement with the CGT. But these alliances did not last. The small victories they achieved, like their fight to repeal the CPE (contrat première embauche or first employment contract), were challenged shortly thereafter by even stronger counter reforms. The public service was under attack and public services were privatized … it was a substantial setback.

In 2007, with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy, we entered into a new phase: the conservative “made in France” (English in the original text) revolution. The unions were in a bind: either you participated in the ‘reforms,’ or you lost your influence altogether because you disagreed with someone who was elected to make reforms. This lasted for a year, until the municipal elections of 2008 weakened conservative power. Sarkozy had disappointed.

Nevertheless, the chief of state has gained a certain amount of credibility during this global financial crisis. It is in this context that we must analyze the united agreement for January 29.

L’HUMA: What elements contributed to this unity?

RENÉ MOURIAUX: I see four factors of varying importance. First of all, the five French labor confederations are all part of the European Trade Union Confederation and the World Confederation of Labor. This pushes them towards unity. We witnessed this during the movement the CSI started on October 7. This is not the central factor, but it has made things easier.

We must also consider the outcome of the labor relations board elections, as well as other elections regarding national education and regional government. In all three cases, the most active unions, the most critical of Sarkozy’s reforms, made headway. This encouraged the others to follow their lead.

A third factor, the representation reforms brought on by a recent labor law, could have led to local alliances, but it could have also led to divisions.

Finally, there is the current economic situation: the seriousness of the financial crisis, the decline in purchasing power, and the rise in unemployment. Only unity will allow the workers to defend themselves. The fight will be difficult; the unions know that without unity, they do not stand a chance…

L’HUMA: But the financial crisis did not automatically generate this united spirit…

RENÉ MOURIAUX: No, there is nothing automatic about it. But if we look at the stock market crash of 1929, which began to affect France in the 30’s, it was also a period of alliances. Once again, we find ourselves in a large-scale crisis. And not everybody is reacting in the same way. The CFDT and the FO wanted to give themselves some time. But there was a sudden shock to the economy. All of these things contributed to this alliance, which is circumstantial, but which presents some possibilities for the future. Now, there are two important things to watch: how the movement is organized, and the responses of employers and the government.

L’HUMA: The platform is very broad. Is this proof of its strength?

RENÉ MOURIAUX: Yes. Unions’ reactions to the crisis have suffered from their fragmentation. They cannot treat their problems as separate, and they must translate their concerns into actions. Today, workers are concerned, but they cannot win unless they unite.

Translator’s Notes:

[1For more information on the Grenelle agreements, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grenelle_agreements

[2The SUD and the FEN are both educational unions.

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