These Forces Which Make Up and Rebuild the Struggles Around Retirement

by Temps critiques

Published in : Insurgent Notes, january 2020

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

A movement that cannot be reduced to that of pensions

Since December 5, 2019, the strike has returned, while since La Nuit Debout, the movement against the labor law and the “Yellow Vests” event, this form of struggle appeared to be on the backburner except for the last strike at the sncf—and with it union-type demonstrations. The forces that make up the current movement about pensions meet up with, but also collide with other forces which either precede them (the movement of yellow vests) or accompany them (university students, high school students) from their own bases that cannot qualify as claimants. But if the meeting can potentially take place—at least we can hope so—it is because all of them pose, in their own way, the question of living conditions and the fact that survival is not a way of life.

To this extent, it can be said that if the pension movement is at the center of the current struggle and constitutes its predominant force, it is not and must still less become the horizon of the struggle. The movement is indeed much wider, and pensions represent only the emerged part of the current revolt which is expressed here immediately against the reforms through a sort of front of refusal opposed to the “new world” presented to it and to which we should adapt (the social Darwinism of the capital revolution).

It is because the yellow vests could only go beyond this immediacy, because of their social composition, that their social urgency carries in germ a sufficient generality so that the question of retirement is also integrated into it… and so, ultimately, they remain themselves in the game. This is what we can see in the ga and in the streets where the “yellow vests style” tends, if not to impose itself, at least influences certain fractions of employees. It is this point that the unions have trouble swallowing. However, this “yellow vests effect” remains limited: it is inappropriate in this regard to speak of a “giletjaunisation” of the movement.

A trade union attempt to regain control

Indeed, despite having multiplied the “Acts” for more than a year, it must be noted that the yellow vests movement has not really “acted” in the head of all union militants or political activists. The union leaderships would like to conceal what happened last year and pretend that the current movement is part of the movement against the labor law. In this union vision, the yellow vests movement was at best a parenthesis showing that it is possible to give in to the government with great determination. A vision that is far too limiting; the yellow vests having immediately carried out a great overflow of the dimension of demands and of traditional forms of action. As a result, they have exhausted, if not put out of play, the famous “social partners” and their counter dependence on power. The dominating treatment the government has inflicted on those trade unions is also the measure of this downgrade as we have seen during the day from1 May 2018 in Paris and elsewhere, incidents which were reproduced in Lyon to a lesser degree. Incidents between police and firefighters are of the same order from the moment when, in times of demonstrations, the authorities seek to make the latter only police assistants and not first-aid workers.

The strike again, the demonstrations in support

In this strike against the pension reform, the unions find themselves in the spotlight and the uprising of the yellow vests seems denied, while it is only repressed, in what we cannot call a return to order, but which resembles a return to the known and which is reassuring for the unions and their members: the “social question”; a return also to what is expected by the state, the government … and their police. For many supporters of a reasonable opposition, the singularity of the yellow vests will have constituted only a derailment of the social train, a train which they would not have wanted to take for fear of its high speed and the absence of a seasoned driver. It would therefore now be necessary to replace it with a capitalization of the reasons for the anger, by a massive re-unionization. A reasoning which draws no lesson from the failure of the fight on pensions in 2003, while the State draws lessons from its experiences of 1995 by not attacking all at once the Social Security system, and also of 2003, where it had to retreat on the special pension plans by imposing a reform which it describes as more equitable than the old system because it would be “universalist without standardization.”

Now, the unions bring out the banners and smoke, the well-behaved traditional atmosphere, which breaks with the tear gas atmosphere of the demonstrations of the yellow vests. Again, back to what is known and admissible. Everything is again programmed: compliance with strike notices in the public sector, traffic partly maintained at peak hours at the ratp, declared events and defined routes, the alternation of “highlights,” the full nine yards.

On both sides, it is a question of avoiding any real break out, to keep at a good distance from the nerve centers of the cities, to disturb as little as possible the commercial and tourist activities of the holidays, activities that the yellow vests would already have greatly limited; just parade as many as possible since the strikers are dwindling and we are no longer even on a “strike by proxy” (1995) on the part of private sector employees.

But all this does not happen in a situation where unions are in a position of strength, quite the contrary. It is at the bottom of the wave that they see the pension reform falling on them. They left the yellow vests on their own at a time when their support was crucial to popping the cap (between the December 1 and 8, 2018). The union leaderships can only rely on a “base” which, nevertheless, causes them a lot of concern, since the base has succeeded in imposing on them the renewable strike rather than the rotating strike disaster of 2017.

“I love you, me neither,” between the base and the unions; it’s a question of who will benefit most from the other, knowing that “the base” has the unions it deserves…and vice versa.

The weakening of unions

Many journalists and political scientists have welcomed in the pension movement an almost salutary return of unions that would have been buried too quickly following the movement of yellow vests. However, this is not what the government thinks; for them, the union has become a paper tiger and that is probably why it did not hesitate to launch its reform when the ashes of the yellow vests movement were not yet fully cooled. It is enough to have its police deal with the different challenges posed by a few blockages of ratp depots, and those in certain refineries, to remember that in this form nothing really bothers it. It’s not like trucks blocking roads or platforms.

Strengthened by this fact, the State no longer even makes an appointment with the unions to negotiate, it convenes them as it has just done for January 8 to “explain” the reform. The weakening of union power is made visible by at least two facts. The first is that the unions address the State and not the employers, who are, however, the first employer and who participate in the general pension system as a “social partner” and could contribute more to its financial equilibrium. We also recognize that union strength is concentrated in the public service (teachers, territorial staff, hospitals, etc.) and especially in public transport, where there are the largest battalions of employees.

There is something strange about this, because the reform is not a reform of the special pensions, but a general reform. However, the example of the announcement of the maintenance of the special pension for the military (and therefore for the mobile police), the planning of the reform for the police, prison staff, seafarers, opera dancers from Paris,—and the list is only growing—, because we are now waiting for the fishermen; as well as the existence behind the scenes of separate discussions for public transport, add to this discomfort. Besides, even in Paris where the strike at the ratp is the nerve center of the war, there is a strange atmosphere. You don’t feel the intensity of a “social war.” Yet the yellow vests have shown the example of a struggle that pays (even badly) and should have heightened the morale of the combatants, while there we see the unions turning to the State as one addresses the referee of a match lost in advance because we recognize that the opponent is the strongest. And it is as if this arbitrator was a screen between capital and work replacing the employers in the general management of time (work and retirement), when it does not have the means. Indeed, in the private sector, there is no hiring of “seniors” and no intention on the part of the employers on the possibility of making them work longer since it seeks, on the contrary, to get rid of them by various incentives, social plans, disguised early retirement.

The State uses and abuses the argument of the increase in life expectancy and burdens on working people to justify the postponement of the retirement age; a firm recommendation which the European Union has already successfully addressed to most other countries. But if the State leads the way it is, first, because, as a public employer, it is the only one who can impose it on its civil servants and, then, because it does not directly attack the legal age and in the pay-as-you-go system, it is the fixing of a pivotal age higher than the legal age which can allow it de facto to introduce a share of capitalization in the general system which remains pay-as-you-go, few people being able to expect to leave at full rate only in this way.

The second sign of weakening of the unions is marked by the fact that they have lost their legitimacy to lead the demonstrations. Since the labor bill, street demonstrations have taken on a “savage” content that makes the corteges de tete, when they do not become autonomous in black-bloc fashion, a marker of the intensity of the fight, of a palpable tension towards another form. They bring together in a very eclectic way the most determined protagonists of the conjunctural struggles and in a more general way of all the individuals who no longer want to demonstrate behind flags of organization even from the far left.

As, moreover, the trade union organizations no longer have the strength, except perhaps in Paris, to set up effective monitors, they leave the job to the police, who begin the demonstration, and decide when they want to block it or split it into several sections, as happened on December 17, 2019, in Paris. Most of the time, it is therefore a bloated, excessive procession (yellow vests, the autonomous, high school students, the employees most determined in the strike, firefighters) which takes over the head of the demonstrations. As such, the scuffles between the police and all the rebels in yellow vests, without distinctive signs or in black, are no longer seen as “foreign to the working class,” but as a necessary evil by the trade unions, provided that they do not take place too close to the union trucks where the remnants of monitors are grouped to further defend what they can (the truck, the sound system, the flags). The main thing is that it can be “controllable” and that the demonstration arrives at a predetermined point and that it is allowed to disperse, which is not even evident today, given the orders received by law enforcement. This purely defensive strategy of the unions is sometimes akin to “save the furniture” as on May Day 2018, in Paris.

Yellow vests: a limited ripple effect

The yellow vests have not taken stock of their movement. To a certain extent this makes sense since those who were able to do so did so, with rare exceptions, only on an individual basis and placed themselves in a position of withdrawal, or simply left. Among those who remain and even with the best intentions in the world (loyalty to the movement, the difficult decision to abandon what made them vibrate for a year), there is little more than the ritual of the demonstration on Saturday (2,000 in Paris, anyway, on December 14) and the return on the weekend to twenty people on the roundabouts to show that “we still exist.” However, the yellow vests produced also, within themselves, additional candidates to the organizations and powers in place. Thus, some promote, over the fallout of the movement, an exit “to the left” of the movement supposed to allow them to really “converge” and get out of the isolation produced by the defection of most of the “basic” yellow vests. To do this, they seek to perpetuate their micro-organization because they have always been in favor of a very formalistic structuring of the movement (assembly, commissions, delegates, information networks, a declaration of the demonstration on Saturday) and share, we have said this enough, common practices and horizons with all the activists (lfi or npa). For others who accompanied the occupation of roundabouts with local concerns, the temptation is great to prepare, more or less in secret, for the next municipal elections.

With their broader objectives, which now include that of a “decent retirement” (is it for such a goal that we suffered so many serious injuries?), some yellow vests, in the absence of tangible immediate results, now think themselves legitimated to carry the standard of “leaders of the social cause,” after having hoped to see materialize the most varied proposals of convergence which were addressed to them. As early as March when the yellow vests movement had reached what we had called its “crest line,” we had refused the idea of a convergence of struggles which did not raise the question of unity on a broader basis (an alloy), but simply an agglomeration (an alliance) of various components supposed to produce more force.

These yellow vests see in it a logical continuity of their movement of insubordination, simply left-wing, while the trade unions consider it rather as the resumption of normal times of the truly social struggles, those which do not focus everything on the subjectivity of revolt, but take into account the objective conditions of a social relationship of subordination which is not generally called into question. Neither by basic workers, nor by unions which implicitly take into account their declining force in industrial production and the private sector. This objective difficulty leads them to favor a political defense of the statutes, in the name of social utility, of the specificity of the public service mission, a position which can no longer be held except within the public service. Too bad for the “workers’ organizations” which call for private sector workers to join them! This is the new program for January 9th! We are therefore far from a return to the “social question,” except to conceive of the latter only in opposition to societal questions.

It is on this insufficiently critical double base that the idea of convergence is surfacing today, while as a yellow vest from the Belleville assembly says, the yellow vests have gone beyond the sectoral and therefore intersectional nature of the struggles that ‘We still find too often in “interpros,” when delegates from all sectors parade who seek to be heard from their own particularity/professional identity.

Pensions: a risk of confinement …

Can this base change? If we look at what is happening in these “interpros,” it is certain that the current presence of certain yellow vests, otherwise strikers in their sector, raises the question of less traditional actions. The criticism of the normal, tame demonstrations pleads for a mode of action close to the yellow vests, namely to insist on blockages more than on something else, blockages which can be facilitated by the strike itself. But with all this we remain in the discussion around the forms of struggle and if the strikers can think of less conventional forms, is it still necessary, for example among railway workers, that they assume them while the internal regulations of the services have removed means such as blocking the tracks, which became gross negligence likely to lead to dismissal. In any case, this does not lead to a questioning of the hierarchical situation and the inequalities of status between the workers in struggle. The unions and their flunkies speak indeed a lot of unity, of the need to fight against division, but is the division not already included in the acceptance of hierarchies and differences of status which are, nobody seems to point out, except for the cfdt, but not for good reasons), amplified at the time of retirement?

The reason is that if this post-war retirement system provides security for the older workers, it does not participate in social redistribution, but on the contrary contributes to the social reproduction of inequalities. In contrast to health insurance and other indirect social incomes paid for at the level of the welfare state, where those who contribute the least are those who benefit the most from care; for pensions, one has a reverse system due to the fact that those who receive the least also live the shortest time and therefore receive their pensions, already lower, for fewer years.

The universalism of the pension system is therefore quite relative; it is only concerned at the outset that employees, on the republican basis of equality of condition (being an employee), mixed with a little Marxism with the taking into account of a quality (“to each according to his work”) translated into the discourse of capital itself in a meritocratic principle, corrected for the social gains obtained by struggles in certain “special” sectors. Yet it is this system that workers’ unions, supposed to represent the labor pole of capitalist social relations, defend. In fact, for the cgt and fo, followers of the labor theory of value, the pension is a “continued salary” or one “deferred,” attached and proportional to the qualification of the employee. No complaints, move on!

But this system was then extended to almost the entire active population, including the self-employed, giving rise to other “special plans” which therefore concern not only transport workers, but also managers, peasants, artisans and tradespeople. It is a universalization by successive additions which has made the overall system and its financing more and more opaque since, if some funds are profitable, others are in deficit. The cfdt has made this tangle of funds and conditions one of its arguments for proposing a perfect system for employees, as close as possible to professional careers, and the government has rushed into the breach to question the “social benefits”/special regimes by proposing its own universalization project… from below.

Faced with this state offensive, supported by the medef (Mouvement des Entreprises de France), employees in struggle, beneficiaries of a special scheme, most often argue that their scheme is not only the product of “special” work, but of struggles which have led to social gains for them conceived as irreversible since, until recently, the labor law was designed on a progressive reformist basis to improve conditions, providing, where appropriate, only for positive feedback. In doing so, they seek to perpetuate a historic common thread of struggles which has nevertheless broken.

What then is this discourse worth in a capitalized society marked by the in-essentialization of the workforce and the impossible assertion of a lost workers’ identity?

What is the value for new employees hired in a public service that has been gradually misrepresented and devalued? Will they take these social benefits as their due if they still benefit from them, without seeing the situation of those who work under other forms of contract and yet carry out the same type of work, a common situation on the bus lines of the ratp where there are many contract workers? What does it mean then, “We don’t fight only for ourselves, but for all”?

… If the question of the relationship to work is not asked

The question of pensions poses that of work more than that of the welfare state. This is one of the essential differences with the movement of 1995. The current movement against pension reform is not, as Laurent Jeanpierre thinks (Liberation of December 12, 2019) an attack on neo-liberalism in a state that obviously maintained public services while making them untenable through their restructuring. The “All Together” slogan can therefore no longer take refuge around the defense of public service and the welfare state when, as in 1995, the whole social protection system was called into question. This is where the defense of special pensions appears particularly offbeat when it comes to living conditions in general (as the yellow vests have worn and as they continue to wear in the “interpros” and in the street).

And, if we talk about living conditions, then inevitably resurface all the new wretched of the earth who are not entitled to the union dimension of struggles, and it must be recognized that the railroad workers and tram workers did not lift a finger at the time of the new law on compensation for the unemployed, which accentuates its regressive and punitive nature.

However, this combination of employee demands and the yellow vests movement came about as the slogans matured. First of all, the taking over, at the time of the labor law, of the slogan of the football supporters of Lens and Marseille: “For the love of the jersey that you wear behind your back, even if you don’t deserve it, we are here,” which became in a demonstration of railway workers in Lyon “For the honor of railway workers and the future of their kids… ”; to finally become part of the inter-station collective: “For the honor of the workers and for a better world….” The “All Together” is no longer given by an objective situation onto which a “conscience” is graffiti it is a matter of fabricating the common in the struggle. It is particularly clear that the “We are there, we are there” today is the product of a making invisible of the workforce, either fallow or rejected in the pores of a start-up nation in the making. It would never have occurred to the protesters of 1995 to proclaim it because, on the one hand, having a job or the possibility of having one was still taken for granted despite the unemployment figures; and on the other hand, the State still considered that there were social relationships and therefore potential conflicts. It was to recognize that there were still power relations and not, on the one hand, a network state stripped of its political dimension for the benefit of experts and on the other a “civil society” recreated from scratch for the needs of the cause.

However, the Macronian state is well in phase with this dimension of the capital revolution. He refuses to negotiate his reforms on principle (he convenes, as we have already said) and his “New World” social composition also prevents him from having a negotiating practice with “the old world.” It is the end of all social reformism, replaced by procedures of experts who present as “reform” social regressions that in any case they do not feel as such.

There is indeed a common struggle which is based on a global rejection of a “new world” perceived as that of capital (“capital and its world”), even if in detail and in concrete terms it rejects what it will accept since it only becomes clear in the struggle; but even within the movement, this opposition remains abstract if it does not put forward, behind the question of pensions, that of work itself and consequently not only that of material and immediate living conditions, but those conditions of what would be a good life or a good life according to justice, all things that the yellow vests made appear hollow—they played the role of revealers—more than by their declared objectives or the results obtained. Nothing really “revolutionary,” but expectations that “revolutionaries” have often ignored or even sacrificed!

This basis of discussion that we had already put forth in another form in our text: “About pensions: but why pensions? The big hotels are so much better” is not for the moment carried on from the inside by the strikers who, for the most part, are civil servants for whom work and pensions remain in the continuity of their career and are problem only if the State attacks their “special plans” or certain specificities (the basis of calculation over the last six months for teachers) which is no longer the case for private sector employees and even less for new entrants on the “labor market” (and young people in general), the unemployed, the self-employed, etc. It is in this direction and on these contents that we must aim to broaden the community of struggle. The greater or lesser autonomy of the movement (in relation to the union leaderships), no more than the “giletjaunisation” of the social movement, which sociologists or political scientists remark in a very questionable manner, will not be enough.