French Lessons For U.S. Workers
By Shamus Cooke
26 October, 2010
The world watches as France once again erupts in protests, demonstrations, and strikes. So much is at stake. If France's corporate-dominated government is able to increase the retirement age, other governments will be empowered to follow through with their plans to do the same.
If labor, student, and community groups succeed in stopping the pension reform -- or toppling the government -- workers in other countries will likewise be inspired to fight back and organize in the French fashion.
The worldwide recession has encouraged business-focused governments to pursue the kind of anti-worker policies they've been discussing for years. There is common agreement among these governments on a global scale as to the necessity for these polices. Working people disagree.
There have already been massive demonstrations or general strikes in Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere. In England, massive cuts to the public sector -- 500,000 job cuts -- have been announced that could cause a similar backlash.
In the United States, President Obama has formed his Deficit Reduction Commission, which has in its sights Social Security and Medicare. The Los Angles Times reports:
"Social Security is one of several areas being eyed by the panel [deficit reduction commission] for changes...other commission targets include Medicare, defense spending and a range of tax policies..." (September 29, 2010).
Obama's commission will report its "findings" sometime after the November elections, possibly as early as December 1st. In this way, the public will have no immediate recourse to punish the House and Senate members involved in these closed-door sessions, which will open the door to massive spending cuts in social programs.
This backroom, undemocratic scheming is happening all over Europe, with incredible implications: enormous changes are happening to nations with zero input from the population; no voting is taking place over these policies, they are simply being pushed through.
But France is changing everything. French workers stopped a conservative government in 1995 from implementing a similar reform -- they are confident that they can stop this one too.
The French working class is busting a myth broadcasted from governments everywhere, that massive spending cuts are "necessary" and worse, "inevitable,” no matter how unpopular (undemocratic). In France, 71 percent of the population supports the unions’ opposition to raising the retirement age. And given that the inequalities in wealth have been growing for the past several decades throughout Europe and the U.S., an obvious alternative to lowering the budget deficit would be to tax the rich.
If the French workers can force "their" President and “their” Congress to back down, resign, or change nationalities, working people all over the world will be inspired to do likewise, even in the United States.
The French government has not yet backed down as workers have shut down oil refineries, railways, and government services on a broad scale. High school and university students are shutting down their schools; massive demonstrations have been held as public support for the strikes remains high, as does hate for the government.
Instead of defusing the movement, the French government's obstinacy has only radicalized it. Workers across France are calling for an indefinite general strike -- paralyzing the country -- until the government backs down, or crumbles.
If this happens, the powerlessness that workers feel in the United States and England will melt away: seeing their potential power realized in another country inevitably inspires confidence. This is one reason why the U.S. mainstream media wants the French government to push through the unpopular measures.
Labor unions in the United States need to educate their members and the community at large about the intentions of Obama's Deficit Reduction Commission as well as the Democrats in general. The same unions that are the backbone of the French movement are also very powerful in the United States: public sector workers, teachers, bus and truck drivers, dockworkers, railway workers, etc.
A solution to the U.S. deficit problem also needs to be proposed by these unions, who, like those in France, must unite in coalitions to demand that taxes be raised on the wealthy and corporations, instead of cuts in social services, pensions, and education.
After the elections the Democrats are planning to bare their teeth; working people should be sharpening their claws in preparation.
Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org