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(en) France, Marx and Mahkno Meets McDonald's - Collectif de Solidarite* (Solidarity Collective) By Loren Goldner

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Fri, 18 Feb 2005 19:06:23 +0100 (CET)


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Casualized Workers In Paris Win Several Strikes, Honorably Lose
Another With Combined Union And Extra-Union, Legal And Illegal Tactics
Over the last several years, a revolving network of militants in Paris,
France, have developed a strategy and tactics for winning strikes by
marginal, low-paid, outsourced and immigrant workers against
international chains, in situations where the strikers are often ignored
by unions to which they nominally belong, or are actually obstructed
by them. While some of these methods benefit from aspects of French labor
law that are more favorable to strikers than one finds in the backward U.S.
of A, the overall strategy can certainly find its uses in other countries.

The group, which calls itself simply Collectif de Solidarite (Solidarity
Collective) slowly emerged as a network from the ferment and upswing
in struggle following the 1995 near-general strike in France over
pension “reform”. Their composition ranges from casualized
workers to people with steady jobs, people who want to fight and who
see no perspective for doing so within a traditional union framework.
Experience taught them that initially isolated strikes of marginal
workers employed by big chains, in the worst possible conditions, can
win if they are turned into city-wide actions by militants from
“outside” the workplace (but hardly “outside” the
increasingly downsized and outsourced work force), and—-equally
important—-militants who are not members of vanguard groups
coming mainly to fish in troubled waters for their own recruitment.
The strategy could not be farther from the timid “corporate
campaigns” as developed by the likes of Ray Rogers, politely
asking stockholders to sympathize with workers, but instead involve
direct action to shut down businesses with a mixture of legal and
“extra-legal” (in the grey area between legality and illegality)
tactics. The network also makes use, where and when it can, of
better-known methods of creating embarrassing publicity for well-
known corporate logos.

The current wave of activity took off in 2002 in a victory for a
McDonald’s strike in the heart of Paris. Five employees were
arbitrarily fired, accused of stealing from the cash register. A strike of
115 days ensued, with regular support actions from other
McDonald’s and fast food restaurants around Paris. In this strike,
one organizer from the restaurant department of the largest French
union, the C.G.T. (Confederation Generale du Travail), sensing an
opportunity for some publicity, did help the strikers (who were
members of the C.G.T.), against the indifference or hostility of the rest
of the union.

But the actions of the Solidarity Collective were indispensable in
keeping up picket lines, turning away customers and explaining the
strike to them, and occasionally shutting down other McDonald’s
locations around Paris. After nearly four months, McDonald’s
management caved, rehired the fired workers, and granted other
concessions.

The committee then turned its attention to a struggle that became its
greatest success to date, the 10-month strike of African immigrant
maids at ACCOR, the third-ranking multinational hotel chain.

The Senegalese and Malian women involved were often barely literate,
spoke little or no French, had never been informed of what rights they
had under French labor law, and were subjected to killing piece rates
based on the number of rooms cleaned. Further, their jobs were
outsourced to a cleaning company, Arcade, with completely arbitrary
scheduling based on the amount of work available from week to week.
Most of the women developed work-related physical conditions after a
couple of years on the job, which were not recognized as workplace
injuries. They did belong to the small alternative union SUD
(Solidarity-Unity-Democracy), but even this union mainly walked
away from the strike early on.

In spite of these obstacles, the Solidarity Collective was able to keep
the strike alive with unceasing “pin-prick” tactics, disrupting
hotel lobbies with leafleting twice a week, explaining the strike to hotel
guests and putting pressure on customers and other hotel employees to
support the strike; these and and other highly visible interventions
placed ACCOR and Arcade management on the defensive. Their main
object was a (successful) attempt to disrupt the smooth impersonal
functioning of the hotels and to expose the outrageous conditions of
the maids to public view. As in the McDonald’s strike, the
Solidarity Collective provided the decisive forces that on occasion kept
the strike alive even when most of the strikers were demoralized and
close to giving up, while always being careful not to substitute
themselves for the strikers. Benefit concerts made the strike more
widely known and raised money. After 10 months, management again
caved, most importantly on the crucial issue of piece rates, the
pressures of which were significantly reduced. Further concessions
were made in the introduction of regular scheduling, rehiring of fired
strikers, and a payment of 35% of wages for the time struck. The only
concession made by the strikers was an agreement not to make the
contract public, so that it could not be used as a guideline in other
situations. This did not, however, prevent the terms of the settlement
from becoming widely known in the militant milieu. On the other
hand, ACCOR was able to play on the secrecy of the agreement to
make its application as difficult as possible, leaving enforcement in the
dubious hands of the very union (SUD) which involved itself in the
strike only at the end, to claim credit for the victory to which it had
contributed next to nothing.

The experience of this strike in turn set the stage for further
involvement in a renewed strike at MacDonald’s in Paris. As soon
as management thought they could get away with it, they moved to fire
and harass employees involved in the original strike. As a result,
thestruggle erupted anew in early March 2003.

What follows is a description of a few days’ work by the Solidarity
Collective in early May 2003. It attempts to convey the culture of direct
action which is at the center of its perspective, in which I was able to
participate through a number of months.

Following the traditional march of an estimated 300,000 people in
Paris on a not particularly spirited May Day, the Solidarity Collective
managed to assemble 100 people for direct action against Frog Pub, a
British chain with four restaurants in Paris, where 28 Tamil (Sri
Lankan) kitchen employees had been on strike since mid-April. The
group invaded the restaurant, confronted the manager and attempted
to persuade the customers to leave.

On May 3, 30-40 members of the Solidarity Collective held a meeting
in the occupied McDonald’s restaurant in the Strasbourg St-Denis
area of downtown Paris. We then marched to the nearest Frog
restaurant about 10 minutes away. The strike of Tamil workers had
begun in reaction against the firing of a Tamil assistant manager but
that question was quickly overshadowed by demands over outrageous
working and sanitary conditions and numerous violations of labor law.
The boss assigned people their vacation time when it suited him; the
dishwashers had to work with cold water; there was no extra pay for
overtime; people getting off at 1 AM had to be back at 8 AM, (whereas
legally there are supposed to be at least 11 hours between shifts). The
Frog manager had told one Tamil worker: “I’m pleased with
your work. A European wouldn’t do it for even an hour.”

The pleasure of participation was heightened because a fair number of
the Frog clientele were arrogant yuppies, many of them Brits, as was
the manager quoted above, who became apoplectic. On this second
intervention, the Solidarity Collective did not fool around. Here a
certain “strike culture” specific to France came into play, one
not easily transposable to American conditions. People marched into
the pub and immediately one spokesman started shouting through a
bullhorn; within minutes the main door was blocked and covered by a
15-foot tape with strike slogans in 10 languages and a detailed leaflet in
French and in English.

Then the police showed up and a bizarre ballet began. (One can only
imagine the response of the NYPD or the San Francisco TAC Squad in
a comparable situation.) They treated the strikers and strike supporters
with kid gloves (it was generally assumed they were under orders to do
so, in order to avoid episodes creating bad publicity for the right-wing
Chirac government, just then gearing up for an attack on public sector
workers), huddling with the strike supporters over a legal restraining
order saying that pickets could do this, but not that, etc. We could
block the main entrance, but not be inside persuading the customers to
leave, and so forth. Periodically one of the strikers set off a bullhorn
that sounded like a police siren, adding to the generally unravelling
atmosphere.

Then we marched to another MacDonald's that was also on strike. It
was packed but it was shut down in about five minutes by the same
tactics. We were turning people away at the door telling them the place
was closed and 90% left immediately. It was particularly interesting to
see lots of scruffy "hip hop" types taking note of the strike.

At 6:30 PM the same day, a second action was undertaken at another
Frog location in the very upscale St-Germain des Pres neighborhood,
on a little side street. For all the complications that later emerged
between the strikers and the CNT (Conferation Nationale du Travail) ,
the anarcho-syndicalist union they had joined, it was initially an upper
to turn the corner and see the Tamil pickets with their red and black
banners CNT banners, somehow symbolic of a real internationalism.
Most of the Tamils barely spoke French and at times it was difficult to
tell (through the lone interpreter) what they made of all the factional
politics swirling around them, not to mention (as it later turned out)
their own factional politics (cf. below) Nonetheless, as union members
in the anarcho-syndicalist CNT, they were protected by all kinds of
labor laws that don’t exist or are a dead letter in the U.S.: they
couldn’t be fired for striking, they couldn’t be permanently
replaced by scabs (but could be replaced by temps during the strike
itself), and if they returned to work they would be protected by their
open-ended contract. Nevertheless, public support for the strike was
impaired by a widespread overestimation of the efficacy of these laws,
and an underestimation of the need for direct action to tip the balance
of forces.

The locale was hardly a "proletarian" scene, with mainly upscale
foreign tourists and French bourgeois passing by. The Solidarity
Collective managed to get a fair number not to cross the picket line,
and some of us were explaining the strike to people in English,
French, German and Spanish. With an old shoe box, we started
collecting money and raised about 30 euros ($35) in 2 hours. This is a
great crash course in sociology, seeing who responds and who doesn't.
It was also interesting because even people who were obviously
indifferent or hostile were polite. I imagined similar types in the U.S.
telling me they were damn well going to eat where they pleased. That
said, it must be pointed out that the specific climate leading up to the
imminent showdown over public sector pensions in May-June 2003,
definitely increased sympathy for the strike among passers-by and
potential patrons.

The Solidarity Collective has developed these tactics in 5-6 strikes of
the most exploited immigrant and young French workers in the Paris
region and the tactics often work. The collective is made up of a
Paris-wide network of militants who see the need to go beyond
workplace-organizing; the decisive elements in winning such strikes
are 30-40 people from outside the workplace who give, or try to give
the strikers the forces they need for all the aspects of waging a strike
that gets into trouble, above all through isolation. At the same time it's
not "Leninist" in that no one is there to recruit people to an
organization. The Collective aims to put the strikers in charge of their
own struggle in a way that neither a union nor a typical leftist group
does. It has as its sole aims the victory of the strike and the deepening
of the “flying picket” network available for the next battle.

What kind of reservations can be articulated about the kind of roving
tactics of the strike support group? They obviously don't solve
"all"problems, and the Collective itself recognizes that its ability to turn
away customers at the door made for the special vulnerability of the
locales in which they were successful. The Collective is the first to
recognize that far greater numbers would be necessary to stop a plant
closing or to paralyze a military machine.

But these tactics do create something like a small-scale version of the
Toledo Auto-Lite strike (1934), in which other members of the
precarious labor force turn isolated losing strikes of the most
downtrodden (immigrant) workers into something that really hurts
management, both in the pocketbook and in terms of their reputation.
It responds at least partially to the great success of management in
atomizing resistance at the “point of production” by having a
rapid turnover of teenagers, etc. It turns the management success of
the last 20 years on its head; the latter’s intent was to create a
precarious constantly recycled temporary work force that would never
be around long enough to organize at the work place, and here is that
same work force showing up “outside” the work place to shut
down business and enforce conditions for some of their number.
Today's strikers will be tomorrow's pickets at other sites, or they will
be strikers at othersites. Recycling thus cuts both ways by downsizing
but also in freeing groups of workers from corporatist attachment to
lifetime jobs andmaking them into potentially roving pickets
supporting necessarily roving workers. Further, it solves the problem of
union indifference orobstruction; it uses unions where possible for
legal protection but circumvents unions when they ignore, or worse,
obstruct a strike for some instrumental end of their own. It tells unions
to put up or shut up, and when, as in most cases, they do the latter, it
uses a mixture of legal and illegal tactics which unions (at least in the
U.S.) would never dare attempt. It circumvents the Labor Notes-type
strategy of ingratiating oneself with the left wing bureaucrats or of
becoming left-wing bureaucrats; the Committee takes the initiative
while not waiting for the unions to do so. In a comparable situation in
the U.S., a typical union would show up, set up its own skeleton picket
line, tell "outsiders" the matter was none of their business, and honor
whatever injunction some judge hands down. Finally, unlike various
front organizations set up in the past, Solidarity Collective people are
NOT a vanguard group fishing for members in troubled waters; they
come as equals in the recycled labor market.

Beginning in May, 2003, the Frog Pub strike began to be transformed
by the large public sector strikes that began in March and continued
until the end of June. For weeks, Paris saw one (mainly controlled)
mass demonstration after another. The main issues (which can only be
dealt with in the most summary way here) were the government’s
(ultimately successful) attempt to increase the work requirement for
full retirement benefits for public employees to the 37 years already in
effect for the private sector, and to attack teachers with a series of
educational “reforms” aiming at large-scale layoffs of
non-academic personnel and the reorganization of curriculum in
accordance with the “local” job market.

The Frog strikers, many of whom were cooks by profession, hit upon
the idea of selling drinks and sandwiches to the passing demonstrators
from strategically-located sites along the demo route, combined with
the aggressive publicity for the strike and fund-raising which the
Solidarity Committee was conducting in every demo already. This
tactic netted the strike fund a much-needed boost, and just as
importantly made the strike against the “patrons negriers”
(slave-driving bosses) known on a scale unimaginable in its initial
phase.

At the same time, it must be said that the series of mass
demonstrations, mass meetings and occasional confrontations with the
police totally dwarfed the forces of the Solidarity Collective, and
created a situation in which the traditional leftist vanguards, above all
Lutte Ouvriere, could successfully carry out their systematic takeover
and manipulation of the mass assemblies. In spite of numerous
independent rank-and-file initiatives, the unions and the leftist groups
ultimately were able to to their work of demobilization well.

Even before the mass movements faded away, however, several factors
began to weigh on the Frog pub strike, and, in contrast to the
successes of the initial Macdonald’s strike and of the African
maids against ACCOR and Arcade, set the stage for a defeat, one for
which, however, Frog management paid a steep price on several
fronts.

The first unfavorable turn of events was an internal crisis of the CNT
which directly undermined the Frog strike. Little enough is known
outside the union about this internal crisis, which unconscionably
turned the strike into a factional football among CNT
mini-bureaucrats,except that at its culmination it led to the summary
replacement of the head of the CNT’s restaurant section. Instead
of largely ignoring the strike (as the CGT, with one notable exception,
had done with Macdonald’s) or walking away and then claiming
responsibility for the victory at the end (as SUD had done with the
African maids’ strike), the CNT initially ran the strike with little
attempt to involve the strikers, presenting themselves as
“professionals” who would made short shrift of Frog
management in a few weeks.(2) The upshot of this method, when this
bravado was revealed for the empty pretension it was, led the strikers
to see as their only reliable allies the Solidarity Collective, which latter
the CNT was treating as nothing but an organizational rival, projecting
their own gate-receipt mentality onto the Collective’s intentions.
In the final months of the strike, only a handful of CNT militants
continued to work seriously with the strikers and the Solidarity
Committee.

Taking a similar destructive toll was the discovery, in mid-summer,
that 7 of the strikers were members of the nationalist Tamil Tigers.
One of the two Frog Pub managers had managed to contact the
Tigers, who constitute a sort of shadow government for the 15,000
Tamils living in the Paris region, much as the North African Islamic
fundamentalist groups attempt to impose themselves on the North
African population in France. Through whatever deal or payoff, the
Tamil Tigers not only pulled their own members out of the strike but
threatened the life of one of the strikers who refused to give up.

By mid-summer, the public sector and teachers’ strikes had
largely been defeated, except for the ongoing actions of the
intermittents du spectacle (3) which continued sporadically into the
fall.

Nonetheless, the work of the remaining 7 strikers and of the Solidarity
Collective began to bite, particularly at the largest Frog pub at Bercy,
whose clientele had seriously diminished in sympathy with the strike, a
situation prevailing well into the fall.

As a result, in spite of the fadeout of the CNT and the
“intervention” of the Tamil Tigers, the Frog managers were
still keen to settle. Finally, in October 2003, the remaining strikers
accepted a lump sum payment of 5000 euros each in exchange for
being laid off (which would qualify them for further unemployment
benefits).

This article, in sum, has as its intent making these tactics and these
successes and failures known to militants outside France. Nor should
it be misunderstood as any kind of triumphalism. As indicated,
Collective members are acutely aware of what they can and cannot do
with their small numbers, and of the specific vulnerabilities of the
types of employers where their tactics have succeeded. Further, in the
wake of these struggles, management has returned to the offensive.
Only a year after their first defeat, as recounted, Macdonald’s
attempted another provocation and took a long second strike; the
ACCOR hotel chain is harassing the maids who struck, firing one of
the most militant and visible militants, and a new campaign by the
Collective is underway. From other quarters of defenders of elements
of the status quo, some leftist groups have had the effrontery to accuse
the Collective of manipulating the strikers, whereas a refusal of
substitutionism has always been one of its distinguishing features.

Transposing these tactics to U.S. conditions will obviously have to take
account of the significantly rougher terrain they will confront. But I am
aware of no other approach, in confronting the employer offensive now
underway for more than three decades, which has had anything like
the Solidarity Collective’s small, but still impressive successes.

FOOTNOTES:

1) I wish to thank Nicole The and G. Soriano, whose camaraderie in
extended discussions during the events of 2003, made this article
possible. It further benefited from a close reading and criticisms by
Nicole The. Also cf. Note #2 below.

2)For readers with a knowledge of French, the article of G. Soriano
"L'experience des collectifs de solidarite parisiens: une nouvelle
etape", in La Question Sociale (No. 1, 2004) offers a much more
detailed analysis of the Frog strike, and of all the machinations of the
CNT. This publication can be contacted at
laquestionsociale@hotmail.com

3) The “intermittents du spectacle” were culture workers in the
arts and media who, until 2003, who eligible for minimally-livable
unemployment benefits between jobs. The government’s overall
attack on public sector pension rights and teachers also eliminated this
program, though the “intermittents” continued their struggle
for months after the other strikes had folded. For an overall analysis of
the strike movement of 2003 in France, cf. the Echanges et
Mouvement pamphlet Pour une comprehension critique du
mouvement du printemps 2003 (September 2004). BP 241, 75866
Paris, Cedex 18, France.

From Break Their Haughty Power
===================================
* Antiauthoritarian anticapitalist social class struggle
initiative including in it anarchists.


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