In spring 2016, mass strikes in France’s second-largest port city brought the local economy to a halt. Le Havre, a city of 170,000 people, was at the forefront of the nationwide struggle against neoliberal labor law reforms designed to undermine workers’ job stability. As local press dubbed Le Havre the “capital of the mobilization,” journalists flocked from Paris to take a closer look. A reporter from right-wing daily Le Figaro described a city paralyzed by “a handful of radicalised strikers.” He noted with alarm that “The port of Le Havre … has reached a standstill like Pompeii.”
This comparison with the Italian city buried under volcanic ash in 79 AD was doubtless an exaggeration. But if the same journalist returned to Le Havre in late 2017, as Emmanuel Macron imposed his own neoliberal Labour Code, he could hardly write the same. Faced with fresh government attacks on labor, the port city was anything but paralyzed: locals walked the streets like normal and giant vessels calmly pulled into the docks. There were multiple days of action, but nothing on the scale of 2016.
This was not because new president Emmanuel Macron’s Labour Code was any less brutal than previous ones: in fact, under his government, the neoliberal logic of attacks on workers’ compensation and the unions has reached fresh heights. Nor does this shift owe to any change in the character of Le Havre itself. An old “workers’ fortress,” governed by Communist mayors from 1965 to 1995, this “rebel city” is still a center of trade unionism: the biggest union federation, the CGT, has membership rates over triple its national average.
The real reason for this calm has to do with the kind of workers that were at the forefront in 2016. Then, as is so often the case, it was a mobilized minority, implanted in key sectors — the Total oil refinery, the seaport — who led the action. A wider majority of workers did back them, enthusiastically even. But this left some of the Total employees feeling rather disconcerted. Philippe, a worker in his forties with eleven years’ service explains: “Today the guys are angry. They are against Macron’s policy, but they don’t want to fight alone for all of France. In 2016 people came to tell us ‘go on guys, we support you.’ It’s always comforting to hear, of course. But we almost wanted to reply: ‘supporting us is great; but it’d be even better if you went on strike, too!’”
The Moment of Glory: 1995
The type of action Philippe describes has a long history, and, indeed, a name: the “strike by proxy.” This theory, formulated by the sociologist Henry Vacquin in the 1990s, refers to a kind of tacit deal between the majority of the workforce and a minority of strikers. Faced with an attack on employment conditions or services that concerns all workers, the majority “delegates” its power to take strike action to a minority, implanted in strategically important sectors, like public transport, the civil service, and energy. Even if only these particular workers go on strike, and not the rest of the workforce, this can be enough to block the whole country’s economic activity. In general, this minority of workers is seen, rightly or wrongly, as more “protected” from the risks of strike action, because of some particular status it enjoys: especially civil servants (who are very hard to sack) or private sector workers with unlimited contracts.
The strike by proxy had its most glorious moment in winter 1995, in one of France’s most important strike waves. The movement arose in reaction to President Jacques Chirac’s neoliberal offensive against the welfare state that France had built in the wake of World War II. Under the pretext of preventing “the country going bankrupt,” on November 15, 1995 his prime minister Alain Juppé’s government announced a plan of vast budget cuts, from Social Security to health spending, and increases in the contributions that state employees would have to pay into the pensions system. Beyond these specific measures, the plan crystallized what leading sociologists have called “a diffuse but widespread worry over the future of ‘welfare’ … in a period in which neoliberal policies are dismantling public services.”
Within just ten days of the plan being announced, SNCF rail workers were out on strike, and they were soon joined by the workers on the RATP, i.e., Paris metro and bus service. In these two bastions of trade unionism, the participation in the strike was sky-high: among the train drivers, it reached 91 percent. The movement also spread to other public companies like EDF-GDG (electricity, gas) and France Télécom, while in major cities across France hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated. But there was a remarkable contrast between the total number of strikers (peaking at 700,000) and the number of demonstrators (whom unions estimated at 2 million).
Simply put, few private sector workers downed tools, preferring instead to “support” the public sector workers who did walk out. They delegated the action to a “strike by proxy.” A poll published a few weeks into the stoppages showed that 62 percent of the French population supported the strikers. Twenty years later, the workers active in the movement seem emotional as they describe what happened: “People wanted us to bring down the Juppé plan, and we were like standard-bearers for the rest,” recalls Bernard Thibault, a former rail worker and union leader. “There were fishermen who brought crates of fish to the picket lines to support the strikers.” Ultimately the government gave in, thus proving the value — against its own intentions — of the “strike by proxy” strategy.
Since this major victory in 1995, the unions have often tried to reproduce this scenario, adapting it to the latest circumstances. Indeed, both the rise of mass unemployment and the fragmentation of the workforce — two major obstacles to mobilizing private sector workers — do seem like arguments in favor of this type of action. And without a doubt, some workers have more power to shut down the economy than others. For example, France has just eight oil refineries (compared to fifteen in Germany); it only takes strikes at half of them for lines of traffic to start to form outside service stations and the petrol supply to start running dry in several cities.
The activist André Martin gives a good overview of the arguments traditionally advanced in defense of the “strike by proxy” strategy. For him, “the strike by proxy is probably the only way to impose defeat on an anti-democratic government.” His reasoning has an evident logic: “Millions of French people cannot, or dare not, go on strike. Or they judge that this will have little impact on their employer. When interviewed, many of them will say ‘I have two kids and three credit cards …. I would love to go on strike, but I can’t afford to lose €80 a day in pay.’ But millions of workers would be perfectly ready to offer ‘financial help to workers striking in a few strategic sectors.’”
This is exactly what happened in France in 2016, during the great mobilization against the neoliberal Labour Law. A CGT federation created a national strike fund to support the strikers, to which people could contribute online or by sending in checks. Within a few weeks, money was flowing in to this war chest from around the country. Some workers proved their readiness to crack open the piggy bank: one retired teacher signed a check for five thousand euros to support the striking workers! By January 2017, the fund had reached a total of €554,668.
But despite this financial support, the movement ended in defeat. The Socialist government did not give in to its opponents; rather, it showed unexpected zeal in repressing the movement. Around a thousand people were arrested by the police on the edges of the union marches, and dozens of activists were hauled before the courts on sometimes fanciful charges.
There are many possible factors that explain the failure of the mobilization against the Labour Law. But one reality is difficult to deny: the “strike by proxy” seems to have run up against its limits. For all its virtues, this mechanism set in motion to such great effect in 1995 seems to have seized up, largely because of the reticence of the workers who are expected to make this strategy a reality. For instance, the traditional “vanguard” in French social movements, the rail workers, are less mobilized today than in the past.
This may owe to a certain exhaustion. But there are also other obstacles, and especially the harshening of the legislation that frames the right to strike. When President Sarkozy came to power in 2007 he passed a series of headline-catching reforms, and also stirred controversy by taking a jaunt on a yacht owned by a billionaire tycoon. But almost ignored was one of his first measures, taken at the height of the summer holidays, to cut back the right to strike in public transport. This new law forced each transport worker who wanted to take part in a strike to inform management at least forty-eight hours in advance. The goal was to give the SNCF rail bosses time to prepare before each strike, so that they could limit the disruption it would cause and make it less visible.
The repression hitting the most visible strikers is also aimed at discouraging the boldest elements of the movement — exactly the type of workers most central to the “strike by proxy” strategy. Recent governments have been unhesitant in using riot cops to break up picket lines at strategic sites like blockaded oil refineries. Thierry Defresne, a CGT representative at the Total refinery in Normandy, remembers a particularly robust intervention in 2010 during the movement in defense of pensions. “The refinery had been shut for three weeks and the Paris region was beginning to run low on petrol. The Paris police prefect ordered non-striking workers to come and get the refinery up and running again, but the strikers took a symbolic stand in front of the gates, to stop them entering. The prefecture then sent the armed police in against us. They charged on the strikers, swinging their truncheons and spraying us with tear gas. Three comrades ended up in hospital.”
Thierry says that he is now under almost constant police surveillance: “One December Sunday, after two weeks on strike, I was withdrawing money from an ATM in the street in Le Havre. Suddenly, a stranger tapped me on the shoulder. He was very curt: ‘We never saw each other, but I am part of the RG (French domestic intelligence). I simply wanted to meet you.’ Then he turned on his heel. It was a way of getting a message across, of letting me know that they had identified me and had me under surveillance.”
Have these policies destroyed all will to resist? Not necessarily. But they clearly have made these workers’ recourse to strike action much less automatic, thus making it harder for others to “delegate” responsibility to the “strike by proxy.” Today, public transport or energy workers will only take part in blockades if they think this can secure rapid victories, or if they are mobilizing around their own particular demands. To put that another way: the state repression makes it more of a priority to use strike action to defend their own interests in their own jobs, rather than acting on behalf of all workers.
This was precisely what happened in autumn 2017, during the mobilization against Emmanuel Macron’s reform of the Labour Code. Last October, after just a few days on strike the truck drivers signed a deal with the government and bosses in this sector, without defeating the overall reform. What they could do was partly shield themselves from these measures: employers will not be able to review downward certain elements of these workers’ pay (like their bonuses), whereas Macron’s reform does offer bosses in general this possibility. For their part, oil refinery workers explicitly demanded “negotiations toward a deal similar to the one for the truck drivers,” on pain of blocking the refineries. As one union activist explained, justifying this approach, “Today we need to score some wins again, to show workers that going on strike does pay.”
Challenges for the Unions
Proving that going on strike does pay, this is the very heart of the problem. Recent history helps explain why this has become such a priority: in fact, it is some twelve years since a strike movement in France managed to defeat any government reform. The last significant victory for the unions dates back to 2006, with the successful struggle against the CPE (“First Employment Contract”), which sought to reframe the employment of young people on a more precarious basis. The series of defeats since then, for instance the raising of the pension age in 2010 and the neoliberal Labour Law in 2016, help explain the fatalism among French workers and their low confidence in traditional social movements.
Stéphane Sirot, a sociologist specializing in social movements, considers this situation a wake-up call for the unions: “Over recent years the French unions have racked up a spectacular series of defeats, despite the fact that there have been some sizable mobilizations. This partly owes to the tool that the union leaderships have now prioritized: the ‘day of action.’ The unions get as many people as possible into the streets, at dates set in advance, in the hope that this demonstration of strength will drive the government to turn to the negotiating table. This is a relatively recent means of action, which became something of an institution after the Second World War. Before that, when the unions wanted something, they would start a strike and keep it going until they got some results. That was what happened in 1936 and May 1968, for example.”
The problem is that the day of action only works if the government does indeed want to negotiate. If not, the unions wear themselves out organizing mass marches, at the risk that this will merely demonstrate their lack of teeth.
“No one has any ready-made solution,” Stéphane Sirot admits. “But I think it is indispensable that we revive the culture of strike action, on the ground. Strike action is not a thing of the past — far from it. But it doesn’t come from nowhere, and wherever it does happen it is always the product of longstanding militant efforts. That demands that unions ask how they organize, how they establish roots in individual companies, and how they address the new forms of work.”
We can turn to Didier le Reste, a former leader of the CGT section for rail workers, for his summary of the debate on “striking by proxy”: “I think that the rail workers can still serve as a locomotive for the wider social movement. But there is not much point putting a locomotive on the rails all by itself!” There need to be other carriages behind it, in which the whole workforce gets organized.