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Fighting Back: The French Working Class Rises Up


“Because it is unfair”, this was the simple message delivered by a member of the CGT Union who appeared on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland last week to discuss the growing working class revolt in France.

The right-wing French government is attempting to push through legislation that would raise the age of retirement from 60 to 62 and the age at which the state pension can be claimed from 65 to 67. It was a simple message, delivered to an RTÉ journalist who appeared both bewildered and horrified that the working class was rising and that the French trade union movement was demonstrating such considerable power.

It seems RTÉ journalists believe that workers in Ireland should swallow the austerity ‘medicine’ like good little children and do nothing to offend the omnipotent international markets that might refuse to lend us money so that we can continue bailing out rich parasitical bankers and developers. And then along come the impudent French workers with their ‘archaic’ notions of fairness and justice to upset the script so carefully crafted by right-wing economists, politicians and rich businesspeople who have chanted the mantra ‘there is no alternative’.

Workers picket a Marseille bus depot

For nearly two weeks now, the French working class has been in open revolt against the proposed new pension laws, demonstrating that an alternative must be fought for. Millions of workers have been joined on the streets by thousands of young school students who refuse to accept that austerity is the future. Oil refineries have been shut down and transport networks brought to a standstill, while, in the major cities of Paris and Lyon, tens of thousands of school and college students have mobilised as the struggle against Nicolas Sarzoky’s government enters a critical phase.

Up to 2,000 protestors have been arrested in the last week as French police were dispatched by an increasingly worried government to break up picket lines and demonstrations of young people who have bravely faced tear gas and police batons. Yet the workers and students remain defiant, another two days of strikes have been announced to take place on Thursday [October 28] and on Saturday, November 6. Bernard Thibault, head of the CGT union announced: “The government remains intransigent. We need to continue with massive action as early as next week.”

It is an example that trade union leaders in Ireland have been loath to follow, preferring instead to hide under the crumbling façade of social partnership while bellowing empty rhetoric at public rallies. Over the coming months, the working class in both states in this country face draconian budgets and the battle to defeat the cuts requires a fighting and determined trade union movement.

Public sector workers in the Six Counties face the loss of up to 30,000 jobs, while cuts in social welfare, housing benefits and health and education services will drive the most vulnerable deeper into poverty. Meanwhile, in the Twenty-Six Counties, the business and political establishment seems intent on escalating the class war, with cuts in the order of €5-€6 billion expected to be announced in December’s budget. This will be followed by a further three years of austerity budgets to satisfy international markets and the European Union.

Not satisfied to consign hundreds of thousands to the dole queue, Tory Blueshirts such as Lucinda Creighton and Leo Varadkar have demanded even more stringent cuts, along with a reduction in the minimum wage and the privatisation of state assets such as the ESB and Bord Gáis.

The idea that the working class must endure a reduced standard of living so that the rich can maintain their wealth has been largely unchallenged in the rush to develop a ‘consensus’ amongst the establishment parties. An alternative exists – one in which the bosses and the rich pay for their own crisis and the working class control their own destiny. However, without determined action from the trade union movement, the bosses will continue to drive a bulldozer through both the public sector and the pay and conditions of workers.

Workers block the entrance to a refinery in Donges

One of the myths propagated over recent months has been that ‘we’ are all in this together and that ‘we’ have all suffered the negative effects of the capitalist crisis. The simple fact is that the working class is carrying the burden of a crisis created by the capitalists who continue enjoy their vast wealth.

Yet, just two weeks ago, the CSO report Resident Holdings of Foreign Portfolio Securities estimated the value of Irish residents’ holdings of foreign securities at the end of December 2009 amounted to €1,251billion, up €86 billion on the 2008 level of €1,165 billion. According to the CSO, this increase resulted from the recovery in global equity markets. Not surprisingly, the CSO findings were not reported anywhere in the corporate media.

The CSO findings correspond with a report from investment bank Merrill Lynch, which found that, in 2009, there were 18,100 High Net-Worth Individuals in Ireland, defined as having investable assets of $1 million, an increase from 16,300 in 2008, while a total of 181 individuals held investable assets of $30 million.

Meanwhile, wealthy individuals in the Twenty-Six Counties continue to benefit from numerous tax breaks and pay significantly lower rates of taxation than PAYE workers. A Revenue Commissioners’ analysis for 2008 showed that 189 high-income individuals with an annual income of €500,000 or more paid an average tax rate of just 19.86 per cent. Private corporations continue to benefit from the incredibly low rate of corporation tax in the Twenty-Six Counties, nominally 12.5 per cent but, as US multinational Google demonstrated last week, corporations are paying an overseas tax rate of as little as 2.4 per cent.

Little wonder then that millionaire businessmen such as Peter Sutherland, Denis O’Brien and Michael Smurfit have rejoiced at what they describe as the ‘resilience of the Irish’ and the compliance of trade union leaders in ensuring that these fat cats maintain their obscene levels of wealth, while the working class endures mass unemployment and savage cuts in pay and public services.

Surveying events in France, our native capitalists and right-wing politicians may have trembled at the power of organised working class resistance. More importantly, however, it is to be hoped that the working class and trade unions in Ireland have begun to understand that there is a choice. We can, in the words of the loom workers of Lyon, who took control of that city for a brief spell during the revolutionary ferment of 1830: “Live working or die fighting.”

French workers have bravely demonstrated three kernel truths: austerity measures are not inevitable; there is power in a union and there is an alternative to the neo-liberal assault on rights won by workers over centuries of struggle. The French working class has delivered a powerful message to the bosses and the right-wing politicians: we, the working class, will not pay for your crisis.

The working class in Ireland has a long and proud history of standing up to tyranny. It is time to reignite that spirit, to rise up and fight the cuts, north and south, and to begin building the alternative.


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“If you strike at, imprison, or kill us, out of our prisons or graves we will still evoke a spirit that will thwart you, and perhaps, raise a force that will destroy you! We defy you! Do your worst!”