Counterfire interviewed Basile, a French railway worker and member of the Union Sud Rail, who was taking part in the demonstration in Paris against the attack on the pension age last Saturday, 6th November.

Why was it important to you to take part in the recent strike action?

To defend the pension age. There are major attacks against the working-class again. Every time there is a pension ‘reform’ there is resistance, in 1995, 2003 and now. It was only in 1993 that there was no mass movement against such a reform and that was because it was only targeted at the private sector, and so it divided the movement, and also they did it in the summer.

Rail workers have special conditions and in 1995 the government wanted to attack rail workers pensions, but they couldn’t because we went out on strike for 3 weeks and won. So they were unable to get the ‘reform’ through. Sarkozy’s government also wanted to attack these special conditions in 2007 but at that time were we alone. We had a big strike in 2007, we had 70% on strike, but because we fought alone we lost. This movement is the revenge.

Has the wide ranging nature of the attack on pensions this time brought unity to the movement?


Now that the new attack on pensions has been voted in, where can the movement go?

With this movement – perhaps we have lost this part, but we have an understanding that attacks on pensions are to pay for the crisis. The attack is part of the crisis. The government saved the banks and the financial sector and now there’s a debt and that is why they are attacking us. The movement is wider than it used to be and so we have other demands within it; the oil workers and dockers have their own demands, but these are also part of the movement. These demands were particular but not sectional.

Do your work mates see the movement?

Today is the 8th day of action that has been called. Yesterday I was talking with my workmates, saying “Ok, if the unions had called for strike action on 8 days continuously it would have been different”. If the action had been continuous it would have been different, if there had been 8 days all at once we would have changed things and that’s what people wanted. However, the fact that the action was spread over so many weeks brought more people into the struggle. Different sections of workers were involved at different times which shows the diversity of the people who got involved.

Did the struggle change people?

Yes. When the government launched the attacks on the pension age in the spring, nobody thought we could win. We were in a situation then where we felt resigned and pessimistic. Even the activists were pessimistic, in fact especially the activists. Nobody thought that we could win, but everybody wanted to show that we didn’t agree: “there will be a reform but we don’t want it”.

This feeling changed and there was a big demonstration on 24th June – the size of the demonstration was a huge surprise – which forced the Union leadership to call for a new day of mobilisation on 7th September. On that demonstration there were even more people than on the 24th June. It was the beginning of the movement. It grew slowly but surely. At work people began to stand up, from resignation to a consciousness and an awakening. There was a sense of confidence, that working-class people can fight back, and we felt so much stronger.

How did you raise the demands for solidarity at your workplace?

I work at Gare de l’Est. I am the guard at the station who waves the trains off. There are two unions at my work place: the CGT (General Confederation of Labour Trade Union) and SUD (Solidaires Unitaires D√©mocratiques). I am a member of SUD. In my region, Paris Est (East Paris), 4,000-5,000 people are trade union members. Once there was a call for a strike, activists like me went from station to station to meet workers where they go to work. We held General Assemblies every day of action. There were 10 General Assemblies held on every day of action across Paris Est. 400-700 workers attended all of them. It was in the General Assembly that we would vote whether to go on strike. The Assemblies were open to all workers, whether they were in a Union or not.

We have now got a new relationship with the CGT. This has changed with the movement. There used to be friction between CGT and SUD but this has changed thanks to the movement. This unity was very important in the movement. Even the more reformist unions felt that they couldn’t break the strike.

We took 25 days of continuous strike action in September and 18 days in October. Most sectors that struck were not out on continuous strike, but some sectors were out every day: most importantly the rail and oil workers. We wanted to build contact with the oil workers. We discovered that many workers in Paris Est and Paris Sud-Ouest (South West Paris) had family members working at the Grand Puits oil refinery that was served by the railway lines that we work on. So the joint action here was organised through private, family links.

The rail and oil workers were able to take continuous strike action because of the strength of and the pressure from the rank-and-file.

The strike on SNCF (the French railway company) was good – on the same level as the huge strike action in 1995 when they stopped all the traffic. In 1995 the rail workers became working-class heroes, the avant garde of the working class in France. They have a big tradition of militancy.

This time around there was a big reorganisation of the SNCF traffic system to make it more difficult to strike. SNCF’s objective was “no more 1995s”. To keep the trains running through the strike, they cancelled all the freight trains: 90% of the freight trains were cancelled for 2 weeks so as to continue the service for commuters. The victory of the movement was that for 6-7 days, around the 12th October, we were in a situation where things could chance, where we could have completely stopped the system – no more oil, no more trains etc. The truck drivers threatened to go on strike but they didn’t. If they had and the metro had stopped, we could have paralysed the whole circulation system – it was so close. The government understood this and it was afraid and this was the victory. It knocked their confidence.

Perhaps we have lost this part but we are stronger now because we have fought back. We have confidence now. Before this movement we were not sure there would even be a fight and we didn’t expect the fight to be so big. And Sarkozy didn’t crush the resistance. So that’s an important victory. This confidence is part of a new atmosphere that’s come from standing together.

This was an economic struggle. Did it take on a political aspect as well?

Everyone realised that it was very political from the start. The understanding was that this ‘reform’ was a consequence of the crisis and was the rich people’s answer to the crisis. In the summer we had the Bettencourt scandal. Bettencourt, of the l’Or√©al multinational, is the richest woman in France. Eric Woerth is the Minister of Labour whose wife was working in Bettencourt’s tax department. And because of the new tax laws, the government gave 32 million Euros to Bettencourt. All this while Woerth was saying “you have to work longer because there is no money”! In the summer, when I was at work, this was all my workmates were talking about. It the last straw.

71% of French people are against these ‘reforms’. This movement says we’re not paying for the crisis. It’s a crisis of capitalism and this is why the movement is political.

Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.