Herrera is a Marxist economist and researcher at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), who works at the Centre d’Économie de la Sorbonne, Paris. He wrote this article on May 24; Workers World staff translated it.
The 52nd Congress of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) was held May 13-17 in Dijon, France. It was held within a particular context. For more than six months, the Yellow Vest movement — despite its complexity and heterogeneity, difficulties and limitations — managed, for the first time in a very long time, to sideline, if not stop, the hated machinery of neoliberal policies.
In fact, the last time this happened was in April 2006, when the student and high school demonstrations against the First Employment Contract of Premier Dominique de Villepin’s government, under President Jacques Chirac, caused a French government to give in to pressure from the street.
Over a longer period of time — and against the backdrop of a systemic capitalist crisis — this congress also took place within the context of all trade union organizations having lost membership. This decline has particularly affected the CGT. [In French workplaces, workers, grouped by job titles, vote for slates proposed by the different unions to fill work councils]
Since the most recent of these “professional” elections, the CGT now ranks second among union federations in the private sector, although it is still first in the public sector. It is behind the social-democratic French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT). This declining support for the CGT proves that neoliberal governments have had some success in attaining their objective of dismantling workers’ rights.
The CGT’s ranks have declined in recent years, with nearly 23,000 members lost since 2015. However, despite this erosion, the CGT remains ahead of the CFDT in terms of numbers of members. The CGT has 653,000 members, while the CFDT has around 624,000 members. Remember that in 1975, the CGT had 2.4 million members. In 1945, at the beginning of the post-World War II period, the CGT had nearly 5.6 million members.
Repression targets unions
There are profound reasons for the CGT’s relative decline, and it can be explained by many factors largely shared with other unions: the violence of the neoliberal offensive launched in the 1970s, the gradual deindustrialization within the country, corporations increasingly moving production to lower-cost countries and the rise of subcontracting and “Uberization” of society [creation of gig jobs]. Also, employer and state repression have specifically targeted trade union activities, which has had decisive, devastating effects accentuating the precariousness and fragmentation of today’s job market.
The CGT’s influence has been reduced. This is mainly because under the neoliberal push — linked to the return to power of high finance at the end of the 1970s — the balance of power between capital and labor has changed considerably in favor of capital. Labor has been pushed back and put on the defensive for the last 40 years.
Nevertheless, among these major developments, the clear lack of combativeness of successive CGT leadership groups has considerably worsened the situation. This is not only true in France. The knives were sharpened at the time of the neoliberal shift made behind the scenes during the so-called “socialist” administrations of President François Mitterrand and in the entourage [members in the leadership] of Henri Krazucki, CGT secretary general from 1982 to 1992. (Krazucki had heroically fought with the FTP-MOI during World War II, a Communist partisan group that conducted armed resistance against the Nazi occupation.)
Subsequently, internal conflicts within the CGT only worsened with Krazucki’s successors, as they imposed a defeatist, reformist tendency upon the union’s governing bodies. Louis Viannet, CGT secretary general from 1992 to 1999, mandated that the CGT withdraw from the World Federation of Trade Unions in November 1994. The CGT reformists considered the WFTU “undemocratic” because it was “revolutionary” and said that, starting in May 1992, the labor federation had “reached the end of its historical process” and had an “obsolete” world view.
‘End of history’ syndrome
The “end of history” syndrome [following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991] therefore struck these leaders hard. In 1999, it led them to make official the CGT’s exit from the WFTU by a vote of the 45th Congress. It was a step they had to take if they were to join the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).
This attitude, which was marked by opportunistic tailing of ruling class’ views, was further deepened by Bernard Thibault, CGT secretary general from 1999 to 2013. He was the leader of the CGT railway workers, but was personally opposed to the great strike of November to December, 1995. This strike nevertheless pushed back the “pension reform” policy of Premier Alain Juppé’s government.
So with the reformist concept of capital-labor relations, the CGT leaders renounced the doctrine of class struggle and replaced it with “united trade unionism” — which, of course, was pro-capitalist and pro-European. It would then employ the strategy of “social dialogue” through “consultation,” “negotiation,” “proposal” and “partnership.”
Given these major errors and this inconsistent political analysis, the CGT leadership hit bottom during Thierry Lepaon’s 2-year term as secretary general from 2013 to 2015. He was forced to resign following a scandal before being generously rewarded for his work by “socialist” Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Valls pushed Lepaon to head the “Agence de la langue française” [French Language Agency]. In March 2019, Lapaon was recycled by President Macron — who had appointed Valls — and named “Inspector General of Youth and First Class Sports.”
The slow and disastrous degeneration of the CGT leadership has increasingly dragged the union’s officials into the “system.” This has seriously damaged the CGT’s image and discredited it in the eyes of many workers.
The result is not surprising. The CGT was no more than a shadow of its former self, and its leaders turned their backs on the comrades who had battled heroically in the past. Honestly, it was not the workers who turned away from CGT’s militant history. The union leadership abandoned them under fire from the class war the capitalists were waging against them.
Given its leadership’s recent history, CGT Secretary General Philippe Martinez, who has been in office since 2015, is not the worst. Nevertheless, he has chosen to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors who have abandoned class-conscious positions and internationalism since the early 1990s. His most serious mistake is the distance he purposely maintained from the Yellow Vests movement when it began its mobilization in November 2018.
A missed opportunity to join Yellow Vests
Under Martinez, the union leadership wrongly missed participating in this struggle. It is certainly one that is multifaceted, unpredictable, unusual and difficult to comprehend and analyze. But as soon as the Yellow Vest struggle emerged spontaneously — in places where a trade union is absent — it should be interpreted as a salutary leap forward and an inevitable one. It was at its base a people’s rebellion against the social violence they have suffered for more than 40 years [from the ruling classes and the government]. This rebellion shook the spheres of power, up to the president of the Republic himself.
Have we forgotten that Emmanuel Macron, panicked by the December rebellions, visited the “Jupiter PC” in the basement of the Elysée? This was the bunkerized command post in the east wing of the presidential palace designed to protect the head of state in the event of a nuclear attack.
And what did Martinez do? He chose silence and inaction. This was at the precise time when the heads of state were wavering, when 80 percent of the French people supported the Yellow Vest revolt — and when the CGT’s own rank and file were marching with the Yellow Vests because the demands of both groupings were naturally aligned.
The CGT’s leadership teams had been planning to “get things moving” for years. This was a bit like Macron talking about “reforms.” It was about being “realistic,” not being “sectarian or living in the past,” and “practicing social dialogue” alongside other trade union organizations (the CFDT above all, as the CFDT has been working with successive neoliberal governments, including so-called “Socialist Party” regimes, to help implement measures designed and desired by employers).
It is curious that Martinez signed a partnership agreement with the University of Paris-Dauphine, renowned for its right-wing teaching, to set up a training course for CGT officials in “human resource management!” What a beautiful picture it is of the CGT secretary general smiling alongside François Rebsamen, the “socialist” mayor of Dijon, the host city of the CGT 52nd Congress! Rebsamen is the former Minister of Labor, Employment, Vocational Training and Social Dialogue in Valls’ government, who prepared the groundwork for implementing the “El Khomeri” laws dismantling legal protections for workers.
The same Rebsamen recently stated that he did not remember Ambroise Croizat, the Communist Minister from 1945 to 1947 who scrupulously honored the establishment of the program of the National Council of the Resistance by founding social security and pension systems and works councils in liberated France. He issued a decree on Nov. 2, 1945, for canteens, day care centers, relocation assistance, social services, occupational medicine dispensaries and labor inspectors. To forget these conquests is to sell your soul. To make deals with the class enemy is a betrayal!
Most CGT delegates back Yellow Vests
Things did indeed “move” at the CGT 52nd Congress — and in a good direction, not the one desired by the outgoing leadership. Despite their crude and clumsy maneuvers, a majority of the nearly 1,000 delegates present voted in favor of a final declaration showing CGT’s support for the Yellow Vests’ mobilization. (Martinez did not even mention them in his speeches!) In their comments, delegates made radical criticisms of the European Union and the euro. Although somewhat weak, this was a step forward. And they adopted an amendment paving the way to apply for CGT observer status at the WFTU, from which it had withdrawn 20 years before when the CGT rejected the WFTU’s “revolutionary path.”
Martinez and his followers did not want any of this, but CGT militants imposed it in a united, democratic way by their votes. Some delegates sang the Internationale with their fists raised to protest the leadership’s position of capitulation to employers. They also opposed ETUC leader Luca Visentini and Owen Tudor, second in command of the International Trade Union Confederation, being invited to speak. Martinez was assuredly re-elected secretary general on May 17, as he was the only candidate. Didn’t he support the candidacy of Laurent Berger, his new “thought” [ideological] leader, for the post of ETUC president? Berger, French Democratic Confederation of Labor leader, has held this position [ETUC president] since May 23.
Militants fight to make their union fight
It is clear that the trend toward capitulation by the CGT leadership has not been reversed, not even really blocked. But the genuinely progressive fighting forces within the union are present. And they are there in large numbers — despite the CGT leaders blocking debates and willfully eliminating any possible opposition. All these forces within the CGT bravely refuse — and will continue to refuse — to allow their local leaders to be bypassed by the dictates of the reformist top leadership groups, which are under the control of the big-money powers and their governments.
These progressive forces, which are the future, will have to overcome the obstacles they face, starting with their divisions which are diverse — and often unjustified — and their timidity, too. This can still be seen; it was apparent when they hesitated to go on the offensive against a union leadership that once again showed its failure when it condemned the violence of the Yellow Vests — and not the violence of the police — just as Macron did.
Against a bureaucratized apparatus and leaders who have given up on the class struggle, the militants will continue to fight within this union which is theirs. They will fight for the unity of workers and the convergence of national and international struggles. In this way, the CGT can again become a tool in the hands of the workers so they can defend their class interests and fight for effective international solidarity. The outcome of this struggle has not yet been settled.