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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le très long combat du syndicaliste rouge

by Marie Barbier

The very long fight of a red French trade-unionist: A Portrait

Translated Monday 5 July 2010, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Bill Scoble

Raymond Chauveau is CGT coordinator for the undocumented workers’ movement. At long last, the 57-year-old activist, who never left the pickets except to sit round a negotiating table, has succeeded in forcing the government to regularize the status of undocumented workers.
The application files of 6,769 undocumented strikers are to be registered by the départements’ Employment and Labour services in early July.

He remembers the event as if it had happened only yesterday: in September 2006, twenty-two undocumented workers came to see Raymond Chauveau, who was then secretary of the local CGT branch in Massy (in the Essonne département). They worked in a laundry in Chilly-Mazarin, seven hours a day for the minimum rate, with no hope of a wage hike. Fired if they ever asked for more. The trade-unionist’s response was adamant: “you just can’t be fired, that’s not done,” he said. “Undocumented workers are to be respected no less than other workers.” Striking being the only legal safeguard against dismissal, Raymond Chauveau resorted to the strike as a means to obtain the regularization of undocumented workers.

How many did he help get their documents? He shrugs the question off, saying never mind how many. What matters to him is to talk of the basic issue. Quoting Capital he says that “strikes are a crucial way of achieving the unity of all workers.” Marxist dialectics is his forte. A professed Marxist-Leninist, and a member of the PCOF (the workers’ communist party of France) [1], he is convinced that the fights of the working class benefit the whole of society. Talk to him of social security, or of pensions, and he will explain how those were the fruit of the proletariat’s struggle, as is the regularization of undocumented workers today.

What with his tousled grey hair sticking out from under his béret, his sharp nose, his green eyes where dissent will not infrequently light up a glint, he would fit nicely in one of Jacques Tardi’s comic strips. The man has little disposition for accommodation. “When you’re in a strike that big, you’ve got to do your utmost for the success of the strike,” he explains. What he really means is that “parallel activities”, as he calls them, like the undocumented workers’ march from Paris to Nice are just “subsidiary” forms of action.

Raymond Chauveau lives in the same world as the cartoonist’s: a world of destitution, rotten luck, and revolt… But this has not always been the case. Raymond Chauveau was born in a small provincial town (Baugé, in the Maine-et-Loire départment) in 1953. He grew up in Brieux in Brittany, on the Pink Granite Coast. His father was a bookseller, his mother a primary school teacher, and he grew up among four brothers and a sister. His parents leaned to the Left, but the first real (“physical”) contact with politics came in May 1968. He was then fifteen years old. He discovered the kind of “politics” that meant “discussing ideas and marching in the streets”.

Two years later, he dropped out of school and took to the road doing “absolutely all kinds of odd jobs”. That was the time when he discovered trade-unionism and joined the CGT, “the union in the service of the working class”. He arrived in Paris in the mid seventies, later passed the entrance exam to the RATP, Paris’ underground public transport authority, which took him on as a mechanic in 1981. He was to work twelve years with them, but was dismissed, “under a false pretext” he says, in 1993. The struggle for his reinstatement lasted two years. The RATP was willing to pay him a salary for life on condition that he stayed away. He became an official of the CGT, “not because I chose to”, he explains. “that was only the result of circumstances. It’s an interesting job if you don’t just sit at a desk.” Which is not like him at all.

Ever since he shouldered the undocumented workers’ movement on April 15, 2008, he has been “on the job for twenty-four hours a day”: “it’s not an intermittent engagement. The government’s position means you’ve just got to fight it out.” No holidays, no family life. “The family has suffered a lot. It’s a big sacrifice for all the family.” Raymond Chauveau got married in 1993 and he and his wife adopted Congolese twins, a girl and a boy, in 1995. They were three years and a half. They sometimes drop in on the pickets, but they do not take part in the struggle. They voted for the first time in the regional elections. For the left,” of course”.

[1members regularly protest at it being miscalled the French workers’ communist party

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