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by Sébastien Crépel

Red Vests or Yellow Vests, We must be more Numerous to Win

Translated Sunday 23 December 2018, by Henry Crapo

Interview with Philippe Martinez

The Secretary General of the CGT returns to the mobilization that is shaking the country. For Philippe Martinez, this movement is not opposed to trade union struggles, but underlines the obstacles to be removed, obstacles that the collective action of employees comes up against.

Published in l’Humanité on Thursday, December 20th, 2018

Huma: The yellow vest crisis strongly questions the ability of unions effectively to defend employees’ interests. Is their usefulness being questioned?

Philippe Martinez What is interesting in this movement is that while collective action has been denigrated by those who have led us for decades, we see a social body that is once again on the path to mobilization. But this is being built in a context of the exclusion of trade union organisations by successive governments and employers. Too often, when there are mobilizations, they act as if the unions do not exist, or refuse to meet their expectations. In 2016, for example, there were more people in the streets for almost an entire quarter, against the El Khomri law, than with the yellow vests today. And public support for the demonstrations was comparable. What did the government of the day do? It chose to play the union division card. This does not mean that we bear no responsibility for the fact that, among the yellow vests making today’s social demands, many have never or have rarely come into contact with trade unions. Under these conditions, it is difficult for these workers to convince themselves of the unions’ usefulness. We are very late in our deployment throughout the world of work. As long as the CGT only covers 25% of the workforce, the remaining 75% of employees will only know about trade unions what they are told elsewhere. And, in general, these messages are not compliments.

"We feel we must put the cover back on the pot rapidly, by mobilizing, in the beginning of the new year, on essential questions, such as wages and fiscal justice."

Huma: How does the CGT approach this movement, a movement without organization or coordination?

Philippe Martinez Our position is clear on this movement of yellow vests. It started from a revolt against the rise in the price of petrol, a revolt that is shared by the CGT, but behind it there was a clear risk of the slogans for the refusal of all taxes, including contributions (to social security). Very quickly, however, the banners displayed slogans for the increase of the Smic and the wealth tax, as on the CGT leaflets. This shows that we do not preach in the desert. Even if the meeting points are not obvious at first sight, this movement is a social movement, heterogeneous in its composition, and with the existence within of the necessary will to denounce certain unacceptable behaviours internal to the movement.

Huma: The yellow vests have obtained concessions from the President of the Republic, concessions that the trade union movement has failed to obtain despite its mobilisations in recent years. Does this lead you to rethink your strategy?

Philippe Martinez We must constantly ask ourselves what is the most effective strategy to win. What yellow vests do, moreover, coincide with our debates in the CGT on the effectiveness of "leapfrog days" (the spaced action days - editor’s note) and Saturday mobilizations. However, if we do not combine actions on Saturdays with actions within the companies, the Medef will be able to continue to sleep easy. As for demonstrations, at crossroads or at motorway tolls, they are part of the various forms of collective expression of discontent that the trade union movement has itself experienced. In 2016, we also experienced identical occupations and forms of struggle. I see clearly the willingness of some political representatives and of the media to install the idea that some actions would be more effective than others. In my opinion, what the action of both yellow vests and unions shows above all is that collective action pays off. But does it pay as much as the claims? That, it seems to me, is the question to ask. In their struggle, the railway workers also obtained things. But they didn’t win everything they wanted. For their part, yellow vests have won an increase in the activity bonus, and the exceptional bonus in some companies, but they have not gained the increase in the minimum wage they demand, nor the restoration of wealth tax. If we want to achieve more, we must therefore be even more numerous to mobilize, and this applies to everyone, yellow, red or other coloured vests. It also raises the question of our collective ability to hit at the heart of the system, that is, at capital. Capital is the big groups, the multinationals.

Huma: Is the circumvention of trade unions not also the consequence of struggles that no longer result in new conquests?

Philippe Martinez Yes, the world of work is struggling to win new conquests. There have been major mobilizations, but on national issues, ever since the battle for the 35 hour work week. We have prevented setbacks but we have not won anything new. This raises the question of collective action, of forms of struggle. These are observations that we ourselves make, we agree on this point of view.

Huma: Is it not also the product of a policy that aimed to break up the unions?

Philippe Martinez For about ten years, the government has cultivated the idea that the role of trade unions was to support its measures, and that those who refused to do so should be put on the sidelines. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy booed the CGT in his meetings. Emmanuel Macron went even further by deciding to exclude all unions, without exception. Now, he does his mea culpa every six months. He did so in July, and again this month at his major meeting with elected officials and union representatives. But that’s just communication.

Huma: So nothing has changed at the Elysée since the yellow vest crisis?

Philippe Martinez Did the President of the Republic listen to our demands after this meeting? Absolutely not. Apart from saying that he speaks too harshly, he has not questioned the substance. When the leader of the current deputies of the Republic (Gilles Le Gendre - Editor’s note) says "our mistake is to have been too subtle, too intelligent", it means that they openly take people for idiots. It’s Macron in the text. And when the Prime Minister says that some of the smicards are among the "wealthiest households", it is clear that nothing has really changed. The CGT will not be used as an alibi for them.

Huma: Do the divisions of trade unionism not participate in the feeling that it is not at the service of employees in their diversity?

Philippe Martinez Indeed. All trade unions have a role to play in defending the interests of the world of work: this is how citizens reason. As soon as they feel that this is not the central concern of those organizations, we hear at the trffic circles: why can’t you agree? As long as this feeling persists, our credibility will be damaged.

Huma: The yellow vests do not raise the question of the struggle within the workplace, nor do they point to the Medef as their opponent. Is this an obstacle to achieving the junction with union struggles and strikes?

Philippe Martinez For the most part, demonstrators at the roundabouts do not work in large companies. They are unemployed, retired, employees of very small and medium-sized companies, even small employers and craftsmen, they are not the mass of our union members. Capital, the CAC 40, the shareholders, they do not run across those people in their daily lives. For them, the Medef, which is the symbol of the power of money, is a long way off. The CGT must therefore be more precise in designating those primarily responsible for the situation. Those happiest about the government’s measures is the Medef: it does not have to put its hand in its pocket. Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux (the president of the Medef - Editor’s note) also states that this social movement does not concern him, since the factories are not occupied and his offices are not attacked. It is the CGT’s job to remind people that there is money but that it is misdirected, because it goes to shareholders and not to employees. The activity bonus will be paid by everyone’s taxes, while those who hold the capital will receive even more money. CGT union members discuss at the traffic circles with yellow vests, to advance this debate. All employees in this country are subject to pressure from shareholders, whether working in a large or small company, and even in public services.

Huma: There will be no boost to the Smic but an increase in the activity bonus, which will not be paid to all employees who are paid the minimum wage. Is this a partial advance or a deception?

Philippe Martinez When you have nothing or little, 100 euros more is always a lot of money. But the measure remains a fraud because it is the taxpayers who will pay, not the wage increases due from the bosses. And then, this premium is unequal, since the reference to receive it is the household income. As men often earn more than women, a large proportion of them paid by the Smic will not be entitled to the 100 euros. This is outrageous! We called on the government to open a real negotiation on the increase in the minimum wage. Such an increase makes it possible to increase all salaries, not just the lowest. And, unlike the activity bonus, which does not generate any rights for pensions or social protection in general, wages produce social contributions that count towards labour remuneration. Instead, the government still considers that labour is a cost and that capital must be saved. Stupid gifts continue, such as the tax exemption for overtime. Do we believe that by making those who already have a job work more, it will enable those who do not have a job to find one?

Huma: The government has announced that it wants to maintain the reform package. What does the CGT envisage as a response for the beginning of 2019?

Philippe Martinez We feel we must put the cover back on the pot rapidly, by mobilizing, in the beginning of the new year, on essential questions, such as wages and fiscal justice. We are at the initiative of bringing these demands to the attention of as many trade unions and youth organisations as possible during a high point after the holidays, in forms that have yet to be defined.

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator

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