By Philipp Chmel, member of our sister organisation in Belgium, Left Socialist Party
In France, workers organized with the CGT union at TotalEnergies and Exxon Mobil are striking for a 10% wage increase — “7% for inflation and 3% as profit share” — to cope with the brutal cost-of-living crisis.
The two corporations on the other hand are racking in record profits. The second quarter net income of TotalEnergies has more than doubled from $2.20bn (Q2 2021) to $5.7bn (Q2 2022) and Exxon Mobil even reported its biggest quarterly profit ever recorded in the company’s history. It almost quadrupled its second-quarter net income from $4.69 billion (Q2 2021) to $17.9 billion (Q2 2022). In fact, exactly on the day after the strike actions had started, TotalEnergies announced it will pay €2.6 billion in dividends to their shareholders, making crystal clear with whom they are willing to share their profits — spoiler alert: the workers who created the wealth through their labor are not the lucky ones.
The workers have been striking for over two weeks, using their collective power to shut down and blockade six out of seven of the countries’ refineries, as the corporations refuse to meet the workers’ demands. The resulting fuel shortage could be felt in the whole of France this week. Nearly one in three fuel stations nationwide ran short of at least one product on Tuesday October 11, leading to rationing in some regions including the Alpes-Maritime, Var and Vaucluse departments in the south. In ten regions school buses were out of fuel, hour-long queues formed at French gas stations, police have started to monitor peoples’ fuel tanks before allowing them to refuel, and there are videos circulating that show police pushing their cars after running out of fuel.
The thieves and their helpers try to frame the robbed
When the fuel shortages started to be felt, the government ramped up their blame game against workers. French Budget Minister Gabriel Attal told FranceInter radio “The heart of this problem is the blocking of refineries and fuel depots by the CGT […]. It [has been] a nightmare weekend for millions of motorists.” And French President Macron said “Blockage is not a way of negotiating. Salary negotiations are legitimate […], but they have to find an issue so that, somehow, our compatriots are not their victims.”
This attempt to put the blame on workers who dare to struggle for a better life follows the same perfidious “logic” as the fairy tale of the “wage-price spiral”. Let’s be clear: It is the hunt for profit maximization that is further driving up inflation, not workers’ demanding wage rises in line with inflation to be able to pay their energy bills, rent and put food on the table.
With their determination to relentlessly squeeze the workers for profits the energy corporations are also the ones responsible for the severe fuel shortages in France.
It is the corporations that are taking the whole working class in France hostage. In blaming the striking workers, they try to divide the working class, undermine support and thereby break the strikes.
Workers fight back against the blackmail and coercion from the ruling class
However, it seems like neither the French government nor the corporations expected such a courageous determination to fight back from the side of the workers and the CGT.
On Sunday, October 9, TotalEnergies announced that they would be ready to move forward the wage negotiations from November to October if the blockades were ended. The CGT correctly rebuffed this outrageous attempt of blackmail and a union official at TotalEnergies’ Feyzin refinery made clear “this only encourages the striking workers, who are more united than ever.”
Once fuel rationing became necessary in some regions on Tuesday, the government tried to regain control and announced that it would force striking workers back to work via staff requisition orders. If notified workers don’t comply with the order, “they could face up to six months in prison and a 10,000-euro ($9,700) fine”. This constitutes a straight out attack on the workers’ democratic right to strike. A CGT delegate at ExxonMobil said: “The government wants to force us to come to work, we’re going to fight against that, it’s clearly an infringement of the right to strike. We’re being directly attacked on our right to strike.”
On Wednesday, workers at Esso’s (Exxon Mobil) Gravenchon-Port Jerome depot had been ordered back to work. On Thursday the staff requisition was expanded to the TotalEnergies’ storage depot in Dunkirk with police present to enforce the government’s strike-breaking policies.
The union made clear that it will challenge the requisition order in court, a case they are likely to win as they did the last time in 2010. Back then, a court suspended then-Prime Minister Francois Fillon’s government’s requisition orders to force refinery workers back to work.
However, there can be no trust or illusions in the courts, which are part of the capitalist state. The undemocratic decision of the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade brutally showed that we need to create a balance of forces on the streets and in the workplaces to win. It is therefore correct that, calling the government’s plans “violent”, the CGT union “suspended all ongoing negotiations with government and employers on a national level and across business sectors — and announced additional strikes at Total’s Donges refinery”.
We also fully support the call of the national federation of mines and energy (FNME-CGT) to extend the industrial action to the entire energy sector. According to FNME representatives, the call was answered with solidarity. Strikes were reported from an Engie gas storage facility, workers at EDF’s nuclear plants resumed strike action and a solidarity message was sent to strikers at TotalEnergies and Exxon.
The fightback is effective
The combative approach of the workers and the CGT union showed its first results on Thursday. To stop the developing blame game among government ministers and avert damage, the government slightly shifted its rhetoric. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called on TotalEnergies to raise wages in order to end the strikes. On RTL radio he said that the company had “come late” to start discussions with unions and in light of the huge profits, TotalEnergies had “the capacity… and therefore an obligation” to increase wages, adding “this conflict is not the government’s fault”. TotalEnergies also had to back-off from their blackmail attempt. For Thursday evening they invited representatives from all trade unions to collective wage negotiations without preconditions.
However, the wage offers presented were still insufficient and the CGT union rightly rejected them. They answered by announcing on the same evening that they would generalize the strike movement by turning the demonstration of rail workers planned for October 18 into ”an interprofessional, national movement for salaries and against the requisitions”.
On Friday 14 October, the strike was lifted in the two refineries of the Esso-ExxonMobil group. The CFDT and CFE-CGC unions, which together have a majority, signed an agreement with TotalEnergies for a wage increase. The increase announced by the company is 7%, but this figure includes seniority bonuses and individual increases; it is actually 5%. Under pressure from the strike, management has tried to give a few crumbs in order to soften up — with success — the leaders of the less combative unions. By accepting this bad deal, the CFDT and CFE-CGC unions are not only signing a de-facto loss in purchasing power for their members, they also turn their back on a united front of the working class. This poor approach has to be called out.
The CGT, FO, Solidaires and FSU unions on the other hand have called for a continuation of the strike based on the demand for a 10% increase and to mobilize other sectors for a national strike day across sectors on Tuesday, October 18. We fully support this step and call for united assemblies of workers from different sectors to discuss an action plan on how to continue the movement. Organized democratic discussions among the rank and file are a crucial tool in building a combative movement that can withstand corporate fear mongering and smear. They are also the best insurance against betrayals from the top. In fact, the CGT leadership themselves had no intention to move towards a generalized strike movement. Instead, the growing anger among the rank and file that began the strike actions is also what is now pushing the union leaderships to go further than they had initially intended.
Launching a major struggle against Macron’s programme and the far-right
Just a few weeks ago, the type of dynamic strike movement that has been developing over the last 1–2 weeks seemed far off. In September, Macron and his government started talking more about using the infamous article 49.3. This allows the executive to push through a text of law without a vote in parliament — to force through their unpopular pension reform. While this is a sign of a weak government that needs to resort to administrative measures to push through their attacks, such an arrogant approach was also encouraged by the flagrant passivity of the union leadership.
Two days of national strikes had been called for the end of September by the CGT and the Solidaires unions, but although they were not complete failures, they were far from what would be necessary to wage a battle to win. These strike days had only been organized reluctantly in response to the calls of Mélenchon and the France Insoumise who were pushing for a social movement in September. Philippe Martinez of the CGT had already shown in June his unwillingness to build a generalized movement: “Social mobilizations are the responsibility of the trade unions”, he replied to Mélenchon’s calls. He had also tried, without success, to mobilize trade union forces for the “March against the high cost of living and climate inaction” of October 16, which gathered more than 100,000 people in Paris.
It is not the first time that militant strongholds push union leaderships in the direction of struggle and pull other sectors in their wake. If it becomes more widespread and seriously organized, this strike movement could lead to significant wage increases for millions of people in France. It could also play a major role in organizing the struggle against Macron’s pension reform. Such a movement could raise the necessary demand for the nationalization of the entire energy and financial sectors under democratic control of workers and society. Only then can the working class, youth and oppressed democratically decide what is being produced and how that is distributed. Nationalization under democratic control — different from the transfer of public wealth to the private sector as was done by the government by ‘nationalizing’ the remaining privately owned participation in EDF — is also a prerequisite to avoid capital flight, to ensure that the working class has an overview of all financial flows and that the available resources and the produced wealth are invested in what is socially necessary such as green and affordable energy.
Building for a broader international fightback
According to media reports, “Belgian and Polish unions have shown their support to the French strikes” and in the British energy sector, offshore drilling workers plan to take strike action starting October 20. If internationally coordinated, the developing strike movement in France could — together with the “Enough is Enough” campaign and strike movement in Britain, the dynamic around the general strike in Belgium and strikes in other countries — serve as a launchpad for a broader international fight against the ruling class and their rotten system.
Also the international climate movement and young people can play an important role in broadening and internationalizing the struggle. Indeed, the CGT union themselves have opened the door by stating in September: “No social justice without climate justice” This is the time to show support to the striking workers in action. While until now, the group “Youth for Climate France” has not taken up the topic, there is a lot of potential.
On the weekend of October 8–9, climate activists blocked TotalEnergies infrastructure in Belgium under the banner of “Code Rouge/Rood”. Very importantly, they recorded a video message to express their solidarity with the striking workers in France: “In Nantes workers have been on a strike for 11 days already. Their demand is clear: “we want social justice!”, Specifically a wage increase. But instead of respecting their demands, Total plans to hand out 15 billion euro’s to the shareholders. This is an insult to all workers in the world” (link to video). Another great possibility to express solidarity with workers is to organize visits to picket lines, for example during the general strike in Belgium on November 9. At the demonstration on Sunday, it was clear for most activists that the climate crisis and the cost of living and energy crisis are not only linked, but that we also need to build a united front with the workers and trade union movement to fight against the common cause of the multiple crisis, the capitalist system. The demand for the nationalization of the entire energy sector under democratic control found strong support. Many activists instinctively understood that this would allow the working class to use the enormous profits to bring down prices, increase wages and pay for the necessary investments in green energy and a Just Transition of the fossil fuel companies. Such a transition would need to include re-schooling offers for workers in the industry, coupled with a job guarantee and the security that their wages in the new sectors will be at least on the same level.
Starting with the interprofessional strike on October 18, we need to build a movement capable of expropriating the energy capitalists and climate killers. For a united front of the organized working class, the climate, the feminist and other social movements that can lay the basis for the overthrow of the capitalist system and its replacement by a democratic socialist society organized to serve the needs of people and the planet.