Yellow vests and labor come to a crossroad

January 14, 2019

Léon Crémieux, a member of the New Anticapitalist Party and activist in the Solidaires union federation, considers the current state of the uprising of the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) as the new year begins, in an article first published in English at International Viewpoint and slightly edited for publication here.

THE EMERGENCE of the “yellow vests” was first and foremost an expression of opposition to tax injustice, crystallized in the rejection of the new fuel tax, which everyone has since understood was intended only to finance the shortfall in the 2019 budget because of employer social security contribution exemptions.

The mobilization of the yellow vests is not an expression of marginality or social disintegration. On the contrary, the vast majority of people at the road blockades are wage workers — because behind the label of “middle class” applied to them, 60 percent of public and private employees earn less than 2,000 euros net per month. Single-parent families are particularly affected, and this is one of the reasons for the very high proportion of women among the yellow vests.

This is neither a single-issue movement, nor that of a particular group of employees in a region or profession. Tax increases have been the detonator across the country for those who live in the same areas and often share previous social ties. Social networks and media coverage through the major news channels did the rest.

Thousands of "yellow vests" demonstrate against the Macron government in Paris
Thousands of "yellow vests" demonstrate against the Macron government in Paris

While being a mobilization of workers, pensioners and exploited people, targeting the state and raising the question of the distribution of wealth, the protest was built totally outside the labor movement, its unions and political parties. It is a sign of the loss of credibility of this workers’ movement; of the consequences of social democratic management of austerity, which places the Socialist Party on the side of the bosses and not of workers; and of the trade union movement’s loss of effectiveness in defending the living conditions of workers. Though there are exceptions, few yellow vests are unionized, and many (like nearly half of all employees) work in small and medium-sized enterprises, where union density and the strength of collective action are very low.

The movement does have, in its background, the real weight of the extreme right-wing vote among wage workers. But beyond some small number of actual racist and homophobic acts, the targets that the yellow vests focused on as responsible for their situation are neither immigrants nor civil servants, which are the scapegoats pushed by the extreme right.

This movement has focused on what unifies it — the rejection of tax injustice — and dismisses what divides it, particularly racism. Even the right’s campaign in recent weeks against the global agreement around migration known as the Marrakech Pact has not caught on within the movements.

Still, to highlight its social demands, the movement challenges the state and avoids confrontation with employers in general, even considering very small enterprises as victims of big companies.

The movement has certainly not succeeded, beyond the very broad sympathy it has received, in bringing together the working classes of the suburbs and urban centers around it into action. Nevertheless, it has changed the balance of forces.

Macron thought that with his victory over railway workers, there would be no more obstacles to the implementation of his ultraliberal agenda. This is no longer the case. The employers quickly put aside their attack against the payment of overtime for truck drivers. Similarly, the climate of sympathy for social demands enabled the employees of the Hyatt luxury hotel to win some of their demands.[1]

But at the same time, the vast majority of the trade union movement didn’t want to march alongside the yellow vests and push the advantage — not only to put forward their demands, but above all to build support to achieve general demands about wages or abolition of the CICE tax credit for corporations. However, united action over wages and forcing Macron to bend on his policies that serve the capitalists is still on the agenda through the first weeks of January.

If conditions are still present, with the extension of the actions of the yellow vests, a convergence of the movement and labor can only come from below. This has begun to happen in many demonstrations in different cities, and in the involvement of social movement activists among the yellow vests.

The proclaimed apolitical character of the yellow vests expresses the rejection of the political mechanisms of the system. This movement is the product of decades of governments breaking every means by which the state has maintained a certain social consensus. Thus, respect for government institutions and politicians has plummeted. The open crisis of social democracy and the election of Macron himself are consequences of this process.

The first expression of this rejection is the refusal of the yellow vests to specify representatives or a delegation to represent it. This has not, however, prevented the beginning of structures to organize actions and demands in recent weeks. Obviously, the action and words of the yellow vests are directly political, but they cannot yet be absorbed into institutional frameworks.

Nevertheless, the emphasis on the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC) testifies to the illusions in the possibility of influencing institutional mechanisms with a few well-placed blows. The experience of the European Constitutional Treaty proves the contrary. On the other hand, the present demand for democracy may lead to other developments if the movement is maintained in the form of local popular assemblies leading to militant action to fight for solutions that meet social needs.

This democratic aspiration, even if it doesn’t find an outlet, will not be resolved by the yellow vests being co-opted, regardless of the desire of individual leaders to advance themselves personally.

Like social questions, political issues are open at this stage of the movement. If it were to recede at the beginning of this year, not only would it be more difficult for other connected mobilizations to develop in different areas, but the only outlet for politics would once again become the electoral system — either in negative terms through abstention or through a contest between France Insoumise and the National Front, from which the latter would benefit.

See Archy news nety, 23 December 2018 “Victory for the maids of the Hyatt Paris Vendôme.”

First published in International Viewpoint.

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