The strikes of the sans-papiers

May 14, 2008

Megan Behrent reports on the spreading strike movement of "sans-papiers" demanding legalization.

A GROWING movement of immigrant workers in France is challenging Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-wing president who came to power last year on a venomous anti-immigrant platform.

Since mid-April, France has seen a growing movement of "sans-papiers," or workers without papers, who are striking and occupying workplaces to demand full legalization. The movement is supported by the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), France's largest union federation, which filed a request on April 25 for legalization of 900 restaurant employees, construction workers and cleaners.

Initial estimates placed the number of striking workers at about 500, but the movement has grown steadily. The CGT has received requests from hundreds of undocumented workers who want to join the initiative, and the strike movement continues to spread as news of the struggle inspires others among the several hundred thousand undocumented workers currently working in France. These workers pay taxes, but receive no benefits and have few rights.

A wave of workplace occupations by undocumented workers is putting pressure on the French government

One CGT representative said 250 workers a day were coming to the union for advice on how to participate in the movement. As the CGT's Caroline Aubry told the International Herald Tribune, "Since the beginning of the strike, we have received numerous calls from employees who say, 'Me too, I work for such-and-such company, and I want my papers.'"

In a testament to the growing anger and raised expectations of the "sans-papiers," more than 300 undocumented workers occupied the Bourse du Travail, the CGT's union building in central Paris on May 2. By early the following week, the occupation had grown to include over 500, and had been visited by many people who came in solidarity with the struggle for equal rights for undocumented workers.

Organized by the "Coordination 75," a coalition of Paris collectives of undocumented workers, the protesters began the occupation after their own request for legalization for over 1,000 undocumented workers was denied by authorities, using the divisive argument that they should coordinate with the CGT to have their demands heard.

Insisting "we cannot wait any longer," the protesters are occupying the CGT building to demand that the federation put its weight behind their demands for legalization and expand the initiative to include a larger number of undocumented workers.

The growing movement has put pressure on the government as workers use their labor power to demonstrate the crucial role that immigrant workers play in French society and the economy. In a much-publicized April 24 speech, Sarkozy insisted on defending his draconian policies of annual deportation targets, which has led to increased deportations since he took office.

But the strikers aren't phased by these threats. As one worker at the Café La Jatte, one of the first high-profile restaurants to be occupied by "sans-papiers," told the International Herald Tribune, "We're not going to budge until the problem is fixed...The days of paying for benefits we don't receive are over."

The government has already buckled to the pressure, and a small number of striking workers have been granted legal working papers. At the Café La Jatte, where 10 workers occupied the restaurant, all 10 have already gotten temporary working permits.

"This has changed our lives," Abdouramane Sarr, a striking worker at the restaurant told the Herald Tribune. Meanwhile, Libération newspaper reported that the movement had gained small but important victories, with at least 15 striking workers given working permits last week.

Far from quelling the growing militancy of the struggle, this has only given the movement confidence. Last week, the occupations spread to job-placement companies near Paris, and a march of undocumented workers from Lille arrived in Paris, timed to coincide with a commemoration of the abolition of slavery.

The strike movement of undocumented workers in France is an inspiring struggle that is just beginning. At a time when there is a growing sentiment for immigrant rights, these strikes and occupation are pointing a way forward for workers internationally--in the struggle for a world where "no human being is illegal."

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