Update: Over 1 million people marched in France in support of strikes objecting to raising the pension age.
Vive la liberté! A French union threatened to cut off electricity to lawmakers and billionaires before a strike on Thursday.
This story about a strike in France is relevant to American politics because a secure working class is the best antidote to encroaching fascism, and nothing has solidified security for workers better than unions.
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It’s particularly relevant right now, as MAGA Republicans threaten to stop paying our nation’s bills if they aren’t allowed to cut social safety nets for working people. Instead of reacting to Republican hypocrisy and grift for the top 1% as if shame would stop them, it’s time to give them something to react to by demanding fairness.
The People can do this, if they stand together.
Today is the “first day of mobilization” in France as Unions are protesting French President Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to raise the retirement age in France from 62 to 64.
Retiring at age 62 with a pension probably sounds pretty great to most Americans. But this story is about how we get what we settle for and we settle for what we are conditioned to accept.
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This strike is being posed as a test of weakening support for unions who have struggled in France, much like here, to convince workers to strike.
"I suggest they also go see the nice properties, the nice castles of billionaires," Philippe Martinez, leader of France's second-largest trade union, is reported to have said on Wednesday according to Reuters.
Indeed, workers did strike and march today across the country. They halted trains and cut electricity in protest to Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age to 64:
The stoppages are a major test for President Emmanuel Macron, who said on Thursday that his pension reform plan, which opinion polls show is hugely unpopular, was "just and responsible" and had to be carried out.
"It's salaries and pensions that must be increased, not the retirement age," read one large banner carried by workers that opened the protest march in Tours, in western France.
The strike “led to a substantial fall in electricity output and halted deliveries from refineries” on Thursday. In fact, the rate of striking workers that are a part of the Electric and Gas Industries union exceeded 50% by midday, a spokesperson for the union told Reuters.
This is also a story about working people battling entrenched propaganda that is directly against their best interests and does more to mislead than to inform. Much as it is here, this hit to workers is being called “pension reform.” And the problem starts right there.
Reform is defined as, “make changes in (something, typically a social, political, or economic institution or practice) in order to improve it.”
It’s not reform. It’s not going to “improve” the pension plan for workers. It’s theft from working people. It’s an attack on security. It’s not reform.
The BBC explained how the French system works:
Under the French system, very few people have personal pension plans linked to capital investments.
Instead, the pensions of those who are retired are paid from the same common fund into which those in work are contributing every month. Workers know they will benefit from the same treatment when they retire.
All the country's unions - including so-called "reformist" unions that the government had hoped to win to its side - have condemned the measure, as have the left-wing and far-right oppositions in the National Assembly.
Macron will likely get support from right-leaning factions.
Let’s ask ourselves about all of the propaganda we’ve been told about our Social Security, is anyone else doing better? It turns out we aren’t even in the top ten. Of the top countries with the best pensions in 2022, the U.S. is not on the list and neither is France:
10. U.K: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
So workers in France are already at a disadvantage compared to many other countries. The United States ranked 20th on the list. It had an overall grade of C+ and a score of 63.9.
Want to guess how Iceland pays for that top rating? It’s doing what the unions suggested the French government do, which is to say the programs are income-related. “(T)he amount can decrease if you have other income and be canceled entirely if your income exceeds a certain amount.”
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Unions are basically collective bargaining, which is a way of gathering enough power to take a stand against the powers setting the working conditions to secure higher wages and better benefits.
The arguments against unions read like our entire culture, simping for billionaires. This is the editor’s guild’s take on the against arguments, which is obviously coming from a union but cuts through the dishonestly too well to dismiss: “The anti-union arguments management makes tend to cluster around three major themes: (1) employees should trust management to do what's best for everyone, without management having to formally negotiate with employees; (2) the union can't be trusted; and (3) sticking with the status quo is better than the uncertainty ...”
In the U.S., while the Republican Party stands most defiantly against unions – including rejecting thousands of good paying jobs for their residents, like Virginia’s Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin just got busted for doing by reportedly halting a Ford plant in Virginia according to sources – our entire culture is anti-union, anti-worker, and pro-big corporation, pro-billionaire.
By the way, that plant in Virginia “location is in Pittsylvania County, near Danville, and is one of the poorest areas of Virginia. The $3.5 billion plant would have created an estimated 2,500 jobs in Southside Virginia, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Danville Register & Bee reported Monday.”
And who can forget in 2014 when South Carolina’s then Governor Republican Nikki Haley announced that Detroit’s Big Three automakers should look elsewhere because “she discourages companies from building new facilities in South Carolina if they are planning to bring a union with them.”
Even her Democratic opponent at the time couldn’t muster up full-throated support for unions, saying he thought the state should “remain a right-to-work state where workers are free to decide whether to join unions or not.”
Right to work states do not in effect offer choices as their main function.
Nurses are on strike right now in Britain as they struggle to pay their own bills and ambulance workers are planning to go on strike. “The NHS faces prospect of biggest walkout in its history” the headlines tell us. Exhausted and struggling to pay bills, British nurses go on strike.
They’re being maligned with the same kind of anti-worker propaganda we get here:
‘Striking workers are being greedy and their demands are unaffordable’
“Where is [Rishi Sunak’s] big effort to mobilise the country against these greedy union extremists?” – Douglas Murray, the Sun, 8 December
“Inflation-matching or inflation-busting pay rises are unaffordable … There simply isn’t the money.” Transport secretary, Mark Harper, Sky News, 27 November
Notice how none of these arguments take the issues and complaints and even crisis level emergency facing the healthcare system into account? They all place the burden right back on the workers. In this case, it’s nurses who after nearly three years of a global pandemic, are also struggling to make their own rent. That’s not acceptable.
The headlines against the nurses in Britain tell us a lot about why we are here in the United States are at a place where the Republican-led House seeks to “reform” what they call “entitlements” of working people so they can give more welfare to the top 1%.
Republicans here want to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare, even as they bleat on about inflation. Where is the worker in their scenario? How do they expect people to live with cuts to retirement benefits, when people can’t afford to buy food right now let alone pay their rent or mortgage with Social Security and even with supplemental work. People are struggling to pay for groceries and Republicans want to cut their Social Security.
When workers engage in industrial action, it’s exceptionally threatening to the ruling class. And the ruling class now gets most of the coverage in terms of point of view in news, especially on cable news. Economic issues are covered as impacting Wall Street or elections, but rarely do we center the working family that can’t make ends meet.
Our media sides automatically with the powerful against the people way too often, we saw this when the media repeatedly attacked rape victims and peaceful protesters during Brett Kavanaugh’s phony “confirmation hearing.”
There are ways to tell a story as a journalist. We pick a “side” even when this is denied. In fact, I would posit it’s even worse when it’s denied, because the point of view of “objectivity” is too often the point of view of the most powerful people. Of the establishment. (This is also why you hear so little criticism of the democracy-killing actions of power couple Clarence and Ginni Thomas.)
We have to change our own point of view about our own place in this dynamic. We have power when we show up.
If you tell the story about the power outages from industrial action from the point of view of the people impacted in the short term, that’s a choice. If you label workers as greedy without even asking to hear about their lived experiences, without even understanding the financial despair many people are facing right now, that’s a choice. If you refuse to even address, let alone center, the valid concerns of workers who are striking, that’s a choice.
This is a story about working people standing up to power. The courage to make that stand involves rejecting media and government attempts to guilt them out of striking.
It remains to be seen if France’s unions will summon the will from the members to continue striking, but workers might want to notice their efforts. There is great power in the people, and that is why the ruling class works so hard to brainwash people against their own best interests.
In the middle of economic strife and inflation, asking workers to take yet another hit instead of coming up with a fair and creative way to truly support workers is not only unsustainable but will eventually lead to instability for the entire country. It’s possible to provide a decent pension, as the top ten countries listed above prove. It’s simply a matter of will.
Do we have this kind of patriotism here? Could we even imagine rousing generations of workers who’ve been brought up to worship billionaires and corporations? We must summon the will to seek and embolden the power of solidarity inherent in unions.
This episode is dedicated to my beloved grandfather, who was a staunch union leader.