migrant workers’ strike in france

by Antoine Boulangé

6,000 undocumented migrant workers, on strike since 12th October 2009, are bravely continuing their unprecedented struggle against the government in spite of very difficult circumstances.

Their determination is exemplary, faced with a government on the assault – propagating racism and Islamophobia – and a right-wing adding to their list of racist and ‘pro-security’ provocations such as the law against the burqa, the denial of asylum rights to 123 Kurds arrested in Corsica, and racist statements by the ministers for immigration and families.

The government is even more intransigent than in the 2008 dispute. At that time, with a movement a tenth the size, almost 3,000 workers’ immigration status was regularised. Today the situation is more difficult. The 24th November parliamentary bill excluded most striking workers, given its very restrictive criteria. The minister suggests perhaps 500 or 1,000 regularisations, although there are 6,000 undocumented workers on strike and a total of 400,000 working in France.

Striking undocumented workers continue to reject a case-by-case solution. Today they are fighting for the regularisation of all 6,000 strikers, together, via legal promises of employment given by each enterprise and collectively deposited with the ministry of work, not via each individual police prefecture.

The government is betting on the movement wearing out. Union representatives continue waiting for a meeting with the minister of work. In spite of their courage, the strikers are suffering weariness and exhaustion. Judicial repression and police harassment have seen the eviction of the largest pickets at employment agencies and chambers of commerce.

After almost four months of strike action, finances have become decisive. The pickets need money, coal (given the cold) and food. Workers have been forced to find other work to survive. The strike is supported by the CGT, Solidaires and CNT trade unions, various political associations – such as the RESF (Education Without Borders Network) and the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme – and dozens of committees. The movement has to consider the way forward: so far, although many have signed their support, organisational support has remained limited and local.

The CGT union leadership’s strategy has always sought to limit the struggle to the issue of work, even though it is clear that the undocumented workers’ strike is in full-frontal opposition to the government’s policies on national identity. This limitation has prevented the widening of the movement. The CGT has only sought to mobilise its members on this question at a token level.

While many undocumented workers are employed by subcontractors of large firms like Bouygues or Veolia, there has not been any attempt to mobilise the ‘legal’ employees of these enterprises. These too, however, are workers subject to the race to the bottom typified by the fierce exploitation of undocumented workers. The appeal for financial help has been little-advertised, only collecting 30,000 euros nationally – five euros per striking worker. Only three and a half months into the movement did the CGT organise solidarity committees in the Paris region.

However, there is a way forward. In spite of almost blanket media silence, the government has not managed to win the battle of public opinion, as recent polls have shown.

At KFC in Les Halles there has been a joint strike of undocumented and French workers, seeking regularisation, higher wages and better conditions for all. But this is just one embryonic example.

More than ever, we need a wide anti-racist movement of French and immigrant workers, trade unions associations and left parties. This is what the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste has tried to promote, launching an appeal for left parties to give active solidarity to the strike: however this has not materialised as real mobilisation, since these other parties separate their electoral campaigns from social struggles.

But all is not lost: quite the contrary. Even if the situation of the striking workers is difficult, with the risk of the strike crumbling workplace-by-workplace, this struggle in itself represents a success in the battle for public opinion. We must continue the struggle for the regularisation of all striking workers, which would mean defeat for the government.