Fighting French workers show the way with strikes and multi-generational unity

April 6, hundreds of thousands returned to the streets of France for the eleventh round of protests against plans to raise the pension age. Photo: LaPresna Latina.
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Workers in France are deeply angry at the prospect of the theft of two years of their retirement pension. They are showing it through an extended strike wave and mass protests, some of which have attracted more than a million people. The resistance is immensely popular with two-thirds of French society supporting the current demonstrations.

President Emmanuel Macron, on behalf of the ruling class, is attempting to push through a pension overhaul that will progressively raise the official pension age from 62 to 64. The changes will also increase the contributions a worker must make to qualify for a full pension. This measure will more harshly impact women, especially those in low-paid and part-time jobs who will have to work longer for lower pensions.

Every French worker is entitled to a state-backed pension. This is funded by contributions from both workers and employers. In a familiar refrain, Macron claims change is necessary because, with workers living longer, the country “can’t afford” the current arrangements. French workers and their unions counter that the problem is the low rates of taxation on corporations and the rich, which could easily be increased to pay for pensions. That incendiary anger has so far led to eleven days of mass strikes, with more planned. Charles De Gaulle airport and the railway network have both been shut down, and the major highways blockaded.

French workers have a long and proud history of defending their pension system, believing that every worker has the right to a decent retirement. In 1995, three weeks of strikes forced the government to abandon plans to erode the scheme. In 2019, strikes and mass opposition defeated Macron’s first attempt to reduce entitlements.

The French working class are an inspiring role model for their Australian counterparts, demonstrating that walking off the job and taking to the streets is the way to win. Also crucial is the multi-generational nature of the resistance and that women are on the front line. Retirees and those still working are demonstrating that they will not accept the ageism and sexism that are an intrinsic part of capitalism. By refusing to be divided and fighting for pension rights for all — both now and into the future — they resist attempts to pit youth against seniors, and men against women.

Ageist to the core. The capitalist system is deeply ageist, treating those no longer able to work as having no value. As Marxist economist Ernest Mandel wrote, “What one finds in Marx is an idea of the absolute impoverishment not of the workers, the wage-earners, but of the section of the proletariat which the capitalist system throws out of the production process: old people, disabled persons, … the sick, etc.” There is an overlap in these categories as people in later life often become disabled or get sick.

We only have to look to contemporary Australian society to substantiate Mandel’s analysis with evidence that seniors are treated as disposable.

The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety concluded in 2020, titling its final report with just one word — Neglect. (See: “A working class answer to healing the broken aged care system,” Freedom Socialist Organiser, January 2021). Today, that neglect continues with the Covid pandemic — which is not over — continuing to disproportionately kill aged care residents. Much of the health system — even before the pandemic — was in crisis. The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), which relies on a market model where private profiteers sell services to people with disability, lacks planning, is slow and does not include all people with disability.

Australia is no different from the rest of the capitalist world, with economic commentators endlessly arguing that the economy can’t sustainably cope with an ageing population and the massive NDIS bill. This is in contrast to the colossal sums which magically appeared for the AUKUS nuclear submarine project and whenever billions of dollars are needed by the military industrial complex.

It need not be like this. Capitalism has been amazingly efficient at lifting productivity and massively expanding the means of production. The problem is that the benefits are going to less than one percent of the population, who are becoming obscenely rich. I was amazed to recently come across a state-of-the-art mobility scooter which was speedy, extremely lightweight and folded up so that it could be put in the overhead luggage department of an aeroplane. There is a great deal that this type of technology could achieve to aid people with disability or who are aged or frail.

I am somebody who has recently lost both parents. They spent the last years of their lives living in residential aged care. I saw for myself what the 30 major enquiries into aged care since 1997 have found — a predominantly profit-driven system in crisis that fails both its residents and workers. This reinforced my determination to fight for a social transformation from capitalism to socialism.

The AMWU Retired Members Division proudly leads the 2019 May Day March in Perth. Photo AMWU.

I am also a retired member of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) in Perth. As a retired trade unionist in the Third Age of life, there is a window of opportunity to take part in fighting back against the ageism, which is systemic to capitalism, by forming alliances with trade unionists who are still employed and have the industrial muscle to walk off the job. Retired workers have a role to play in the fight by organising in solidarity. The retired members division of the AMWU have a proud history of showing solidarity on picket lines and sharing lessons from our vast experience of the class struggle. On one occasion, when faced with a picket line being crossed, a retired unionist loudly exclaimed “it’s not really a picket line if it is being crossed!”

The Third Age ends in the Fourth Age, when medical intervention and nursing home care is required. Another key alliance for retired unionists to build is with aged care and healthcare workers. Care workers suffer from the stigmatism of dealing with non-productive workers, and are devalued and paid accordingly. Many care workers are women and people of colour and migrant workers. These workers are under-paid and over-worked. They suffer more than any other group in the entire workforce from back injuries because of the literally back-breaking work they do. If profit was not the major motive, there would be more spent to develop and introduce technologies that assist in lifting and making work easier.

The demands of care workers need to be incorporated into the demands that retired unionist fight for. The two groups have a common interest — improving the conditions for care workers is essential to improve the life of residents. The situation in residential aged care needs urgent change. But this will not come from adding a few more government quality audits. Nursing homes must be taken out of the profit sector and run by workers and residents.

Demands to unite the class. What makes the French pension fight so important is that they are fighting to retain a universal state-backed pension system for all — a system to emulate and improve. This is in contrast to Australia, where the majority are expected to self-fund their retirement through privatised superannuation, with a threadbare safety net for those who can’t. The collectivist approach that is the bedrock of the French system is what underpins the multi-generational unity. The working age population is contributing to the scheme with the clear expectation that they too will be able to have a dignified retirement at aged 62.

Inspired by the French fight, these demands are only the start of what workers everywhere deserve and should be fighting for.

• A guaranteed living wage for all workers from training through retirement. The age pension must be a right, not a privilege, and available to all who choose to retire from aged 55.

• Reject forced retirement. Fight age discrimination in the workforce. Access to jobs and training for those who want to keep working.

• Transform Medicare from a fee-for-service model into free, on demand, high quality nationalised healthcare under workers’ control. Provide free, state-of-the-art nursing home and in-home care under worker and resident control. Medicare workers including nurses, doctor and care workers to be directly employed, have quality working conditions and be well paid.

• Everyone deserves a home. Ensure a plentiful supply — build public housing suitable for all stages of life, including student residences, family homes and retirement dwellings.

• Guarantee complete access to public transport, communication services and all public buildings. Free on demand access to the best available technology, including mobility scooters, disability devices and home modifications.

• Nutritious food for all. Free lunches in schools, TAFEs and universities. Access to nutritious food in residential aged care or delivered to the door free for age pensioners and people with a disability.

Across the generations and amongst trade unionists — both those in the workforce and those who have retired — we need to fight for the rights of workers at every stage of life. This means taking up the fight for young workers who are at university and TAFE, in apprenticeships and in insecure work, right through to ensuring that as a society we meet the demands of older workers who have clocked off for last time.

While capitalism may be ready to throw class-conscious retirees on the scrapheap, retired unionists have plenty of fight in them. I am pleased to be amongst them!

Whatever your age, if you would like to work with Alan in Perth contact freedom.socialist.party@ozemail.com.au.

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