This interview was originally published by Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes as Faire grève sans caisse de grève, c’est comme faire du camping sans avoir de tente. It has been translated by Joe Hayns, Pearl Ahrens, and Roberto Mozzachiodi. In the light of a recent wave of unofficial strikes in the UK postal system, it’s hoped that the French experience can offer some perspective on the possibilities and challenges facing workers in different contexts.

PEMPlateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes

GGaël Quirante

XXavier Chiarelli

BBrahim Ibrahimi

PEMHow did your struggle start? And what have been the major developments since last spring?

BThe thing that kicked off the strike was the authorisation, given on the 24 March 2018 by Muriel Pénicaud, the Minister of Labour, for the firing of Gaël, who’s the secretary of Sud Poste 92. From Monday 26 March, 150 postal workers from the 92 section were on strike. On the evening of the 26th, 500 people gathered outside the Ministry of Labour, with representatives of numerous political and union groups there, including Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Insoumise.

From January to March 2018, as the threat of Gaël’s firing increased, we threatened, in turn, a big campaign in his defence. We received the support of a great number of personalities from the workers’ and social movements, like Elie Domota from the Union Générale des Travailleurs (UGT) and the Liyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon (LKP), both from Guadeloupe, deputies from the Parti Communiste Français and France Insoumise, and from members of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) leadership. The bonds of solidarity created through the various struggles we’ve conducted since 2009 are part of the explanation of the scale and the duration of the strike.

How to explain 150 people going on strike to defend a union representative, and our still being on strike nine months later? Our union is special (a une particularité): during the strike, in our department, we got nearly the highest number of votes in the professional elections, of all the organisations and departments defending a radical orientation, explicitly putting into question the leadership of the employer. We’re very radical and, at the same time, the large majority.

Gaël is the object of incredible obstinacy: the attempt to fire him began in 2010. His firing has been ruled against through numerous appeals in the courts, by the labour inspector, who described it as a situation of “discrimination syndicale”, and even by Xavier Bertrand, Sarkozy’s Minister of Labour. The postal service has systematically appealed and, after eight years, won the case in March, thanks to Pénicaud.

The service is today one of the most repressive enterprises in the country: the simple act of speaking out amongst one’s colleagues is reprimanded, and strongly. Since 2010, in the Paris region, the postal service has inflicted 14 years’ worth of layoffs on union representatives. Olivier Rosay, a Sud militant, has alone copped seven years’ worth.

GThe strike has gone through the union’s Assemblée Générale, and from the second day of the struggle, all the demands concerning working conditions were put on the table by the strikers.

The strike came to have to two objectives: getting my reinstatement, and opposing the reorganisations which increase the burden of work, and which cut what had been strong links between workers. With the instituting of the “midday pause”, there was nearly a doubling of the work day, and a tripling of the workload, through distributing packages and advertising, as well as the post. The result: more hours for you, more hours for everyone. The everyday contact with the users will disappear through lack of time, under the pressure of accelerated timetables, except when this contact is a money-maker. The service “Watch My Parents” is emblematic of this - someone pays la Poste (the French postal service) however many Euros a month gets one visit from a postal worker, timed at six minutes, for an aged person in their family.

The question of precarity is also essential: hiring through a Contract Duration Indeterminée (CDI), a permanent contract, especially for temporary workers, constitutes one of the key objectives of the strike. In order to deal with the postal delays that have built up since the start of the strike, 40 temporary workers have been hired on CDIs: an achievement we’re proud of.

X150 strikers: it’s both a lot, and not so many. It’s triple the average number of strikers that have been involved in conflicts over the last few years with la Poste. It involves 20% of the workers in the department, and effects lots of postal centres, when the vast majority of the conflicts at la Poste effect only one establishment. The strike is mostly in Boulogne-Billancourt, Levallois, Asnières, Gennevilliers and Neuilly.

The cheminots‘ and students’ national strike between April and June opened a situation in which a large-scale confrontation with the Macron government became possible. It’s also the moment that three extended strikes are taking place, in the 13, 33, and 35 sections, strikes that are animated by militants at Sud’s fédération des activités postales et des télécommunications (PTT; the federation-level organisation), with a similar orientation to ours.

With the end of the cheminots’ and the other postal strikes at the beginning of the summer, we found ourselves isolated. At that point, management was still holding a window for negotiation ajar; in July, it closed the shutters. We made the choice at our general assembly to hold off over the high summer, and then try to roll out the strike at the start of the school year and, if possible, renew the links with the other sectors. And, this is what we did.

PEMYour strike has already lasted eight months, and involves 150 workers, only in the 92: what have you done to keep your struggle going for so long? How have you gotten the money needed to support the strike? And how do you relate with the law?

XIn our strike, we’ve got a habit of saying “striking without a strike fund is like camping without a tent”. Put simply, when you’re organising workers on €1300 a month, continuously collecting money is vital - but during this strike, la Poste has, from the first month, put everyone’s pay to €0. To be able to hold out, we organise collections at protests, we make contact - by telephone, mailouts, Facebook - with hundreds of unions, political groups, associations, all to solicit donations. It’s something that’s done by the strikers themselves, not only by the union militants. Without this active participation, it would be impossible to keep all the strikers going.

A clarification here: we are ourselves striking, such that we can as union full-timers. We give back our salaries to the strike fund, which is then distributed equally amongst all the strikers. Like this, we live the same thing as the striking workers, participating in actions, as decided on by the union’s general assembly.

GRegarding the question of the use of the law and the right to strike and, more broadly, our relationship to institutional and legal work: before we do anything, we don’t ask ourselves “do we have the right to do this?” We try to “force destiny”, and claim the right in advance.

The issue of my dismissal is a good example. It is true to say that we had been preparing for this opportunity for several years. Our union decided several months before the strike to prepare to maintain my involvement in the postal centers, even if I was fired. We began to put forward a simple idea to our co-workers: it is not up to the boss to decide who has the right to represent the workers. And so, even if I was fired, I must be able to continue to carry on my activism. We decided to maintain my involvement at all costs. I can tell you that when we explained this, not many people got on board in the militant circles, not even people close to us. And yet, the strike has achieved an absolutely essential gain: since I was fired La Poste has pursued me legally, to try to deny me access to the postal centers. On two occasions, the court have rejected la Poste’s case, finding that from the moment my union organisation entrusted me with the mandate of a union delegate1, I was subject to the same rules and rights as a union representative belonging to la Poste. If this case is legally recognised, this will be a strong point of reference for activists in other companies: what is the advantage for a boss to dismiss an employee who is a union representative, if she can continue to intervene in the company? In a sense, my re-integration is a half-victory: I’m still part of the company - as a union representative.

BLa Poste rules do directly contravene labour law, due to the special status of the company: it is a private company but owned, for the moment, mainly by the state, and still partially governed by the rules of the civil service, where the loi travail does not apply. But the adoption of Macron’s changes to labour law last year gave confidence to la Poste management to launch its new offensive, which is exactly what we are fighting in this strike, namely the “réorganisations innovantes”, which demand that postal workers not only distribute the mail but also parcels, and carry out the “new services” which have nothing to do with their role.

The only part of Macron’s changes that apply directly to la Poste involves the reduction of the rights of the comité d’hygiène, de sécurité et des conditions de travail (CHSCT)2: it is now more difficult than before to institutionally block changes implemented by employers through them.

PEMYou have also established links with other postal workers involved in their own struggle and, more generally, with workers in other sectors who fight to improve their working conditions. Why does it seem so important to you?

BIn March and April, significant strikes across four departments affected la Poste simultaneously: Bouches-du-Rhône, in the Marseille region; Gironde, in the Bordeaux region; Ille-et-Vilaine, in the Rennes region; and the 92. It was comrades from the Sud who led all these conflicts, with the same determination to hold strikes, challenging the view that rupture comes from the centre. We have of course established links between us, organised several conference calls, and participated in each other’s rallies. But, one of our limitations is that we have not managed to move beyond striking independently of each other; nor have we managed to move towards a generalisation of the strike beyond these 4 departments.

GSince the beginning of our strike, we have systematically sought to establish links with other sectors in the world of work: railway workers, Goodyear workers, logistics employees, CGT comrades at the SNCF subsidiary Geodis Calberson, in retail, comrades at Monoprix and New Look, at PSA, in the car industry. We’re still pushing ourselves with all our strength to participate in joint actions with other sectors, dedicating all of our energy as strikers, and not just leaving it to the union delegates. For us the convergence of the struggles isn’t just a feel-good thing - it’s essential in the balance of forces.

To give an example, we conducted another long strike in 2014 - it lasted 174 days - against precariousness and restructuring. On that occasion we established a strong alliance with the mobilisation of intermittent performers and precarious workers3. We were invited to a negotiation hearing on the status of intermittent performers and unemployed people with the Direction Générale du Travail: imagine the faces high-level representatives of the state when the trade union representatives of the intermittent performers explained to them that striking postal workers were attending the meeting!

Intermittents and precarious workers then played a decisive role in turning the 2014 conflict into a victory, when they decided in July 2014 to block the Plateforme Colis de Gennevilliers - a strategic chokepoint for la Poste - on behalf of the strikers. A few days later, the end-of-conflict protocol was signed. It was through such experiences that we and our comrades saw that the joint action of workers across many sectors directly influences the kind of balance of power that you are able to impose in your own workplaces and, obviously, the impact that you can have as a sector on the more general situation.

PEMLast spring you came into contact with several components of the social movements: students, anti-racist groups, autonomous groups, and so on. What’s at stake in these relations?

XFirst of all, there is an immediate implication for the strike itself: here, again, the different fronts of struggle reinforce each other, consolidating both the strikes and the different social movements. For example, our joint action with the Adama Committee [an anti-police racism and violence group] on the 21 July demonstration came from a willingness on our part to support a struggle of special significance. Taking a stance against police violence, which we made public at the time, and our condemnation of the police violence perpetrated against one of the strikers, Nordine, on the 21st demonstration itself, gave a heightened visibility our strike. Taking a stand on these issues - “doing politics” - does not divide, does not weaken the fight, it strengthens it.

BWe also lent a hand to the students of Nanterre, helping them block exams that the school’s administrators wanted to organise, despite the massive emphasis on the strike in the AG. We have shown that we are ready to lend our resources to defend all those who are under attack, which we do well. We firmly believe that the labor movement must take a stand on all issues affecting the population, on the issue of racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on.

PEMIn 2016 and 2018, we had had two mobilisations, rightly, against the government’s reforms, both of which went beyond the world of work, and touched upon the spectre of social relations. What have been, in your opinion, the strong points and weak points of this cycle of struggle? How do you envisage your place in the contemporary social movements?

GThe particularity of the current period is that at least since the movement against changes to the loi travail in 2016, people from very different militant traditions, and those who were not militant before, have started to find themselves in struggle and working together: traditional workers’ militant groups, like the CGT’s Goodyear or Info Com branches; the young people coming from the autonomous or liberationist movements; Trotskyist militants; and activists from political forces like France Insoumise.

They’ve all found themselves, in 2016 and 2018, pushing in the direction of the generalisation of the strike, organising joint marches, when the banners were meshed together in defiance of police repression, to blocking the businesses hit by the strikes. This large, militant avant-garde had started to find, little by little, a shared language, starting from shared experiences.

XOne of the ways this new state of mind manifested was the formation of Front Social, a co-ordination of our unions, of coalitions of struggle and of political militants. It had the capacity to organise demonstrations during the presidential elections and even the day after the election of Macron, and continues to try to group the struggles together. The struggles are a lot more numerous than you would believe but are, for the moment, very dispersed.

PEMIn this regard, what relations do you have with the union at a sectoral level, with the Federation Sud-PTT? What is their role and their importance? How do they support you? Are there frictions?

B Problem number one of the la Poste struggles is their dispersal. We’re talking about probably one of the biggest businesses, where the degree of conflict is the highest in France, but the strikes are essentially directed post office by post office, area by area, even route by route. One of the reasons is that the senior management has pushed through restructurings in a deliberately staggered manner, precisely to stop a general, collective reaction.

But it is definitely necessary to mention that, at the moment, one doesn’t see any initiative on the part of this-or-that federation to try and unify the existing struggles and to extend them, to lay the groundwork for a national mobilisation. We don’t pretend that it’s easy to do, but even so, it’s a bloody emergency: There have been two suicides at la Poste in less than a month; 50 suicides have been counted in 2016; many dozens since 2012; and until now, nobody has called a strike! What were they waiting for?

GWe are in a period of professional elections: our union federations are capable, on this occasion, of putting out national materials in colour, tracts, posters, brochures. It’s evidently legitimate, even vital, but why not deploy the same efforts to call a strike? This would only be one day, of calling General Assemblies everywhere, and using them to propose starting up the strike again.

There is a debate at the heart of the union movement on precisely this question: the type of initiatives to take at the national scale against the strategy of the senior management, and on the necessity to elaborate a battle plan. It’s a debate at the heart of our union, the Sud-PTT federation, which is the most combative and the most involved in the support of strikes.

XOn this point, the mobilisations of postal workers underway in Canada and Belgium are a concrete example for us, because they have been organised at the scale of a whole country. We hope that the victory of our strike will be encouragement to them!

PEMFinally, returning to your strike: what is the balance of power at the current time? What are the prospects of the struggle?

GLa Poste has just suffered many setbacks in a short space of time, and our electoral result is truly a hammer blow: the [anti-Sud] cadres have pushed for maximum number of our colleagues to vote, in the hope of depressing our percentage. The result was that our vote increased by 4%, to reach 51.86%, with more than 86% turnout rate. The highest rate in the country!

For la Poste, my third trip to court, on 13 December just gone, was meant to restrain my union involvement. But, it risks turning against la Poste, seeing that the judge has mostly responded favourably to arguments proposing negotiation between the strikers and the senior management. The senior management has also been forced to cancel the new restructuring efforts in December, out of fear that the postal centres concerned would join the strike. La Poste has even been heavily fined, because they’re unable to justify their calculations of postal workers’ workload. We’ve calculated that between the hiring of employees on CDI to try and reduce the slowness of postal delivery, the security guards and the bailiffs present every day at the postal centres, the court cases, the lawyers’ fees, the cost of customer complaints about the impact of the strike, and the restructuring that la Poste has been unable to put in place, our strike has cost them at least €5.5 million.

With the political crisis and the social mobilisations around the gilets jaunes, we’re going to lead a political effort to bring together all the militant sectors that we have been in contact with since the start of our strike. We are proposing a day of strikes and a joint demonstration at the beginning of January.

In this context, it’s not surprising that la Poste shows signs of weakness, and has just announced to us that it intends to make us an offer. In waiting wait to see if they decide to open real negotiations, we stay determined and mobilised, even as we party over the New Year.

  1. Délégué syndical - union-appointed representatives, uniquely able to negotiate agreements with employers, with various statutory protections 

  2. As CGT militant Tiziri Kandi explained in a recent interview with PEM, also translated by Notes from Below, CHSCT’s are “a very important body, since it’s here where you’re able to pose questions of health, and of security. Through this, you’re able to trigger inquiries following the restructuring of a service, to see the impact on employees”.  

  3. Artistic or technical workers, whose “intermittent” work leaves them requiring specific social payments.