Interview with Blanca M., PhD student in French Literature at UC Berkeley, Executive Board Member for UAW 2865, and militant of La Voz de Los Trabajadores (La Voz, LIT-CI). She is an alumna of Nanterre University in France and a former member of SUD- Étudiant.
For you, what is the function and role of a student union?
The function of a student union in general is to defend the interests of all students. In this sense, there is a parallel with labor unions. More concretely, the most immediate goal is to have a say in the administrative structures of higher education, student housing and dining services, and also on educational reforms that affect the life and education of the students. Student unions will also fight against any form of discrimination occurring in the campus and university life in general. But some student unions like the one I was in, SUD- Étudiant, are also trying to see the students as future workers, helping them and defending their labor rights, and also taking some positions in political issues that affect us as students but that are not narrowly linked to the university life: like labor reform and the defense of public pensions, the fight for immigrant rights, etc.
Please give us some background on how the French student unions formed and out of what conditions?
In France there are several student unions, the biggest and the most important is l’UNEF (National Union of French Students) that was created in 1907. Formally is is not a labor union but an association, but the UNEF is recognized by the government as being the union that represents the students. There are several unions that run for the student positions in the local administration bodies of the public universities and also in two national administration councils: the CNESER (National Council of Higher Education and Research) and the CNOUS (National Council of University and School Services). So as you see, we have a long history of student organization and student unionism.
Inside the UNEF, which is the only one officially recognized by the government as a potential “negotiator” at a national level, one can find different political tendencies that are more or less organized. There is the “majority tendency” that holds its allegiance to the Socialist Party and social democracy in general and there is the “minority tendency” that is more to the Left and led by a coalition of Left forces, one of them being the NPA (New Anti-Capitalist Party).
But as is the case with the major labor unions (CGT, FO, CFDT), they became bureaucratized, with a cast of privileged bureaucrats that prefer conciliation and negotiation over mobilization, and that only organize the class for symbolic actions and not for a sustained fight against the bosses and the government when needed.
In 1995, a new union was created in France out of the historical strike of the railroad workers against the cuts to the public transportation services and the benefits of this sector of public employees: SUD (Solidaires Unitaires et Démocratiques). It became very quickly a federation of new unions (Union Syndicale Solidaires) in different trades including SUD-Etudiant, which is present in high schools and higher education institutions.
It seems that in France there are several student unions or even labor unions per trade, this is very different from the US, how does that work?
Yes, Indeed. In France, workers have the right to choose the union they want to join. It is not like in the USA, where you have this “close shop” policy where only one union can negotiate the contract and people have to agree with that union leadership. There are several unions in France and also “representation laws” that attribute to different unions the ability to represent a given workforce in a company (with at least 10% of the votes at union elections) or in a branch (8%)- though these elections only happen in all the public sector and in the private companies that have more than 50 workers.
The different unions that are recognized for bargaining have to reach an agreement to sign the “collective agreement” which fixes some benefits and compensations, even though in France there are many things that are fixed by the labor law (employment protection, public health care, minimum wage, anti-discrimination, etc). Of course, in these negotiations, the unions that have more members, and especially more active members in one workplace or branch, have more weight to bend the stick in one direction or another. But at the national level, only some unions are recognized by the government when it comes to improve or degrade (like it is often the case) the labor law or to mediate in a major political or social conflict: we saw these negotiations happen in 2006 with the CPE (First Employment Contract) and in 2010 when the Sarkozy government wanted to cut the pension benefits.
But who agrees on which unions are “representative” of the workers at the national level? Are there national union elections or something like that?
Not at all! And this is the problem and this is why many workers are dissatisfied with the present situation and end up not joining the unions, because the “official” ones are too lenient with the bosses, and the militant ones are not “recognized” by the government which is perceived as very unfair by many union activists and working people.
After WWII, and in an attempt to have the unions support the reconstruction of the country without questioning the capitalist framework, the government gave the major unions this “presumption of representation” and this promise of recognition as the main negotiation in exchange for a tacit agreement of social peace, that is to say to keep the strike and social struggles down, out of the fear of seeing a social revolution burst out in a country destroyed by the German Nazi imperialist regime and by the collaboration of the majority of the French bourgeoisie with it. This agreement passed in 1946 and was fully accepted by the Communist Party, and it was rediscussed and restricted even more in 2008, which leaves mainly the CGT and the CFDT as the main representatives, marginalizes three unions (FO, CFTC, FSU) and excludes two (UNSA and Union Syndicale Solidaires).
It seems complicated but also thrilling for the union movement that workers (and students) can choose the unions they want to join. Can you say more about your union, SUD-Etudiant? Why did you join this one?
In my university, like in all the other ones, the major student union was the UNEF, a very reformist union, that defended the interest of the students in name but only wanted to have people affiliate to it and pay dues. And there were three other small unions: the AGEN, a very sectarian union led by some Maoists, that was very undemocratic and only accepted into its ranks the students that think like them, and also that was only present in my university, the CNT (the anarcho-syndicalist union) and SUD-Etudiant.
And I decided to join SUD, because even if it was small, it was a union that was national and that at the same time gave a lot of autonomy to the campus chapters, that was non-sectarian and democratic (accepted students from all political affiliations as long as they were not fascists, racists, sexists, etc.) and above all, was interested in mobilizing all the students to fight for their rights. It was based on what we call in France a “syndicalisme de lutte”, “struggle unionism” – not very popular in this country– which implies that you have nothing to win (but rather a lot to lose) in passive negotiations with the government, that the only way to win something is by mobilizing the numbers of our class and taking mass action to pressure the administration and the government to concede on our demands.
SUD is also a union that aims to do something more than only to fight for reforms or better wages and working conditions, it also aims at a more radical social transformation and puts forward in the struggle anti-capitalist positions. I felt more aligned with this model of unionism, even if we were a minority on campus.
What do you mean by “social transformation” and “anti-capitalist positions”? Why is this political stance present in a student union?
This is a very good question, and to be honest a question that was and is under constant discussion in any union that wants to be something more than a “traditional union”. And then the question becomes: why would a union want to be “something more” than a union?
Our way to answer this question in our union is to reformulate it: is the destiny of the working class only to fight for better wages (sometimes winning, other times losing their previous gains) without ever questioning in the first place its condition as an exploited class? Should we only fight to be less exploited and never raise the idea of ending the whole system of exploitation and oppression that is entailed?
If one looks at history and learns a bit about labor struggles, one sees that all the rights we have and also the living conditions we have were earned through struggle against our class enemies, the corporations and the capitalists. They want to make profit out of our labor, so they give us crappy wages and awful working conditions. On the other side, there we are with our unions fighting for better wages and better working conditions… but some day, some folks asked themselves: wait a minute, why should I work in a system that is only enriching a few? Why should the lives of the vast majority be subjected to the production of profits for a tiny minority? Is it going to be like that for the rest of human life? And these folks, by asking these questions out-loud and discussing them in their union, are advancing the political consciousness of our class as a whole. In this sense, the political struggle to end capitalism is a step forward in the daily class struggle of workers and union activists for better wages. And we should do both at the same time: fight for better wages and through our struggle convince more workers of the necessity of destroying the very system that forces us to fight for basic living conditions in the first place. Is that more clear?
This is why our union, besides fighting for better wages and a public education system that is free and democratic is also trying to put forward the need to do more than that, to question the whole wage-system that is a system of exploitation, and the oppressive institutions and ideologies that exist, and that are also reproduced by the university.
So… Is SUD full of socialists and anarchists? Is it a political Party of some sort?
No, not at all, and this difference is very important to us. Our union is not full of political militants only, but it is true that there are a lot, and of many tendencies! And also we are careful to make the distinction between a union and a Party. This is a fundamental distinction, most of the folks are not in political Parties. We are not a Party because we do not need to agree on a political program to change the world or on the end of capitalism to fight together, nor on the exact way for how to do it. A union is for unity of action. We are a union that wants to unite all the students that are ready to fight, and to unite the youth with the rest of the working class. But SUD is a union where political activists are welcome and can feel comfortable expressing their political view.
In a way it is what makes it different from the mainstream unions, where the bureaucracy that has an open political affiliation (either the reformist and neo-liberal Socialist Party, either the reformist Communist Party) is not welcoming of other political views expressed among the rank-and-file, that is to say, there is a lack of democracy, where one cannot openly talk politics or criticize the two Parties mentioned above. That is a real problem, and this is why many union and student activists have progressively left these big unions to join SUD in the last 15 years.
Yes but I am a bit surprised, we were talking about a student union and you are always bringing up workers’ issues. Can you explain why?
Yes, for sure. First of all: what is a student? It is a complicated question that in my view, and in the view of my union comrades, has a double answer: it is a student and a worker, it has two identities but you don´t see them, because the educational system does not want you to see them and is constantly separating them.
A student has an immediate identity that is to take classes and receive an education, that is an immediate but also a very temporary one with lower social implications. And also this definition excludes what many students do after or before school: work. But if we go deeper on the question, the student in the capitalist system is an existing or potential worker: because she or he needs to work to pay their fees and education, either he or she is a worker in training, somebody that will join the job market with a certain degree of qualifications. Therefore, a student union cannot only see in the student the student part, as the ruling class wants us to, because it is missing the essential thing.
Even if all the students taken in a whole do not equate to the working class, because to some degree the student body as such is, if you want, a poli-classist body (it might contain some elements of the ruling class, and a variable portion with “middle class” aspirations, depending in which institution one is), nonetheless the vast majority of students are going to become workers, wage-workers, that is they are going to join the ranks of the “proletariat”, if you want, even if it will be with different levels of pay, they will have to work for a living in some sector of society. Therefore, it is in the interest of a student union to fight for the labor rights of the students who are working but also for the rights of the already existing workers.
The labor movement is not a strange and separate thing “outside” of student life, this separation or abstraction is very detrimental, it is what the government would like us to believe. The labor movement and the world of workers is the future of most of the students, who are “the workers of tomorrow”, therefore their struggles are also the struggles of the students.
The huge mobilizations in 2006-2007 against the CPE and more recently in 2010 against the attack on public pensions were massively joined by the students of public universities and high schools because their student unions made it very clear: these struggles are about you, about your future, and the future of our generations and the ones to come. It is not only or even firstly about “solidarity” or even worse, compassion, for old people who are going to retire…if you do not defend the labor rights and the retirement benefits now, you are giving up on your own future, you are losing what the previous generations got for you through their tough and generous struggle.
Of course, the government is really afraid of this most powerful combination, the youth and the labor movement, because it put down a government, paralyzed the country in an historical general strike and almost ended in a total social revolution, in May and June of 1968!!!! They want us to forget the recent history of class struggle in the country, they want us to ignore our real power when we are united with the workers because they know that together we can beat them! We almost did it if the CP had not betrayed the strikes and a truly revolutionary political force had called for a workers government to replace the bourgeois government and implement all the reforms demanded by the people and confront capitalism at its root.
Why didn’t you join the CNT? It is also anti-capitalist and linked to a labor federation, right?
Yes, it is very true. The CNT in France is close to the IWW in the USA. There are a lot of common points between SUD and the CNT: both unions are bottom up and democratic, both stand for the self-organization of the workers, both want to go beyond just fighting for wages and small demands as we said before, and both combat bureaucratic tendencies.
But, as paradoxically as it sounds, the CNT has an embedded ideology that is, in my view, an obstacle for the development of a truly revolutionary movement, and that turns these good things into something useless and unattractive for the students who look for a militant union that can mobilize. And this ideology that is Anarcho-syndicalism. Anarcho-syndicalists believe that the destruction of capitalism will be the result of a radicalization of the union struggle, that is to say a pure extension of the economic struggle by taking possession of “what is ours” and, in their view, we should never put demands on the State, the government or the university administration because to put demands on the State is to “recognize” the State as powerful and to feed into its power, and it is also to set ourselves up for co-optation. We should instead just “do the revolution ourselves”, and when the mass mobilization is reached through a general strike “start building a communist society from the ground up”.
This ideology is very attractive to radical youth, but it presents some serious problems that are also practical problems in the daily struggle, and that explain why the CNT is so weak today and almost extinct: first of all, the State is the already existing organization of class power, the political and material power of the ruling class, and it does not need our “recognition” to exist, it exist independently of us, because it has a class base: the material owners of the factories, the technology, the land, the resources, the military-industrial complex, etc. The question is how we end its existence, and this is not a question of recognition or not, or a question of putting demands or not, it is a question of relation of forces and mobilization. If we mobilize and organize the majority of the population, our class, we can put down the government, we can raise the issue of workers power and the dismantlement of the bourgeois army, etc.
But this is only possible if we reach that level of action and organization, and we cannot mobilize against the State and the government if we cannot formulate demands that unite our class and express its needs in a way that confronts the ruling class. Anarcho-syndicalism does not solve this key issue because it refuses to address it. And the real problem of the CNT is that while on the one hand it says is open to all students and workers (regardless of their political ideas), on the other, it is against people who want to build a mass movement around common demands that are not “class war”, it is against those who are organized in political Parties (and very much anti-communist) and “anti-Party” in general, which is a real anti-democratic position. This is why the CNT is so weak and does not attract either the masses or the best activists, who are usually politically organized or close to political organizations. All views should be allowed in a union, including the view of folks who are politically organized.
Can you explain more how your union works?
Yes. SUD is a national union organized on a federal model. Each campus has a chapter or local association. And then, every two years, there is a national congress where all campuses send delegates that vote the general orientation of the union in terms of politics and organization. In between the congresses, the federal secretaries are elected, but those have very restricted functions, they cannot make decisions, but only carry out the logistics of the decisions made at the congress (financial tasks, spokesperson, database, etc). These federal secretaries meet four times a year (federal council meetings) to report back on their work and check if all the tasks that are needed for the functioning of the union are fulfilled. Also, to avoid the over-representation of Parisian students, which happens all the time given the extreme concentration of universities in the Parisian region, Parisian students cannot be more than half of the federal council meetings. In the meetings of the union, especially at the campus level, the union seeks consensus, but consensus decision-making is not a rule, because it will be impossible and will paralyze the union, especially at the congress level.
What are the strengths and the weak points you see in your union?
I think the most fundamental strength is that SUD-Étudiant and the rest of the unions of the Solidaires federation are really democratic unions, that are conscious of the danger of bureaucratization and co-optation, and that they only rely on the mobilization of the working class, that is to say that they are true to the origins and the best of the union tradition. All unions should look like these ones, even if these are still imperfect. But this is not the case, because the Social Democracy and the Communist Party have stifled any kind of genuine rank-and-file democracy and have transformed the unions into organizations of class collaboration, making deals with the bosses and accepting neo-liberal reforms on the back of the workers.
But SUD has a main weakness, and this is that they only organize a very small fraction of the student population and of the workers movement. We also need to be honest and see the reality: SUD does not reach or does not have the potential to mobilize anywhere near as many students as the UNEF, and the same happens in the labor movement if one thinks of the relation between Solidaires and the CGT.
This is a very important thing, because the underlining idea of a union is to unite the workforce and ultimately the class. Capitalism individualizes us, separates us, and isolated we are weak, we do not have any bargaining power with the boss, this is why workers united in the first place, because only by organizing and taking action could they effectively force the boss to agree on their working conditions. So the base of working class politics is working class unity. Now the problem is that even if the UNEF affiliates more students (like the CGT affiliates more workers), the nature of the unity that they build is not a unity for struggle, for mass action, it is just a formal unity of dues payers.
Given this situation, I believe that it is better to be in a small union that is trying to do the right thing than in a big union that does not let you do anything because it is an undemocratic one.
Yes, but still isn’t it a problem to join a union that is a minority and does not effectively represent everybody? How do you solve this problem if you agree that a union must aim for the unity of all students?
This is a very good question because we are getting now to the core of the problem. There is a division among the revolutionary Left (the one that believes in mass mobilization and true revolution of the people) about what to do because of the situation we just described below: on the one hand, the largest unions are led by the social democracy and the CP, who are undemocratic and complicit with neo-liberalism, and are bureaucratized and do not mobilize the class when needed to fight – like we are seeing in this crisis. On the other hand the really militant and democratic unions are too small. What should we do then?
Some sectors of the Left are trying to reform the big unions as a rule, others are also seeking whenever it is possible and there is a significant base that wants it, to create a new model of working class organizations, that gets closer to the role of what a union ought to be, but also takes into account the developments in the composition of the working class in this the imperialist epoch. This is what our LIT comrades have successfully done in Brazil when they created CONLUTAS union in 2005 that today affiliates more than 2 million workers, leads reform slates within the major unions, has a student union, a home and landless union, etc. I think Solidaires and all the SUD Unions have the same potential. Yes, SUD-Etudiant is a small union but it aims to contribute to the mobilization of all students, and the reality is that when SUD manages, with other social forces, to mobilize students to raise the question of the strike and begin to take action, it concretely forces the UNEF to follow through, to “walk the walk”, and put their energy where their words are. If we did not have SUD, we could not mobilize at all.
The real unity we need, the one we are fighting for, is not one of formal “representation”, it is unity in action, and this one is built though mobilization. And this unity we do not have it know, we need to create it, and SUD and CONLUTAS are today in a better position that the big unions because they got the class dynamics right.
But small unions must also have a project for ending this situation of being a minority by fighting to win all the students to join and replacing the main unions. This is an important debate in SUD – how to do it, and sometimes why as well. We socialists have always said that our project must be to unite all the students in one fighting union and never to become comfortable with our minority position. Through our campaigns and mobilizations, we have made this our central orientation, because we are taking up issues affecting the students that the main unions won’t address.
What is then in your opinion is the role of the student union in a social mobilization? What have been your achievements?
Well, because we know our union does not represent everybody and we believe in grassroots participatory democracy, the kind of democracy that develops in struggle, where all the ones who are taking action need to have a voice, we as a union publicly advocate for the need to create and sustain general assemblies in all campuses to organize our struggle. We believe all students and workers, even the ones who are not currently unionized, should have a voice and a vote when it comes to mobilizing against the Bolonia agreement and the privatization of the university. This is why, as a union that only effectively organizes a minority, we want to create a space where the real needs and interests of the majority are addressed and where everybody can participate.
Most of our work on campus in periods of mobilizations has been to build and publicize these General Assemblies, to invite all students to attend, and also to defend tooth and nail their legitimacy to make decisions. For example, at the peak of the struggle in 2006-2007 the government only wanted to negotiate with the leadership of the UNEF, but our union fought against it on each campus and at the national level, saying that only the campus General Assemblies and the National Coordination with delegates weekly elected in each campus had any power to negotiate, not the leadership of a union that did not want to start the strike in the first place because it was complicit with the government.
We think that the role we played – to start the mobilization first with the students who wanted to fight without waiting for the “Big unions” that are under the control of servile and reformist leaderships, to organize it democratically, to expand it to all students and to push for the most courageous demands – this role was a great contribution to the movement, even if we were a small union. When one starts organizing and goes through a mass mobilization like this, one understands, or at least I did, that the most important thing is not how big you are, but what are your politics and how do you push them forward to be shared, taken and transformed through the collective struggle. Growing is a result of a good intervention, one that people see as positive and useful… this is also why I decided to join a revolutionary socialist party, by the way, so I could have a well-developed political proposal for the union, because it is difficult to figure out everything alone.
You say that the real aim of a union is not so much “formal representation”. Did your student union ever participate in student government?
Formal representation is representation for the sake of representation, without no real bargaining power or intention to fight for the interests of the ones it supposedly represents. We aim at real representation, that is to say to represent and fight for the interests of all students. One can affiliate a huge portion of the students but not represent their needs and interests. This is a real contradiction and the contradiction big passive unions are in. And on the other hand, one can formally represent a minority but fight effectively and actively for the rights of all the students. It is another contradiction, but a more productive one, because if people see that you really represent them by achieving change, that they can have a voice in your union, then they will join, and the contradiction will be resolved. So the problem is not a problem of student representation, it is a problem of student power to meet student demands.
And we want to build power, student and worker power to change things, to stop the privatization of education and reverse it, to fight for labor rights, to fight racism, sexism, and for the rights of immigrants. This power is not given to us in the student government – even if we got a majority of seats, the power will not be in our hands. So the question is not should we or not fight to represent the students. Of course we want SUD to be in a position to represent all the students, we want SUD to grow, to be joined by tens of thousand, but not in order to claim more seats in administration councils, in order to mobilize to win our demands.
For us running for elections is therefore a tactical matter that is subordinated to our strategy: building a base of active students willing to defend their education and labor rights. If running for elections helps us to mobilize and put forward our ideas and challenge the other passive and bureaucratic student organizations, we do it – if it becomes an obstacle because we could be doing a more productive thing, we don´t. For sure our goal is to represent the majority.
Do you think unions should never negotiate? Aren’t negotiations a trap?
To take such a position would mean that we think that the struggle towards socialism, that is to say towards a society that puts our needs at the center and not profits, is going to be an uninterrupted struggle that will follow a linear path of radicalization until it reaches revolution. This is not the case, history is not linear, and I agree it is unfortunate, but it is true. We need to be realistic, we do not live in a continuous General Strike. So those who are against any kind of negotiation aren’t grounding their politics in our real social forces today, they do politics in their head.
The truth in history is that revolutions are always preceded by a long and then increasing accumulation of small struggles, where the class builds its power, consciousness and organization, before workers feel confident to push a struggle ‘til the end and overthrow the government. Rosa Luxembourg explains this very eloquently in The Mass Strike.
The question then is not should we or not negotiate, the question is what can we win at every given moment given the relation of forces. Bureaucratic unions do not mobilize, do not fight, they just negotiate, and they always lose or do not get the best outcome possible. We say, we need to fight every struggle until the end, and get everything we can, we need to get out of every struggle the best outcome for our class as a whole, knowing that the supreme best outcome is the destruction of capitalism, but also knowing that this outcome is not around the corner of every single struggle, but will be the result of a qualitative growth of our capacity of mobilization and of political organization.
Don’t you think that SUD is democratic now because it is small but that it will become like the other unions as soon as it grows substantially?
This is what defeatists say. If one accepts this idea that there can be no mass union of students or of workers that is at the same time democratic and inclusive, one is saying that there is no way we could fight for a better society, that all our struggles will always be to compromise, will always degenerate or will be co-opted, or more simply, that because we will never be able to unite our forces in coordinated mass action and strikes, we will always be isolated and defeated.
Who would like us to believe that? The same ones that one to defeat our movement, the bosses and the capitalists. They want to demoralize us by pointing at the defeats of some historical experiences (like the Soviet Union or Cuba) as human fatalities, as the necessary result of working class organization.
Why should we believe this? I think that, on the contrary, we need to be confident on our ability to create organizations that work for us and the kind of social change we want to bring about, a truly democratic society and ultimately a democratic form of socialism where the fundamental needs of humanity are met.
Here, in the university we are fighting for free quality public education, and we believe we can organize the majority of students to achieve this goal. The question is not, “are all unions going to fatally degenerate into bureaucracies?” because there is no way out for us if we frame the question in those terms. What should we do then, accept to live in poverty, with always increasing fees and degraded education? The question needs to start from what we want and need: how do we avoid this always possible degeneration given that we need organizations to fight back the brutal attacks? How do we combat concretely the bureaucratization of labor and student unions? Because we need the unions and we need them to be militant and democratic.
And we have found answers to that, it is not an impossible question: in 1871, the Paris Commune instituted direct democracy, the revocability by the base of all elected leaders to any council, and eliminated any privileges, capping their compensation at the same level as an average worker, to avoid the emergence of a layer of bureaucrats who have separate interests. Those who always want to scare us with fatalist arguments about human nature, greed, the necessary corruption of power, are not helping to face the real political question that our generation needs to solve, they undermine the already weak confidence of many activists. I believe that we can do it because we must do it to have a future!
1] One of the two main bourgeois electoral parties in France.
2] Reformist political parties that call themselves socialist but reject class struggle and revolution, striving instead to achieve reforms through the bourgeois electoral process and cooperation with corporate interests. In general, they no longer present a socialist program for the elections.
3] The CPE, or First Employment Contract or Beginning Workers’ Contract, was a measure put forward by President Sarkozy in 2006 to make young workers into a disposable, super-exploitable sector of the labor force. His proposal was to allow companies to fire workers under the age of 26 without giving cause (“at will”), to introduce manual labor apprenticeships for children above the age of 14, to terminate laws forbidding underage youth from working the night shift, and to make families’ welfare benefits partially contingent on youth’s school attendance records.
4] The anti-CPE movement was the biggest student movement France had seen since May, ‘68. Almost every university in the country was on strike. It forced the French government into retreat, winning the withdrawal of the CPE, though the government continued trying to reintroduce aspects of it after the struggle ended.