Message-ID: <>
Date: Tue, 13 Oct 1998 11:12:56 -0700
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: Franklin Wayne Poley <culturex@VCN.BC.CA>

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 13 Oct 1998 05:47:45 +0200
From: Viggo Andersen <>


Tearing up the European rulebook: the unemployed loosen the noose

By Catherine Livy and Christophe Aguiton, Le Monde diplomatique, October 1998

Since the 1970s, unemployment has been part of the social landscape. Yet the unemployed themselves remained in some way invisible, their voices never directly heard. However, a few months ago they erupted on to the social and political scene in France, Germany, Italy and other European countries. The movement which they have started has been greeted with sympathy by the public at large. And it has inspired other new organisations determined to agitate for other economic and social priorities.

The new movement of the unemployed has turned itself into a physical presence and acquired a voice of its own. But it did not appear out of thin air: it was by walking, becoming pedestrians on France's roads, that the unemployed began to make their presence felt as a distinct group. In addition, for several years the movement has been the major component of a still larger grouping which is in turn now gathering behind it and helping it develop.

Its history goes back as far as May 1994, when AC! (Action against Unemployment—Agir contre le chtmage) organised a number of marches in the provinces, converging in Paris. Over several weeks, the unemployed took to the roads, passing through towns and villages, talking to trade unionists and sympathetic activists who made them welcome. Twenty thousand people met up at Bastille, and the demonstration ended up by occupying an apartment building on rue Biranger. From that point on, the movement gathered strength month by month.

In December 1994, a building in rue du Dragon, under siege by DAL (Right to Housing—Droit au logement), was occupied with, for the first time, help from the associations of the unemployed. Workshops were set up for the members of campaigning groups, trade unionists, researchers and teachers. Young members of the CDSL (Committee of the Homeless—Comiti des sans-logis) posed the question: how are you supposed to survive when you can't find a job and don't qualify for income support? For those who took part in these discussions, only one thing was sure: the state could not be relied on to change the equation between work and income. Every December since 1994, activists have organised more special actions. Because for those living on basic welfare, the acquisitive seasonal frenzy that grips most of the population is the final straw.

In December 1995, in the middle of a major rail strike, an initiative by DD (Rights to the Fore—Droits devant) led to the occupation of the Beaubourg in Paris and the manifesto of the have-nots. It was a significant date. The trade unions at the forefront of the strike were very much in evidence at the plenary meeting; but the mode of expression was new. Alongside the notion of rights (civic, political and social), there now arose its negative corollary: the absence of rights, a concept that has finally emerged as a dominant theme.

So far, this was still just a movement in embryo, involving no more than a handful of trade unionists and other activists. But now it was to benefit from the fall-out from the railwaymen's action. There was a frenzy of activity: the requisition of housing by DAL and the CDSL; the requisition of jobs (1) by AC!, MNCP (National Movement of Unemployed and Insecure Workers—Mouvement national des chtmeurs et pricaires) and Apeis (Association for Employment, Integration and Solidarity - Association pour l'emploi, l'insertion et la solidariti); campaigns for access to free public transport; campaigns directed at workers in the major public utilities (Ilectriciti de France, Gaz de France) and intended to prevent people's supplies being cut off; the occupation, in December 1996, of the Maison des ensemble (Centre for Unity) in rue d'Aligre.

Then, in May 1997, came the occupation of the Bank of France, seized as one of the symbolic high places of capitalism. Its directors finally agreed to meet the unemployed associations, the banking section of the CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labour—Confidiration frangaise dimocratique du travail), the financial section of the CGT (General Confederation of Labour—Confidiration ginirale du travail), the SNUI (Unified National Union for Taxes—Syndicat national unifii des imptts), the Group of Ten (2), DAL and DD. The protesters demanded access to financial rights and raised the problem of excessive debt.

On 15 December 1997, activists from associations combating exclusion and insecurity, in conjunction with trade unionists, launched a week of action for social emergency. It began with the occupation of the Pyramid at the Louvre and the holding of discussions in the Salle du Carrousel. The week culminated in the Louvre appeal, signed by numerous organisations and demanding, among other things, increases in basic welfare payments and a Christmas bonus for the unemployed.

In addition, all these groups gave their support to the struggle being fought by illegal immigrants. Within the movement, some people devoted themselves to the question of rights and how to see them exercised. Just as the public had felt that the right to a home had legitimised the occupations, so the marches against unemployment (and other such actions) came to acquire a similar legitimacy. Their message was clear: no household with three members could survive on 3,000 francs a month. At the same time, occupying Assidic offices over a period of several weeks had the desired effect of publicising locations where all those unprepared to venture out on demonstrations could emerge from their state of isolation.

The actions of the unemployed raised fundamental questions concerning the basic means of survival: despite the creation of the RMI and the overall increase in the number of beneficiaries, since 1982 the amount spent by the state on basic welfare has remained unchanged at 1% of GDP. Average benefit therefore remains at best between 30% and 40% of average disposable income, at worst between 20% and 30%—that is to say, significantly below the poverty line. (This remains true whichever definition is used: 50% of average income across the European Union, or 50% of median income as calculated by the Office of National Statistics.)

Since 1982, the average standard of living of all households has increased by more than 15%. Over the same period, however, basic welfare levels have barely maintained their purchasing power, and some of those living on benefit have seen a decrease of 10% in the unemployment benefit (Action spicifique de solidariti—ASS) and 20% in the emergency welfare benefit (allocation d'insertion—AI).

The unemployed movement should also be seen, however, in a wider context than the mere raising of basic welfare levels. By denouncing inequalities, it is also laying claim to a more democratic deployment of fiscal policy. Currently, only 15% of revenues in the financial sector are taxed. Yet no income from permanent or temporary employment escapes the fiscal net. And casual and part-time work pay only very low wages, sometimes less than basic welfare. As a result, both the unemployed and those in work are mobilising around these forms of employment. A report by the Commission for Economic Planning has estimated that seven million people are affected by unemployment or are victims of unfair wage agreements arising from the economic policy currently pursued by most European governments.

The movement of the French unemployed must thus be seen as part of a wider picture encompassing the different EU countries. It unites all those living on work-derived income who are struggling to make the question of insecurity and the creation of a new attitude to paid work a central issue within the European project. There are various forms of employment—involuntary part-time work (under-employment), fixed-term contracts, subsidised work, job-shares—that are really so many forms of partial unemployment. These shadowy areas are usually overlooked in European statistics. In 1993 (the last year for which figures are available), 57 million Europeans were categorised as poor, of whom 35% were of working age and in employment.

The European marches against unemployment, insecurity and exclusion have underlined this link between the situations in neighbouring countries. To march across Europe has, in effect, become the chosen means of expression of several thousand people who are either unemployed or in insecure jobs. In April 1997 they began walking through town and countryside in Italy, Spain, France, Greece, the United Kingdom, etc. Marching became an expression of solidarity, a way of discovering places, meeting people, and also of affirming the rejection of a present situation that seeks to impose itself permanently. Marching is another way of proving that there is still a story to be told, that the course of events can be affected. It makes the struggle against the insecurity of life visible. It allows us to demonstrate together in affirmation of our rights.

The movement originated when representatives of organisations and trade unions from several European countries met in Florence in June 1996. Here in Tuscany—just as later in Brussels—the assembled activists wanted to set a European movement in motion. There was no general organisation of the marches. Instead, individual patterns emerged from the different national contexts, reflecting, in each country, the current state of the resistance to European policy.

In France, the organisation of the Euromarches was atypical, with national trade union officials marching side by side with campaigning groups. In Italy, the movements of the unemployed and those in insecure work were organised at local level; and, although the two major centralised trade unions offered their services in organising the marches, they did not actually take part (3). Nevertheless, the sincobas (inter-sectional unions representing an important minority of the General Italian Confederation of Labour) took an active part in the movement at both national and local level, especially in Turin. In Spain, where various reforms to the labour code, signed by the two major groups of affiliated trade unions, have increased the insecurity of labour while reducing its cost, the marches brought together many organisations and associations organised both regionally and nationally. They set off on 14 April 1997, the anniversary of the Spanish Republic.

In Belgium, 80% of the unemployed are members of trade union organisations, since these are responsible for paying unemployment insurance. Although demands by the unemployed for autonomy provoked tensions, they also sparked off debates on trade union democracy. In addition, many associations campaigned around the issue of the social sick-room. There, as in Germany, emphasis was placed on the threat of workfare (the obligation placed upon the long-term unemployed to accept any job, preferably part-time and underpaid). This idea underpins a parliamentary bill being proposed by the Belgian government.

In the Netherlands, as in Spain, the key issue is one of part-time work on fixed contracts: even the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has corrected the Netherlands' unemployment figures from the official 5.3% to a more plausible 20% (4). The minority of Dutch trade unionists who support the marches have suggested that there are a million poor for whom public education and health services have become inaccessible.

There, as in Belgium, the opposition of the trade unions is less unified, and the debate has penetrated cracks in the consensus on national policy. By making themselves visible, the pedestrians of the highways have raised a whole series of current social problems. A few years ago, when the English unemployed started their own marches—an example followed by activists from AC!—it created no more than a minor disturbance heard only by a few selective ears. Now, little by little, it is becoming heard of abroad.

How many of us are there? asked some young members of the CDSL four years ago. Statistics always follow the same pattern and it takes a long time for the state to take account of those who live on the margins, without income or home. It is not just a question of access to civic and social rights. The existence of thousands of people is denied and there are often no structures able to take them into account. Official research is beginning in various countries, but until European institutions create a statistical apparatus common to all fifteen EU members, it will remain difficult to make precise comparisons between nations.

Valid comparisons between the different earnings of the unemployed or those in insecure jobs are extremely complex to make. In France alone, there are eight basic welfare allowances, each specifically targeted (for example, housing benefit) and subtracted or added to the total on a case by case basis. Just for one country, the result is a complete jungle: the Commission for Economic Planning talks of incoherence. Faced with the maze of provisions specific to each country, the idea of a relevant European comparison is unsustainable.

Any assessment of the marches must take into account the hundreds of kilometres covered and the thousands of people encountered along the way. The marchers have changed traditional trade union attitudes, chalked up a new stage in the assessment of unemployment and job insecurity and contributed to the evolution of the political debate in the EU countries—even European institutions are now including them in their research programmes. The marchers have given concrete expression to the various claims being made right across Europe. Like a choir intoning the popular will, they have articulated and amplified criticisms of the inverted priorities of the European project, with its emphasis on monetary policy over employment. In this great concert, there may be a few dissonant voices questioning the process that has begun. But most share a common concern to voice a pressing social need.


(1) Advised by the trade unions of situations where certain companies were under-staffed, the unemployed went there, occupied the premises and demanded the creation of jobs

(2) The Group of Ten, which transformed itself into a trade union last January, counts among its members many trade unionists from SUD (Solidaires, unitaires, dimocratiques), the Syndicat national des journalistes, and the Syndicat national unifii des imptts (SNUI)

(3) Except for the FIOM (the metallurgy federation of the CGIL), which, as a national federation, worked beside them.

(4) See Dominique Vidal, Miracle or mirage in the Netherlands?, Le Monde diplomatique English Internet edition, July 1997.