From buckets filled with spare change during protest demonstrations to online solidarity pools fed by multi-digit amounts, strike funds have reappeared in the wake of opposition to the French pension reform as national days of action – the eighth is Wednesday, March 15 – have gathered momentum. They provide support to those who take days off work and do without part of their salary, in a context aggravated by high inflation.
How many of these solidarity systems are there across France? The myriad initiatives have not been comprehensively counted to date, but an interactive map allows us to locate some of the bigger ones, as indicated by sociologist Gabriel Rosenman, a former railway worker and SUD-Rail activist, who is working on a thesis on the subject. In late 2019 and early 2020, during the mobilization against the proposed universal pension system, “up to 380 online strike funds” had been counted, he recalled.
Two main practices have emerged. One has a sectoral or local dimension. It includes, in particular, online solidarity pools opened at the initiative of union sections or federations, such as the CGT-Cheminots (Railway Workers’ Federation) or the CGT energy branch, and fed by donations, in order to support the women and men participating in “long strikes,” explained Rosenman.
“The other approach is to set up funds financed by a percentage of union dues. These funds are reserved for members and are released to allow those involved – for example, precarious workers – to participate in demonstrations of strength that take place on an ad hoc basis,” Rosenman said.
In almost all cases, the amounts awarded cover only part of the loss of earnings and many of these mechanisms disappear once the struggle comes to an end. But there is at least one that stands out from the crowd: the Caisse Nationale d’Action Syndicale (CNAS, the National Fund for Trade Union Action), founded some 50 years ago by the major CFDT labor union. This is a “unique” system according to Jean-Michel Denis, professor of sociology at the University of Paris-I-Panthéon-Sorbonne and author of a paper on the subject. According to him, the CFDT is the only organization in France “to have established, at the confederal level, a permanent financial support body for its striking members.”
The CNAS is fed by a contribution of 8.6% on the union dues paid by workers who join the CFDT. Many voluntary donations have also been received at the Belleville headquarters over the past number of weeks, which is unprecedented according to Jean-Michel Rousseau, confederal secretary in charge of the fund: “We receive emails every day, people come to deposit checks at our headquarters. This is the first time I’ve seen this.”
CNAS currently has an impressive war chest of about €150 million at its disposal. It is used for strikes, but also for legal support and for the costs of appeals before the industrial tribunal. “Since it is the members who finance this system, they are the only ones who can benefit from it,” explained Rousseau. Another important rule: “We do not support work stoppages that are not called by the CFDT.” Finally, the institution was recently authorized to intervene in the current interprofessional dispute. Normally, it only provides assistance in conflicts within companies.
When a CDT union member leaves the job in protest, he or she can receive compensation of €7.70 per hour – half that for those who have been members for less than six months – regardless of his or her salary, the duration of the strike or the sector concerned. “Our reserves guarantee compensation for our 660,000 members for one week,” Rousseau added. It is difficult to know how much CNAS has spent in the battle against pension reform since the first days of the strike in January were deducted from the February pay slips. “We are just beginning to receive the pay slips with the deductions,” said the CDT official.
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CNAS devotes a specific budget of €1 million per year to the strike fund. If the budget is insufficient, it dips into the reserves, which it invests in “ethical investments” or in property. The income generated by these investments is reinjected into the operation of CNAS, particularly for the eight people who work there. “Everything that is deducted from the contributions is only used for benefits,” summarized Rousseau.
Other unions have come up with different solutions to help their striking members. At Force Ouvrière, there has been a “confederal fund” for years. It is there to provide “collective assistance during social conflicts” – for example, when a dispute breaks out between a boss and employees during wage negotiations. The fund in question is financed by “a share” of the member’s contribution, explained the treasurer Patrick Privat. At the end of autumn 2022, the minimum amount of the subsidy was increased to €30 per day and per person, in view of the campaign against lowering the retirement age to 64.
The ‘balance of power’
At the CGT union, there are at least two approaches that are attracting attention. One is led by the confederal leadership, through an “account for solidarity and mobilization,” according to the formula of the treasurer, David Dugué. Also funded by the generosity of the general public, it was reactivated a few weeks ago when the social movement was set in motion to oppose the government’s plan. Over the period, roughly €400,000 has been raised through this channel.
For its part, the Info’Com-CGT union has a national “permanent fund” that was created in 2016 and in which other organizations, such as Sud-La Poste 92, participate. Since the presentation of the reform on January 10, a little over a million euros have flowed into this. It is a mechanism designed to influence the “balance of power,” said one of its leaders, Romain Altman. The objective, of course, is to mitigate the loss of earnings but also to “build confidence,” by providing “moral and political support.” “We have started to hand out cheques in certain professional sectors,” said Altman. “Both union members and non-union members receive benefits,” he added, with the aim of making the amounts awarded “traceable.”
The first examples of this type of solidarity were identified during the Canuts revolt in Lyon (workers’ uprisings that took place in Lyon, France, in 1831, 1834 and 1848; they were one of the great social uprisings of the early industrial era). This involved a “mutual aid society,” according to Rosenman. “Today, these are online solidarity pools, but before, they would take the form of collections on the street, after shows, concerts, etc.” analyzed the historian Stéphane Sirot, who specializes in social relations and trade unionism. Even in the absence of such mechanisms, “the strikers were self-organized to be able to hold out over time,” he added.
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Other initiatives, outside the trade union sphere, have emerged recently. The left-wing La France Insoumise (LFI) party has collected nearly €400,000 for the strikers. “This type of political action has existed for a very long time,” recalled Sirot. “There have always been left-wing town halls, communist communities that collected financial aid.” And by supporting employees in their struggle, the LFI can also hope to gain voters in the future.