The Socialist 24 February 2009 |
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General strike movement grips island of Guadeloupe
A MONTH long general strike and widespread political protest over the rising cost of living and low pay has gripped the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and has now spread to the neighbouring island of Martinique. Guyana and La Reunion have also been affected by this huge workers' movement. With high unemployment and staggering poverty and with the cost of living between 20% and 50% higher than metropolitan France, these islands are the poorest French 'departments'. The authorities have responded with police attacks on protesters and arrests. On 17 February a trade unionist, Jacques Bino, was shot dead at a barricade in Guadeloupe's largest town, Pointe-à-Pitre.
Virginie Prégny, Gauche Révolutionnaire, (CWI in France) spoke to Jean Claude Tormin, a Guadeloupean trade unionist.
What are the reasons for this movement?
This movement is the result of neo-colonial exploitation, which has provoked a determined, united response from the labouring masses.
The strength of the strike seems also to be due to the 'Lyanaj Kont Pwofitasyon' (LKP) organisation. How was it formed?
LKP was formed on the initiative of the main trade union organisations - the UGTG, CGTG, CTU, SPEG and FSU - to unite the struggles against the social, cultural and economic grievances felt in the country over the years.
Its first protest took place on 16 December 2008 and saw 10,000 people take to the streets of Point-à-Pitre for better living conditions, against unemployment and discrimination in employment.
Following this demonstration, the collective was joined by other professional, social and cultural organisations, as well as anti-colonial political groups. They then launched a call for an indefinite general strike based on a platform of 152 demands.
What action was undertaken?
The general strike has been transformed into an immense popular movement of protest and has highlighted the suffering of the Antilles region. All layers of society have been mobilised and are taking their own spontaneous initiatives.
Marches and meetings take place every day on the streets of the big towns (Pointe-à-Pitre and Basse-Terre).
In the Jarry (import-export) zone, the striking workers went from business to business, explaining the issues to non-strikers and convincing them to join the movement.
Agricultural workers began direct sales of fruit and vegetables in the fields, at 'LKP prices'. Small businesses did likewise. A resistance economy is being established. Benefit concerts are also being organised.
Two weeks ago the collective called for a meeting with the youth. Has there been active involvement of young people in the strike?
Young people participate fully in the movement and in meetings between the LKP and the student and school student organisations, as well as unemployed or unorganised youth. The majority of young Guadeloupeans with degrees are affected by unemployment and anxious about their future.
There are many accounts of discrimination in employment. Workers in the private sector are often employed by metropolitan bosses, or such impossible criteria for recruitment are set that few young workers can qualify. A big Norwegian hotel group was looking for bilingual gardeners and housekeepers!
One gets the impression that Guadaloupeans feel abandoned, and like colonised people. How do you explain these feelings?
Guadoloupean people and now the people of Martinique do not feel abandoned. On the contrary, they want to determine their own destiny and strike a blow against the existence of colonialism in the region.
It must be understood that the plantation economy of the last century has failed.
The territory's monoculture exploitation of sugar cane and bananas for the benefit of an oligarchy of white Creoles has been transformed into a consumer society, run in the interests of the same oligarchy, who control almost all of the import-export industry and the big distribution firms - Carrefour, Cora, etc.
The provision of petrol is managed by Societe Antillaise de Raffiniere (Sara), whose main shareholder is the Total company, which also owns 70% of service stations.
The roots of this revolt also lie in the price of petrol, which did not stop going up, despite the fact that Total announced staggering profits.
The mass of people, who suffer the hard blows of the double burden of colonial and capitalist exploitation, decided they had had enough of being abandoned and pauperised.
How was this anger translated in terms of political and trade union developments?
With rallies and marches. Discussions between workers and other layers of society (youth, artists, small businessmen, etc) are often transmitted directly in the local media.
The area branches of the collective are generally led by anti-colonial militants. It is clear that political debate underlies all the demands of the movement. The actions of the masses are framed by the industrial and political activists.
The context of the economic crisis influences the debate and develops a consciousness of the need for a new society, which guarantees a division of wealth in favour of the poorest, and that Guadeloupe has a part to play in the struggle against global capitalism.
One could say that this struggle is a struggle for Guadeloupe's workers to retake control over their own destiny.
The government has sent Yves Jégo and some "mediators" to negotiate. What are the proposals? How are they being received by the workers?
The collective made an overture, but it was rejected. Jego's sudden change of heart was intended to create an illusion. Certainly a preliminary agreement was reached with him, namely:
- A drop of 10% in the prices of 100 basic necessities.
- A net increase of €200 on salaries up to 1.6 times the minimum wage (SMIC), with a diminishing increase beyond that.
- A drop in petrol prices by 20 cents per litre.
- The local councils decided to invest €50 million in the plan.
The local Medef (French Confederation of Business Enterprises) have said that any increase in wages will be on condition of cuts in the employers' social contributions.
This preliminary agreement has not received the approval of the government and the local Medef has used that to backslide. The negotiations have been interrupted but the struggle continues with even more determination!