16 March 2009

Developments in Guadeloupe

Guadeloupe: General strike scores victory, spreads to other colonies

Richard Fidler
13 March 2009

posted on March 8 at http://lifeonleft.blogspot.com.

The general strike in the French Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe, which began on January 20, ended March 4, when an accord was signed between the Collective Against Super-Exploitation (LKP) strike collective and the local governments, the employers’ federation and the French government. The agreement granted the strikers their top 20 immediate demands and provided for continued negotiations on the remaining 126 mid-term and long-term demands. The LKP is a coalition of 49 unions and grassroots organisations.

The LKP strike collective voted to end the strike, its member unions and community groups declaring this a “first victory” after 44 days of general strike, repeated mass demonstrations, and negotiations. Some strikes are continuing, however, where the bosses’ associations have not signed the agreement on wages. For example, at the Gardel sugar refinery and in the supermarkets belonging to various beke families (the white elite that controls most industry and agriculture).

And on March 7, 30,000 people marched through the streets of the capital, Pointe-a-Pitre, to celebrate the initial victory. The accord on wages provides for a €200 monthly increase for workers with a gross income of between €132 and €1849 per month (i.e. the minimum wage or up to 40% higher than the minimum); a 6% increase for those between €1849 and €2113; and a 3% increase for those with higher incomes.

This agreement is called the “Jacques Bino Accord” in memory of the union activist who was killed during the strike. The cost of these wage increases is allocated between the employers and the French and local governments, with small business employers responsible for only a quarter of the increase.

Other concessions accepted after lengthy and difficult negotiations, included:

• an average 6% reduction in the price of water;

• hiring of 22 Guadeloupian teachers on the waiting list;

• €40,000 in compensation for truckers and bus operators left out when urban and inter-city transportation was reorganised;

• various measures to aid farmers and fishers, including the setting aside of 64,000 hectares of farmland for future use, and a grant of €350,000 for the modernisation and renewal of fishing gear for full-time fishers;

• an emergency plan for young people (jobs and training for 8000 youth aged 16-25);

• lower bank service rates on certain products for individuals and small businesses; lower interest rates on loans are still being negotiated;

• a housing rent freeze and ban on evictions;

• some improvements in union rights, appointment of mediators to resolve outstanding conflicts in some major industries; and

• provisions for cultural development.

A parity commission with equal representation of unions and employers will oversee implementation of the agreements.

Leading the militant general strike, which shut down most businesses, schools, government offices and services, were the General Union of Workers of Guadeloupe (UGTG) and the various affiliates of the major French union federations. The mass demonstrations, often mobilising tens of thousands, were led by large disciplined contingents of marshals dressed in the LKP T-shirts.

The strike collective held frequent mass meetings to report on developments. A popular website included constant update reports, photos and video presentations of speeches at the major rallies and demonstrations. Reporting on the draft accord at a mass meeting on March 4, union leader Rosan Mounien said: “From now on, things will no longer be done as before! That’s over!

“We have come to realise that when we are together, we are stronger! So there is only one thing to do: stay together!”

The bosses and the government, he said, had overlooked the fact that “when a people arises, when it develops awareness, when it is convinced of the rightness of its actions … there is nothing that can stop it. The people sweep aside all obstacles placed in their path, like a whirlwind cleaning out all the dirt in a country.”

Asked by a French newspaper why the bosses had proved so resistant to the workers’ demands, LKP leader Elie Domota said: “To them, it is out of the question that the negroes would rebel and demand increases in their wages.”

The preamble to the Jacques Bino Accord pointed out the struggle’s underlying cause, stating that “the present economic and social situation existing in Guadeloupe results from the perpetuation of the model of the plantation economy”.

This economy “is based on monopoly privileges and abuses of dominant positions that generate injustices”, which affect “the workers and the endogenous economic actors” and block “endogenous economic and social development”.

The accord calls for an end to these obstacles “by establishing a new economic order enhancing the status of everyone and promoting new social relationships”. Domota told French daily L’Humanite that although the strike movement had not advanced demands for institutional changes in Guadeloupe’s colonial status as an “overseas department” of France, “the people of Guadeloupe are demanding more respect, more dignity, work, an end to racial discrimination, increased wages and training to ensure the future of our youth”.

Guadeloupe is one of four French overseas departments or territories now convulsed by major social conflicts. “These societies”, said Domota, “are built on a colonial model. They are countries that want, in the future, to be recognised in full dignity, in full respect.”

The UGTG calls for the independence of Guadeloupe. On March 8, the day after the 30,000-strong victory march, the union published a resolution to this effect adopted at its 12th Congress in April 2008. (See translation in related articles.)

In neighbouring Martinique, a general strike that began on February 5 around similar demands has also mobilised the population of some 400,000 with demonstrations of up to 25,000 in the capital, Fort-de-France.

It has already produced a provisional accord that contains many of the same provisions as the one in Guadeloupe — and it includes a 20% reduction in the price of some basic consumer products. But the strike movement continues.

A similar mass movement appears to be developing in another French colony, La Reunion, an island in the Indian Ocean with a population of about 800,000. A coalition of 25 trade unions, parties and other mass organisations has mobilised up to 30,000 in the streets in support of a platform of 62 demands, many of them similar to those in the Caribbean colonies.