U.S. Labor's Calls for French-Style Action Reveal Idea Vacuum

Article excerpt

In a remote corner of my bookshelf stands a paperback fittingly called "Lutter," by Georges Seguy. The title means "to struggle" and Seguy wrote it as secretary general of the Confederation Generale du Travail (General Federation of Labor), France's biggest and toughest labor organization.

Seguy, a resistance fighter imprisoned by the Nazis in Austria at age 17 and a youthful member of the then-clandestine French Communist Party, later rose to Politburo status in the party. That complemented his posit ion atop the Communist-affiliated CGT.

Flipping through the book Thursday, I was transported back 20 years by Seguy's inscription. While examining relations between labor and immigrant workers in France and Germany, I'd spent months within the labyrinthine land secretive structure of the CGT, and one morning the man himself had shown up in an auditorium to sign copies of his book for France's revolutionary masses.

What stirred the search for the book are the increasing references to the combativeness of the French working class - much of which seems to be on strike recently - and the suggestion that French unionists serve as a model or prod for an American labor movement seeking to reinvent itself.

Such thoughts are cropping up in newspapers, in newsletters about labor trends, even in letters to the editors of local union publications. One commentary this week opined that U.S. workers facing budget cuts might be influenced by the drastic French response to austerity measures.

This isn't even apples and oranges, it's apples and, well, brie - and it bespeaks the difficulty the AFL-CIO may face in reinvigorating a tired American union movement.

The French labor movement could hardly differ more from its U.S. counterpart. France has a set of labor federations of varying ideologies - Communist, Socialist, Social Democrat, Christian, conservative, company-based. Given the movement's fragmentation, each entity tends to be small as well as relatively poor and weak. The key ones want to overturn the existing social order, which they regard as exploitative, and put power in the hands of workers.

The disunity and revolutionary fervor combine to make tactics of desperation - the guerrilla strike, mass political action - weapons of choice. …