The Ulysses syndrome

Although is a cliché, but it also true that if migrant workers stopped working for just one day, most European cities would come to a halt. That is the thinking behind the ‘The Day Without Inmigrants – 24 hours without us’ planned for Monday, 1st March in France.

Jacob Lagnado

Whether or not the motion has the hoped-for effect, it is the culmination of a remarkable build-up of actions by undocumented workers, the so-called sans papiers, to obtain legalisation of the status. In October 2009 they initiated a series of strikes demanding regularisation for all. They were supported by unions which sought to pass a Bill in parliament, but the workers also had the immediate aim of obligating their employers to apply for visas for them. Earlier in 2008 this tactic had resulted in 2000 workers getting papers, after 600 went on strike. This time, with the unions pressured into giving more support, the numbers grew from 1,000 on strike the first day to 3,000 a week later.

Mass occupations of some well-known workplaces drew media attention, with 40 restaurant staff occupying the sixth floor restaurant of the Pompidou arts centre for over a week. (Incidentally, in his novel El Sindrome de Ulisses, Colombian author Santiago Gamboa gives a vivid portrait of his time working in a smart Parisian restaurant alongside ‘illegal’ colleagues, as well as of the Colombian community in Paris). The immigrants also targeted a tax office thus pointing the finger at the state which, whilst happy to pocket the taxes of illegal immigrants, denies them all basic rights. Both those with and without legal status stood in solidarity on picket lines outside strikebound and occupied buildings.

How has this myriad of struggles developed? To give one example among many, ISS cleaners organised in an independent ‘cleaners union’ in the 16th District of Paris and went on strike for papers in October 2009, but management refused to negotiate. They escalated the action by blockading company headquarters and a hotel over the Christmas period. Finally their determination paid off: the company agreed to support the workers’ applications for provisional work permits and to reinstate all of them. It is an initial victory, but now the government must apply pressure in order for the visas to be issued promptly.

Is there a lesson to be learnt from these examples? Clearly there are differences between Britain and France which mean that tactics may need to be adapted. However, there are some clear lessons to draw. One is that the large unions will only give support as a result of pressure from their grassroots. Shortly before the new strike wave, the big CGT union evicted sans papiers who were using one of their offices as a refuge.

Even now, and despite the vital solidarity of many local sections, the leadership is only supporting regularisation for those workers ‘useful to the economy’ while the workers continue to demand papers for all. But it is a start. At the same time, by often initiating action themselves and involving other actors such as local solidarity committees, the workers have not had to depend on the unions, but could act independently while demanding their support. Finally, workers must demonstrate unity and reject those ‘solutions’ which divide them by only benefiting some and not others. In other words, the same principles should apply to any struggle today, whether by legal or illegal migrant workers.

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