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Gilets jaunes: from motorists to subaltern workers

The demands of the gilets jaunes movement centre on work-related measures such as increasing the minimum wage and limiting short-term contracts. Despite converging interests, France's trade union leadership has largely remained quiet. In this article, Étienne Penissat and Thomas Amossé address this silence and urge organised trade unions to rebuild ties with the subaltern workers in the fluorescent vests. 

Étienne Penissat, Thomas Amossé12 December 2018

Gilets jaunes: from motorists to subaltern workers

This article was originally published on Libération on 6 December 2018. It has been translated from French by David Fernbach. 

The spark that ignited the current social movement is directly linked to a key part of everyday life: the car, and the impossibility of using it owing to the exorbitant price of fuel. The protective yellow vest made compulsory by the state was turned against it and became the standard of a popular struggle. The figure of the motorist is sufficiently ambivalent, flexible and universal to bring together citizens from very different social and occupational backgrounds. However, the cartography of the movement seems to indicate that it primarily draws on individuals who have no choice but to use their car to get around, and are unable to manage financially without jeopardizing their lifestyle (small savings or small pleasures of life). For the most part, these are the working classes and those whom some sociologists have called ‘lower-middle’.

This signifier with a low symbolic charge, the gilet jaune, places the protest outside the world of work. It does not explicitly refer to any specific social category, occupational group or territory. Alongside fears of recuperation by the far right, this explains why trade unions, especially those that are usually the most combative (CGT and Solidaires), have been indifferent, sceptical and sometimes even openly opposed to the movement. Whereas trade unionists mobilize in firms, the gilets jaunes movement takes place outside factories and workplaces. Trade unionists demand wage increases, the gilets jaunes– at least initially – demand tax cuts. Unions organize employees, whereas the gilets jaunes include many self-employed people. The unions’ main weapon remains the strike, whereas this movement uses roadblocks.

A movement separate from work?

Yellow is itself a negative symbol for the workers’ movement, the colour of ‘scabs’. So we can understand how, a day before the 17 November protest, Philippe Martinez, general secretary of the CGT, could associate the gilets jaunes with a mobilization by the employers (France Inter), and contrast them with the ‘red’ vests of the CGT unionists. So is the gilets jaunes movement something separate from work? A sign that occupational anchorage is no longer a structuring basis for mobilizing the working classes? That is far from certain.

First, when the gilets jaunes are questioned at the roundabouts, they introduce themselves by their professional identity – just like individuals and spokespersons most often associated with their line of work or status (temporary, self-employed) – along with their department, their town or the site of their blockade. This has allowed the media to associate this anger with the anger of the working classes and the lower middle classes.

Then, for many of them, the motor of revolt is associated with an inability to use their main work tool. Thus, for workers and craftsmen in construction or transport, for temporary workers, home helps, self-employed nurses, the car is the only way to move from place to place, from customer to customer, from patient to patient. It is understandable why many women in these occupations – where people often work alone and where mobility is a strong constraint – are present in this movement even though they are largely absent from the unions. In some cases, the car is even a key accessory in the struggle, as with taxi or ambulance drivers. Porous borders between salaried employment and independence, the need for mobility, the isolation of certain occupations and the destructuring of professional sociability – this movement outside the workplace says a lot about the transformations of the world of work over the last twenty years.

Finally, the more the movement advances and becomes politicized, the more demands related to the world of work emerge: obviously an increase in the minimum wage and in social benefits, but also that the difficulty of retirement should be taken into account, or the limitation of short-term contracts. Some trade unionists have perceived this and are mingling with the gilets jaunes. But the voices of trade-union leaders remain timid and scarcely heard. Even though the trade-union movement does not lack resources or legitimacy to join in.

The fluorescent vest is also an item of work clothing. It’s the garment of forklift truck operators, warehouse workers, road-sweepers and garbage collectors, builders, IKEA salespeople, railway workers, those precarious workers who watch over exit from schools, and some delivery workers. Fluorescent yellow, the colour of those who must be visible in their workplace in order to protect themselves, yet who had become invisible in the public and political space. For a trade-union movement weakened by defeats and retrenched to a few bastions, the challenge is to rebuild ties with these subaltern workers.