Strike at the refineries – reportback from Grandpuits

Strike at the refineries

Since the beginning of the movement against the Labor Law, we have often heard calls to “paralyze the economy,” or rather “blockade everything,” to apply pressure on the government. This strategy has been carried out  at the refineries and at the ports, much like the RATP and the SNCF. A team from Lundi Matin showed up to the strike picketline held at the only refinery in the Ile-de-France. Grandpuits operates on a small [oil] deposit and mainly refines crude oil piped in from Le Havre. Since May 17th, there have been discussions of blockades and above all of a strike. On May 20th, a strike and total work stoppage of the plant had been decided upon: a decision which was extended by a vote of 162 to 154 last Friday, which will last until the following week


The place is impressive: right in the middle of the false countryside of Seine-et-Marge emerges a huge plant, with great chimneystacks where hardly any smoke is emitted. Old-school decor protected like a castle: the plant is surrounded by an enclosure which is crowned with a barbwire fence. The infrastructures of capitalism do not alway shock with their apparent banality and neutrality. As we curiously and reticently looked on, a worker explained to us: “ah well, this is all because the site is classed as Seveso, there’s strategic reserve tanks here, as well as a fertilizer plant nearby. If that goes off then the whole region is smoked.” Welcome to Total (French multinational oil company).


It is obvious that they are not going to let anyone else in other than the workers. Luckily, there came out some workers that just voted on the extension of the strike in a general assembly. Right away a man comes up to us in his yellow/orange CGT vest:


Ah, it’s great that you’ve come to visit us, we have to put a stop to the disinformation because I can’t stand how the media will report on anything about the CGT. They make it seem as though it’s just the CGT that is on strike though really we’re united with the Force Ouvrière, the people in SUD but as well as with non-unionized workers. Basically, we’re all in this together so must stop talking about just the CGT; and even while I’m saying this I’m also a member of CGT (as he points to the union logo on his vest).


We then ask him about the results of the General Assembly:


The strike has been extended; it was 51% to 49% which was a lot closer than it was last week (60/40), but it must be said that the union leadership came by sending mail to all the sections to tell them to vote against the strike.


All the same, the strike has been extended until next week. When we ask him if the close vote would signal to us that a return to work would happen next week, a member of the Force Ouvrière appearing unworried assures us that no matter what happens they have others cards to play so that the work stoppage continues. It must be said that those who vote against the strike are above all the “administrators,” whom make up no part of the movement nor work within this plant: which is another way to say there is not much to worry about, since it is not them who hold the power of when everything comes to a stop. The hierarchy seems to be reversed for once, at least for now.


When we ask them about the statements the government has give to the media, they amusingly reply:


For example, the whole thing around the strategic reserves is a ruse. We here are a strategic reserve. At least a part of our stocks is classed as a strategic reserve stock. And I’m telling you that nothing is going to come out of here for as long as we are on strike. So those reserves don’t matter. Their 115 days of reserve means nothing.

(Another work tells us) Anyways, in 2010 we had seen fuel shortages and the State, hand-in-hand with Total, brought in fuel trucks from Belgium. And when the Belgians also went on strike, they were forced to go to Rotterdam. Which of course meant a cost of thousands of euros extra for them.


2010: the struggle against Retirement Reform is clearly in the minds of everyone and which opens up their mouths to speak their piece. At that time, the refineries were under the spotlight: only a few sectors were on strike and didn’t stay so for very long. The workers at Grandpuits were particularly involved:


Total work stoppage lasted for 3 weeks and now we’re just getting started. As for myself, I’ve been on strike for 18 days already, others have been so for a month. They made a film about us at Grandpuits by Olivier Azam, some kinda small victory. It wasn’t so bad. We toured around France showing it, even in Belgium. This helped us get in contact with a bunch of other militants.


At the time, a strike fund was created on the internet and seemed to have made off pretty well:


We did not expect any of that at all.  People were able to do money transfers on PayPal and the whole world got in on it: we received funds from Brazil, from Poland, it was crazy. We were all reimbursed for the days we were on strike, we reimbursed strikers from other sectors, and we even had money left over to give to the Red Cross and to Restaurants du Coeur.


But what then is the difference now then with the situation in 2010?


Back then we were not given as much as attention as we are now. Back then we really felt like we were going at it alone, but happily now many people have come out to see us and support us. What’s interesting today is that the whole supply and production chain is blocked off: ships are not arriving at Le Havre anymore, petroleum is no longer flowing in the pipelines and the plant is stopped. Also, in 2010 there were the requisitions by the State.

– Could you explain to us how the requisitions worked?
– It’s simple really, the prefectures decide along with the directors on a number of people that must continue production. They picked workers at random and they are forced to get back to work. If they refuse then they are faced with prison or huge fines.
– Is there no way to oppose them?
– Last time we blocked the entrance to the plant for 5 minutes but it was no use since it was merely symbolic. On the other hand, the requisitions were later attacked in the courts. And the courts quashed the decisions made by the administration by showing that they were in effect prohibiting the right to strike.
– But couldn’t they do that again?
– In theory, no. Or else it would cause a row: you can’t make strikers work. After the strike is a different story.


Do they feel the need for a bigger movement? They respond with, no: they are not blockading, they’re just on strike so there’s no need for barricades. Anyway, they know things are happening all over the country so they don’t worry much:


We’re getting on pretty well here. And there’s more of us so we don’t feel as alone as we were in 2010. To boot, it’s always fun to see people come out and support us.


The discussion moves onto strategic questions: why did they enter in so late into the movement? A non-unionized worker explains that for those like him it is difficult to hold a strike for more than a month.


If we had started on March 9th, we could not have held the strike up until now. And now there is a renewed momentum and we have a chance to see this to the end. With the [UEFA] EURO 2016, this can all really weigh in on the balance of power.


When they start to talk about what is to come, it is a feeling of confidence which reigns: the failure of 2010 gives everyone many reasons to not get caught up with the first obstacles.


Public opinion? We have no problem on that side. This all unnerves people a bit but that always happens. And there are tons of people with us. So all this doesn’t scare us.


“storming heaven”


In reality, for them, the movement is just starting: like the image of a rising phoenix which marched in the demonstration on May 26th, this “movement” seems to rebirth itself right when people are predicting its end. Hence their confidence: the machines are at a complete standstill this weekend, the whole of next week and no reprisal is in sight.

As the discussion continues, an original idea is brought up: why not fill some fuel-tank trucks and distribute the gasoline for free, to help support the movement but also to taunt the State (which takes 90% of the price of gasoline at the pump) and Total?


– Well I have to be honest with you. That’s theft, says one of them. And we’d risk even more requisitions.
– That’s certainly true but at the same time, if the balance of power tips more in our favor then we can at least imagine, right?
– Frankly, if it was up to me then I’d  say it’s a great idea, says another much younger worker. We’d really put them in the shit and everyone would be on our side!


The future will tell us what happens. The following days perhaps hold a few surprises. This week, the strike picketline will be held everyday and night, without any schedule, in keeping with the spirit of situation….


This is an translation of "Grève dans les raffineries - Reportage à Grandpuits", published on lundi matin

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