Labor militancy and popular mobilization in Martinique and Guadeloupe led to strike settlements last month remarkable for wide-ranging, decisive benefits for racially oppressed working people. Victories there occurred amidst a wave of protests elsewhere, especially in Europe, against lay-offs, rising prices and plunder in financial sectors.
The patterns of centuries prevail in French Caribbean colonies cast as part of the French mainland. White descendents of slave owners control most land, businesses, jobs and government offices in both islands. Unemployment in Guadeloupe is given as 23 percent, in Martinique, as 27-30 percent. Levels of extreme poverty are estimated at 13 percent and 17 percent respectively. Overall prices in both islands for basic items exceed those for similar goods in France by 30-60 percent.
A 44 day strike in Guadeloupe, led by the League Against Profiteering, ended March 4 with the Jacques Bino Agreement, named after a labor leader killed at the barricades on Feb. 16. Following his death, the French Communist Party sent a high level delegation to meet with trade union officials on the islands. “Nicolas Sarkozy and his government have a contemptuous and irresponsible attitude towards the Caribbean people,” noted the Party’s press release, which asked, “How many deaths will it take for [Sarkozy] to regain his lucidity and finally give satisfaction to the claims of trade unions.”
In Martinique, the February 5 Collective, a coalition of unions and social movements, brought a strike beginning that day to a successful conclusion on March 14. The settlement there paralled the earlier one on Guadeloupe. In both instances, low income workers gained $250 in monthly income. Higher earners won lesser, but still substantial, increases. Taxes on the rich were increased; a youth job program promised, and food and transportation costs reduced. A moratorium was placed on foreclosures, evictions and utilities. French officials committed to making Creole an official language.
In Fort-de-France, Martinique, some 20,000 people celebrated, many chanting in Creole, “Martinique stand up.” For weeks, demonstrators into the thousands had marched in both colonies day after day against hardship, exploitation and racial oppression. The great majority of the strikers were descendents of slaves brought from Africa to harvest sugar. Slogans and banners targeted the wealthy, white elite known as “bekes.”
French news reports of “intimidation” in Guadeloupe by “mob pressure” were denounced as racist by strike sympathizers. Strikers were well organized, peaceful and disciplined, despite provocations from 5,000 French riot police, according to reports. Strikers and supporters created soup kitchens, food, culture and self-defense committees and organized picket lines and barricades.
French prosecutors charged Elie Domota, leader of the heavily involved UGTG labor federation, with “fomenting provocations.” Domota, however, warned that either the French government will “respect and implement the agreement, or they will leave Guadeloupe.” He promised, “We will not allow a band of Béké to re-establish slavery on our soil.”
In both islands, the general strikes evolved, according to the UGTG web site, into “a true class struggle movement.” The strike demands reflected “the will of the Guadeloupe people.”
In La Reunion, France’s island colony in the Indian Ocean, tens of thousands of strikers demonstrated off and on over the same period. Their demands echo those of workers in France’s Caribbean islands. So far, the trade union coalition propelling the mobilization in La Reunion has been unable to reach agreements with the French government. Strike leader Gilles Leperlier pointed out that half of La Reunion’s inhabitants are poverty-stricken and a fourth are unemployed. He suggested that France is confronted by “a vast movement challenging the situations of privilege, a social and political movement that will not stop until the overseas territories have taken in hand their own destiny.”
The UK Guardian reported that gratification at anti-colonial, anti-capitalist victories achieved in the Caribbean buoyed up many of those participating in the general strike in France, March 18, that attracted, according to estimates, 2 to 3 million people.