Paris Our day began in the south of Paris in LaPlace where I had been staying with one of the Alliance’s key advisers when we traveled to the stunning complex of buildings where the large labor union federation, CGT, has its headquarters in the eastern part of the city. CGT has been leading the bitter battle over the last two months against the so-called labor reforms of the Socialist government that would erode many pillars of the renowned French labor standards.
We met the head of the Paris regional CGT briefly but he was dealing with an unexpected arrest stemming from a protest where the government in a breach of common practice was trying to sentence the protestor, part of the required union security team, to three years in jail. Our meetings, not surprisingly shifted down the hallway for a discussion of organizing, where we hoped we planted the seeds that will yield to ongoing, productive dialogue. Such discussions are all in a day’s work of evangelism, but nothing was more inspiring than standing in the CGT atrium, whose expanse also serves as a union hall and meeting place when needed, and when not offers a setting for a dramatic display of banners celebrating the union’s issues and campaigns.
From there we began the first day of our staff meetings with the Paris and Grenoble organizing staff where we dissected the experiences and lessons of recent organizing drives, and then for the highlight of the day we left our office in the soaring public housing high rise, that are legendary warehouses build on the outskirts of Paris for lower income families and workers, and walked through Aubervilliers, where we organized our first two groups, to see the turf and meet some of the leaders.
Aubervilliers is a separate township abutting Paris with a population of about 50,000 or so, and either the poorest or second poorest district in all of France, depending on whom you are talking with at the moment. As we walked through the area, Elias Showk, one of our Paris organizers, explained the state’s housing scheme in this and many other areas where there is an abundance of public housing. The state program freezes the number of units between public and private and then subsidizes developers to bring in mixed-income construction, essentially disinvesting in public housing. We walked through streets where we could see the older housing being torn down so that new buildings could be added next to other public units little maintained.
Most of this Aubervilliers organizing drive had been conducted in 1500 units of public housing in the area, and where we ended up was standing in the parking lot that had been an issue in the first campaign of this group. We were in the neutral zone between a shiny, new glass building where some of the units had been torn down, a grass field, and the parking lot. Our leaders explained that they had been paying an assessment of twenty euros per month for two years for the lot, but the entry barrier had been broken as well as many concrete parking stanchions, so in effect their lot had become community parking that they were subsidizing. It was hard not to believe that in effect they were paying for the parking of the residents of the new mixed income units.
In their first action they had confronted the public housing manager and after an hour of negotiations won a commitment for repairs, many of which we saw firsthand, as well as a commitment to refund 240 euros or one year’s worth of parking payments for the tenants because of the lack of barriers. The leaders were still unhappy that the primary barrier remained unrepaired even though there was other progress, so there was discussion of next steps even as they proudly showed off their progress.
In the tilted housing policy of the area, walking away we were inspired by their conviction about these fights and the organization, because there was no way to avoid thinking that this was simply the first of a thousand battles in Aubervilliers.