Lessons from the Yellow Vests? Some thoughts on unions, ‘recruitment’ and ‘mobilisation’

December 17 2018

Since November, the French ‘Gilets jaunes’ (‘Yellow Vests’) have provoked an unprecedented crisis for the Macron government. The movement’s national blockades and demonstrations have thrown the spotlight squarely onto questions of economic and social justice, forcing numerous policy shifts from the president in response: the cancellation of a planned petrol tax, an increase in the minimum wage, the suspension of income tax on overtime, and some financial relief for retirees. These measures, which are not funded by any increased corporate taxation, have been widely condemned on the left as confirmation of Macron’s ongoing hostility to working people – but the very fact that the government has had to announce them speaks to the sheer power and depth of the fury that the president has generated since his election in May last year. While many aspects of the movement reflect specifically local conditions, what is currently happening in France raises suggestive general questions about ‘recruitment’, ‘organisation’ and ‘mobilisation’ in social and political change – central concerns for anyone committed to worker organisation, protest, and unionism as levers of economic and social justice.

The Yellow Vests movement is a movement of workers, not of workplaces. While most of the participants are known to be workers or retirees, they have taken their actions not on the job but off it, congregating at common points of circulation and distribution: road networks, highway toll booths, regional shopping centre hubs. The movement’s remarkable political impact has not been achieved through the traditional union means of strike organisation or other workplace agitation, or through the standard set-piece marches unions usually stage, their routes negotiated with the police, to press systemic demands. Instead, the movement originally made its mark by blockading roads, in a more disruptive, dispersed, and working class version of the occupation tactic characteristic of the Occupy, Indignados and Nuit Debout movements. When it converged on Paris, it eschewed the left’s traditional protest routes, and demonstrated illegally on the Champs Elysées, the principal artery of Parisian wealth and political power, from which left-wing demonstrations are traditionally excluded.

Vests en marche

The gilet jaunes’ impressive achievements so far should significantly temper the idea that people need to be ‘organised’ and ‘educated’ by unions’ centralized political bureaucracies in order to effectively make demands. This prejudice is ubiquitous in unions’ self-conception. As it was expressed by a recent outgoing white-collar union president in Australia, the idea is that the union ‘membership enables the officials and leadership to do the job of industrially and professionally organising and protecting and advancing our collective interests and concerns’.

GJs blockade

The yellow vest upsurge has been an especially clear illustration of just how mistaken this bureaucratic and authoritarian conception of unionism is. The gilets jaunes’ blockades were organised without and sometimes against official union support. The movement’s growing consciousness of its own limitations has also developed horizontally, in the absence of official structures and direction. Over the past six weeks, it has shown once again that, when the situation is right, people can ‘organise’ themselves perfectly well, and adopt creative tactics to force a response from their targets.

The Yellow Vests are, precisely, a ‘movement’ – a spontaneous convergence, made up of people coming from a range of different political positions, currently en route together, but without an agreed final destination. Everyone hates Macron, but many differences exist: some people focus on the need for lower taxes, others on better social welfare; some people are sympathetic to union or party involvement, others – most – aren’t; the majority of people describe themselves as of the left, but a large minority identify with neither left nor right.

Various practical goals have been declared by different groupings – greater economic justice, an end of tax concessions for big business and lower taxes for workers, Macron’s resignation, the abolition of politicians’ privileges, a ‘citizen initiative’ referendum – but the extent to which these actually cohere the movement remains to be tested. Some gilets jaunes clearly see the mere existence of their collectivity as an end in itself. As Coralie, a gilet jaune interviewed by Le Monde on her vision of the movement’s political objectives, put it, ‘I don’t have any particular expectations. What we’re doing here is an end in itself. I’ve already won’. If the gilets jaunes was an exercise in personal empowerment, that attitude would be understandable. If economic and social justice is the goal, then different criteria of success are needed.

Volunteer armies

Significantly for unions, the participation in the movement has happened without specific ‘recruitment’ of the familiar kind. The gilets are a volunteer army: no one has been asked to pay dues or sign up to a particular political program. Instead, people have only been encouraged to recognise a collective mark of identification, the yellow vest that every French motorist is obliged by law to carry. Rather than being recruited into a formal political organisation, the movement crystallizes and transforms a collective identity that everyone already has.

union force GJ

This raises a significant challenge for unions: if the movement has got so far in the absence of any of the usual structures of organised unionism, what are the implications for how those structures might need to be rethought? The CGT and other actors of the left are surely right in saying that, in order to genuinely reset the balance in favour of working people, coordinated mass strikes, not punctual blockades and weekly demonstrations are needed. But, if this is the case, how should unions conceive of the task of ‘recruiting’ new members into their hierarchical, tightly structured organisations in the light of the gilets jaunes’ success in horizontal, spontaneous organising?

‘Recruitment’ is a military metaphor: recruits are recruited into an army, trained, and then ‘mobilised’ for action. The very idea of recruitment establishes a separation between getting people to join and getting them to act, with the second being made conditional on the first. By contrast, progressive union recruitment is based on the idea that recruitment has to be combined with mobilisation to be effective – the idea that you don’t just recruit someone, you recruit them to do something. But even this progressive approach still inherits a sharp dichotomy between recruitment and mobilisation, because it sees union membership as a prerequisite for, and therefore as different from, politically meaningful action. It also embodies a view of union members as raw material waiting to be shaped and directed by the superior political experience and insight of the union leadership. In its most risk-filled version, this conception of the recruitment/mobilisation duo can lead to a union campaign being counted as a victory solely if it attracts more members into the union, regardless of whether the campaign’s ostensible goals are met.

Real differences of political insight and experience do, of course, exist among political actors, and no political movement should ignore the lessons of experience or the strategic importance of long-term planning and analysis. Unions are typically repositories of just this kind of vital strategic insight. But as the yellow vest and any number of other examples attest, workers can and do take action without being directed to do so by a union leadership. Recruiting on the basis that union membership is the precondition to effective workplace action can be a powerful way of suggesting to workers that the organic modes of collectivity they already experience in the workplace should not or cannot be harnessed for politically transformative ends. You can’t do anything together, it can tell them, unless you first sign on the dotted line. In the absence of recruitment as a call to arms, recruitment predicated on union membership as a prerequisite for action risks becoming a conservatising force. It is likely to encourage new members to think of the union not as a collective force for workplace justice, but as an external body to which the responsibility for action can be delegated. At worst, it fosters the impoverished conception of unionism as insurance, a safety-net to safeguard existing conditions and protect individual members, not any kind of collective agent of transformative workplace change.

Upending the recruitment-organisation-mobilisation model

One of the recurrent themes in comments attributed to the gilets jaunes in the media is the transformative sense of purpose and confidence that flows from taking collective, self-directed, action. Unions’ contradictory role in dampening spontaneous action is, of course, well known, and has already been in evidence: along with most other trade union confederations, the CGT recently shockingly lined up with the government to reprimand the gilets jaunes for their ‘violence’, rather than express its unconditional solidarity with their demands for economic justice.

As French unions continue to grapple with the question of how to orient to the yellow vests, the movement’s impact raises questions about the fitness of traditional union techniques of recruitment and mobilisation. Many CGT members have participated in the gilets jaunes actions. How could the central union best orient to the movement as a whole?


In the first instance, perhaps, by offering the practical solidarity of union resources and expertise to local gilets jaunes actions. There are many things the gilets jaunes need: communications infrastructure, logistical support, legal advice, material, like-minded contacts elsewhere, political support. Unions can help with all of this. Doing so would establish the immediate, practical relevance of unionism to workers in struggle. If followed through, it would also provide a strong incentive for non-unionised participants to see the importance and advantages that flow from union support.

There is nothing distinctive to the yellow vest movement in this: union responsiveness to and facilitation of workers’ initiatives have the same advantages on the smaller, more local scale of individual workplaces that they do on the national scale the gilets jaunes occupy. An approach to unionism rooted in responsiveness to local initiatives turns the traditional recruitment-organisation-mobilisation model of union growth on its head: rather than the union persuading workers to join it with the promise of what will be possible later, with the prospects of effective action in direct proportion to the density of union membership, or out of gratitude for past achievements of unionism, workers are shown the practical advantages of union expertise and resources, and join on the basis of the union’s demonstrated ability to support local workers now. Entry into the union is not, on this model, a matter of ‘recruitment’ – a process that originates in the recruiter, not the recruit. Instead, becoming a union member is a decision taken by workers in response to the union’s solidarity with their own mobilisation.

This would, of course, entail a radical upheaval in the way central union hierarchies envisage their relation to workers: rather than having the ambition of monopolistic control over industrial organising, this more organic kind of union organising would be oriented to intervening in the struggles that are actually underway, in a manner that takes its cue from workers’ real-time demands and the embryonic strategies for achieving them that always arise. This is, of course, exactly what traditional unions claim to do already. The problem is that their top-heavy, centralized structures are mostly rigid and ill-suited to the flexibility needed to support the spontaneous activity of their members.

What is a union? Most essentially, simply a workers’ collective. That can take many forms. The distributed, uncentralized kinds of action unfolding in France since November give us a glimpse of a kind of collective action often supported by unionists, but to which the world of union officialdom is far less open. Centralisation and coordination are essential, but union officials characteristically exert a highly conservatising influence, aiming not at a radical empowerment of workers, but at the stable management and mediation of capital-labour relations. The gilets jaunes, and the possibility of a productive orientation to them from French unions, highlight the need for a different way of imagining the connection between official unionism and collective workers’ power.

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