Boulevard Périphérique, Paris, January 26th (photo: AFP)
I actually have nothing in particular to say about the French taxi strike earlier this week—and which may still be going on for all I know, as I haven’t been following the story too closely. I rarely take taxis and have yet to call an Uber (though have the app on my phone). I’m a public transportation guy—and when I need to go somewhere in a car, I drive mine—so am not personally concerned by this (and as I never take the car to Paris during the week, I wasn’t held up in some traffic jam caused by enraged, striking cab drivers or otherwise put out by their action). My friend Claire Berlinski, who lives in the heart of the city—and likely takes a taxi or Uber on occasion—did, however, comment substantively on the taxi strike in a post on the Ricochet blog, “Live from the Frontlines of the French Taxi War.” Ricochet’s tagline is “Conservative conservation and community” and as Claire is one of its editors, it stands to reason that, politically speaking, she situates herself somewhere to the right of center. She thus writes
But that’s not all! The air traffic controllers went on strike, causing the cancellation of 20 percent of flights in and out of Paris. And somewhere between 10 and 30 percent (depending who’s estimating) of the teachers’, doctors’, hospital workers’, public-sector workers,’ and farmers’ unions went on strike. The farmers yet again blocked roads with their tractors and dumped manure outside the tax offices. It was your totally stereotypical, “What the hell is wrong with the French” kind of day. I wasn’t personally inconvenienced because I was working at home, but it’s the kind of thing that makes you batty if you need to catch a flight. You end up standing in the street (if you’re me) screaming, “Bring me Margaret Thatcher. I don’t care if you’ve got to exhume her, just get her over here.”
FYI, Claire is the author of an admiring biography of Margaret Thatcher, so it was perhaps inevitable that she would invoke the Iron Lady when weighing in on a strike. I had a few things to say about her post, which I wrote in a private email. But instead of sending it, I decided what the hell, as it’s political and not personal, I’ll post it on AWAV instead. So voilà, here is what I wrote to dear Claire:
(a) On your question “Is it true that the French are always on strike?” The answer: No, contrary to popular belief outside France (and for some inside). It’s been several years since I’ve seen current data on annual work days lost to strikes but can assure you that it has plummeted over the past four decades. Strikes here have become infrequent; they’re less than the 1990s and there is no comparison with the 1970s. And strikes are even more infrequent in the private sector, happening mainly in the fonction publique and public services. And because they tend to happen in the latter—public services—one notices them (more than if just a private enterprise were affected).
(b) Public sector strikes in France are invariably of short duration: one day, maybe two or three, and tend to be localized. They don’t last. It’s been over twenty years since the last long strike movement (3½ weeks) that was national and really paralyzed the country (the grèves of November-December 1995). And there has been nothing in a very long time that can hold a candle to the 1984-85 British miners strike, in duration or scale. In this respect, strikes in France almost never entirely shut down an enterprise or public service, as the decision to participate in a strike is an individual one of the employee (as is joining a union and paying dues). No employee in France—private sector or public—can be compelled to go on strike or prevented from working if a strike has been called by one or more unions. Not even members of unions are obliged to participate in strikes called by their union if they don’t feel like it.
(c) Strikes in public services may seriously inconvenience the public and tourists, particularly in anything connected with transportation, but what tends to create problems is not the strikes themselves but the public actions of strikers that disrupt public order, e.g. taxi drivers or farmers blocking traffic, or striking students erecting barricades in front of universities and shutting them down. A lot of these actions are illegal, though with the police often doing nothing about it (at least not right away). One may express exasperation at the government for its pusillanimity but sometimes it gives the order not to crack down—or to wait a while before doing so—so as not to cause a tense situation from degenerating further (and, above all, not to kill someone, which is every government’s dread fear). And if a situation degenerates following a show of force by the police, this could—no, it definitely would—deepen the movement, with unions across the board calling for sympathy strikes. Because here’s the thing in France: unions can call a strike on short notice (five days in advance in the public sector) and for pretty much any reason they like (there is some encadrement, usually honored in the breach), and stay on strike for as long as they please. A certain number of strikes in France would be illegal in the US and most European countries. Mais voilà, c’est la France.
(d) So, one may say, what this country needs is a Margaret Thatcher, a nerves-of-steel ball crusher who will bust the unions, ram through reforms, and generally kick ass. This has been a mantra of The Economist magazine and others outre-Manche for the past three decades. But what, precisely, would a French Margaret Thatcher do? I have yet to see an answer from those who say that France needs an ass kicker as she was seen to be. Also, when it came to strikes and unions, what precisely did Thatcher do when she was in power? In point of fact, she stood down exactly one big strike, which was that of the miners. As mentioned above, that one was of an entirely different nature than anything France could possibly experience nowadays. And Thatcher had a dream adversary, the Stalinist dinosaur Scargill, and with a weak, divided political opposition (the Labour party having suffered one of its worst defeats ever in the 1983 election). As for the labor reforms Thatcher enacted— banning closed shops and secondary strikes, etc—these brought British legislation into line with what had been the status quo in the US since the late 1940s (Taft-Hartley), as well as numerous European countries. In this respect, Thatcher has been oversold. And when she overreached (on the poll tax), her party dumped her. Also, French presidents and PMs have indeed pulled a Thatcher over the years in conflicts with public sector unions, deciding that they’re not going to back down or compromise in any significant way, e.g. Jean-Pierre Raffarin in 2003 (Loi Fillon) and Sarkozy in 2010 (réforme des retraites).
(e) But, one may ask, why don’t French governments, even of the right, enact laws that would prevent unions from striking whenever they please and for any damned reason, i.e. to bring France into line with the rest of the advanced capitalist world on this score? (personally speaking, I’m all for strong unions—which are necessary for the health of a democracy, not to mention for the workers themselves—but would eagerly support such a law). Governments would no doubt like to do such a thing but don’t and for at least three reasons. First, it’s not worth the aggravation. The mere proposition of such a projet de loi would be greeted with strikes and demos and protests of all sorts. From the standpoint of a prime minister, it would be a pain in the ass and with little payoff, so who needs it? Second, strikes in public services generally don’t involve all unions. Unions in France are fragmented and with several present in a workplace (and which are in competition with one another as much as in cooperation, one effect of which is surenchères). Some unions are militant and maximalist (e.g. FO, CGT, SUD), others are reformist and inclined toward cooperation with management (CFDT, CFTC, CGC…). When governments embark on reform legislation that directly affects the unions, they (the governments) invariably find unions who will cooperate with them. E.g. the 1995 Plan Juppé and which led to the big grèves that fall: the CGT and FO were hostile to the Plan and demanded its withdrawal, whereas the CFDT supported Juppé and did not participate in the strike movement. It’s almost always thus. A proposed law seen as a frontal attack on union rights across the board would end the cooperation that does, in fact, exist. Thirdly, governments have decided to take an incremental approach in lieu of the Thatcherite one, of enacting laws gradually rather than doing so in a big bang, e.g. the 2007 law on the service minimum in public transport, which has all but ended the prospect that the RATP could be entirely shut down again in the way it was in 1995. To try to maintain peace and dialogue with important social actors does seem preferable to confrontation and conflict, no?
(f) Re my above bit about strong unions being necessary for the health of a democracy, I just processed a review—in my capacity as book review editor of The Journal of North African Studies—of a new book on the role played by Tunisia’s trade union federation, the UGTT, in the political transition there since the end of the Ben Ali dictatorship five years ago. Without the existence of robust, independent trade unions—a cornerstone of civil society—so the author of the book argues, Tunisia’s transition to democracy would have likely ended in failure, i.e. with the Islamists assuming a monopoly of power. Just saying.
End of email. Claire, who posts on Ricochet almost daily, often writes stuff I find provocative—or that provokes me—e.g. one from earlier this month on “The Huguenots and the Second Amendment.” I have a lot to say on this one. Plus tard.
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