“Twenty or thirty years ago we had strikes to win something. Now we strike to defend what we have. That’s very different. We have our backs against the wall,” Gilles Garnier, member of the French Communist Party’s National Executive Committee, tells The Local. “The workers are losing salaries, they are losing rights. Their expenses are going up and their working conditions are getting worse.”
For Garnier it’s simply a matter of people defending themselves and understanding they are stronger together. In his view it’s what workers do when they have no other choice.
“I think it’s necessary when management or your boss or the people who run your company can’t hear you anymore and if they don’t want to talk. Or if they say you can’t have a raise but the boss gets a 30 percent increase in salary,” Garnier says. “This is when people say ‘Stop, I need more.’ If you don’t want to negotiate then we have the weapon of last resort and that is a strike.”
The anger towards public sector employees over their strikes is misplaced, Garnier says. In the history of the labour movement civil servants have won benefits, which started as unique to them, but became standard for everyone.
“When Renault was a state-owned company its workers became the first to have four weeks of holidays, then it went to five weeks. They had (five weeks) before the rest of France. In France people said, ‘If Renault workers win, we will win too.’” Garnier said. “But now the times are changing and because of the propaganda from free-market supporters, the public sector workers are considered privileged and they are pitted against everyone else.”
Beyond the question of hard-won benefits, strikes are for Garnier an expression of a healthy democracy. If people lost their leverage against the government and business leaders it would signal a disturbing shift, in his view.
“It’s totally normal in a democratic society that strikes are allowed. Strikes are only forbidden in fascist regimes or dictatorships,” he said, adding that the industrial action in France now is nothing like it used to be.
“I saw Paris where military buses had be brought in to transport people in 1968. We had military buses because there was not one public bus operating in Paris. There were five million people not working. That’s a strike.”
Below UK blogger Tom Gill, who writes for www.revolting-europe.com, gives an Anglo view on the French strikes and wishes British trade unions were more like their French counterparts.
“After the recent strikes affecting the French railways – the longest in recent history – air traffic control and the entertainment industry there are fears among the establishment that, as the Economist puts it, France is 'back to the bad old days'.
“That was the terminology used about Britain in the 1970s and early 1980s when it was one of the strike capitals of Europe. That was also a period when the public sector was of an unprecedented size and society was at its most equal.
“Today, after the imposition of draconian anti-union laws by Conservative PM Margaret Thatcher, industrial action has fallen to levels not seen since the post-war 1950s.
“And parallel attacks on the welfare state, the promotion of ‘flexible’ labour markets and a massive privatization drive – pioneered by the 'Iron Lady' but now promoted vigorously by the Eurocrats and the ‘Troika’* – have led to a society where corporate power rules over and above the needs of the general populace.
'Weakened unions have left the UK population impoverished'
“The best measure of this is inequality: the gap between London and the south-east and the rest of the country, between top earners and the rest, between the share of the national wealth held by workers compared to business has widened dramatically.
“Weakened unions and a decline in industrial militancy appear to have done little but lead to a generalized impoverishment of the population, except the one percent.
“The right to strike is a fundamental human right. It allows workers to counterbalance the overweening power of employers.
“And that's not just the private sector but governments, like France's socialists, who have abandoned their campaign promises to stand up to the deficit hawks in Brussels and Frankfurt – led by austerity queen Angela Merkel – and capitulated to corporate power, for example handing out €50 billion in tax cuts to employers, funded by an equivalent amount in public spending cuts.
“France's rail workers have been striking to protect a world-renowned public rail system from a EU-inspired carve-up designed to profit the same money men that nearly destroyed the world economy in the financial crash in 2008. In Britain, as with many other public enterprises, we lost our nationalized railways to privateers as the public was sold the mythical wonders of competition.
“Unions, fettered by Thatcher's laws, were too weak to secure the much-needed investment to modernize our transport infrastructure and block the sell-off. And whether it's comfort, speed, fares or huge tax payer subsidies, we are paying the price.
“So, yes, strikes are damn inconvenient but they are also part of a healthy functioning democracy. When unionized workers walk off the job, it is by and large because politicians and/or their super-wealthy friends in big business are failing to act in the public interest, and it is left to organized labour to stand up for it.
* (Three-part commission created to handle the European debt crisis and includes the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund)
Where do you stand on French strikers? Should we commend them?
This article was originally published in June 2015 during another summer of widespread industrial action.