The French union in a ‘fight to the death’ with government

The battle between the hardline CGT union and the French government over the labour reforms has been described a sa fight to the death. Who will emerge as winners?

The French union in a 'fight to the death' with government
All photos: AFP

France's largest union, the CGT, has opted for a do-or-die strategy of choking off the nation's fuel supplies after failing to galvanise the masses against the Socialist government's labour reforms, analysts say.

Given what is at stake for both parties, one politician described the battle as a “fight to the death”.

A springtime of discontent over the job market reforms, seen as heavily weighted in favour of employers, has run out of steam after wresting a handful of concessions from the government.

France has a reputation for chronic strikes and protests, but union action does not often force a major government climbdown.

Undeterred, the CGT last week launched blockades of oil refineries and depots, threatening to paralyse the country unless the labour reforms are scrapped altogether, barely two weeks before France begins hosting the Euro 2016 football championships.

The union is “going for broke” with headline-grabbing actions because it is “having trouble inspiring the masses,” said political scientist Dominique Andolfatto.

CGT leader Philippe Martinez (see below) himself posed for the cameras last weekend as he threw a tyre onto a flaming barricade set up at a fuel depot in northern France.

The union, formed in 1895, has been dominated by Communist Party stalwarts since World War II, but Martinez is its first leader who is not a card-carrying communist — he left the party in 2002 while retaining “a certain number of ideals”.

Since the 1990s, the CGT has been increasingly open to compromise, but Martinez is now returning the union to its roots, said labour rights specialist Bernard Gauriau.

“He is adopting a more trenchant attitude than his predecessors, often stressing the theme of class struggle, to rally the ranks,” Gauriau said, adding that the move is a way of “distinguishing himself from other unions”.

Protests over the proposed labour reforms reached a fever pitch at the end of March, when some 390,000 people took to the streets across France, according to an official count, while organisers put the number at 1.2 million.

That coincided with the birth of a new youth-led movement called “Nuit Debout” (Up All Night), which has seen advocates of a broad spectrum of causes gather in city squares at night to demand change.

Stark choice

But both movements have largely fizzled out, even though nearly every week has seen strikes and protests, some descending into violence.

In the general public, while seven in 10 people still oppose the labour reforms, 58 percent want the protests to stop, according to a recent poll.

The CGT counts only 700,000 members out of an overall workforce of 24 million, but insists the government is to blame for the current showdown because it has not responded to workers' demands.

Martinez, 55, was re-elected in April at a time of deep disappointment within a union that had endorsed Francois Hollande for president in 2012.

“Was gutting the labour code in Hollande's programme?” Martinez asked. “The government has turned its back on its commitments and it is paying the consequences.”

If the CGT's current gambit fails, it will be the second time since 2010, when right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy pushed through the pension reform despite weeks of street protests and strikes.

Although less than 10 percent of the French workforce is unionised today compared with some 30 percent in 1950, the unions enjoy key bargaining power within companies, which helps them influence government policy.

But the last time a mass protest movement forced a truly memorable government climbdown was in 1995, when then-president Jacques Chirac made a first stab at the pension reform that Sarkozy achieved.

Unemployment still high

Parisians in particular remember that cold December when public transport was shut down completely — wiping out crickets living in the city's metro system normally warmed by the passing trains.

Hollande's labour reform package was initially billed as a signature initiative to address the issue he has staked his presidency on — unemployment — which remains at a stubborn 10 percent with elections less than a year away.

Pressure from the street, as well as parliament's back benches, caused the government to water down the proposals, which only angered bosses while failing to assuage critics.

But the CGT has made a stark choice, said labour historian Stephane Sirot.

“Once the CGT adopted a strategy demanding the withdrawal (of the reforms) it has only two options: either it stops the movement or it gives it a new impetus.”

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French trade union chief slams UK and US over lack of workers’ rights

France does not want to treat its workers like the UK and US, with zero hours contracts and no protection for the unemployed, Philippe Martinez, the head of the hardline CGT, France's biggest trade union, has said.

French trade union chief slams UK and US over lack of workers' rights
Photo: AFP
Last year Martinez and his leftist union fought an unsuccessful battle with President Emmanuel Macron over a raft of reforms aimed at freeing up France's rigid jobs market.
Those controversial reforms cut into the power of France's trade unions and made it easier for firms to lay off staff.
Martinez believes Macron is influenced by the “Anglo-Saxon” model but he does not want to see the same situation in France. 

“Anglo-Saxon countries like the UK and US are Macron's model…his inspiration,” Martinez told a gathering of journalists from the Anglo American Press Association including The Local. 

“I saw an excellent Ken Loach film recently, 'I, Daniel Blake'. And if you think that is an example of a modern society…well,” he shrugged. 
“We don't want to have zero-hours contracts and no rights for the unemployed,” he said.


French labour reforms: What's actually going to change for workers in France

Photo: AFP

Controversial zero-hour contracts stipulate that the employer is not obliged to provide any minimum working hours while the worker is not obliged to accept any work offered.
“Macron is trying to conduct politics away from the unions,” Martinez said. “Political parties have never been as distant from the world of workers as they are now.”

Martinez also had a dig at China, saying: “We don't want to be like China where children are working in factories”. 
He went on to question why Macron hadn't brought up this, and other human rights' issues, on his recent trip there, instead of just “giving them a horse.”
The formidable union leader has been at the helm of the far-left (once Communist) CGT since 2015. 
And since then he has done his best to act as the thorn in the side of the French presidency. 
However, in 2017 the once hugely powerful CGT failed to stop the reform of France's enshrined labour code, as President Emmanuel Macron swept to power and started carrying out the dramatic changes to workers' rights that he had promised.
These included giving small companies in particular more freedom to negotiate working conditions with their employees, rather than being bound by industry-wide collective agreements negotiated by trade unions. 
In 2016 when socialist president Francois Hollande was attempting to reform France's labour code, changes were ditched due to pressure from the unions as demonstrations caused disruption across the country.