Is The Government Of Protest-Loving France Orchestrating Strikebreaking?

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Pascal Rossignol / Reuters

A French policeman checks a passenger and her belongings at a security point in a terminal at the Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Roissy, outside Paris, December 22, 2011.

To many observers abroad (and even some closer to home), France has the reputation of being a singularly strike-happy place—a country whose workers will walk out at the first sign of professional or even political discord. Meanwhile, in a nation where less than 10% of the labor force belongs to a union, France also stands apart for the tolerance—and often support—the mass majority of non-striking people usually express for labor disruptions that can make commuting to work a nightmare. So  it may now seem odd to see the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy not only engaging in what appears to be strikebreaking activity—but also generating little of the anticipated public uproar as a result.

On Thursday, Sarkozy’s conservative government deployed police forces to replace striking private security workers at Paris’ two main airports. The move was made after negotiations Wednesday evening failed to prevent walkouts from extending into their seventh day. Even before police took up the posts of striking workers Thursday morning at security installations at Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, unions had hotly denounced government mobilization of 400 cops for replacement duty as a violation of French laws guaranteeing the right of employees to strike. Though the labor action has ended in some provincial airports—notably Nice—the movement has continued and even spread elsewhere as the week has progressed. Despite that, most flights around and out of France have departed as scheduled, albeit usually after significant boarding delays. But with 80,000 fliers expected at Charles de Gaulle and 41,000 at Orly on Thursday alone as the holiday travel surge begins, Sarkozy told cabinet members Wednesday “to be extremely attentive to the evolution of this situation, and take all necessary measures” to deal with it. Enter police forces, security checkpoint right.

The source of the dispute is hardly novel: money. Unions representing the nearly 10,000 employees who check voyagers and baggage at French airports are demanding monthly pay increases of $262 per person. They say that’s necessary to compensate for what they call insufficiently low average salaries of $1,700 in a sector where hours, surveillance, responsibilities and pressure are all constantly on the rise. The roughly half-dozen companies that took over security services from French police forces when the sector was privatized in 1996 say those across-the-board pay hikes—which they calculated at $52.4 million total annually—would ruin them. Despite a government-appointed arbitrator in the conflict, positions have hardened at a majority of airports where workers have continued prolonging their action.

Beyond the financial sticking point in the dispute, however, the injection of politics means the clash may ultimately have broader dimensions for French labor law. In the absence thus far of any loud public uproar over moves to send police  into airports as de facto scabs for picketing employees, Sarkozy’s government is vowing to extend a controversial 2007 law designed to undermine the impact of public sector strikes—especially transport, where union membership is high. That law sought to break the paralyzing impact of public employee strikes by creating minimum service requirements to ensure sufficient train, subway, hospital and school staffing and operations to let people carry on with work and life during big labor protests. The law also obliges strikers (rather than unions) to give at least 48 hours notice ahead of walk-offs, and allows management (rather than unions) to consult employees via secret ballot about continuing any industrial action that has lasted for more than a week. Critics claim the law robs public sector strikes of their main muscle, and seeks to sap employee resolve by giving management the central role in process of deciding whether to prolong action or not.

Now Sarkozy’s conservative government is looking to use what some members denounce as security workers “taking holiday travelers hostage” with their strike to extend the 2007 law to all air transport employees. Under early proposals, that move would include private sector workers like those currently being replaced by police at Charles de Gaulle and Orly. Unions have denounced the moves as an effort to violate employees’ rights to defend their interests through labor disruption, and for using public servants like police as strikebreakers in private sector disputes. Worse still, critics contend, the wider aim of such efforts is nothing less than union busting.

Such concerns may be understandable. Were the 2007 law to be extended as now proposed, it would mean significantly limiting the ability to strike by  certain private sector employees–like security workers–on the grounds their jobs are essential to public services at publicly-operated venues like airports. Yet the same could logically be said of myriad employees of private airlines flying into those airports—and not just French flag carrier Air France. It doesn’t take much of a reach to see how that logic could be stretched further to other private business servicing any of the thousands of state enterprises or their affiliates–and why unions view the current clash now involving a dangerous precedent.

So would a broadening of the 2007 law as now planned mean an end to the heady days of French strikes–and surprising level of public support they usually enjoy? Don’t count on it. Recent history has shown neither political determination nor legal strictures do much to dissuade the French from expressing their discontent when so moved. Indeed, though Sarkozy himself was quoted as saying his minimum service law had proven so efficient that “now when there’s a strike, no one notices,” he’s faced repeated and robust labor and protest activity since then. The largest—involving months of disruption last year to oppose pension reform—sped Sarkozy’s descent to record unpopularity, and continues to darken his re-election hopes.

Meanwhile, massive work stoppages in transport, schools, public administrations, and even by justice officials since the 2007 law passed have proven the willingness of unions and employees to flog legally enshrined minimum service requirements when they decide to strike—and reconfirmed the general support they get from French society when they do. For now anyway, France may not be rising up in outrage over the government acting to break the security workers’ strike, but that doesn’t mean the country is ready to revamp its more general forbearance of protest.