Unions fighting for rights must lead to change
When I moved to France, although I was drawn by the delights of French culture, food and wine, I was also propelled by then prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s actions; the swingeing cuts to public services, the poll tax, the destruction of the unions, the glorification of money as life’s be-all and end-all.
In my mind, the French had their priorities straighter than the Brits; they valued quality of life over bling.
I loved French political engagement, their willingness to strike, to oppose the government.
Having watched the decimation of the UK welfare state with hardly a whimper from the general public, I adored the French readiness to get out on the streets with a placard.
I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw people marching on May 1, International Workers’ Day, for no particular reason... just to remind the government what was what.
No wonder they had a world-class health system, no wonder they enjoyed long paid holidays, generous pensions, subsidised childcare, and secure employment.
French people would not settle for anything else.
I cheered them on from the sidelines, and as I gradually went native and acquired my own French ID, joined in with gusto.
But now I’m beginning to wonder. Is it worth endlessly opposing everything, just for the sake of giving the government a run for their money?
Take the SNCF strikes.
For months, railway workers have been on strike for two days a week, causing endless disruption across the country. The strikes are basically against new style contracts for new hires, but the government has already passed the legislation to implement this. It’s a done deal.
As for opening French railways to competition, this was agreed by EU governments in Brussels back in 2001, when they decided to open national railways to competition.
A series of ‘Railway Packages’ (regulations) has since set 2019 as the date for this to happen, and Italian company Thello is already offering journeys from Paris, Dijon and Marseille to Venice and Milan.
So from where I stand (very often on an empty platform waiting for a train that’s been cancelled), there does not seem much point in continuing with strike action.
It is not a question of whose side I am on. It is just that I cannot see how or what the strikers can win.
More to the point, I haven’t met any fellow passengers who support the action. Even support among union members is falling.
With this particular fight, the cheminots are on a train bound for nowhere.
In fact, I am beginning to wonder whether striking too often does more harm than good? In June alone, for example – in addition to train workers – local strikes included action by bus drivers, postal workers, teachers, and cycle delivery staff in various parts of the country.
To be effective, strikers and protesters need to mobilise public opinion as well as paralyse daily life. They need public opinion on their side.
But when there are too many strikes, by too many disparate groups, for too many causes, people start to shrug their shoulders and say: “I don’t know who’s on strike, or what they’re striking for. Who cares?”
And that is a bad thing.
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