Newspaper article International New York Times

In France, Strikes Bring More Bark Than Bite ; Protests over Labor Law Come as Unions Try to Maintain Their Relevance

Newspaper article International New York Times

In France, Strikes Bring More Bark Than Bite ; Protests over Labor Law Come as Unions Try to Maintain Their Relevance

Article excerpt

The strike in France today is most often a carefully choreographed dance between labor, government and the public that is the most recent chapter in a 132-year tradition.

This past week it was the oil refinery workers who were striking, creating shortages for gas and long lines at the pump.

Next week, it will be airport staff, including traffic controllers, forcing some to consider canceling plans or taking the train.

Then, for the next month, Thursdays will bring strikes in Paris suburban trains and the Metro, and on June 14 it will be a nationwide day of strikes. One newspaper, Le Parisien, has taken to periodically publishing a strike round-up listing the next day's strikes to alert Paris-area readers as what to expect and how to alter their routines.

It may seem that the French are constantly on strike, or dealing with one. Yet overlooked in all the chanting, banner waving and tire burning is that a strike in France these days is most often a carefully choreographed dance between labor, government and the public that is the most recent chapter in a 132-year tradition, dating from the founding of the country's first trade unions in 1884.

Today, the unions can still turn out a mass protest that pours both their members and others who support them into the streets, giving a sense of strength. But much of it is illusory; rarely do strikes shut down the country entirely. Rather, they inconvenience it.

Although unions retain a special significance, especially to left- leaning political parties, their heyday in France has passed, labor experts say and union leaders, in their more candid moments, concede.

Workers the world over are facing an onslaught of global pressures that seem only to gather with each passing decade. Those in France are no exception. The government's proposed new labor law is an attempt to grapple with some of those forces by loosening worker protections in hopes of spurring hiring and growth.

It is hardly surprising when right-leaning governments, which tend to be antagonistic toward unions, push through legislation the unions oppose. But this is the Socialist government, which the unions supported at the ballot box and expected to protect their interests. Surveys of public opinion show that while the public is not consistently enthusiastic about the strikes, they do not support the government's new measure either.

The sense of betrayal stings, and that is part of what the current round of protests against the government is about. Yet the unions themselves are divided as they fight to retain not only their workers' benefits, but their relevance.

The union fighting hardest, the General Confederation of Labor, or C.G.T. by its French initials, represents many in the transportation field as well as in the energy sector, and it still has enough power to make life deeply inconvenient. Whether it could truly bring the country to a halt today is far less clear.

"The more a union is weak, the more it tends to resort to protesting to be heard," said Guy Groux, a sociologist specializing in trade unionism at the Sciences Po political science university.

After World War II, one in four French workers was a union member, according to the French government's statistics office. But union membership has slowly dwindled. …

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