Politics & Policy

Unlucky Strikes

Why French railway workers should spend more time watching American TV writers.

Here’s a sad story from the annals of collective wisdom, union-style: I once watched the Teamsters organize workers at a company that was battling successfully against two non-union rivals in a tight market. The company was paying its workers more and giving them benefits their competitors could only envy. Then the union called a strike. The competitors split the market between them, the unionized company folded, and in no time the striking workers were all left jobless. The Teamsters moved on and never did get around to organizing those other two companies.

I’m sure this has happened many times, and in many places, over the last ten or twenty years. Not to be unkind, but often unions seem a little like something from the past that just won’t go away. Not to digress, but did you read in Reuters that Walter Cronkite is going to do commentary for a geezer channel on that new-fangled cable thing? It’s true. I hope he finally endorses Mondale.

Living relics are always popular — beloved, some might say. Although Paris is often criticized by the French themselves as a “living museum,” the word that unions were going to make a stand against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s much-heralded economic reforms brought the European press out to see the now-familiar, historical re-enactors, dressed as union members and college students, throw the conveniently cobblestoned streets at authentic French riot police while the cameras roll.

As the strike grew, the BBC’s confused man in Paris saw the whole thing as a kind of paradoxical retro-fest in which the power of the people in the street was ranged against …uh, the power of the people in voting booths. They’re the ones who had voted for Sarkozy and his promises of economic reform, especially of insupportable pensions. There’s always something poignant about the Knutishness of those who represent industries nurtured by subsidies fighting to hold onto their own sweet deals, and the transport workers were certainly marching against the tide. Maybe that’s why many British papers echoed the view of The Economist, which saw the strikes as providing Sarko with the chance to grab a great Thatcher moment, and do as the formidable British prime minister did in 1984 and 1985, when she faced down the left. When the dust settled, the unions were divided and weakened, and the head of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill, had been reduced from an important labor leader to a minor annoyance standing in the way of Britain’s progress into the late 20th century. Scargill’s extremist excesses played into Thatcher’s hands just as the hardline CGT-cheminot types seemed to be doing for Sarkozy.

I mentioned this view to a Parisian journalist who dismissed it as facile. The strike, he pointed out, lacks the kind of widespread popular support these things require if they are going to successfully veto free and fair popular elections. I think he’s right: The longer the strike continues, the more the unions will lose — the strikes are dividing them, as Le Figaro reports, and putting a huge strain on the political left. As François Chérèque, the leader of the CFDT (one of the striking unions) put it in 20 Minutes a few weeks ago when the transport workers last tried this, this kind of strike will “go nowhere” — not a good sign for transport workers. When union leaders tried to rein the strikers in a little this time, the angry cheminots dissed leaders like Chèréque, as this colorful item in Le Figaro describes, and voted to continue the strike either until hell freezes over or Monday, whichever comes first. University students, of course, are out in solidarity with the railway workers, as Eursoc explains.

My friend steered me toward Eric Le Boucher’s insightful analysis in Le Monde (from November 11 and already behind that old-fashioned pay-wall!). Le Boucher dismissed Sarkozy’s missionary zeal for reform and had a problem with Sarko’s conflation of reform and velocity, finding his quarter-mile, flat-out style of politics ineffective, at least so far. In addition, Le Boucher argued that Sarkozy’s moment differs from Thatcher’s in three (really two) closely related ways: Time (this isn’t then), money (France’s economy today is nothing like Britain’s 30 years ago), and the unions (Thatcher didn’t try to rewrite the laws of political physics overnight).

This last element may be the one that counts most. “The real test this month,” wrote Le Boucher, “is not for Sarkozy but for the unions.” (In Germany, transport workers are also on strike, demanding a 31-percent wage hike. “Germany’s turn to be hit by railway strike,” the Daily Telegraph headlined — although I kind of preferred Matt Drudge’s link to an IHT piece: “German train stoppage cripples passengers; tempers flare.” You hit the wall, you pay the price.)

Given the mood at the moment, it’s hard to imagine a swell of popular support for striking transport workers anywhere in western Europe. But the French especially seem to be rebelling against giving piles of money to their countrymen based solely on their ability to clog a street and yell. As Le Boucher suggested, there’s a growing sense that the unions’ gripes just don’t make sense any more. Transport workers must know this by now. Even as labor minister Xavier Bertrand warns readers of Le Monde that he won’t negotiate during a strike, the unions are asking for a “clarification” as a way to avoid an impasse that can’t help their cause. They’ve seen how most of their jobs can be done by a few sleepy Homers sitting next to a computer button. One entire line of the Paris Metro is run by chips and switches already. Trains-on-tracks aren’t exactly cutting edge.

But TV on your laptop is. And that’s why the French train drivers should pay attention to what’s going on in Los Angeles, where writers are on strike because the huge corporations who pay them don’t know how to deal with new technologies that will make their products available to more people than ever before. Their market will inevitably expand along with new and better ways of getting the goods to viewers. So what do they do? They stiff the people who make the stuff they sell — namely the typists who churn out Leno’s jokes the way weaving women used to make tweed. That’s the kind of dull-witted behavior that gives corporate greed a bad name and unions an excuse to exist.

According to Libération’s reporter, when strikers like The Daily Show’s Jason Ross point out that “they are the writers” it sounds like an apology. Some writers have a lot to apologize for, but this strike isn’t one, since in Hollywood, unlike in Paris, the strikers really do have something worth fighting for — their futures. They want a share of the profits their employers will make because of their hard work and the employers are offering them nothing. Unfair enough.

But Libé’s cherished cheminots? They’re like striking zeppelin porters, fighting for the perks of their past in a business that’s so profitless, the taxpayers have to chip in to keep it afloat. The bet at the moment is that if Sarko stays the course and doesn’t apologize by folding, the unions will go down in flames. So far, reports l’Express, he has substantial public support and people are willing to put up with the hassle to do what must be done to end mob rule. Maybe for the French, that’s a future worth fighting for, too.

Denis Boyles, author of Vile France and the upcoming Superior, Nebraska.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...

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