Striking in France

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Just about everyone I know in France has been affected by the current rail strike. They’ve rearranged schedules, exchanged tickets, changed travel plans, dealt with interminable lines and navigated harried crowds. They have little sympathy with the strikers – but at the same time they support them, or at least their right to strike. It’s a very French attitude: admire the idea and complain about the reality.

But strikes in France are an ingrained part of life. Strikes are written into the constitution as a fundamental right. Strikes also arrive with startling regularity – usually as soon as the word “reform” is uttered by the government. There is indeed a “gréviculture française,” that is, a culture of strikes that’s particular to the French.

The current railway strike – by the SNCF, the public train company – was organized to protest changes that the government plans for rail workers (known as cheminots). These changes would affect new hires (existing staff would be unaffected for the most part), but they include changing the railway workers’ coveted early retirement (as early as 52), extra vacation days, and free travel for family members. The unions fear that these reforms will lead to others that will be more burdensome, such as being fired summarily (it’s very hard to fire someone in France). The government argues that the SNCF is drowning in €46.6 billion in debt and needs reform. The SNCF currently runs trains at a cost that’s 30% higher than its European neighbors.

The strike, which is to run until the end of June, every two days out of five, is not only a test for the government – especially President Emmanuel Macron’s resolve to see the strike through to the end, and not give in – but also for the unions, in particular the CGT. The CGT is one of the main national unions. It has seen its membership drop and wants to show that it can still maintain its hold on keeping things as they were.

Keeping things as they were is a powerful idea in France, land of patrimony, long tradition, complex and unwritten social cues and doing things a certain way simply because they’re done a certain way. Such as being free to exercise your right to strike regardless of how someone else is affected by it.

The current railway strikers have not mentioned the terrible disruption these strikes have on the lives of millions of people who need to travel by rail to work (and who aren’t protected by union agreements). The inconveniencing of other people is nothing next to the idea of protesting a reform that might change at some point how you work. I find myself siding with the inconvenienced here, since although the railway workers have a point – hard-won rights, once ceded, are impossible to get back – the majority of the population is being held hostage by the egos of many union leaders who are more used to inconveniencing than the other way around.

Strikes, walkouts, demonstrations, work slowdowns are so much a part of French life that I wonder if in the end they have any effect at all. If so many people express displeasure so often, can anything be done to appease anyone? Or is that even the point? Strikes can be as effective as shouting into the wind, but sometimes that’s all you’ve got. And sometimes they can actually work. Years ago I took part in a brief reporter’s strike at the Wall Street Journal, despite my fear that we striking reporters could be replaced (the Journal, like most newspapers, considers reporters expendable, like cheap furniture). But the strike had its effect, and we were given a modest raise in pay. We were still expendable, but for a brief period we were also slightly better remunerated.

Twenty-five years ago, a nationwide strike brought France to a standstill, and prevented reforms to, among other things, the railway workers’ contracts. But that was then: life is more precarious for workers everywhere now, even those who are protected by longstanding accords. I don’t know if these striking railway workers will be able to prevent the changes that will likely become law. But for now, they’re doing what they can: disrupt.

I’m not yet at the point where I shrug my shoulders at the latest strike by whatever group has decided it’s had enough of whatever it is that’s causing them misery. That is, I’m not French. But like my French friends I too have arranged my schedule to accommodate the availability of trains. The SNCF has provided a calendar for the days of the strike, so you can plan accordingly. At least in this regard the strikers are thinking of others.

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