Viva la France: Le Strike et "Bossnapping"

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 4/16/2009 02:12:00 PM
As anyone unfortunate enough to ride Air France on a regular basis probably knows, France and strikes go hand in hand like the USA and foreclosures. The FT has an interesting take on the dynamics of French striking, which of course is reaching a crescendo during this time of economic slowdown. It seems lots of people are striking without knowing exactly what to push for. Really, they should give this "bossnapping" shtick (soon to be laid off workers waylaying executives) a go Stateside. Given Yankee lust for firepower, results should be tabloidally interesting. Anyway, returning to today's topic, this lack of definitive French collective interest is actually playing in the government's favor.

The reason is that France's level of unionization is not significantly higher than that of other industrialized countries. It just seems that way because of widespread sympathy for strikers--particularly public sector workers. It's "we're not going to take it, but we don't know what'd be better anyway." This gives the government the chance to set the agenda with higher-profile unions by channeling their energies towards interest aggregation, which is preferable to allowing more hardcore elements set the agenda:
Government officials also know that the interests of social stability are best served by not alienating the unions. In fact, in France stability will come from even stronger unions – which is exactly what the government has tried to do with the recent reform to base collective bargaining power on election results.

The problem has been that there are too many unions chasing too few members. Individually they have been so weak that their best leverage has been through strike action – largely in the public sector. The logic is that reinforcing the biggest unions, including the hardline CGT, will help to create a higher quality social dialogue and force them to negotiate, as long as the government sets down some clear rules.

That means Mr Sarkozy may throw a few symbolic crumbs to unions after this Labour Day protest. Far better that recognised unions score a small victory and continue to channel the discontent than to leave the way open for more radical, and potentially more violent, elements to profit from the malaise.

That said, there is always the chance that a single incident could spark off a flash of anger that no one will be able to control. As one official said recently, France is an eruptive country and the game will be to prevent that first incident from taking place. But equally, he admits: “The most serious incidents are the ones you cannot predict.”