Friday, October 22, 2010

Those Crazy French Workers

Strikes continue in France, despite violent attacks by the police. Workers and students have set up blockades in the oil sector, creating fuel shortages throughout the country. The current protests are in response to Sarkozy’s pension cuts.

To Americans, French workers may seem like spoiled brats with their regular large scale strikes and protests. After all, they get to retire much earlier than we do (even with the proposed changes to retirement). They get free healthcare and longer vacations. Mothers get paid maternity leave and the government provides domestic help for new mothers.

What we tend to forget is that French workers have all those great benefits because they have been so willing to strike. Work stoppages, work to rule, sabotage and other types of concerted and well-organized direct action hurt the bosses’ bottom line. When well-planned and executed, direct action can also win public support. Currently, the French workers do have public support, as the public generally opposes the cuts. Most importantly, though, the action must hurt the boss enough that he is willing to back down or negotiate with the workers.

We also tend not to hear that the strikes and protests in France are often wild cat, without the full support of the mainstream unions. In the current case, the unions have mounted little or no protest to the extreme violence that the French government has meted out to protesting workers and students, particularly at the oil blockades.

The media tend to portray what’s happening in France as an aberration in an otherwise peaceful series of take-backs and austerity measures being imposed on citizens throughout Europe. In reality, the strikes in France are just the most developed and overt examples of growing worker opposition throughout the continent.

In the U.S., austerity is being imposed without much resistance. We have been told that times are tough and we all must tighten our belts and most Americans seem to accept that. Yet the richest 1% are still the richest 1%, and they always will be because they use situations like this to further consolidate their wealth. They have been tightening other people’s belts by firing workers, closing shop, resisting tax increases for themselves, demanding cuts in services for the poor while preserving their subsidies and demanding government bailouts.

Because police repression in France has failed to quash the protests, Sarkozy is relying more than ever on collaborationist unions to help him suppress the unrest. Union representatives are publicly declaring that opposition to the cuts is futile and they are attempting to undermine the strikes. This is not unlike America, where both the NEA and AFT spend more time and resources finding ways to make NCLB, RTTT, Common Core Standards and Charter Schools palatable to their members than they do organizing members and the public to resist them.

Unions, in general, have been under attack lately. Instead of fighting back, educating the public, demonstrating their usefulness, they have essentially gone into hiding, damage control, or buried their heads in the sand. While our unions may be collaborationist, our right to collective bargaining has ensured that we have relatively good pay and benefits, tenure and free speech protections, and job security. To the unemployed and marginally employed, we seem like the spoiled French workers and make an easy target for their frustration and anger.

We should not allow the ruling elite to control this discourse. They are the ones responsible for the economic crisis, not teachers or other unionized workers. We cannot allow them to put the blame on us. If our unions are too lame to mount an effective campaign against this, then we, as workers, need to do it.

Direct Action gets the goods.

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