It’s not always obvious to the public why people go on strike, and not just because the media don’t present their case fairly.
Imagine an air traffic controller. Suddenly he finds that colleagues going off sick, on maternity leave or retiring are not replaced. He has to do the work of two or more people. When his computer develops a fault, it takes a day for it to be repaired. He draws all this to the attention of his manager, who tells him if he can’t cope, it’s his fault. How does he react? Disbelief, panic, horror.
Naturally this scenario is not likely. But it gives an idea of the distress felt by other workers when management make it impossible to do the job properly.
Imagine now that the air traffic controller finds his overtime is not paid. Or the staff canteen is got rid of, and break times are scheduled so he can never socialise with colleagues; on top of that, he has to fill in time sheets for every 15 minutes of his working day.
He feels undervalued, overstressed, not trusted. But if he went on strike over these grievances, the public would not necessarily sympathise. Yet, these are common situations many people face, especially in the public services. They were under the illusion that their job, like that of the air traffic controllers, mattered for the country. That illusion is being shattered. Three cases stand out in France at the moment.
The head of a primary school in a Paris suburb took her own life in September this year, at her school. She wrote letters to explain the impossible burden placed on her. Over a hundred parents and colleagues marched in remembrance. The French education system is moving towards the Anglo-Saxon ‘caring’ model. The society is also moving towards the Anglo-Saxon economic model: fewer good jobs requiring long training and rewarded with a sufficient salary, more precarious employment requiring no or minimal training. Vocational education has been downgraded: four year courses are now done in only three years, apprenticeships are devalued drastically etc. There is obviously not room for everyone among the well trained and well paid, and the hereditary element comes in: children of the better off will get the well paid jobs. Parents and children are aware of the situation, and the fewer the prospects, the less will be the motivation of pupils and their parents. The solution is better prospects, but that seems impossible at the moment. Various theories are put about regarding school failure which ignore the real life situation. For example it is pretended that success at school depends on things like self-esteem. Not giving marks to children will improve their self-esteem, the theory continues. So the teacher no longer gives an overall mark, 4 out of 10, but instead sends the pupil home with a list of comments, such as ‘X can understand a text composed of five short sentences quite well’, or ‘X can sometimes extract the literal meaning of a short text’. The parent has no idea whether this is good for his child at that particular age. Teachers spends hours of pointless effort puzzling out these questionnaires for each aspect of the child’s work, for every subject. The head teacher traditionally commented on every pupil’s progress by looking at the marks and additional teacher reports. Now they have to do it by reading this mountain of comments, which is not humanly possible, on top of their other duties, never mind their personal life. Teachers and headteachers are conscientious to a fault; no wonder the head teacher found she was crushed by an impossible burden. But the explanation given to the public is not satisfactory: ‘she had too much paperwork’ does not explain how she felt.
Another head teacher described the typical work load: ‘We must organize services, transmit information to teachers, promote educational projects, manage administrative tasks, ensure the safety of the school, manage staff replacements, place orders with suppliers…. And we always have plenty of deadlines, not to mention the emergencies that we have to deal with on a daily basis. We are interrupted every 5 minutes and we always have the impression that we are not doing what we would have liked. Not to mention the new reforms that unravel the previous ones.’ Plus having to support new inexperienced teachers every year, given the high turnover in a difficult district, and having to look after pupils whose parents don’t come to collect them.
Then there is the case of the police. It may be difficult to summon up sympathy for those who dealt with the Gilets Jaunes, by taking out eyes and hands, and killing an old woman closing her shutters in her fourth floor apartment in Marseille. Nevertheless we can assume that a well-trained and paid police will be a safer one for the public. They marched on 2nd October because their overtime has not been paid for months; this delay has financial implications, but also, beyond that, moral implications: if the police were important enough, the job would be funded sufficiently. There again there are many suicides, and the explanation again is not satisfactory. A detective interviewed on the subject said: ‘We kept running out of photocopying paper’. What she meant was that if her job was so crucial, as she believed it was, then she and her team would be given the resources.
The importance of special status
The railway workers are under attack as a public service. Their special status regarding conditions of work and pensions (privileges!) are being taken away for new entrants, to render competition between different railway companies ‘free and fair’.
Also in the interest of competitiveness, regional trains are being operated by one person only. This is part of the ‘removal of the human presence’, as they say in the French media when discussing this general phenomenon. This appears to save money in the short term, one less person to pay. But obviously there are costs, in terms of unemployment on the one hand and excessive stress on the remaining workers on the other. Not to mention the possibility of accidents. On 16th October, a regional train hit an articulated lorry stuck on a level crossing. The shock was great enough to knock out the alarm system that alerts other train drivers and the central observation posts that a train has stopped unexpectedly outside a station.
The driver, injured, had to run 1500 meters along the line to set up the warning flares and detonators, leaving the passengers, some of them also injured, to cope by themselves.
This was a clear case of the need for two employees on a train. Drivers all over France exercised their right to withdraw their labour—as distinct from their right to strike—which comes into play when there is a direct threat to the safety of personnel.
The movement took on momentum and half the trains were halted on Friday 18 October, and continued on Saturday.
The management of the SNCF accused the train drivers of using the ‘right to withdraw’ as an illegal way of going on strike; the labour inspectors decided that the drivers had acted legally. The question of one man regional trains is still being discussed. Management is adamant it won’t budge. Since the three months strike earlier this year got no result, there is no cause for optimism on the part of railway workers.
A programme on France Inter discussing these issues talked about the ‘affective aspect of work’, meaning the emotional aspects, having companionship, doing something meaningful, being trusted. A Frenchman in the nineties, coming to work for Pechiney in Corby, noted how the workers had no loyalty to the company, working one week and not turning up the next, for example. Perhaps they had had their loyalty tested too far in a previous work existence. Many Corby workers were ex Scottish steel workers put out of work. Now France seems to be throwing away worker loyalty for the sake of ‘free and fair’ competition; in the case of civil servants, the shrinking of the state has equally disastrous results. In the phrase ‘pay and conditions’, it is conditions that are harder to understand for the public. Conditions should include having the training and the means to do the job properly, and not being asked to do the impossible, on your own. Unions need to do a job of educating the public, so that they understand better why people go on strike.