Monday, December 26, 2011

The Screeners' Strike

The strike of airport baggage screeners is over, most of the striking unions having accepted an offer of an annual bonus from management as a reason to call off their walkout. Did the intervention of the government, which sent in police to handle the screeners' job and end the chaos at the airports, weaken the workers' bargaining position? No doubt. As much as the public may dislike the tactic used by the strikers--to disrupt holiday travel--it was probably effective in the short run. In the long run, one may question whether it's wise for unions to antagonize a substantial segment of the public in this way, because it weakens the legitimacy of the union movement.

On the other hand, the government's action was, to my mind, outrageous and a violation of the constitutionally guaranteed right to strike. Against this, Sarkozy and Fillon invented out of whole cloth a "right to vacation" and used this as a pretext to intervene. This only underscored the stark class divide between the strikers, most of whom were close to the bottom of the wage spectrum, and the people they inconvenienced, those with money enough to enjoy a winter getaway. The statistics relating vacation travel to income are quite dramatic in France, and many at the bottom of the ladder rarely travel far from their homes. So, like the Occupy movements, the baggage screeners' walkout was a warning to the wealthy, and it came from a segment of the population more representative of the have-nots than "the 99%." The use of police to break the streak was probably unconstitutional and surely high-handed, but it seems to have worked.


Anonymous said...

All due respect, Art, but this time you're out of touch. Tossing in a "99%" reference shows you haven't been in France a lot.

France is a country where people go "home" for Christmas, similar to the way Americans do their transhumance at Thanksgiving. Many, if not a majority, of the people travelling this time of year or the middle class or even lower middle classe. (Plane fare can be cheaper than TGV tickets to many cities.) In addition, the divorce rate is very high in France, and there are huge numbers of kids who fly to visit one parent or another at that time of year.

In addition, the French - and mainly those in Paris - are totally fed up with strikes being called on weekends and holidays, just as an annoyance to the people who they should really try and get support from.

Warning to the wealthy? Nope. You need to spend more time here.

Anonymous said...

One more thing… the wealthy don't go to the airports where there are strikes. They have private jets, and fly out of Le Bourget, which was not on strike.

csw said...

100% agree with Anonymous...
Normal people fly in France, not just the 100%.

Easyjet flights from Paris to Nice or Toulouse are 70 euros round trip--one day of SMIC.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with Anonymous and csw here.
First, "normal people" surely fly in France, but considering only about 20% people travel in any way for Christmas, that's still at least 80% who don't (logically). Out of these 20%, the overwhelming majority take their car or the train, especially since there are holiday coupons from employers and family coupons for families with 3 kids or more, plus all people with travelling cards get 25-50% discount as long as they're with one kid. The vast majority of French people (was it 70%?) live within 2hr of their relatives so I doubt they'd bother with flying. They'd spend more time in the airport than they'd save flying.... There are very few cities within France where taking a plane would be better than taking a TGV if you're going North/South; the matter's different for the Southwest and perhaps Brittany but that's about it.
Second, the airports affected such as Roissy are not EasyJet and RyanAir airports so the "cheap flights everywhere" argument (which is true except during the holiday season) doesn't apply.
Finally, the strike did NOT disrupt anything. All news anchors were careful to point out that disruption was virtual and unfelt by the public; the worst was a Lyon-Nice flight that was 20mn late - I've been in airports in France and in the US where no one was striking yet a 20mn wouldn't be considered an inconvenience, let alone a major one.
So I'm with Art on this: people who make minimum wage bugged Airport de Paris in order to earn a little more and didn't bother passengers, something that is very understandable; the government decided on grandstanding as if this were a major issue* then set a precedent of strike-breaking by the CRS. Regardless how upset Parisians are with RERB breaking down and other such problems, I don't see how anyone benefits here.

Sidenote: Daniel Schneiderman pointed out how the journalists are affected thus open on this, whereas when a Pole Emploi closes down and stops paying unemployment or helping people finding jobs, for TWO WEEKS, no one reports on it. Still this could be considered an inconvenience that affects more people and for more than holidays.

* I'd wager that if the 99% number was wrong, it wasn't far off.

Mitch Guthman said...

I have been thinking a lot lately about something posted here a while ago that made reference to a Facebook post by Jean-Clément Martin about whether we are living in a pre-revolutionary period.

I have been asking myself this question: Why were there revolutions in France, Russia, Iran and Cuba but none in Western Europe and the USA? My thinking is that although conditions for revolutionary change have been right in Europe and the US from time to time (such as near the end of the Gilded Ago in the US and post-WWII in Europe), the thing that saved us was that in each instance the elites in the US and Europe turned towards more progressive policies to stave off revolution while the elites in France, Russia, Iran and Cuba did not.

In that light, I think the comments on this post are making too literal a reading of Art’s references to the strike as being a warning to the “one percent”. I don’t think the significance is that the “one percent” are affected by the strike (clearly they are not) so much as the notion that they and the political class might begin to take notice of this strike as yet another manifestation of a growing anger in the working and middle classes that seems to be bubbling up. And seeing that anger, and understanding that we might indeed be in a pre-revolutionary period, perhaps they will turn away from their current path (which I believe is highly likely to lead to violent, bloody revolution) to avoid what might be the increasing risk a revolution in which the “one percent” might lose all (including, quite literally, their heads).

FrédéricLN said...

Let's put it very simply: the huge majority of screeners you would meet in the airports, as well as the huge majority of those we saw striking on TV, were coloured. And the huge majority of French air travelers is not.

The strike is not about colour, neither is hiring to these positions, or defining the wage. Airports are just located in the "grandes banlieues" of the largest towns, and the towns around have a low real estate value (the noise,…), so in France, that's where you will find townships with a majority of families founded by African immigrants in the 70's.

But I would not be surprised if the colour barrier explained, in part, how the conflict was managed on both sides. I found the communication channels poor, imagination absent, mutual understanding intangible.

Kirk said...


If anything, the number of strikes in France - at least the ones that annoy enough people to get on the news - has decreased in recent years. So I don't think your suggestion of this one being a sort of warning really applies.

I won't deny that I am often shocked when I see the number of people in France who earn only the minimum wage. Yet most of the strikes in France are not for salaries, but for other, more vague reasons. This one was, at least, clearly for the money, a totally valid reason for a strike. But the timing was such that it simply pissed people off.

I don't think we're anywhere near a revolution. You have to remember that these strikes are carefully orchestrated by the unions, and there's no chance of anything serious in France ressembling the amorphous Occupy movement in the US. Unions in France strike to "defendre leur biftek," and make sure they remain relevant. They have no interest in striking to really help workers; that's part of the union problem in France, where union membership is low, and unions are not organized by trades (each union generally covers all trades, with a few exceptions).

Anonymous said...

The screeners won a one-time $100/month bonus, for a year; it won't be counted as salary, thus won't count for further pay raises and won't count for calculating unemployment wages nor for retirement. Yet that was hailed as +10% for them by the journalist, indicating the screeners barely make minimum wage.