Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Minimum Service

The minimum service debate is now the order of the day, the government having introduced its bill yesterday. Bernard Thibault has mounted the barricades, but Libération, which gave him ample space to air his views and might be expected to be his most likely supporter in the press, takes a decidedly tepid position in an editorial signed by Laurent Joffrin, calling upon both government and unions to tone down their rhetoric and negotiate.

Indeed, the rhetoric could stand a little chastening. Thibault speaks of an assault on "the constitutional right to strike." Presumably he has in mind Article 34 of the Constitution, which in fact stipulates only that "the law," which is fixed by acts of Parliament, "determines the fundamental principles of ... the statutory regulation of labor, unions, and social security." The burdens to be imposed on strikers (48-hour advance notice, requirement to vote on continuation by closed ballot after one week off the job) fall well short of, say, the powers of injunction granted to the US government by the Taft-Hartley Act. In pragmatic terms, use of the right to strike has declined sharply in the public sector in recent years: transport workers were out an average of 0.8 days last year, and in the RATP (Paris Metro), where a prior notice measure similar to that proposed by the government was negotiated between unions and management, the average number of days lost to strikes has declined from 0.8 to 0.4 per worker per year over the past ten years.

So what is really at stake? When asked if the minimum service law was not a way of heading off trouble over proposed reforms of the special retirement regimes, Thibault replied, "Sure, you can see it as a precautionary move, a way of anticipating discontent that the government's actions may stir up." And he promised that in September his union would launch a major "educational campaign" about retirement regimes.

In the back of everyone's mind, of course, are the events of 1995, when Alain Juppé's government attempted to reform the special regimes, provoking strikes by the transport unions that paralyzed the country and eventually brought down the government and brought the left to power. Transport strikes were a successful weapon then, but only because there was widespread opposition to the retirement reforms. As kirkmc pointed out in a comment to a previous message, there is not widespread support for unions to pursue a broader political agenda by using the right to strike in key sectors such as public transport to multiply their obstructive power. Nevertheless, the exact state of public opinion with respect to the larger issue of retirement reforms (and, beyond that, of the single labor contract) has yet to be tested. Thibault is maneuvering and skirmishing in advance of these anticipated major battles. A good deal has changed since 1995.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your fascinating blog. I'm writing a report on President Sarkozy's reforms for my College Government course and your blog has been an overwhelming asset. Thanks so much!