Saturday, January 5, 2008

Which Side Are You On?

"Which side are you on?" goes the old union song. In France the line increasingly conjures up thoughts of divisions between unions rather than between unions and employers. In the recent strikes against the SNCF and RATP, inter-union dissension was plain to see. And now we have François Chérèque, the head of the CFDT, walking out of a meeting to the boos and jeers of other trade unionists. Of course the Libé article plays to the gallery, its lead sentence casting the CFDT in the reprehensible role of collabo because the union, in its function as head of UNEDIC, the unemployment agency, signed agreements with the MEDEF, the principal employers' association. This led to protests by a group called Agir ensemble contre le Chômage (AC, Act together against Unemployment), along with representatives of part-time theatrical workers, a cyber-journalist, and actors from the troupe Jolie Môme. The protests included occupation of CFDT headquarters and insults to union employees. The CFDT called the cops. The bad blood from that incident remains.

Childish though these events may seem, they point to a contradiction at the heart of French trade unionism. The major unions continue to exist despite low participation rates because they play an oficial role as "social partners," in this case managing the UNEDIC, an institution that serves all workers. This necessarily involves cooperation with employers and government. But for some workers, organized labor is primarily a vehicle of theatricalized confrontation and ludic self-expression, not an organic labor-market institution. And so we have Jolie Môme (Pretty Kid) thumbing its nose at François Chérèque, the big bad bear, who often wears a scowl and looks like anything but a Jolie Môme.

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