France's strike culture conundrum

By Stephen Evans
BBC News, Berlin

  • Published
A message board warns of disruption due to strike action at a Berlin railway station, 26 October
Image caption,
German railway workers have been on strike to demand wage equality

Germans watch the scenes of militancy from France with amazement. It is true that German railway workers have been on strike this week but it is a very rare event.

And it is very focused on pay. Germans usually strike when long-running negotiations reach deadlock. The issue is specific and monetary.

Contrast this with the tumult in France, which is over a broad issue with political ramifications.

But a look at the figures reveals interesting comparisons.

It is clear that the French are much more militant than their neighbours to the east, and also those across the Channel to the west.

They certainly put on a spectacular - occasionally violent - show when they take to the streets but are they more active when it comes to bread and butter issues?

Striking hard

"Yes and no" is the true but, no doubt, unsatisfactory answer.

They do not join unions like their comrades in neighbouring countries. According to the Federation of European Employers, about 30% of workers are in unions in Italy and Britain with slightly fewer in Germany - but still far more than in France - at only 9%.

But they do manage to go on strike more.

In the last five years, France has consistently lost more than 100 days of work a year through strikes for every 1,000 employees.

For Germany, it is a fraction of that, at just under four days for 1,000 workers, on the last figures available.

Britain - 19 days lost for 1,000 workers in 2009 - comes above Germany but still nowhere near France.

It should be said, though, that France has some catching up to do.

The truly militant country in the Western world is Canada - nice, reasonable Canada.

According to the UN's International Labour Organization, Canada often far exceeds France in working days lost through strikes.

This was particularly true before the great crash.

In 2005, for example, Canada lost 303 days for every 1,000 workers compared with 151 in France (Germany: 0.5, UK: six).

Last year, Canada lost a total of 2.2 million working days through strikes. France, with nearly double the population, lost 1.4 million.

Canadian militancy

So why is Canada the true militant nation when it comes to strikes?

It is partly because some bits of the Canadian economy such as mining have boomed.

The sizzling growth has bumped up wages and made workers in weaker industries like car-making try to keep up.

As Canadian industrial relations expert Stuart Jamieson put it: "A by-product of Canada's rapid but unstable pattern of economic growth, and one particularly provocative of industrial conflict, has been the problem of wage disparities."

In other words, mining unions exert muscle to get a slice of the profits. Non-mining unions in manufacturing exert muscle to try to get what the miners have. But it is money, not broad politics, which drives the militancy.

In France, in contrast, many of the days lost are through grand general strikes, with no immediate gain in wages.

Some do involve public sector workers with pay at the centre but many, too, are over broader issues, like the current plans for the higher pension age.

It is very hard to compare countries exactly when you try to discover reasons for militancy.

In Britain, for example, the law bans all but direct strikes against the striker's own employer and over very specific issues.

A general strike leaves the unions open to legal challenges and attacks on their funds via the courts.

Marked by the 1930s

Germany clearly has a very different industrial relations set-up because the war broke old ways of thinking and doing.

Image caption,
Strikers blocked French fuel depots

The consequences of the economic collapse of the 1930s are so seared into the national psyche that confrontational industrial relations seem to be a last resort.

Negotiations are done through works councils, with the strike then used sparingly to break a deadlock and force a deal.

And often not needed at all. The German machine manufacturer Bosch has just brought forward a pay rise for 85,000 workers.

"In difficult times we benefited from the strong loyalty of our staff, which was not a given," the company said.

But in less benign, consensual industrial environments, there are a few further questions: When might strikers become rioters? When does an industrial dispute turn into a social protest? Is what is happening in France a strike, or is it a protest which turns to riot on occasion? It matters because the causes might be different.

In a strike, pay is often the great driver. In riots down the ages, it is a sense of injustice, justified or not, which prompts the explosion.

Labour historians note that in some of the 19th-Century riots in Britain, wheat would be destroyed rather than stolen for use.

In the riots in Trafalgar Square in 1990, the source was a tax, the poll tax, which hit the poor proportionally harder than the rich - the tax was the same no matter what the wealth of the bearer.

Riots are often gestures against perceived injustice. Strikes are often industrial action in furtherance of more money - lose money now to get more money soon.

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.