The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

France:
Airline Workers Force the Government to Back Down

Nov 10, 1993

To justify his retreat in the face of the Air France workers who recently were on strike, Bernard Bosson, the French Transport Minister, explained to his colleagues that this was not a conventional strike, but "a grassroots revolt based on a gut feeling". To back up his point, Bosson even evoked May 1968, when a student revolt set off a four week general strike of the French working class.

For the Transport Minister, no doubt, a conventional strike is a strike organized and controlled by the union organizations, the course of which is at least predictable, if not completely programmed. And the Air France strike was indeed more than this.

State-owned Air France is the most important French airline company. The strike against it was triggered by the decision of a small section of the workforce, the 800 freight-handling workers at Roissy airport near Paris, to go on all-out strike, renewed each day, starting October 12.

The strikers' aim was to oppose the consequences of management's plan, the so-called "Rebalancing Plan", or Attali Plan, named after the man who was chairman of Air France at the time the strike began, but who resigned during the strike at the point that the government backed down. Under this plan, the reduction of bonuses for shift work would have left the workers with a cut in wages of between 1,500 and 2,000 francs ($250 to $350) a month, while their basic salaries (excluding bonuses) are already among the lowest in the company.

At first, the strike seemed to take the form of an "economic" strike, a test of strength between workers and a boss who is losing money because the strikers have stopped work. But the fact that the boss here was the state, and that this strike was in fact against a plan drawn up by the government, a plan which was an example and a symbol of the government's intended policy of austerity for workers, automatically gave the movement another dimension.

The Reasons for the Strike

Former Air France chairman Attali has been criticized for his "tactlessness", for the fact that at the very moment when he was deciding to considerably reduce certain workers' wages, he awarded pay raises to the best-paid category of the work force, the flight personnel. This injustice no doubt played a part in the workers' anger. It was probably one of the factors which helped trigger the strike. But it was not the only thing. The fact that an injustice, or "lack of tact" on the part of the chairman, was taken as a provocation, and that the reaction to it spread to the maintenance shops and other sections of the ground personnel, means that there were more general reasons for discontent.

The "Rebalancing Plan" drawn up by Attali, with of course the approval of the government, was the second plan bearing this name. In 1991 there had already been a plan entitled "Heading 93", followed last year by the implementation of the first section of this Rebalancing Plan.

A number of measures threatening workers' wages and working conditions had thus already come into force. In some sectors, the management of Air France had taken steps to rearrange working hours, which added an extra 25 minutes to the working day – without any corresponding increase in pay. Management had attacked an annual bonus – equal to a workers' wages for a month – by deferring its payment, effectively cutting it 3,000 to 4,000 francs ($500 to $700). In addition to this, it had already cut 5,000 jobs. With the 4,000 job cuts envisaged by this second Rebalancing Plan, this meant the loss of 9,000 jobs, or 15% of the total workforce of Air France, which employs around 60,000 people.

Another aspect of this policy was the decision to "externalize" (management's term) a number of services. Services which had up to then been part of Air France were to be subcontracted out, services such as the coach service, internal telecommunications and the hotel service. For the staff in these services, this would mean reductions in wages and working conditions. As we can see, there were a number of reasons why the movement spread step by step to the majority of Air France's ground personnel, particularly in the main sites in the Paris region, and they were not new reasons. These reasons took specific forms for each of the categories of workers concerned. But they were all part of the same general framework: management's intention to make cuts by attacking the workers' standard of living.

In this respect, Air France is like all other companies. The social policy of its management, and of the government which directly controls it, is no different from that of the bosses as a whole. It would be more accurate to speak of the social policy of successive governments, since the Rebalancing Plan which led to the Air France strike movement was initiated by Prime Minister Balladur's predecessors, three Prime Ministers who belonged to the Socialist Party, which was in power in previous years.

When the Union Leaders ... Follow

The strike movement spread rapidly, first among the large workforce of the Maintenance Division at Roissy, then, a little later, to maintenance workers at Orly. Its main feature, however, was not so much the number of people taking part (large as it was), nor even the length of the strike – in fact the majority of strikers were only on strike for 3 hours 40 minutes a day, which meant that they lost only half a day's wages. What most demonstrated their determination, their "revolt" as the minister put it, was the fact that they were able to go beyond certain traditional limits.

The strikers occupied the runways, something which had never been done before, even in May 1968. On the runways at Orly, some of the most determined workers lit fires, causing the concrete to explode. None of the other workers, even the least determined among them, criticized them for this or spoke of protecting the working equipment, as is so often the case in such circumstances.

The strikers also fought with the riot police. A minority, the most determined and generally the youngest, actually charged the police. This time, as is not always the case, a large section of the strikers followed suit, with the approval of the striking workers as a whole. Nobody said that the most militant workers were "going too far".

Even the union officials did not say they were going too far. And those who, at times, ventured to speak of the risks of provocation, received little attention from those present.

This does not mean that the union organizations were completely sidelined. Maybe they did not initiate this movement, nor play a decisive role in making it a dynamic and militant one. But they took this militancy on board, even when it took a turn which at other times they would have condemned as "leftist"; even their national leaderships accepted this militancy.

For example, FO, which was the only union which openly called for a return to work as soon as the Transport Minister announced that the Attali Plan would be reconsidered, boasted that it had initiated the strike. On several occasions its national leader, Marc Blondel, reminded people that the freight-handling strike had started on October 12, on the day of action called by FO, and backed by the CGT. This was their way of claiming responsibility for the Air France movement.

The CGT leader Viannet was careful to put in an appearance on the runways at Orly, alongside the strikers who had occupied them.

Even the CFDT, whose national leadership decided not to oppose the government, and which, shortly before the strike, had said it wanted Air France to drop the job cuts in exchange for a cut in wages, was careful not to distance itself from this movement. Its representatives at Air France took part in it like the others.

Quite clearly, the union leaders did not seem like people overtaken by events, or even like people making the best of a bad situation. It is in their immediate interests to keep up membership; and to maintain and, if possible, increase their influence. To do this, they can use any means which seem likely to serve this end, even if this means at times adopting contradictory positions. The CFDT has chosen, over the past few years, to adopt an openly collaborationist policy, while FO has adopted a more militant tone and approach. In previous years, the opposite had been the case. It is very possible that we will see the CFDT using more radical language again, if it senses that the wind is blowing in the direction of greater militancy.

The union organizations are always concerned, of course, to maintain their control over the working class. There is nothing new in this. But in order to maintain this control, they need to carry out a role which does not always appear negative toward the workers' aspirations. They need to take part in strikes, back up those which break out, even if they are sometimes taken unawares, and on occasions even initiate strikes. By acting in this way, they may even help to create situations which overtake them, and which go beyond what they would want. There is no denying this. They are constantly in a contradictory situation, which explains why it is sometimes difficult to figure out the intentions of union leaders, but which sometimes makes it possible for the workers to catch the union leaders out at their own game.

The Fear of the Government

While the union leaders did not seem to be overtaken by events, the government, for its part, did seem to be, thereby accentuating the political impact of the Air France strike.

Indeed, after only a few days, the predominant feature of the movement was no longer its "economic" aspect – the fact that the dispute was causing Air France to lose money – but rather its political dimension.

This, of course, was because the government, which was responsible for the Attali Plan, was the direct target of the strikers. It was also because of the determination of the strikers, and the way in which this determination manifested itself, leading the Transport Minister to say, and no doubt fear, that we were witnessing something reminiscent of May 1968.

But all this is not enough to explain the hasty and inglorious retreat of the government. For although the strikers showed a certain militancy, the strike only lasted a relatively short time for most of those taking part. And the confrontations with the forces of "law and order", spectacular as they were, were not as exceptional as all that. In recent months there have been quite a few such incidents, notably those pitting riot police against farmers and fishermen. And there have been determined, massive and long strikes in the last decade, in sectors just as sensitive and therefore dramatic as air transport, in particular the railway strike of 1986 when Jacques Chirac (one of the most prominent right-wing politicians) was Prime Minister.

What is different about the situation today, at any rate in the way the government sees it, is that the economic and therefore the social context is likely to make the situation more explosive than seven years ago. There is admittedly nothing new about the increase in unemployment, but while the three million mark was reached relatively gradually over a period of years, the trend has accelerated over the past few months. And while this increase in unemployment has up to now tended to lead to resignation among workers, job cuts may now have the opposite effect. For workers are no longer being thrown onto the unemployment lines in dribs and drabs, but in whole contingents, sometimes whole factories, and there has been such an increase in job cuts that we are now seeing thousands of jobs axed at a time.

This is what happened on what journalists called "Black Wednesday", a day in September when the layoffs announced in a number of big companies added up to the loss of some 15,000 to 20,000 jobs. Prime Minister Balladur felt obliged to scold state-owned companies over the next few days, asking them to defer the announcement of their decisions to cut jobs. This appeal, as we have seen, did not put the slightest brake on job losses. Far from slowing down, they are tending to accelerate, even in state-dependent sectors such as Air France (as we have seen) or in the auto industry, where Chausson – which is partly linked to Renault – has been threatened with closure.

But the increase in layoffs and the rise in unemployment are not the only factors making the situation explosive. There is also the bosses' offensive aimed at lowering labor costs. This offensive is nothing new either, but it too is gathering pace. This is because the bosses, encouraged by a favorable situation, now feel they have their hands free – although this does not stop them from putting pressure on the government to abolish the few regulatory or legal constraints which still exist.

It is the combination of these two aspects which is leading to a greater risk of social upheaval. And it is worth noting, in fact, that the Air France strike started and developed not over the issue of employment, but over wage demands. It was because the government's plan was to result in a cut in their pay, that the Roissy freight workers went out on strike.

The Balladur government is afraid that this social upheaval will materialize. Its pleas to the bosses, and its appeals for them to show more moderation in the way in which they attack the working class, and to be more cautious (or at least demonstrate more tact and know-how in stepping up the exploitation of workers), are more than simply a facade. Its declarations and attitudes since it came to power have shown this, and the position it adopted in the Air France dispute confirms it.

Of course, there are other reasons why Balladur finds it difficult to handle a social situation littered with pitfalls. The Right does not have the same links as the socialists do with the working class. It does not have the same go-betweens and informers who could help it to control workers, to mollify and anaesthetize them, or who could at least inform it of their mood.

In addition to this, despite the fact that the Right holds a majority of totally unprecedented size, it is weakened by rival ambitions of its leaders. These politicians can even be irresponsible about defending the bourgeoisie's interests, obsessed as they are by their fight with each other to fulfill their career ambitions.

The Strength of the Working Class

The fact remains that the Air France strike, by the form it took and by its outcome, did more than just show up the government's weakness. It enabled the working class as a whole to take note of this weakness and, as an indirect consequence, to weigh the possibilities for, and effectiveness of, struggle. The government justified its capitulation, which is what it was, by the fear that the movement would spread.

There are objective reasons for a movement in one section of the working class to extend to others, and perhaps to the working class as a whole. Now however, thanks to the Air France workers, there are once again subjective reasons, since they have demonstrated not only that workers have reasons to fight, but that they can do so successfully. In raising the specter of May 1968 before his colleagues on the Right, Bosson was perhaps seeking to absolve himself of responsibility. But in his own way perhaps he has helped to bring the prospect of a new May 1968 closer than he thinks.