Spectacular victory for French truck drivers

December 11, 1996

By Sam Wainwright

PARIS — "The unions have shown that collective action is just as modern as the law of the market" said Le Monde's November 30 editorial. Who could disagree: after 12 days on strike, French truck drivers can claim victory in the latest round of their campaign for better pay and conditions. After highway blockades and "operations escargots" (slowdowns in which several trucks combine to enforce a snail's pace on the highway), the trucking bosses and government conceded all the drivers' demands.

The strike is significant because it demonstrated the continuing refusal of the majority of French people to accept the "need" for cutbacks and austerity so that France can meet the criteria for European monetary union.

The drivers had three main demands. First was a reduction in the number of real hours worked, which are often extraordinarily long. Drivers who returned home every night were averaging 48.8 hours per week, while long haul drivers, who spend many of their nights away from home, were averaging 62.5 hours per week.

The second demand was that drivers be paid for all the time they are available for work. In the past, drivers have been under pressure from bosses to count as unpaid rest time the time they spend waiting while goods are loaded and unloaded.

The third demand was that drivers' retirement age be lowered to 55. The government was particularly opposed to this demand because it wants to extend the retirement age. Its earlier attempt to raise the retirement age of railway workers helped spark the massive strike wave of public sector workers in November-December 1995, forcing it to retreat.

There has been a real growth in trade union consciousness and militancy among drivers in the 1990s. Although nearly 80% of drivers are wage workers for a handful of big firms, their movement has traditionally been dominated by the ideas and demands of the owner-operators and small-time trucking bosses.

Claude Debons, general secretary of the transport division of the CFDT union confederation, told the socialist newspaper Rouge that this strike was "an initiative of the union organisations based on the demands of waged employees, whereas the movements in the past were polluted by paternalism and interference by the bosses. In 1984, for example ... blockades were enforced on the initiative of the bosses around reducing diesel tax."

In the early 1990s, unionism among truck drivers spread by taking advantage of the trucking bosses' confrontations with the government over taxes. Debons explained: "In 1992 ... we had the ability to make a union intervention at the [anti-taxes] roadblocks, putting forward demands and using the opportunity to combat manipulation by the bosses. We had some real success ... the tide turned towards independence by workers from the bosses' influence."

Following a 10-day strike in 1994, the trucking bosses signed an agreement with two of the drivers' unions providing for loading to be included in paid work hours and a step-by-step reduction in work hours. The failure of the bosses to fully implement the agreement was the starting point for the latest struggle.

Once again the unions were able to use a blockade called by the bosses' organisations around fuel taxes to spread the call for a strike around workers' demands. On November 18, the drivers' strike took effect. All five unions covering drivers supported the call.

The drivers used strikes at the workplace, highway slowdowns and blockades to apply pressure. The bosses' organisations tried to stall negotiations in the hope that the drivers would falter, but instead the number of blockades was progressively increased and the country's fuel refineries were cut off.

The drivers were conscious not to alienate public opinion. They let private motor cars and emergency vehicles pass and did not disrupt commuters in the greater Paris region. Even as service stations ran dry, the strike had overwhelming public support. According to a poll published in Le Monde (November 30), 74% said they sympathised with the strikers, 87% felt their demands were mostly justified and 59% approved of their methods.

The government is not fairing so well. According to the latest polls, President Jacques Chirac has about a 30% approval rating, while Prime Minister Alain Juppé has slumped to 20%. With other sectors of French capitalism hurting and France's European partners screaming about their trade being held up by the strike, the government was desperate to end the strike and put pressure on the bosses to make concessions.

On November 29 a deal was struck: retirement at 55, no work on Sundays, increased rights for unions at the workplace, travel expenses paid for and a promise from the government to implement by decree payment for loading time. The unions are prepared to keep the government to its word. Debons told Le Monde, "We remain determined on the question of 100% remuneration for all time worked".

The success of the strike and its overwhelming public support demonstrate the political crisis that French capitalism has experienced since the huge public sector strikes and protests of November-December 1995. It is unable to convince people that they should make sacrifices for the good of European economic and monetary union. In the 1995 upsurge, private sector workers were supportive but cautious about taking action themselves. The truck drivers victory now represents a real example.

Within the union movement, the upsurge has fuelled the growth of a militant opposition to the conservative bureaucracies and in some cases has spawned new independent unions.

No wonder France's conservative newspapers are agonising over how to cure what they call the French disease. La Voix Du Nord commented "... the French are inclined to carry out 'proxy strikes' by supporting every sector of the work force that rebels, even if the actions taken risk causing them some inconvenience". It looks like workers have decided that the disease is less harmful than the medicine they are being offered.