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A Shift in the Wind for the French Working Class?

The October 5th meeting of Air France’s executive committee, set to confirm the layoff of over 2,900 employees as part of the company’s new restructuring plan, was interrupted by employees who demanded an explanation from company executives.

Ivan Matewan

October 31, 2015
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Photo: La Izquierda Diario

The protesters took to task both the director of human resources and the director of long-haul passenger activity at Orly Airport. Both men literally lost their shirts, ripped from their bodies to the sounds of workers’ applause. These events have since sparked a national tug of war between Air France employees, the company’s leaders, and the French government. This situation points to a possible shift in the wind among the French working class.

The Ripped Shirt Affair: Consequence of Relentless Attacks

The events that transpired on October 5 were by no means unprovoked. They are the logical culmination of a year-long struggle against firings and restructuring plans- plans in which the company’s executives only consideration is their own profits. For nearly twenty years, the company regularly sought to cut jobs, promote outsourcing and increase productivity. In a not-so-distant past, the restructuring plan called “Transform 2015” cut about 10 percent of jobs and developed low-cost subsidiaries, selling out employees at every turn. It also provoked one of the largest strikes since 1993. Nevertheless, the company cut nearly 9 thousand jobs since 2012, accelerated outsourcing, and generalized low wages and precarious working conditions.

A new plan called “Perform 2020” aims for “restructuring” once again. More than 2,900 jobs will be cut–300 pilots, 900 flight attendants and 1,700 ground staff employees–possibly without compensation. At the same time, five planes will be retired from the long-haul fleet in 2016 and nine others in 2017. The frequency of flights will be reduced on more than 22 routes as of 2016, especially those going to India or South-East Asia. These reforms are necessary, according to management, because the company is gradually less productive and less competitive. However, according to the company’s quarterly report published a few days ago, the company is reaping record profits ($523 million USD in profits and over $1 billion USD in operating profits)!

Fed up with worsening wages, worsening working conditions, and the treatment of those fired, the labor unions, including the National Union of Airline Pilots (SNPL), organized a protest at the company’s headquarters on October 5 that brought together over a thousand employees. To make their anger heard, several hundred eventually pushed through the gates and entered the room where the executive committee meeting was being held, chanting, “This is our house,” “Here are the gangsters,” and even, “Valls is a sell-out.” Greeted with thunderous applause, one pilot exclaimed, “For months now…they’ve been telling us that it’s our fault if the company is going badly. Today, I feel like I’m at home, with my family!”

Even confronted by hundreds of angry employees, management did not concede an inch and maintained its characteristically condescending attitude. Sick of being ignored, the employees laid into the two executives, ripping the shirts from their backs while chanting, “Naked!” Security guards quickly ushered out the shirtless directors, who climbed a fence to reach “safety” from the crowd.

The government and bosses reacted as soon as the images of the shirtless executive scaling the fence hit the web. The incident was “unacceptable and scandalous,” according to the Movement of the Enterprises of France (MEDEF), the largest employer federation. The Minister of Economy and former banker at Rothchild & Cie Banque, Emmanuel Macron, declared “total and unconditional support for the attacked executives,” adding that “those who perpetrated such violence are irresponsible. Nothing can replace social dialogue.” Minister of Transportation Alain Vidalis called on all parties to “resume dialogue” because “violence is not the answer.” Secretary General of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor Laurent Berger, an ardent advocate of “social dialogue” between the so-called socialist government and the bosses, soberly regretted the “inadmissible and undignified” use of “violence.” French media also had a major role in launching a media campaign against Air France employees. The Parisian newspaper, Le Parisien, led its October 6 edition with a denunciation of what happened the day before; its headlines read, “Unjustifiable!”

In the wake of the tattered shirts, Air France’s management did not hesitate to take disciplinary action against the angry demonstrators. About 20 employees were identified as culprits in the October 5 shirt-ripping; ten of whom were union representatives. They now face disciplinary proceedings and could very well lose their jobs. However, management was not the only one out to get the employees of Air France: the government was, too. In the wee hours of the morning on October 12, the police brutally brought in five of the company’s employees for questioning. They were charged with gang assault and face up to three years in prison and a $50,000 fine. They are currently awaiting trial, which will take place on December 2.

Towards a Radicalization of the French Working Class?

The ripped shirts of Air France executives are not the only signs of protest among the working class. Since October 5, there have been several symbolic moments of insubordination. Workers booed Minister of Economy Emmanuel Macron during his visit to the Trade Unions Center of Lyon. Workers and union members at STX France in Saint-Nazaire refused to shake President François Hollande’s hand and strongly criticized his refusal to distance himself from and firmly denounce the violence that workers and their families suffer at the hands of their bosses. “Today, they are currently laying off 40 workers at STX Lorient and you share that responsibility through the State’s participation in the company,” affirmed Sébastien Benoit, a union representative for the General Confederation of Labour (CGT). “There are no courtesies to be exchanged, but there are acts to be taken.”

This year alone, strikes against low wages and precarious working conditions have multiplied, demonstrating small, yet qualitative changes in the social climate. For years now, the economic crisis has been an excuse for the bosses and the government to put pressure on workers by cutting wages and “lowering the cost of labor.” In France it is the law that every unionized business must engage in annual obligatory negotiations (NAO) concerning wages. Most years, the actions planned around these negotiations tend to be heavily symbolic, with little substantive impact. However, since December 2014, these actions have changed their tone. They have lengthened and are gradually affecting more sectors of the economy and extending far beyond the NAO-framework; actions now take place among shipyard workers, street vendors, lifeguards, truck drivers, supermarket cashiers, railroaders, university staff and graduate students, post-officer workers, airline pilots and Parisian hospital workers.

Parisian hospital workers in particular currently face a restructuring plan that would lower operating budgets, reduce services offered, cut jobs and increase working hours for staff (especially by getting rid of lunch and dinner breaks!). Since May 2015, the nursing, technical and administrative staff have been mobilized against these reforms. Four strikes were organized in May and June, demanding the withdrawal of the proposed plan, in which tens of thousands of hospital workers participated. Despite a pause in the summer months and stammering statements on behalf of the hospital interunion committee, pressure from the base and everyday hospital workers has forced the interunion committee to announce a total and unlimited strike if the plan is not withdrawn before November 17.

Faced with this growing discontent, the Socialist Party-led government remains on high alert. The ruling class’ virulent reaction, both in the media and through the police and judicial machinery of the State, shows its determination to stop any form of radicalization among the working class. The government and the bosses want to delegitimize and punish anyone who dares hold their head high, and want to establish a climate of fear among workers. The politicians and bosses call for calm while adding fuel to the fire with their condescending insults. They have not hesitated a second to activate the repressive state machinery to put down a possible nascent revolt and continue to attack workers’ rights.

No Need to Cry Over Ripped Shirts

What transpired at Air France and what is transpiring in other sectors of the working class, show us that the attacks that we are faced with today do not have to be our fate. The “ripped shirt affair” has served as a sounding board for growing working-class and popular anger, which had so much difficulty expressing itself in the past years. This difficulty is partly due to the defeat of the last national social movement in France: the movement against former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s retirement reform in 2010. It is also due to the method of “social dialogue” which has allowed the liberalized Socialist Party-led government to co-opt trade union leadership, channeling anger to negotiations with employers who continue their attacks against salaries, working conditions, workers’ rights and labor law. This has clearly shown that so-called “social dialogue” is nothing but a complete farce.

The current social climate is also putting pressure on labor organizations. The CGT (General Confederation of Labor) along with another major trade union called Solidaires announced this month that they would not attend the government’s annual Social Conference. Each Social Conference that has been held – in 2012, 2013, and 2014 – has been a time for the government, the Socialist Party, and the bosses to impose their modernization projects (employment, professional training, wages, Social security) on the working class through their co-opted and bureaucratized trade union leadership.

Under the pressure of employee anger, Air France’s interunion committee was also forced to backpedal. The different labor organizations had at first decided to return to the negotiating table after the October 5 incident. Growing anger and a protest of more than 3 thousand people at the French National Assembly in Paris on October 22 has recently forced them to announce that there would no longer be negotiations while the disciplinary proceedings were not dropped. They must demand that the criminal charges held against their colleagues be dropped as well. To that end, the airline’s employees – pilots, flight crew, and ground staff – will strike once again and be in the streets on November 19, a show of unity that was absent in past struggles. They have even talked about possibly striking during the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) that will take place in Paris from November 30 through December 11.

After serving as the symbol of a relative return of working-class radicalization in France, Air France employees could very well be the pioneers of a necessary convergence of movements beyond simple economic matters. As such, the COP21 gives them the opportunity to encourage workers across the country to take up political demands, like those related to the climate, in connection with their conditions of exploitation. The strike call for November 17 in the hospitals of Paris provides an opportunity for combative workers everywhere to unite their struggles on a national scale.

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