The experience of French workers can help workers in the UK think about how to fight Boris Johnson’s anti-strike plans.
In early December 2019, Boris Johnson vowed to put yet more obstacles in place to stop transport workers striking. Speaking at a campaign rally, he said: “I do think it’s absurd that critical transport mass-transit systems should be capable of being put out of actions by strikes, and other countries around the world have minimum service requirements for public transport – and that’s what I want to see.”
The phrase “minimum service” was made famous when the then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised it as his slogan in 2007, in a fight against rail workers.
Since 1946 in France the Constitution has contained a positive right to strike. For certain sectors of workers that right is restricted by laws. For the repressive arm of the state – prison guards, police, and prefects (centrally-appointed local overseers of law and order) – strikes are simply unlawful.
For workers in hospitals and air transport, management have the right to “summon” just enough workers to ensure a minimum service. The law is vague, because management cannot know how many workers they need to summon. But while they are not supposed to summon more workers than needed for a minimum service, in practice, they summon everybody, because staffing is always at minimum levels anyway.
For that reason, in 2019 some A&E services had been “on strike” for almost a year as part of a long-running dispute, but without striking – they worked and got paid. Nevertheless, the tradition in hospital is to wear an armband saying “on strike” or to write it on one’s scrubs.
Last year saw some attempts to get around the minimum service law during some industrial disputes in hospitals. Some workers decided to call in sick en masse. Some others (in Toulouse) hid the day before the strike so the management could not serve them with the letter “summoning” them to work.
The French state has other tricks up its sleeve – the Council of State (a high court that advises the French executive branch on law) can resolve to “designate” certain workers and oblige them to work if they are considered essential to “the security of persons and property”. Another law allows the state to “requisition” workers – essentially, to conscript them as forced labour. In 1963, a massive miners’ strike was threatened with “requisitioning” by the Gaullist government after 48 hours of action. But 200,000 miners defied the requisitioning order and the strike lasted 35 days. It went on to win some but not all of its demands, ending when the Stalinist-influenced CGT union leadership decided they preferred to “quit while they were ahead”.
The state went off “requisitioning” after that, and the law was rarely used. In 2003, Sarkozy, then the Interior Minister, updated the law. He would attempt to use it as President against striking oil refinery workers in 2010. A prefect succeeded in press-ganging the workers of Gargenville for six days, but in other districts the attempt to implement forced labour was defeated in the courts, as judges were less keen than Sarkozy or his prefects to risk another case of mass disobedience of this repressive law.
In 2007, Sarkozy decided that he needed another weapon against two categories of workers who had been central to the mass strikes in 1995 and 2003 (and who have been leading the action again in 2019-20): education workers and train drivers. Sarkozy wanted to introduce a real “minimum service” obligation, as exists in hospitals. In the face of massive opposition, he was only able to introduce rule that strikers have to “declare themselves in advance” to the boss individually 48 hours before the start of strike action. The idea is that these “advance declarations” will make it easier for employers to organise emergency cover.
Another perversity of the system is the way that it interacts with rostering. In a train company running a seven-day-a-week service, workers have complex schedules.
If a worker is scheduled to take paid rest days on Saturday and Sunday and goes on strike on Friday and Monday, then their pay Saturday and Sunday will also be deducted as part of the strike. This can also apply if the worker has booked leave during the strike period. The same applies to the RATP (metro and bus) but also to primary school teachers. As a result, employees who go on strike are sometimes forced to juggle their strike days (if they do not want to lose too much pay) which naturally weakens it the strike.
Laws reflect the balance of class forces at a given moment. If Sarkozy had felt stronger in 2003, he would have passed a harsher law. If the employers are strong, their laws work well. If the workers are strong, then bosses’ laws get bent and broken.
The “advance declaration” rule works when a strike is weak. If only a minority of workers go on strike, then sorting out strike cover for missing workers, while a headache, isn’t impossible – and it is definitely easier to do if you’ve got 48 hours to re-write all the rostering.
But if a strike is strong – if enough workers walk out that no amount of re-rostering can make the trains run; and if picket lines are strong enough to keep scabs out – then the “advance declaration” rule isn’t a lot of help to the employer.
Breaking the “advance declaration” rule is another option. But as one French comrade reported to Solidarity, lots of workers, even relatively-militant rail workers aren’t quite there yet – or at least, they weren’t during the rail strikes of 2018. For every day of “non-declared” strike action, three days’ pay is docked. On top of that, punishments range from written warnings to formal disciplinaries. As one worker told our French correspondent in 2018: “bypassing advance declaration is not on the agenda at the moment. We can discuss it without hostility with our workmates, but most of the time their answer remains the same: “We do what we can within the rules of the game we have”.
Railway workers have found other ways around the “advance declaration” rules. In October 2019, a regional rail service struck vehicles at a level crossing, injuring 11, including the train driver. Because the service was short-staffed, this wounded driver had to carry out emergency procedures to ensure the safety of his passengers without any help.
All over France, rail workers walked off the job in protest against the low staffing levels that made this situation possible (as well as other misdeeds by management). The legal basis that workers used to shield themselves from “advance declaration” rules was their “right to withdraw” from work that poses “clear and present danger to their life or health” – essentially, a piece of health and safety legislation.
These lessons show some of the ways that UK workers could face up to Boris’s outrageous, undemocratic anti-strike threats: first, create a storm of protest against his plans and in favour of the right to strike, in the hope of stopping or watering down any new rule before it even hits the books. Secondly, learn the new rules and finding ways of getting around them, especially by making full use of health and safety rules.
Finally: be strong enough that the law doesn’t help the boss! Organise, recruit, and inspire your colleagues so that when the time for action comes, the law just doesn’t matter quite so much. That’s not an anarchist cry to just break the law any old way – breaking and bending the law takes planning, thought and solidarity.
And moreover, our movement needs to aspire to do a lot more than just break bad laws – we should aspire to make a workers’ government that does away with such shackles as the anti-union legislation, and replaces the rule of profit with the law of solidarity.