Casual workers can organise!

Submitted by Anon on 8 October, 2004 - 9:51

December 2000 saw the first “hamburgrève” in Paris, when the young, mostly casual workers at the McDo (McDonald’s) restaurant on Boulevard Saint-Germain went on strike. The next fast food chain hit by worker unrest was Pizza Hut. A leading figure in these conflicts was Abdel Mabrouki, now aged 31.

He went to work at Pizza Hut as a motorcycle delivery boy, but got demoted to washer-up because of his poor eyesight. From his corner of the kitchen Abdel plotted the way management dealt with their staff, hassling them to work faster, the corners they cut in health and safety, and hygiene. He collected stories from the staff, dispensed advice and finally agreed to be the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) union rep. In 1996 he had the honour, he says, to organise the first strike in his workplace. He has been sacked twice by Pizza Hut and won his job back. He still works there, a veteran in a business where workers “don’t make old bones”.

Abdel shares his experience of organising a casual workforce in his book Génération Précaire (Le Cherche Midi 2004). The book documents, as well, how Abdel has come into conflict with the union’s bureaucracy.

Abdel helped to set up the campaigning group “Stop Précarité”. He and a colleague from Stop Précarité, Bernard Hasquenoph, will speak during No Sweat meetings at the European Social Forum about their experiences. Details at www.nosweat.org.uk.

The extract from Abdel’s book below describes the situation in which large numbers of young workers find themselves.

Chez Mickey...

Put some Mickey Mouse ears on a Pizza Hut delivery boy, and, hey presto!, you are in Euro Disneyland.

The workforce is the same, recruited mostly from among the youth of the Paris suburbs, who go to work at Disney when the Pizza Hut or McDonald’s on the corner aren’t recruiting.

The inconvenient thing about working at Disney is the distance. When you come from Hauts-de-Seine, like me and my friends, you have to reckon on at least an hour and a half travelling to get to Marne-la-Vallée. With three hours travelling in order to work a few hours a day, you had better get to like the RER [high-speed trains]. You don’t have any choice.

Karim, my best friend, had no choice. In 1994, the Levallois temp agency offered him an assignment with Mickey. Since he hadn’t managed to find another job closer to our area, he accepted.

I don’t know whether he regrets it, but I am sure that the bosses of Disney themselves regret the day that they took on Karim. He has a fault in common with me: he won’t be bossed about by petty tyrants. However, the park at Marne-la-Vallée is a land of tyrants, small and big, who rule over more than 10,000 casual workers.

Karim, rather small (like me), somewhat wiry and no donkey, started at Euro Disney a year after I went to Pizza Hut. We are from the same area in Levallois, but we had rather lost touch. Until we bumped into each other and told each other about our respective experiences. We quickly realised that we were subjected to the same type of management, and that we had the same ideas for trying to get the best working conditions. From then on, we were in constant touch. He was no end of help to me during the strikes at Pizza Hut, and I made the journey to Disney whenever he needed me.

Karim thus came to know Euro Disney through a temporary assignment. According to his contract, he had been taken on as a… “chamber maid”! The boss of the park, who is determined to show that he works in the American way, called such workers “housekeeping”. To explain, Karim’s job was to make the beds and clean the rooms in one of the Euro Disney hotels, the Sequoia Lodge. Karim is lucky: he doesn’t wear a beard, have long hair, or an earring. His appearance is quite close to the famous “Disney look”, it didn’t cost him much effort to conform to the canons of beauty of the business.

Most of the chamber maids were temporary and didn’t dare complain about the way that they were treated. They had 20 rooms to tidy in a period of a few hours, no arguments. If they had complained about the work rate, Disney would have phoned the temp agency and would not have renewed their contract. To explain temporary work is very simple: it is a very flexible market in which employees can be treated any old how. The dream of every boss.

All the same, at the end of several months, Disney offered a short-term contract to Karim. Three months, no more, as a cleaner in the theme park. In the Disney language, as a “park support”. A nice, clean name for a dirty job: in fact, all day long he picked up fag butts from the paths in the park.

But he was lucky in his misfortune: from his first day at work, he walked in on an all-out strike by the CGT. Because, unlike the situation with Pizza Hut, Disney was obliged to recognise the CGT from the moment the park opened.

Because of this strike, the rubbish had piled up in a corner, hidden behind an attraction. The manager went straight to see Karim: “You, the new one, you’re going to clean that up for me.” The girl from the CGT intervened: “Don’t you touch it!” Karim quickly chose his side: he didn’t move.

He was very happy not to have to stand up to the manager on his own. First day at work, first strike. And first victory: after several days of striking, the unions negotiated an annual supplement of 1,000 francs for night work, which up until then had been underpaid.

Karim had an even worse contract than mine: 16 hours a week spread over Saturday and Sunday, busy days at Euro Disney. Salary: less than 1,800 francs a month net. During the week, he had found another job, but that one was full-time: he was a metalworker on the building site of the François-Mitterrand library. This punishing schedule lasted six months. It practically killed him.

So, when Disney offered him an open-ended contract, still part-time and for the same money, he accepted. Karim became an attendant in the self-service restaurant of one of the park hotels, doing breakfast from 7am to 3pm. The manager wanted a fairly strapping waiter to collect full-time the Thermos flasks of coffee, tea and chocolate. In addition to his princely salary, mentioned above, he had the right to free entry into the park for his family. Luxury.

An historic day for Karim: the visit of Michael Hassner. The American president-director general of Disney had been received like the pope himself. They had to clean everything in the hotel restaurant. Everyone set to work, even the managers...

To make sure that the establishment was really clean, the manager had even transferred one of Karim’s colleagues, who usually worked at the restaurant reception. The problem — in the eyes of the manager — was that this colleague was Madagascan. They sent him straight to work washing the dishes, and had replaced him with a young blonde woman with blue eyes, who smiled nicely and didn’t stick out of the landscape.

In the same spirit, he asked Karim to take his break at the precise moment that Michael Hassner arrived. He too stuck out. At the end of the day, this last-minute replacement perhaps wasn’t a big deal, but how would you feel in such an environment? How could you not want to rebel against it?

Translation by Vicki Morris.
Publisher: www.cherche-midi.com

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