by Jerome a Paris
Sun Nov 25th, 2007 at 06:54:20 AM EST
An editorial [last] week says it all:
Sarkozy squares up to France's unions
A spaghetti western showdown between Nicolas Sarkozy, France's president, and the country's big trade unions could yet live up to its billing. Mr Sarkozy, facing his biggest test since becoming leader, moved a step closer this week to forcing through contentious pension reforms without a gunfight at the Elysée. The bloodier battle may lie ahead.
Western showdown? Gunfight? Bloody battle? The breathless commentary is thick, but the idea is simple: raise the stakes in order to easily be able to exagerate the interpretation of the outcome. The gun duel analogies are clear: the goal is to kill once and for all the unions, which are obviously an obstacle - not just in this battle, but for more "reform".
Promoted by Migeru
Unions representing half a million rail, bus, metro and power workers brought Paris to a halt and crippled the transport network in a dispute over special pension rights. The government wants them to retire on a full pension after 40 years of contributions, more than at present. The reforms, aimed at cutting the cost of expensive public schemes, would bring these employees into line with everyone else.
While the strike is certainly a very real inconvenience to lots of people, it has not "brought Paris to a halt". Traffic was really bad (as opposed to just bad), and many people had to reorganise their work days. But people were at work, shops were open, bread was sold, papers were available, etc... People used bikes and scooters, or walked.
In a similarly un-neutral fashion, the pension rights are described as "special", "expensive" and "out of line with others" - without any word of context of why these companies may have a different regime (they were nationalised after WWII), why it costs money today (mostly because these are industries which have shed lots of workers and have many fewere contributing workers than benefit-drawing pensioneers), and what the special conditions (earlier retirement)- might be a quid pro quo for (24/7 service or relatively lower wages, amongst other things).
Mr Sarkozy sees them as a first step before raising contribution periods further, possibly to 42 years for all workers. He wants to embark, too, on a shake-up of labour law that would make it easier to fire people. But the confrontation with the unions is as much about taking on leftwing conservatism as it is about France's future prosperity.
Ha yes, the long term goals - make people work longer, and make it easier to fire them - the holy grail of "flexibility" - which always means only one thing: cheaper, more pliable workers.
Spending the evening with family and neighbors yesterday, this came up, and my interlocutors repeated the same points: "we live longer and need to work longer or else we'll go bankrupt" "the rail workers have it really, really easy, it's a scandal that they can retire so early" "I see [family member] who has worked all her life, and will need to work 42 years to get a pension, and het taxes are paying for these pampered train drivers". Bad news: the propaganda works. Slightly better news: after some explanations, they understood that the underlying stakes in the conflict might not be as simple as they thought (my argument: [family member] has to work more because there are no unions in the private sector in France, and nobody is fighting for her. If the only group that does have strong unions - railway workers - is defeated, then of course they will lose, but soon afterwards other will pay the consequences, in the form of yet more years of work to deserve a pension, lower wages etc... and [family member], with nobody to defend her, will be an especially easy target.
The lesson: the propaganda of the FT et al needs to be debunked each time. Something that we could afford in the tough years after WW2 should not cripple us today, and should not be described as "too expensive" or "unaffordable" - not their defense can be labelled as "conservative, as the FT tries yet again to do.
A slightly more positive lesson: the language in France is also still more protective: workers' rights are described as "acquis sociaux" ("acquired social rights" - just like the EU "acquis communautaire") - there is an inherent ratchet concept, ie one should not go back on rights that constitute progress.
Workers rights as progress, and not as cost, is the rhetoric we need.
Industrial action was dragging on on Friday, despite an agreement to resume talks. The unions, however, are isolated. France may have a long tradition of street power, but public sympathy today is in short supply. Unlike in 1995, when Jacques Chirac's first government tried similar reforms and backed down in the face of opposition, voters support Mr Sarkozy's plans. They are fed up with subsidising generous benefits.
There is no agreement to resume talks, as the government is currently insisting that no talks will take place as long as strikes as continuing. It is true that the current strike appears less popular than the 95 one (but the 95 strike was not initially very popular either), and that reflects some success in labelling workers' pensions "subsidised generous benefits."
For the president, the initial union climbdown is a symbolic breakthrough. Crucially, he has not given ground on the headline issue - the move to a 40-year contribution period. The unions, divided internally, are weakened. Mr Sarkozy can claim some credit for a behind-the-scenes charm offensive. He is right, too, to tell employers, not ministers, to lead negotiations.
As I noted in the Sarkozy Method a couple of days ago, the initial climbdowns were on both sides, as noted by the FT, which chose to focus in its headlines only on one side of it (and that has obviously already become conventional wisdom - never underestimate the power of headlines). But even if, on substance, the railway workers might end up not losing anything, the only thing that matters is the symbol of a "reform" victory, and that of a president willing and able to take on the unions. and, on that, I agree with the FT that the symbolic presentation of what happens does matter for the future.
However, by leaving the details to company bosses, Mr Sarkozy becomes vulnerable to failure at a later stage. The flaw in his strategy is that the reforms risk being hollowed out by the concessions employers have begun to draw up. These include a broader definition of "final salary" to include bonuses and other payments when calculating pension values. Other benefits may be on offer. The final package will lack weight if it just substitutes one set of costs with another.
This means, in effect, that the FT considers the symbolic victory a done deal already (after all, it to a large extent depends on their own editorial choices in covering the conflict), but that they want more - they want total anihilation of the unions and the workers. The Sarkozy method, which focuses on headlines but lets things slip on substance, is not good enough for them - capitulation is required.
Mr Sarkozy won power with a pledge to get France moving. This means curbing profligate spending.
No, he won by playing the immigration fear card. He won the over-60s. He won on promising growth and increased spending power.
and, as we know from the UK and the US, growth comes from increased public spending, not from lower public spending...
.. but hey, let's repeat the "drown government in a bathttub" mantra anyway.
The president has a reputation as a dealmaker. But, if he is to succeed where others have failed, he cannot allow unions to pick and choose à la carte. That would undermine his credibility. A solution may have to be imposed for more radical changes to proceed. If so, the saloon bar shoot-out has only been deferred.
A solution may have to be imposed?? What on earth does that mean? Imposed by whom? They want capitulation, but what exactly are they insinuating? A state of emergency to end the strike? Sending the military?
"Radical changes" are needed, indeed.