Solidarity and militancy paid off on Nov. 29 when a 12-day strike by
French truck drivers won an unprecedented agreement that lowers the
retirement age from 60 to 55 years and provides one-time bonus of
about US$600. And in what many observers see as the most important
concession was the agreement of the French government to help meet the
drivers' demands by taking immediate steps to amend regulations to
guarantee that drivers be paid for
Fearing a mass disruption similar to last year's 24-day transport
strike, the government said it was ready to help to end the dispute by
aiding early retirement for drivers and cutting employers' payroll
taxes. On Nov. 29 the French government signaled its intention to
intervene in behalf of the strikers when its spokesman said,
state is ready to take responsibility, in particular by facilitating
an agreement on retirement and by contributing to payroll charges.
The settlement came when other other unions began laying plans for a
general strike in support of the drivers. the Communist-led General
Confederation of Unions (CGT) called for a
day of action across
the country and the Force Ouvriere (FO) union said it would extend the
industrial action to other transport sectors unless an agreement was
reached by Dec. 1.
The five main rail unions called on members to support the strikes
by all appropriate means. Workers at France's state-owned
gas and electric utilities held a 24-hour strike on Dec. 3 and Air
France and other French airlines staff launched a two-day strike.
European newspapers were quick to characterize the settlement:
Seldom has a profession obtained so much through a 12-day
strike, one French tabloid said, while the more upscale Figaro
asked if France had become the
most ungovernable country in
Europe and answered the question in the affirmative.
Even the Wall Street Journal said the strike won
should have had long ago, the right to be paid for all on-duty time,
rather than just time on the road. And the Financial Times of
London said the truck drivers' victory
may be contagious
and worried that it
may increase the chances of a heavy Socialist
victory in 1998 legislative elections.
The New York Times pulled no punches in its article reporting the end
of the strike. Saying that the government was dealt a setback when it
was forced to intervene, the Times continued:
sympathy for the strikers reflected mounting discontent with the state
of the economy and deepening dissatisfaction with the 17-month-old
conservative government of President Jacques Chirac. It
characterized the settlement as
another blow to the
government's policy of holding the line on workers' benefits
and changes in work rules.
During the strike pickets, buoyed by public sympathy and the support
of fellow unionists, set up some 250 barricades and blockaded roads,
ports, border crossings and fuel depots. In their boldest move,
strikers blocked access to the Grigny fuel depot south of Paris. The
depot supplies more than 90 per cent of fuel to the capital's huge
hypermarkets, as well as gasoline for ambulances, police
vehicles, fire engines and the military.
By the time the strike ended more than 180 key roads were wholly or partially blocked by the drivers The motorway between Lyons and Grenoble was blocked, causing 10-mile backups, and the city of Clermont-Ferrand was effectively cut off by the dispute.
Road freight shipments from the Mediterranean to the Channel remained at a virtual standstill, fish shipments in western ports began to rot on the quays and a number of factories, including the Renault plant in Douai, have stopped work due to lack of spare parts. In several towns in southern and western France, local officials began rationing gasoline as scores of gas stations ran dry.