Date: Mon, 3 Nov 1997 12:27:36 -0800
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
Subject: Truckers' strike in France

Blockades go up in France again

By David Graves in Calais & Susannah Herbert in Paris, The Daily Telegraph, 3 November 1997

Militant French lorry drivers threatened to cause havoc to trade by blockading Calais and the Channel tunnel last night as pay talks failed.

The drivers, who created chaos a year ago with a 12-day strike, were also setting up blockades around France. Lionel Jospin, the prime minister, attempted to broker a last-minute deal but the main employers' organisation walked out and unions followed suit.

A spokesman for the pro-Socialist CFDT drivers' union said its members in the Calais and Lille areas had voted to strike. It would be strategically naive of us not to consider blockading Calais, he said. It is very important for us.

The strike, due to start officially at 10 o'clock last night, has alarmed France's European neighbours, who fear a repeat of last year's disruption. It has also caused panic among French consumers, who besieged petrol stations at the weekend to stock up with fuel before the strike's repercussions are felt.

People are turning nasty because they remember what it was like last year, said a pump attendant at a garage in central Paris. Elsewhere, garages were swamped by motorists willing to wait for up to four hours to fill cans.

A spokesman for Eurotunnel said contingency plans were in operation in the event of a blockade. It was expected that services for cars would still run but freight would be stopped. Ferry operators were planning to divert many of their Calais sailings to Zeebrugge.

Kent police were ready to implement their Operation Stack contingency plan to close sections of the M20 to accommodate hundreds of British and foreign lorries stranded by the dispute. They will be escorted to Dover in quotas to board Zeebrugge-bound ferries if Calais is closed, but a spokesman said considerable delays were expected.

Union leaders have threatened to set up a total of 35 road blocks throughout France: cars will be let through but lorries will be turned back or forced to stop. At its height, last year's strike comprised 250 blockades, jeopardising deliveries throughout Europe.

Everything is ready. We're not frightened of unpopularity, said Jean Vandecasteele, general secretary of the transport section of the Force Ouvriere union in northern France. Michel Beau of the CFDT agreed, promising to man the barricades until demands were met: We're not just here for a couple of days.

We're not going to stop our strike simply because we've been given a few ridiculous concessions. The men here aren't happy; and anyway, the agreements signed last year still haven't been respected, said Christian Felin, of the Force Ouvriere.

Despite pressure from the French government—which pledged a cut in haulage taxes in an attempt to persuade employers to give in to union demands—Saturday's tentative accord was rejected by the biggest employers' group, the Union of Transport Federations, which represents four-fifths of France's 38,000 haulage companies.

The accord would have raised drivers' wages by five per cent between now and the year 2000, but it failed to tackle the key dispute, which concerns rates of pay for hours worked, including down-time during loading and unloading. The unions' demand for a guaranteed salary of 10,000 francs (9C1,000) for 200 hours of work a month was also ignored.

France's 340,000 lorry drivers, who are among the worst paid in Europe, earning an average of 9C750 a month for 250 hours' work, want a minimum wage of approximately 9C5 an hour. They also claim that agreements signed after last year's strike have not been honoured.

The haulage companies claim that implementing last year's deal and signing a new one on pay and hours will force many of them into bankruptcy and prevent them from competing with foreign firms when Europe's haulage industry is deregulated next summer.

On Saturday evening, M Jospin offered to lower haulage taxes by 800 francs (9C80) per lorry to take pressure off the two sides. This failed to reconcile the sides: the CGT union left the talks after the UTF employers' organisation withdrew, making the agreement reached virtually worthless.

British drivers are still awaiting compensation from Paris for loss of earnings suffered in last year's strike. About 1,000 British drivers were caught up in the dispute and only four claims have been settled.

The Road Haulage Association, which represents British transport companies, said the strike could result in shortages of some food products in Britain within several days. Asda supermarkets have chartered a ship to transport 40 lorries loaded with fruit and vegetables from Algeciras in Spain to Southampton.

A port spokesman at Dover described freight activity yesterday as busy as some British drivers defied France's normal Sunday ban on heavy goods vehicles using roads and returned home for fear of being stranded. However, several hundred drivers were still in France because of the driving ban and feared being caught in blockades, the RHA said.

In Brussels, the European Commission was urged to halt EU cash for French farmers and use it to compensate British lorry drivers. Anne McIntosh, the Conservative spokesman in the European Parliament, said: Under the Maastricht Treaty the EU can withhold funds destined for member states.

EU transport Commissioner Neil Kinnock should propose the use of French farmers' money to compensate British lorry drivers. Maybe then France would act against those illegally blocking Europe's motorways.