After the recent strikes affecting the French railways – the longest in recent history – air traffic control and the entertainment industry there are fears among the establishment that, as the Economist puts it, France is ‘back to the bad old days’.
That was the terminology used about Britain in the 1970s and early 1980s when it was one of the strike capitals of Europe. That was also a period when the public sector was of an unprecedented size and society was at its most equal.
Today, after the imposition of draconian anti-union laws by Conservative PM Margaret Thatcher, industrial action has fallen to levels not seen since the post-war 1950s.
And parallel attacks on the welfare state, the promotion of ‘flexible’ labour markets and a massive privatization drive – pioneered by the ‘Iron Lady’ but now promoted vigorously by the Eurocrats and the ‘Troika’* – have led to a society where corporate power rules over and above the needs of the general populace.
‘Weakened unions have left the UK population impoverished’
The best measure of this is inequality: the gap between London and the south-east and the rest of the country, between top earners and the rest, between the share of the national wealth held by workers compared to business has widened dramatically.
Weakened unions and a decline in industrial militancy appear to have done little but lead to a generalized impoverishment of the population, except the one percent.
The right to strike is a fundamental human right. It allows workers to counterbalance the overweening power of employers.
And that’s not just the private sector but governments, like France’s socialists, who have abandoned their campaign promises to stand up to the deficit hawks in Brussels and Frankfurt – led by austerity queen Angela Merkel – and capitulated to corporate power, for example handing out €50 billion in tax cuts to employers, funded by an equivalent amount in public spending cuts.
France’s rail workers have been striking to protect a world-renowned public rail system from a EU-inspired carve-up designed to profit the same money men that nearly destroyed the world economy in the financial crash in 2008. In Britain, as with many other public enterprises, we lost our nationalized railways to privateers as the public was sold the mythical wonders of competition.
“Unions, fettered by Thatcher’s laws, were too weak to secure the much-needed investment to modernize our transport infrastructure and block the sell-off. And whether it’s comfort, speed, fares or huge tax payer subsidies, we are paying the price.
“So, yes, strikes are damn inconvenient but they are also part of a healthy functioning democracy. When unionized workers walk off the job, it is by and large because politicians and/or their super-wealthy friends in big business are failing to act in the public interest, and it is left to organized labour to stand up for it.
First published in The Local France