LABOR

Two showdowns with socialism

European workers stage crippling strikes

BARBARA WICKENS January 2 1989
LABOR

Two showdowns with socialism

European workers stage crippling strikes

BARBARA WICKENS January 2 1989

Two showdowns with socialism

LABOR

European workers stage crippling strikes

In scenes eerily reminiscent of France's war-torn past, olive-drab army trucks rumbled through the streets of Paris carrying groups of grim-faced civilians. But the military vehicles did not belong to foreign invaders. The French army trucks were pressed into service to ferry Parisians to work following a wave of public service strikes that disrupted French transportation systems, medical services and government offices for a three-month period. The crisis frayed French tempers. At one point early in December, groups of Parisian commuters who were infuriated by erratic service on the strike-delayed Paris Métro jumped down onto the tracks at several subway stations and stayed there until police removed them. Even when the Métro did run, trains were packed. So dense was the crush at times that police said up to 70 transit riders a week were being treated after collapsing under the stress. And switching to taxis, cars or buses was not a solution because all vehicles became trapped in the massive traffic jams that paralysed Paris at the height of the pre-Christmas frenzy.

The Paris transit chaos was the most visible and dramatic result of a campaign launched by unions representing about two million French public-sector workers in an effort to put pressure on the socialist government of Prime Minister Michel Rocard. The unions demanded substantial pay increases and an end to a fiveyear public-sector austerity program that has held down wages. And Rocard’s was not the only European socialist government to come under attack from discontented workers. In neighboring Spain, which is enjoying surging economic growth, growing opposition to the policies of socialist Prime Minister Felipe González prompted a one-day strike by an estimated eight million workers on Dec. 14. The strike—the most widespread Spanish work stoppage in 54 years—followed complaints by union leaders that the government’s policy of restraining wage increases to control inflation was hurting the nation’s labor force.

In France, the wave of public-sector strikes that began in October led to massive disruptions. Across the country, hospital services were interrupted as nurses in white coats and surgical masks took part in protest marches. At the same time, postal workers mounted a goslow campaign that tied up 100 million pieces of mail in November; angry electrical utility workers reduced output, which caused power outages and forced France to import electricity from neighboring West Germany and Belgium; and Air France ground staff forced delays and cancellations by the national airline. As well, strikes paralysed government offices that distribute unemployment and health care cheques. The French National Businessmen’s Association estimated the direct and indirect costs of strikes at $100 million a day. Declared President François Mitterrand: “Millions are suffering. Everything must be done to maintain or renew dialogue with labor.”

Despite Mitterrand’s exhortation, Rocard’s government appeared to hope that workers would eventually go back to work without significant government concessions. Rocard insisted that his government would not give in to the unions’ wage demands. Instead, he announced that the government would revamp the public sector within 30 months to give senior bureaucrats better training in labor relations and make the public service more responsive to labor complaints. Rocard also promised to enact legislation to assure at least minimum service during public-sector strikes.

Paradoxically, the showdown between the public-sector workers and Rocard’s socialist government—which succeeded a rightist administration under Jacques Chirac last June— stemmed from an earlier period of socialist rule. In 1981, Pierre Mauroy’s socialist government began creating 102,000 new publicsector jobs as a way of reducing unemployment and improving the public service. Then, in 1983, Laurent Fabius’s government abruptly imposed a fiscal restraint policy that Chirac continued. Now, public-sector workers—who are due to receive wage increases of only 2.2 per cent next year—say that, with the French economy expected to grow by 3.5 per cent this year, they have had enough of restraint.

Similar pressures are building in Spain. Spurred by a boom in foreign investment attracted by the nation’s less costly labor force, Spain’s gross national product is projected to grow by five per cent in 1988—one of the highest in the 12-nation European Community. At the same time, three million Spaniards— fully 18.7 per cent of the country’s labor force—are still unemployed.

When Spain’s two largest union organizations called for a one-day strike to back demands for higher wages and more government spending on social programs, such diverse groups as transportation and factory workers, journalists and professional soccer players walked off the job. The Dec. 14 strike led to the cancellation of international airline flights, sharply reduced bus, train and subway services and closed down most stores, factories and government offices across the country.

Still, González argues that his socialist government cannot afford to give in to the unions. He insists that the business sector must have every advantage—including low wage scales—for more jobs to become available. Said González: “I am not bothered by there being rich people; it bothers me that there are poor people.” There were signs that many Spaniards support that view. A poll taken a few days after the strike showed that González’s government would easily win re-election.

There also appeared to be solid support for the position taken by Rocard’s government in France. Surveys carried out at the height of the strikes indicated that 59 peí cent of those polled believe that public-sectoi workers have easy jobs and do not deserve higher pay. As well, a high proportion of those surveyed said that they disapproved of the strikes by post office and transit workers. Said Alain Vernholes, labor reporter for the Paris daily Le Monde: “This crisis is worsened both by the public’s feeling of dissatisfaction and the workers’ frustration that they are too poorly paid to be viewed with any respect.” Clearly, the demands by French and Spanish labor leaders may be doomed to defeat as socialist governments in both countries establish their credentials as good money managers.

BARBARA WICKENS with BRIGID JANSSEN in Paris and GARY ABRAMSON in Madrid

BARBARA WICKENS

BRIGID JANSSEN

GARY ABRAMSON