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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Des conflits de plus en plus radicaux?

by Jérôme Pélisse*

Are Labour Disputes Getting Increasingly Radical ?

Translated Saturday 12 September 2009, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Edward Lamb

Labour disputes in the spring of 2009 at Sony, 3M, Caterpillar, Molex, Scapa, Faurecia or FM Logistics plants have seen executives detained against their will on the premises, a sous-préfecture [1] devastated by Continental workers, followed, this summer, by New Fabris, Nortel, JLG, and Serta, where workers threatened to blow up or pollute their plants. Are forms of labour disputes getting more radical in France as a consequence of the crisis and the accompanying lay-offs? Before we start examining the question we must analyse the part played by the media, and how workers exploit them.

Indeed, it’s partly for the sake of the media that employees resort to such “violent” forms of action, and these forms are considered shocking only because they involve workers: the farmers’ long tradition of violent action is nowhere near as “shocking”. Besides, violence is too strong a word in those cases, since the conflicts involve very little actual “violence”. Reporters take far less notice of the indirect, invisible violence that families daily suffer all their lives long, and to which workers who have been laid-off and those who “survive” the lay-offs are equally exposed.

Now, whenever a conflict is mentioned in the media, workers enlist new actors in their struggle: they get more redundancy money and sometimes save a few jobs or obtain advantages for some of their colleagues, like early retirement pensions or redeployment and so on. Besides those compensatory measures (which are not always granted) workers make it a point of honour to fight for their dignity when they feel it has been flouted by cynical decisions, and the media will then become a crucial arena for the disputes. They make it possible for workers to win a sort of public, if only symbolical, recognition of the wrongs inflicted on them.

Are these conflicts more radical then? In a sense they are, for the forms of action we have mentioned are proof of an exasperation (aggravated by traders’ bonuses and managers’ pay) and despair that will not be vented through more peaceful forms of negotiation, or even more or less ritual stoppages. So plants are again occupied in order to keep stocks and machinery as pawns in negotiations. And for the same reason workers will fight for redundancy money rather than for jobs, which they regard as being definitively lost, and for which they have often made sacrifices already. But it is mostly through the media that these conflicts are presented and carried out in a more radical form.

This radicalism is nothing new however (the Cellatex dispute in 2000 being a memorable case) and it is far from being generalized: how many jobs have been silently cut -for months and months - without causing a stir. All things considered, this radicalism proceeds from the staging of a potential violence which is meant to be contained so that the advantage of hearing the workers’ claims becomes plain. It is meant to express, stage, and concretize their own strength in the power struggle. In that respect, many conflicts are now taking place where old or new dispositions and tactics will be resorted to, developed, invented in the view of airing the workers’ claims and interests and challenging unilateral decisions that were often made in far-off places. The fact decisions are made so far away is a significant factor in those conflicts: hold-ups, blockades, or violent threats are so many reminders that economic decisions are not the inevitable effect of a mechanism, but choices for which managers, shareholders, and senior officers are accountable, despite the distance.

Also to be considered is the fact that those forms of struggle are part of a movement of extension of conflicts over the last ten years that have taken varied forms (refusal to work overtime, petitions, demonstrations, stoppages …). At the start of the new political season, the union leaders’ ambition might well be to articulate local disputes, with which they are seldom at ease, with the big demonstrations they organised in the first six months of this year and with no significant results. Maybe this can be done by envisaging new ways of confronting the adversary (whether it be the government, the employers’ associations, bosses, or shareholders) with stronger, collective forces.

*Sociologist Jérôme Pélisse is co-author (with S. Béroud, J.-M. Denis, G. Desage and B. Giraud) of La lutte continue? Les conflits du travail dans la France contemporaine, Editions du Croquant, 2008 (Is the struggle going on ? Contemporary labour disputes in France).

[1The rough equivalent of a State (U.S.) administrative building

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