Lessons of the Air France strike

An airlines strike in France highlighted the French bosses’ attempt to attack or evade French labor laws, which are stronger in protecting workers’ rights than other countries in the European Union, let alone in the anti-labor United States. The strike also provided a lesson in the bosses’ tactics aimed at dividing the working class. These two elements make a study of this strike useful for all workers battling austerity.

The French National Union of Airline Pilots (SNPL) called off its 14-day-long strike against Air France on Sept. 28, even though deep, serious issues remain. The company and union have agreed to continue negotiating.

In a statement posted on its website, the union said it called off the strike “in the interest of the passengers and the company.” An hour after this post, however, the company announced it was going forward full tilt to enforce the anti-labor issues that the union had struck over. Jean-Louis Barber, president of the SNPL, said, “We are outraged by the attitude of the company, which is putting the serenity needed for the resumption of flights in danger.”

Air France publicly estimates that the two-week strike cost it nearly $350 million and it won’t be able to begin full service until after Oct. 1.

Air France is a privately owned company in which the French government has a 16 percent stake. Its management had planned to invest $1.28 billion in its low-cost subsidiary, Transavia, to compete with budget airlines like easyJet and Ryanair and move a lot of the work outside of France.

Pilots who fly for Transavia get paid considerably less than Air France workers, work more hours and have less time off between flights.

A major issue in the strike was the pilots’ demand that a single contract cover Air France and Transavia and that pilots in both continue to work under French law.

Currently, there is a major dispute in France between the federal government, with the firm support of the business community, and many of the trade unions and progressive forces, about adopting a “pact of responsibility.” This pact would increase the work week, cut holidays, make it far easier to lay workers off, and cut social security, family grants and welfare payments. The French Communist Party estimates these measures would transfer $70 billion a year from workers’ wages to bosses’ profits.

The French government wants to impose this pact on every sector of the French economy, so the airlines strike was a direct challenge to the French working class for its full support.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls attacked the union, calling the strike “unsupportable” for passengers, the company and the country. Articles in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal joined the attack on the workers, emphasizing how the French “like to strike,” especially those French workers with higher wages, like pilots. The press in the Netherlands — Air France has a Dutch division — also ran articles along similar lines. (Le Point, Sept. 24)

Attempt to split working class

But beyond the normal attacks on a union from the corporate media and capitalist politicians, there was a direct attempt to provoke a split among Air France’s workers.

According to the CGT (General Confederation of Labor) section that represents a number of the non-flight Air France personnel — mechanics, baggage handlers, gate workers, cleaners — some of the unions who had Air France workers as members, issued statements after the first week of the strike saying that they couldn’t support the strike because the pilots made too much money.

During the second week of the strike, unsigned leaflets began to circulate among Air France workers, thousands of stickers appeared, banners (unsigned) were hung on walls, all attacking the “privileged” workers who were threatening the jobs of the lower paid workers. On Sept. 25, hundreds of workers joined a walkout, lasting about an hour, at a major Air France work site. Technically, this walkout violated French labor law, which requires 48 hours’ notice to strike.

French television and some of the right-wing press called this walkout “a strike against the strike” and some blogs claimed that the CGT and Force Ouvrière, another union, organized it.

CGT Air France contradicted this claim with a series of statements on its website supporting the right of all workers to strike and pointing out the facts that prove Air France management organized the walkout. The CGT raised its own position that it would have preferred that the SNPL raise more political demands and join a broader coalition of unions whose members are affected by this austerity move to lower costs by lowering wages and cutting workers ­protections.

But the CGT still strongly supported the SNPL’s struggle and strongly opposed the management’s attempt to divide the ­workers.