Bosses out to block hours cut
FRENCH LORRIES were blockading Channel ports and border crossings at the start of the week. The protest is over the issue which has dominated French politics in recent months-the government plan to implement its election pledge to cut working hours to 35 a week.
The blockades are organised by bosses and lorry owners protesting against any serious cut in working hours. French lorry drivers' unions denounced the bosses' action and threatened action of their own to win a real cut in hours.
The 35 hours plan was the centrepiece of the election campaign which saw the French Socialist (Labour) Party led government swept to power in 1997. The Socialists and their coalition partners, the Greens and the important Communist Party, won a crushing victory over the previous Tory government. That came on the back of waves of workers' struggles, including the massive 1995 public sector workers' strike.
The new government won huge popular support for its pledge to reduce unemployment by cutting working hours. After a long, drawn out series of negotiations the new laws on working hours are coming into effect now.
The government has been caught between conflicting pressures over who will pay for the cut in hours. Bosses are fighting to make workers pay, and to water down the law even to the point where working hours can actually rise! Bosses are pushing for more "flexible" working, with schemes such as "annualised hours". This means that any 35 hour limit is only an average over a year, and in reality workers can do much longer hours each week, for no extra pay, depending on the bosses' whims.
The national bosses' organisation even staged a thousands strong protest rally in Paris before Christmas over working hours. The government, led by prime minister Lionel Jospin, has bowed to the bosses' pressure and weakened the laws. But it also faces immense pressure from workers which means it has been unable to ditch the hours cut plan altogether. Workers are in confident mood and have kept up a level of largely successful strikes and protests which have maintained the pressure on the government. Unions slammed the government for "giving too many presents to the bosses" in the deal.
All the various unions involved have united to attack the government plan and the bosses' blockades. "A cut in working hours for drivers is urgently needed," they say. Long working hours not only wreck drivers' family lives-they kill. Unions point out that last year 108 heavy goods vehicle drivers were killed in accidents in France, and unions say long hours were a key cause. Unions have now warned that the bosses' provocative blockades and their attempts to push the government to make still more concessions could spark workers' action demanding the exact opposite.
It is too early to say who will come out on top in the battle over hours when the dust settles and the deals are done. But the fight in the haulage industry symbolises the clash between bosses and workers, and the role of the government more generally.