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Get the French spirit

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Issue 1713

A lesson for British trade unions

Strikes and blockades make the bosses quake

Get the French spirit

THE PRESS and politicians went into hysterics last week over the French fishermen’s successful blockade of major ports. The Daily Telegraph was terrified that British trade unionists might learn a thing or two.

It ranted, “Paris cravenly caved in to the fishermen. Like the truck drivers, civil servants, railway workers and farmers, the blockaders have taken on their government and won, hands down. And of course every victory simply encourages more militancy.”

The Sun attacked the “union tyrants who now know there is nothing they cannot win by taking on the government”. Disgracefully, deputy prime minister John Prescott demanded that the European Union takes action to stop future blockades.

But the fishermen succeeded in defending their living standards. After five days of the illegal blockades the Socialist Party led French government caved in. It promised to lower the fishermen’s social security contributions in order to offset the steep fuel price rises that are cutting into their living standards.

The fishermen’s battle is not the only one raging in France. Struggle is escalating. Last year the number of strike days rose by 43 percent. In the first six months of this year alone there have been more strikes than the whole of last year put together.

Since 1995 there has been wave after wave of mass strikes and protests by French workers. These struggles have forced both Tory and Socialist Party governments to spend more to meet the needs of ordinary people.

The French government now spends 50 percent of its gross domestic product on public expenditure. Most of the rich G7 countries spend nearer 42 percent. This is not to say everything is wonderful in France. This week some lorry bosses, seeking to climb on the bandwagon, were using blockades to raise their own demands.

And the Socialist Party led government recently appointed a new finance minister to be a “hard man” against increased public spending. But Britain’s trade union leadership, gathering in Glasgow for next week’s TUC conference, should take some lessons from across the Channel. French workers are battling over long hours, low pay, attacks on the welfare state, privatisation and “flexploitation”.

All these issues will be on the agenda at the TUC. There will be much talk of “partnership”. Many will want to dampen down action to avoid upsetting the Blair government. But if trade union leaders are serious about tackling the hardships their members face, they should take some weapons from the French workers’ armoury-militant action wins.

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