An American Revolutionary in Paris: French Workers and the Socialist Party of France (II)

Note from the Editor:

This is the second installment of Michael Weinert’s article that is appearing as part of The Socialist’s celebration of May Day 2016. We invite our visitors to read Part I which was recently posted. Also, please take advantage of the link to the May Day issue of The Socialist by clicking on “The Magazine” at the top of this page for a free download!


Until this point, I thought I’d heard everything! Perhaps my subjects, at the interview’s end, thought the same! I asked Imbrecht if French unions have ever given up the right to strike. He looked confused and asked whatever could I mean? I told him virtually all American labor agreements contain a ‘No Strike-No Lockout” clause, where unions sign away their right to strike during the length of the agreement. Imbrecht found this incredible. He looked at me as if I were from another planet, and responded, “The right of a worker in France to withhold his labor, if he feels working conditions are lacking, is inviolate, and is guaranteed by French legal code. And when a worker exercises this right, and is found to be justified by a legal tribunal, he is entitled to full back pay and, if the employer terminated his employment, reinstatement of his job. Often, penalties are also assessed, of which the worker may get some portion.” Must this be part of a collective action? “No, sir. It applies even to just one person who has a valid complaint.”

I requested a copy of one of their labor agreements. Naillod said there is no such thing as a document containing current versions of all the labor standards a union has bargained with an employer or industry. This is all handled and published on a piecemeal basis. Also, while each new or revised standard has an effective date, an expiration date is almost never set. French employers can expect unions to revisit many standards, especially those dealing with wage levels, at least annually. But they are not prevented from doing so more or less frequently. If consumer prices begin increasing unexpectedly and rapidly, unions may, for example, work for and achieve pay timely increases. French unions are guaranteed the right to parity upon finding another employer is paying more for the same work.

What does the Independent Workers’ Party (POI) feel about the government? I asked Maurice (not his real name), postal worker and POI organizer. “While PS poses as a partner of labor, it is still too soon to answer this question…If PS puts its money where its mouth is, that is fine. But we will not be shy about calling it out if and whenever it betrays working people.”

Is the POI a revolutionary organization and, if so, is it inclined to be cynical about the revolutionary branding of the PS? Maurice replied, “We are a workers’ organization promoting the interests of the working people who are members, and of French working people as a whole. We are in favor of anything that serves working people, whether it would be classified as revolutionary or not. We speak for workers, that is, we speak for ourselves, instead of advocating a particular form of society. So we are in favor of reforms that help us, and would also be in favor of a revolutionary government or society as long as it truly benefits working people.”

What do French workers that are not officials of a political or economic organization think about the current PS government? I spoke Thomas, a resident of Paris’s Marais neighborhood, who has a job involving public contact. Thomas’s employer needs him to work a 40-hour week, instead of the standard 35. In exchange, Thomas’ employer provides him 13 equivalent annual weeks of paid time off. This is substantially more than Thomas would otherwise receive, though that figure includes holidays, and paid sick time that Thomas may not, in the case of sick time, actually use. I asked Thomas if that arrangement suits him. “Oh, it suits me very much. I like both to travel and to hang around, as I was doing when you came in.”

His arrangement comes from legislation SP enacted during of Chirac’s administrations (French presidents have no veto). The standard workweek was reduced from 40 to 35 hours, with no reduction in weekly pay. Thomas appreciates the PS, mainly for this reason. After this change took effect, worker productivity increased on both hourly and weekly bases.

Workers producing more in a 35-hour week than they had in a 40-hour week – how can that be? Philippe lives and works in a Parisian suburb. As a lead computer programmer, Philippe needs to work at least 37.5 weekly hours, instead of the standard 35. In exchange, like Thomas, Phillipe receives additional paid time off. Also, like Thomas, Philippe feels beholden to PS for this agreeable situation.

Indeed, Philippe is a staunch supporter of the PS, as are many of his co-workers. Philippe feels the PS will provide the proper balance between supporting French working people’s living standards while not queering employers from remaining invested in the economy. He fears possible negative effects of “recklessness,” should more radical organizations be able to implement their agendas. Philippe’s father joined the French Communist Party (PCF). But Philippe says it has been the PS that has “delivered the goods” to French working people. He buys into their program, including the commitment to “a robust private sector.”

I told him the PS seems very diverse, with some members, including Fabius, calling for actual socialism. “That would not be good,” said Philippe. “I think France is basically on the right track, thanks in large part to the moderate faction of the PS. So, to me, the right thing is to keep the achievements and to build on them, but within the current social framework.”

On its face, Philippe presents a good case, echoed by many other professionals, including in education. Achievements are achievements, and France’s society certainly seems more worker-friendly than many others, especially America’s. Nathalie had been a local council representative in her “commune,” a local-government body. There, she advanced PCF’s agenda, though she’d never been a member. But she abandoned that role due to recent adverse circumstances. Nathalie was a social services aide until Sarkozy’s administration eliminated that job, ostensibly to eliminate duplication and wasteful public spending. This left just the technical and professional levels. The aide-level duties were added to the technical-level position. To resume working in her field, Nathalie needed to take two years of technical education. She subsequently passed a qualifying test for the new social services technician position, as did scores of other similarly situated individuals.

She has found work, but the only situations available to her so far have been temporary; filling in for full-time permanent workers on leaves of absence. When they return to service, she must seek another such position, until now also temporary, and often far from home. Often there are lengthy gaps between these gigs. She naturally hopes she can leverage the favorable evaluations she’s been receiving into something permanent. Bonne chance (good luck), Nathalie!

Nathalie’s societal vision? “To have a world without money. Money just brings out the worst in people. I think most people are basically good, and would treat others as brothers and sisters except for money, which makes them treat other people poorly.” I mentioned the PS’s support for “a robust private sector” and asked Nathalie what she thought of the PS. She answered with a typically spicy French expletive.

The PS aside, some of the comparative advantages French workers enjoy stem from their ability and willingness to employ mass action, including general strikes. This partly grows from French unions’ roots in anarcho-syndicalism, in contrast to American unions’ business-unionism methods.

The French ideals of equality, unity, and freedom, to the extent they are observed and respected, have played a role. The right to strike, for example, cannot be signed away in France. Yet, American unions do so routinely. What American and French workers share is a common enemy: Capitalism.

The EU, along with internal France policy, has somewhat prevented capital from playing off workers in one member nation or area against those in another.

That doesn’t make French workers impervious to capital’s pernicious influences. Though French workers are the most productive in the EU, French wage levels rank low, if not lowest, among Europe’s social democracies. This places them among the most highly exploited workers in Europe.

It could be worse. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports indicate that, while American workers are the world’s most productive, workers in fifteen other nations, including France, enjoy higher average pay levels. So we see how, by nature, capital, in every capitalist nation, in search of the highest return, will unrelentingly work against us working people. Until we overthrow it.


Michael Weinert

Michael Weinert writes on labor issues from bases spanning the revolutionary spectrum. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee) and spent over 30 years as an economist for the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. His activism includes membership in the Socialist Party USA. He participated in the Occupy Chicago’s Labor Working Group, doing project work and served as its economic consultant. He has provided a variety of support to strikers and workers organizing, most recently at Golan Moving and Storage in Skokie, Illinois.

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