lundi 3 décembre 2012

Jimmy Hoffa's not dead, somewhere in the Everglades. He's alive and kicking in France

Jimmy Hoffa is not very famous in France. Not at all I would say. People like Sam Giancana are not familiar to the average Frenchman neither. This part of US "subculture" seen from France is limited to Al Capone. I don't know if Hoffa is famous in US, especially in young generations. Last time another human saw him, Apple wasn't founded. For french readers and maybe some US ones, Jimmy Hoffa was the leader of the "teamsters", a very powerful truckers union league. He was very close to the mob (especially when it came to the trucker's pension), was convicted, served some time and finally whisked away in 1975, accurately on July, 30th at 2:45PM on a parking lot of a restaurant in Detroit. A nice story for "X-Files" or  "Cold Case". A lot of theories had been made involving crocodiles and Everglades but it seems that he had simply been shot dead by his mobster friends and buried under a freeway.

French labor unions landscape

Now what does it have to do with France? In my last post, I was talking about a regular strike in France. You can't talk about strikes in France without speaking about labor union. First, lets's define vocabulary. As concepts are not exactly the same, one must be careful with translation. Let's call "labor unions" organizations that supposedly represent and defended workers (I know it's "trade union" in "british english") and "corp union leagues" the ones defending CEOs (or at least the company's views, including management and shareholders). On "labor union" side, we're basically talking about five organizations. In fact, after WWII, only those five labor unions were authorized to bargain with management and shareholders on behalf of employees (and sign deals). This list was written in the stone of the law. It's slowing changing since 2008 (a new law) and new labor unions are arising like SUD/Solidaires (a very radical labor union close to the former political party "Revolutionary Communist League" and close to a new one named "new anticapitalistic party". Well, names only say a lot). The other 5 big ones are CGT (historically close to French Communist Party), CFDT (historically a moderate labor union close the political "Socialist Party"), FO (close to trotskysts, a flavor of communism), CFTC (a moderate one with "C" for Christian) and CGC (also moderate with "C" for "cadre" which can be translated by "middle-manager"). On "Corp union league" side, basically, you have MEDEF lobbying for blue chips, CGPME for small & medium business and UPA for craft workers and "small-shop-around-the-corner-not-owned-by-a-chain" owners. I'll have to explain why communism is so integrated with labor unions and France political history (close to 30% voters in 70s, part of government in 80s and 90s, still running some large cities right now). But that's another story and that'll be another post.

France as a strikers haven : wrong image

France do have an image as being a "strike's haven". Well, fact is that's not true. Anymore. The numbers of yearly strike days is constantly decreasing for four decades and we don't go on strike more often that other European countries. Let's say we're average on that topic. Visibility is the problem. Let's say a "private company worker" (private means owned by individual and/or listed on stock exchange) goes on strike one day a year (that's not the real number, just to set the comparison), a governmental sector worker (e.g. teachers) goes on strike 7 days a year and an employee of the National Railroad Transportation Company (SNCF, Nation's owned), 22 days. Problem is that SNCF is not only transporting people from a town to another but is also a major player in suburban commuting, especially in Paris. Therefore, the resulting mess is highly visible in France an outside France (through TV, papers or for foreigners travelling in France for business or leisure). Small businesses workers barely never go on strike but would they do, nobody would notice. Strikes are highly concentrated in very visible sectors : transportation (trains, airlines, air traffic, subs, buses), energy production. And that's not a coincidence, I'll explain that. Just keep in mind that the cliché of France being a "strikers haven" come from the actions of 1% to 5% of the population only (many thanks to them !).
Want to fight the cliché ? Take a look at this figure. It's ": Strikes five-year average in days not worked per 1000 employees (1996-2000)" International comparison should be handled with care (differents processes). Greece had "lied" about its GDP so with not with strike days? Still, France is just in the average (67). US workers go on strike less often but that's close (60). More surprising (considering economic situation), Greek's strikes are twice more rare than in US and France. Portugal 3 times. Scandics country are supposed to have less strikes because they're more prone to find a solution discussing first. Well, Sweden shows that but Denmark and Norway certainly not (but those data are 12 years old). French cliché is that southern Europe folks are lazy and strikes-prone (you're always the strike haven of someone else) but those strikes numbers, again, denies that (Spain high, Portugal low). Now, be sure of something : if your wish is to travel somewhere with a very weak probability of strikes, go to Japan. Or Switzerland.

The second french paradox

Now why so many strikes in highly visible sectors ? Because labor unions are desperately weak and need some some visible actions to keep their high power : they're welcome to sit at the government table any time they want and their claims are very often satisfied. They're very weak at their base but very strong in the outcome of their actions. That's what I call the "second french paradox" (first had been preempted by wine & cardiac condition).

Politicians are afraid of a country paralysis due to major transportation strike (it happened in the past) or, moreover, a massive strike like in 1968, destabilizing the government (french leader, General de Gaulle, fled away in Germany during two days to block a political coup set up by communists who meant to march on the Presidential Palace). Labor unions power is based on fear and political weakness. Politics would do anything, whatever the cost (for citizens) to preserve what we call "social peace". Because they think they'll help them keep their positions and even help them being reelected. You know what ? It works !

Let's backup this with some numbers. Only 7% of french workers are affiliated to a union league. That's one of the lowest number in Europe and in the world developed countries (19% in Germany, 27% in England, 35% in Italy and 70% in Finland). Even lower than in USA (12%). You got to look at Nicaragua or Peru to find lower numbers. And even those 7% are to handle with care. In governmental sectors, it's close to 15% but in private, it's more like 5%. In small, private business, it's close to 0. The three main labor unions claim to have 2.5 millions affiliated people. Real numbers are closer to 1.5 millions. Affiliated are old (compared to the population's average) and getting older, mostly male and governmental sector is over-represented. So the labor unions also leave in fear : the fear to disappear. And they should : number of affiliates is dropping fast and managers and shareholders are trying more and more to bypass them to bargain directly with government. French people trust more labor unions leaders (43%) than politicians (23%). This level of trust (43%) is close to the one travel-vendors are credited. Basically, sectors where labor trade still "exist" (more than 10% of those sectors employees are affiliated to a labor trade) are:
  • Teachers (most of them governmental and paid by tax payers)
  • Transportation and energy employees (same)
  • Police, national finances management (same)
  • Hospital workers (same)
  • Local government (cities, counties) workers also paid on taxpayers's dime
  • Some of big Telcos and road-repair ancient Nation's owned monopoly turned private (e.g. France Telecom / Orange)
  • Few industrial big companies in sector on the brink to shutdown in France (e.g. steel)
Well, either it's people directly paid by taxpayers, either it's people belonging to sectors on the way to disappear.

Trade labor folks busy as bees digging their own grave

The situation is pretty bad. Not only for labor unions but for France. Companies and labor unions  are not dealing together, the government is voting law after law after law so the labor law would pile over the Eiffel's tower. That's one of the main reason of our poor performances compared to Germany where the "social dialog" is much more fluid.

Now, we should add on top of this some trade labor behavior that also explains why french workers don't exactly run into their arms despite the unemployment situation (from 9 to 15% depending on the calculation method) :

  • In France, shops are not allowed to be opened on Sunday unless they got a special authorization (for a very shop, a zone or a sector). Home repair tool vendor are not allowed to open on Sunday which is weird considering that if you’re looking for a hammer to fix something in your house, that’s a good day to buy it. Oddly, if you need to buy a sofa, furniture shops are opened on Sunday. A home repair tool chain, Bricorama, was opened on Sunday. It had been sued by its labor unions for this. The judge ruled in favor of labor unions, forcing Bricorama to close on Sunday. The group may be forced to go on chapter 11 and all employees may lose their job (and now Bricorama is suing to force competitors like sofa vendors to also be closed). Moreover, working on Sunday was made on a voluntary basis and was paid 50% to 100% more than a regular day. The labor unions are acting against the will of employees in a gesture of self-declared “enlighten elite”. That’s not the only case, far from it. There had been a lot of similar cases, especially on Sunday opening in the last few years. The odd thing is that only three parties are involved: company (being sued), labor unions (suing) and justice (judging). But employees have nothing to say in the matter.

  • Union leagues in France are not of “service type”. In some Northern Europe country, if a labor union signs a deal with the company management, only this labor union's affiliates will benefit of the deal. That raises mechanically the number of affiliated people.

  • Few months ago, a report had been order by the parliament. It showed that the financials of the labor unions are awful : no obligation to publish account, no need to have an auditor stamp on it, theft of budget paid by companies (mandatory according to the law) and supposed to benefit to employees (discount on cultural activities or holidays), a lot of governmental employees, paid by the taxpayers, are in fact working full time (and charge free) for labor unions, theft in some funds (supposed to be used for employee training), among other things. This report had been ordered to be destroyed and removed from the Net (although some part had been published by courageous journalists), which is more than rare in the last five decades. This report ban had been voted by all political tendencies represented in the parliament. Note that there were some scandal on corporate union leagues also ..
  • There are strong links between political parties and labor unions. A major labor union leader had called to vote for François Hollande at the last presidential election. That’s a problem but not a major one. In Germany, the most powerful labor union (IG Metall) is closed to a moderate political party (SPD) with no harm. But, in France, some labor union are closely linked to extremists parties. One of the most powerful labor union, CGT, had always been tight with French Communist Party, even in the period when this party was receiving direct order from Kremlin under USSR (historian proved it) in the late 70s. Other labor unions are linked to parties like “Revolutionary Communist League”. The name talks for itself. That means those labor unions are following a political agenda (revolution, anarchy) much more that an “employee defense” one.
  • In some local government (cities, counties) or railroad company places, the de facto management is made by the labor unions. They decide who will be hired for example (friends, family, political party member, ...)
  • Some labor union leader had been convicted to having misbehaved with employees (harassment, lack of payments, non-respect of labor laws)
  • Some labor unions had evolved for a long time now toward mob-like organization. That's mostly the case in books/newspapers printing and dockers. The printing labor union is known for its use of violence (if a newspaper tries to use non-affiliated workers, they basically go and smash their head. No charges are pressed because the authority fears them and wants to "preserve the social peace"). They've also used threat, anti-semetic accusations onto a journalist, grand theft for their own profit and for the benefit of Fidel Castro (they were stealing tons of papers to help Cuba's leader), they've stocked 5.000 firearms (firearms are prohibited in France) including automatic rifles and warfare firearms to help a revolutionary political movement. They finally accepted to give back the armory in exchange of (granted) full immunity. They also performed some highway high-speed chase onto competitors. Again, no charges were pressed. Let's add that some of the printing machines operators are earning $70,000 a year, way above the median french wage. The Marseille's port dockers use the same kind of method (but not in the same extent). To extend their normal wages, they're asking cash from ship's captain if they want they boat being unloaded. An inquiry had been made and those dockers are making $65,000 a year after tax for ... 12 hours of work a week. That's what you can call a good job.
That's why I don't believe Hoffa had been a good meal for crocodiles. I think he's the one beyond all of that. Guy's is 99 years old now but alive, kicking, living in some serious mansion in Luberon and knows what he's doing ! I'm trying to make some fun of this because, otherwise, I would cry. 3 to 5 millions people are unemployed in France, millions of others got poor job and are hardly making a living. All they got to defend themselves are some mafioso who don't care about their fate and push their head under the water trying to make their way to the top. Strikes, labor unions, workers's defense, that's bloody serious matters.Too serious to be left in the hands of those guys. A few of them at least. Cause labor unions are also filled with people who're working for the "greater good" and are also being fooled. Millions of people are like me : they're hesitating between laughter and cries, get informed about all of this and bitch or just look elsewhere because they got no control over this at the end of the day. That's France, 2012.


You woke up this morning
Got yourself a gun,
Mama always said you'd be
The Chosen One.

She said: You're one in a million

You've got to burn to shine,
But you were born under a bad sign,
With a blue moon in your eyes.

You woke up this morning

All the love has gone,
Your Papa never told you
About right and wrong.

But you're looking good, baby,

I believe you're feeling fine, (shame about it),
Born under a bad sign
With a blue moon in your eyes.

You woke up this morning

The world turned upside down,
Thing's ain't been the same
Since the Blues walked into town.

But you're one in a million

You've got that shotgun shine.
Born under a bad sign,
With a blue moon in your eyes.

Alabama 3 "Woke up this morning"
"The Sopranos" original Theme

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