Against the tide

By Asbjørn Wahl

French truck drivers strike five years off their age of retirement


When French workers go on strike you find them in the streets or on the roads. A year ago, in November-December 1995, tens of thousands of civil servants and state-industry workers filled the streets of Paris and other big cities in a fierce and successful struggle against the Juppé-government plan to axe public budgets and to start downsizing the social-welfare system. Last November truck drivers put a stranglehold on the French economy by taking control of the road transport infrastructure - again with a successful outcome.

Thus, the French workers and trade union movement have proved that collective action is not a thing of the past in "post-industrial" societies, as many academics, politicians and media commentators have for some time tried to make us believe. Through their astonishing mobilisation of strength, the French trade unions have taken the lead in Europe in the fight against the global "triumphal progress" of the deregulated market economy and the deteriorating working conditions which great parts of the working force have experienced over recent years. That this happens in a country where just above 10% of the total workforce is unionised, although the unions are much stronger in certain areas - in particular the public sector, should be a cause for consideration for many of us. The French tradition of organising militants and mobilising all workers, whether they are members or not, when they go on strike, is probably part of the answer to this problem.

The action taken by the truck drivers last November was extraordinary. Not only in terms of strength and level of organisation, but most of all because the trade unions went on the offensive in pursuit of high-level demands at a time when the trade union movement not only in France, but all over the world, was and continue to be on the defensive. In this sense, the strike truly went against the tide.

In a country with a traditionally fragmented trade union movement, with three "competing" national federations (the "socialist" CFDT, the "communist" CGT and FO) in addition to a number of free-standing trade unions, the truckers' strike also reinforced the tendency of co-operation, unity and mutual solidarity between the organisations that was demonstrated during the strike at the end of 1995. The two rounds of extensive, militant and successful strikes in France have thus impressed and encouraged workers and trade unions all over the world.


Truck drivers have for a long time experienced negative pressure on wages, working hours, physical conditions, jobs and safety. A national agreement for the progressive reduction of working hours, signed in 1994, has not been implemented. Competition has increased immensely in the industry, partly because the national market is being gradually turned into a European single market. Unscrupulous employers have taken advantage of the recession to increase the exploitation of workers, and average pay for a truck driver was around FFr8,000 per month for some 200 hours, while many work up to 240 hours. This is only just above the minimum wage, which is calculated on just 169 hours a month. The European Union (EU) policy of liberalisation and deregulation has not helped this situation. "European deregulation has so far just been a pretext for employers not to improve drivers’ conditions", said Rene Valladon of the FO to the Financial Times (26.11.96).

Against the background of this development and the resulting discontent which had grown among the drivers over a period of time, the number of local strikes and actions reached unprecedented levels during 1995. It therefore became clear to the unions that it was up to them to safeguard and develop this outburst of energy and vitality. A conscious and determined planning for action started among the unions involved, in particular the CFDT, which is the strongest organisation in terms of union members in the road haulage industry. The strike was prepared throughout the year and huge activities and resources were invested in order to achieve a successful outcome. Weeks of guerrilla-style strikes among truck drivers in 1992, which also paralysed the country, had given them important experience as to how to organise trade union action in the road haulage industry.

A number of meetings and press conferences were held, the demands were developed in detail, the organisation of blockades was discussed and planned, pamphlets and stickers were produced and distributed, etc. The unions learnt that the best way to contact the truckers was in the cafés. There, trade union officials and militants spent a lot of time discussing with the truckers, mobilising and motivating them for the coming fight. In May/June last year, short strikes/demonstrations were staged as a prelude to the "real struggle" ahead. They proved more successful than expected, so morale and fighting spirit continued to rise.

However, the truck drivers’ strike must also be seen against the backdrop of what happened a year ago, in November-December 1995, when civil servants and state-industry workers poured on to the streets and public transport strikes brought cities to a standstill. The outside world was astonished by the giant demonstrations which grew into a movement of general opposition to commercial globalisation and the neo-liberal offensive, and their effects, which gained broad support from public opinion and which were on the verge of turning into a general public uprising. The mobilisation lasted for three and a half weeks before prime minister Alain Juppé caved in and withdrew most of his unsocial "plan for reform".

These events, together with a complete lack of ability on the government’s side to fulfil its election promises of job creation and social justice, has resulted in a weak government and the most unpopular prime minister in the fifth republic (i.e. since 1958). The official unemployment figure, which has grown to 3,3 million or 12,6% of the workforce, has not contributed to pacify the trade union movement. The demonstration of power in 1995 has thus strengthened the self-confidence and fighting spirit of the trade unions. A number of minor disputes took place all through last year, so the truck drivers’ strike topped a trend of trade union actions connected with high unemployment, deteriorating working conditions, cuts in public budgets and extensive privatisation of state-owned industries. This time, there was a major difference from the previous year; it was private sector workers who took action.

Course of events

The strike started on 18 November and lasted for 12 days. The tactic was not to park the lorries at depots or parking areas, but to use them to blockade strategic points of motorways and border crossings as well as important economic targets like fuel depots, ports, oil refineries, etc. At its height about 250 roadblocks were staged by some 50,000 trucks all over France. The three main demands were:

• retirement age at 55 rather than 60;
• higher wages (summarised to more than a 20% increase);
< • non-driving time (i.e. loading, unloading, waiting time) to be paid in full.
Better sick pay and respect of trade union rights at the work-place were also required.

Thoroughly prepared as it was, the strike was managed with military logistics when it first broke out. The extensive use of mobile phones and fax machines was part of the command/information system, which was used for information exchange as well as directing roadblocks to be placed to maximum effect. Food supply and exchange of personnel at the roadblocks had to be organised. As paraphrased by two of the strike leaders, François Yverneau of the CFDT and Roger Poletti of the FO in the French newspaper Les Echos (12.12.96), it was "a modern day conflict - defending the working conditions of another century".

Apart from being an efficient means to put pressure behind the demands, the blockades also had another important effect by bringing the striking truck drivers together in a manageable number of sites. While drivers are usually isolated in their cabs, they suddenly found themselves as part of a collective created by the huge blockades. A collective where they could discuss, exchange experiences, get information, be encouraged and cultivate their self-confidence. The 1992 strike had also taught the unions, according to a strike co-ordinator, that "in order to successfully blockade - and therefore strike - you need a telephone, a restaurant and toilet facilities - without that it becomes a nightmare." (Les Echos 12.12.96) So the targets for blockades had to be carefully considered.

The actions and blockades were gradually stepped up during the strike and had a huge effect on the economy - not only in France, but in neighbouring countries as well. The newspaper Lloyds List reported at one stage that some 2,000 Portuguese trucks, about 40% of the national fleet, were stuck in France. 85-90% of the entire Portuguese international road transport fleet was paralysed because trucks could not get through France to their destinations. About 1,000 British road haulage vehicles were blocked at one point and thousands of trucks from other European countries were hit as well. According to the EU Transport Commissioner, Neil Kinnock, 20,000 foreign trucks were blocked on one occasion. At national level this provoked friction with France's neighbouring countries, in particular Britain which exercised hard pressure on the French government to bring the blockades to a halt.

Many of the foreign drivers stuck in France expressed support for their French colleagues, while others reacted negatively. Some of these were of course owner-drivers, but others, according to press statements of a local French trade union spokesman, were "drivers who themselves are exploited because they're paid by the trip" and so lost a lot of money while being trapped in France. The support and sympathy from public opinion in France, however, were surprisingly strong, as opinion polls confirmed, some of them reproduced figures showing that more than 80% of the French population had sympathy with the truck drivers, in spite of its widespread consequences.

The actions had a huge effect on the French society, it virtually put a stranglehold on the entire economy. Factories were closed, petrol rationed; almost a third of the petrol stations were either dry or feeling shortages, supply of perishable goods and other foodstuff to the supermarkets was widely hampered as was supply of raw materials and spare parts to the manufacturing industry. Pressure for a settlement of the dispute was increased by the threat of a national transport strike after Air France crews walked out and railway workers blocked traffic between Paris and Rouen. Towards the end of the dispute, five rail unions urged their members to support the strikes "with the appropriate means".

Two of the employers' associations tried to take the initiative out of the hands of the unions by mounting their own complaints and actions against the inflated costs and the price war before the strike broke out. Owner-drivers were also involved in actions for the purpose of airing their grievances over fuel taxes, etc. However, these campaigns were swept off the ground as soon as the workers and trade unions entered the scene.

After a week the government intervened and named a mediator. After 10 days of protest, the initial deal was hammered out in round-the-clock negotiations between drivers, bosses and the government mediator. On 30 November the unions involved concluded that they had achieved all that could be achieved at the current time and called off the strike. The greatest achievement was the formidable reduction of retirement age from 60 to 55 years for drivers with at least 25 years in the industry and with a pension equivalent to 75% of gross pay. Statutory retirement age in France is 60. Thus the lorry drivers are the first private sector workers entitled to retire at an age lower than 60. They have, in other words, bucked a trend towards retirement ages being equalised upwards rather than down, due to a general European problem of an ageing population and a diminishing workforce.

Most of the wage demands were given up in exchange for a one-off lump sum of FFr3,000. Payment for non-driving time was promised, but a final agreement was left to further negotiations between the unions and the employers. If they failed to work out a deal within two weeks, the government would rule by decree. The government decreed that, as a minimum, rest breaks (including meals) and waiting for loading should be paid if they exceeded a quarter of the working day or a maximum of three hours per day. This was an important break-through in principle, which the employers disliked because it will limit the current excessive use of unpaid waiting time. The concrete achievements regarding time limit, however, did not satisfy all the unions this time. The strike also resulted in improvements regarding sick pay, coverage of travel expenses, trade union rights and a ban on Sunday driving.

The road transport industry

The French strike demonstrated, once again, the important strategic position of the road transport industry, a position which has gradually been strengthened over the last few decades. The growth of just-in-time delivery, together with the fact that freight has shifted overwhelmingly from rail to road, has given the road transport industry a position which makes it extremely vulnerable for disruptions - and so the underlying scope for successful trade union action has widened.

After only a few days of strikes, we could therefore witness many businesses, including big car manufacturers, threatened with closure because of lack of deliveries. Car manufacturers in France, Spain, Germany and Sweden reported problems and reduced activities, and many other sectors of society faced immense problems.

Like in most other countries, however, the majority of French truck drivers are not unionised. Only about 15% belong to one of the five national unions which organise these workers, of which CFDT is the organisation with most members. The low level of organisation is mainly due to the fragmented structure of the industry. In France there are about 36,500 haulage firms, most of which employ fewer than 10 people. However, in those companies with a workforce of 50 of more, more than 50% are unionised. All together there is a total of 290,000 drivers.

Due to deregulation and the low barriers to entry into road haulage, the number of companies has increased considerably over the last ten years, by 16,500 since 1985, something which has created a huge overcapacity. Too small and too divided, the transport companies can do little but accept, when large customers almost dictate the conditions to them. This, in addition to increased competition from foreign companies, squeezes freight rates and leads to dumping conditions in tariffs, and consequently in pay and working conditions.

This comes in addition to already extremely harsh working conditions in the road transport industry. It is very well known and documented that "driving damages health". Lorry, bus and taxi drivers face more health risks than most other groups of workers and very few of them are able to stay in their jobs till their retirement age. This was, of course, the reason why the French unions pursued with such determination their strong demand for a 5 year lowering of their retirement age.

The question of working hours is paramount in the transport industry - both with regard to pay and working conditions. The defective working time regulations and the distinct lack of enforcement of existing regulations are matters of concern in the road haulage industry internationally. Unpaid waiting time has in particular been exploited by French employers, and so this problem was taken as one of the core elements of the dispute.

The situation described is the great paradox of the road haulage industry - on the one hand harsh working conditions and a very low level of union organisation and on the other hand the potential of commanding great strategic power if first organised. The French way of mobilising power rather than membership is possibly a trade union strategy better suited to overcome this problem.

A wider context

The revival of trade union action over the last couple of years in France, as well as in other European countries, can also be interpreted in a wider context. Since economic recession set in and neo-liberal policy gained ground during the 80s the number of working days lost due to trade union action has diminished considerably in Europe - to a level where strikes, with a few exceptions, had in fact almost disappeared from working life.

Over recent years, however, we have witnessed increased activities from trade unions in a number of European countries. What some analysts have characterised "the end of trade unionism" in the era of global market economy has thus not come true. Extensive trade union struggles have, apart from France, taken place in Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain. Recently these actions have to an increasing degree, directly or indirectly, been linked to the development of the European Union - in particular the preparation for European Economic and Monetary Union with a single currency and the so-called Maastricht criteria .

These criteria, which themselves represent the institutionalisation of a right-wing monetary policy, where the fight against inflation is given priority over the fight against unemployment, have proved to be a hard nut to crack for most member countries. Most governments are therefore executing huge cuts in public spending in order to reduce budget deficits and debts. Increased unemployment and cuts in social services and benefits have been the results, and deregulation and privatisation are parts of the policy to achieve these goals.

This reality creates a rather hostile economic environment for trade unions which are being set under immense pressure in order for their governments to meet the Maastricht criteria. The massive French public sector strikes in November-December 1995 were more or less a direct confrontation with the government’s plans to prepare for monetary union. But the truckers’ achievement during their strike is also contrary to the government’s effort to prepare for a single European currency, as Alain Juppé’s government will have to foot much of the bill for early retirement and compensate haulage firms for extra operating costs by cutting social security charges and fuel tax. These are heavy burdens on a budget which strives to come under the Maastricht defined limit of deficit.

The French government is in other words pressed between a rock and a hard place, between the trade union movement and the Maastricht criteria. The road haulage industry is, on the other hand, to an increasing degree exposed to Europe-wide competition and can hardly carry more expenses than their competitors in other EU countries. This is the new European reality which to some degree can embitter the French unions’ joy. This is also the reason why the French government took over most of the costs of the unions’ achievements.

More than anything this calls for a harmonisation of working conditions across Europe, although a harmonisation upwards rather than downwards, which will be the result if the policy of free market forces and social dumping are to be continued. The problem is that the trade union movement is not yet developed to a level where it can take joint action at a European level. The necessity of co-ordinated international action cannot, after all, be imposed on trade unions from above, it must grow up from below and be based on real experiences. This problem does not, in other words, take any of the shine out of the impressive demonstration of strength by the French truck drivers. It emphasises, however, that huge problems still lay ahead. In dealing with these problems, the inspiration and encouragement of the French truck drivers’ strike will prove to be an important asset and inspiration for the European trade union movement.

Time to learn French

The French workers and trade unions have impressed and encouraged workers all over the world by their committed actions over the last two years, and - of course - frightened some. First, in 1995, by proving that it was possible to make the government back off, to resist the effects of commercial globalisation and to stop the liberal offensive in its tracks. The struggle outlined a possible alternative to the dictatorship of financial markets and the reign of inhuman competition. Then, in November last year, by staging an offensive fight among private sector workers in a harsh economic environment and a general defensive situation. The French have truly moved against the tide. It would, however, be too optimistic to proclaim that the tide has turned for the trade union movement in Europe, although the French actions have made a difference.

This difference was also emphasised by the British Prime Minister, John Major, when, in an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian (28.11.96), he commented on the French strike as follows: "I am delighted to say the days of strikes like that in this country have long since gone. They occur elsewhere but not here. It’s part of what gives this country its competitive edge these days." Or to put it more bluntly in the wording of a columnist of the same newspaper: "While British union leaders meekly hope that management may be brought to the table, French union leaders bring them to their knees." (30.11.96)

When German metal workers rallied against their government and the metal employers’ association in the beginning of October last year, they carried a banner with the following text: "Kohl/Strumpfe: Wir lernen Französisch" (Kohl/Strumpfe[names of the Prime Minister and the leader of the metal employers association]: We are studying French) as a clear hint to what they could embark upon if the employers continued to pursue their aim of cutting sick pay. Maybe the time is now for all of us to learn more French - in this context the language of the street, so to speak.

Asbjørn Wahl

Wahl er nestleder i ITFs Vegtransportseksjon og konsulent i Norsk Kommuneforbund. Han kan kontaktes på e-post: Asbjørn Wahl

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