Public-sector unions have France on the verge of total paralysis
French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grande Armee finally met its match when it encountered frigid winter weather in Russia. Perhaps cold weather could work in France’s favor this time, as French public-sector workers have announced a massive general strike for this week just as temperatures are expected to plummet to near zero degrees Celsius.
Not much has changed since Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812: The French still bring out the scarves before summer officially ends. And leftist union leaders here still haven’t figured out how to get their way without taking the citizenry hostage.
The national strike was scheduled to begin on Dec. 5, led by the unions of public-sector workers employed by the state-owned public transportation companies. Buses, subways and high-speed trains will cease to operate for an indefinite period of time. Teachers, hospital workers, firefighters, police, lawyers, utility workers, airline workers and other unionized employees are expected to answer the clarion call to walk out of work and take to the streets in protest.
Many people won’t have a choice about whether to work. Since last week, announcements in Paris subway stations have been warning riders about the impending lack of service, with near-paralysis expected. Among the 12 million residents of Paris, 93 percent take at least one trip on public transportation per day. Ride hailing and bike or scooter rental services are expected to be overwhelmed by demand.
Last week, I was on a Paris bus when a man in his 50s boarded with a bike, which he proceeded to fold up via a series of latches. A handful of onlookers bombarded him with questions. “I’ve had this thing for years, and no one ever asked me anything about it until this strike was announced,” he said. He was like a man with a Big Mac ahead of an anticipated famine.
So, what’s all the fuss about this time? Well, once again, the French government is attempting to impose a single common national retirement scheme on everyone. This has been an ongoing battle for French presidents for decades. You’d think that in a country whose slogan is “liberty, equality, fraternity,” everyone would expect to be treated the same in retirement — but leftist union chiefs would like for some to be treated more equally than others.
The idea of special retirement schemes dates back to the early 1900s and pertained to jobs that involved backbreaking labor, like working in the railyards or in roles that involved heavy manual labor. Technology has greatly reduced the physical demands of those same jobs, but union heads still want to maintain a system where, for example, train conductors can retire as early as age 50.
These state-owned companies can’t afford to pay out pensions to hordes of workers retiring so early, so they rely on French taxpayers to make up the difference via government subsidies. This means that Jean Blow, working in a physically demanding job in private-sector construction, is paying taxes until a retirement age of 62 (or 67 for a full pension) to subsidize a public-sector worker’s retirement more than a decade earlier.
French President Emmanuel Macron is trying to bring public-sector retirement schemes into line with those of the private sector. Macron’s main problem is that he has done little to prove to taxpayers that he’s significantly reduced wasteful government spending. This leads citizens to ask why they should be tightening their belts when the state isn’t.
The French are paying increasingly more in taxes and getting increasingly less in return. This sentiment is the primary impetus for the Yellow Vest protest movement, which is set to converge with the general strike — which, quite frankly, is unfortunate. The Yellow Vest movement was sparked by a fuel tax in the name of climate change — a shamelessly transparent and abusive government cash grab. The Yellow Vests unite all French citizens in their cause, regardless of age, class, gender, race or creed. It’s a movement of true solidarity. By contrast, the general strike drummed up by unimaginative socialist union leaders pits the public sector against the private sector, drivers against riders, early-retiring taxpayer against late-retiring taxpayer.
Rather than holding France hostage with strikes, union leaders need to evolve in their thinking to target the government directly. Get the civil servants who work for government tax authorities to walk off the job and stop collecting taxes. Block the fleet of ministerial and presidential vehicles. Picket the ministry buildings and taxpayer-funded apartments for French ministers and their staff. Get the electric company to shut off the electricity to those apartments and to the Elysee Palace in the middle of winter. Render it impossible for Macron and the ministers to jet out of France or to take the train. Make politicians’ lives absolute hell while leaving the working people alone.
Hey, if the head comrades of France’s labor unions need some creative ideas about sticking it to Le Man without taking civilians hostage, perhaps a few free-market and limited-government capitalists can help them out.