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jeudi 29 novembre 2012

A strike, like any other strikes, somewhere in France, 2012



In France, we have something major protected in our constitution: the right to go on strike. Well, nothing original compared to other countries, and I totally second that. However such a sacred principle should keep its Sacred face. But, in my story, the way union leagues handle this Right might be comparable if a French patriot pissed on the flag. Even though that the Sacred value we put in our flag is nothing compared to US citizens and the Stars & Stripes, I don’t like this image. At all. This takes place in Lyon, the place I live. Not a well-known city but the second biggest in France. 440.000 people for the city itself, 1.2 million including the suburbs. I tried to call the national media on this story but they don’t care. France is a very centralized country, for all aspects. National media are all based in Paris. And what happens beyond Paris’ outskirts is of low interest to them. That could explain why journalism is one of the most hatred profession in France (along with politicians, dentists and car repair).

Here is the thing: the huge majority of the union leagues of Lyon’s public transportation company (TCL) had launched a “strike notice”. In France, you need to send a notice if you plan to go on strike. This is at union league discretion, they don’t need to consult their members (and if they do, that’s always by a “raising hands” vote with peer pressure included). The notice is for union leagues only. The employees themselves don’t need to declare themselves strikers or not: that’ll be management surprise. Well, it has changed a little bit with a law promoted by Nicolas Sarkozy, a so-called “minimal service”.

TCL plan to strike from Nov, 23rd to Jan, 6th (6 weeks!) with an alternate system: odd day, stop work at morning peak hour (7:30AM to 8:30AM), even day, same thing at evening peak hour (5:30PM to 6:30PM). Why an hour only? Because if they’re on strike only 59 minutes a day, they get their full payroll at the end of the month. Gain but no pain. That’s very painful because Lyon’s car traffic is saturated. We have two rivers flowing down the city and that does not help. A fire aftermath in a tunnel in the Alps in 1999 caused 39 fatalities. The security norms have since been revised. Therefore, currently, the major tunnel of Lyon is closed every night and the second major one is closed 24/7 for six months. That’s precisely why the union leagues chose this moment in time to call for a strike! That and the upcoming mayor election coming up in a year and a half. Oh, and add that Lyon has a major cultural event on Dec, 8th (bringing tourists and money). Those guys know what they’re doing.

Few words about TCL. They own 4 metros lines, 4 tramway lines, 2 funiculars and over 100 lines of buses. This is the second biggest network in France, operating over 234 square miles where 1.2 million person lives. But management is complicated. TCL is managed by SYTRAL. Let me explain basic forms of companies in France (and the danger of vocabulary "false friends") :
  •  Private: all privately owned companies, including those listed on stock-exchange
  •  Public: all company owned by “France”, directly or indirectly. I know the term is confusing with public as “listed on stock exchange”. I’ll refer to “Gvt Companies”

Well, for SYTRAL, it’s even more complicated, it’s syndication but basically, its “Gvt company”. It is managed by a Board made up of elected politicians, headed by the mayor of Lyon (who is also senator) – currently a socialist party member (PS). The other board members are from all parties represented in Lyon: greens (ecologists), communists, conservatives. But SYTRAL does not operate all of this: the operations are delegated to a private company: KEOLIS. Nothing’s simple. SYTRAL debt is almost a billion dollars (mainly national banks, some of them “governmental banks”).  There have been scandals: money wasted for dumb projects by SYTRAL, SYTRAL president stating that TCL employees are AWOL 23 days a year (well, AWOL not the good work, they most of the time have a certificate from a very understanding physician). Managing director of SYTRAL had been tried and convicted for having stolen around 100k$ from company accounts. Anyway, all those folks are working hard to save their small world (and their cash cow).

‘Cause money is flowing! SYTRAL has 670 M$ cash resources yearly. Private and “gvt companies” are paying 207 M$ on their own dime (it’s mandatory, of course), metro/bus tickets buyers 157 M$, French equivalent of your counties 116 M$, French budget 20 M$. Add some borrowings and misc resources and you’ll come to the right numbers.

What do the union leagues want? Same as usual: better work condition, more money, better career progression (and money therefore). Are those employees badly handled by the management ? I don’t know. In 2009 (2012 is basically the remake of a 2009 story), the socialist mayor of Lyon said « we hire a bus driver 1,260$/month net. With bonuses, that rises up to 1,420$/1,575$ a month. Are there a lot of sector with those hiring salaries?”. For American readers, note that it includes full health coverage (90% of health costs refunded, 75% by national healthcare and 15% by private healthcare company, usually half-paid by companies - a typical private healthcare covarage costs $150/month thus $75/month deduced from the employee payroll) and open rights for a good retirement pension. Note also that :
  •      Those bus drivers, assuming their salaries is 1,500$ a month, are earning more than 60% of the French people
  •       In the transportation sector, in their classification, they’re earning more than 75% of other people
  •      As a comparison matter, as manager in the same sector will earn 70% more than those bus driver. Upper management 2.1 fold, CEOs 4.5 fold

I’ve performed some calculations based on our national statistics institute (INSEE) return on experience about national massive transportation strikes in 1995, 2003 or 2007 (just a sample, that’s not the whole bunch of them). The area that would be impacted by the strike represents 3% of the French GDP. Based on those assumptions, the strike may push up to 33.000 people into unemployment, to be added to the 3.000.000 officials unemployed in France (10% of the potential workers) and 5.000.000 unofficial (if you include people that worked only a single day in the month for example).

Now, how numerous are the potential strikers? We don’t know (remember, they don’t have to declare themselves on an individual basis). But TCL employs 4.500 people (majority of bus drivers). At the last union leagues elections, 61.7% of the employees voted. Union leagues calling for strike got 85.3% of the votes. That makes 2.368 persons backing the union leagues threatening 33.000 jobs. 14 jobs at risk for a single individual. I’m not a great fan of Ronald Reagan (at least not of any aspects of what he did) but my feeling is that, at a very moment of history, the central power of a nation needs to step up, deploys its wing and use its power (given by voters) to affirm its authority for the “common good”. That’s what did Reagan in 1981 with the air-traffickers on a larger scale, with some brutality that makes this the icon of “economic liberalism horror” for a lot of French people (not all of them tough). My guess is that those 2,368 people should be fired and replaced by unemployed bus or truck driver (there are plenty of them: our transportation sector had been crushed by the competition of low-cost low-social law countries workers from Poland, Romania or Bulgaria). At the same salaries and benefits. Maybe that’ll bring some disorganization while those folks learns the TCL process but that’s nothing compared to potential strike aftermath. And we’re talking about driving buses not guiding jumbo jets cruising at 35,000 ft, packed with families, flying at 600 mph up in the sky.

But Lyon’s population should not panic. The strike will never take place. Administrators of SYTRAL (politicians) have too much to lose: elections, power, money for themselves, and even their hopes for city common good. The strikers will obtain most of what they want. The politicians will refuse some commas here, some semicolons there in order to keep the illusion of their power (for electors if not for themselves). The money to finance the TCL employee’s raises will be found on taxes (local, national, companies). Mainly on local. That’ll just be some few percent. Few will notice. If they do, nobody will listen to them. They will be answered that local taxes are raised cause the central power give more are more duties to local power and less and less money. Taxpayers will do what they do: pay. The bus driver’s will have more money in their pocket. Lyon’s mayor will be reelected, thanks for his grand management of the crisis and the votes of TCL employees and families (4.500 employees plus their families, that’s not nothing when you know that mayor of Lyon, in the last election, obtained 80,236 votes on 1st round; to be fully honest, not all employees are registered to vote in Lyon. That’s why mayors of Lyon’s outskirts cities will back Lyon’s mayors to get their contingent of votes).

Maybe some courageous local media will make a story will this. Maybe they’ll be scared by the politician’s power (French press is surviving thanks to governmental help). National papers won’t bother taking the risk: not a single copy to be sold on this.  Thinks will go on as usual. People will go to work using metro and buses. That’s a glimpse of France 2012. SNAFU.

"Lucky Strike, it's toasted"
Famous cigarette brand slogan

3 commentaires:

  1. Pour bien faire, ne faudrait-il?... cela ne mériterait-il pas d'être plus "court", un style plus synthétique, plus fluide… Pardon de ne pas m'exprimer en allemand !

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    Réponses
    1. Yes the idea would be to provide a synthetic version then a full version for those interested to go further.
      I know one the americans strong skill is summarizing and go straight to the point. I need to work on that ! Obviously !

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  2. Pour avoir de l'audience, envoyez cet article à un journal anglais spécialisé dans le French bashing. Il sera repris sans problème ;-)

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