Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May Day mayday

“May Day” and “mayday” are spelled alike and sound alike. Their meanings are not at all alike. The former indicates a day set aside to celebrate working men and women. It is typically marked by large demonstrations organized by labor unions. The second is a phonetic spelling of the French m’aider, (short for venez m’aider) “help me.” It has become an internationally recognized distress signal. This year, with the economic crisis affecting laborers, traditional May Day demonstrations were also a mayday call.

Since the beginning of the year the French have taken to the streets three times in mass demonstrations. Organizers hoped that May Day would bring out the largest crowds. Unfortunately May 1 fell on a Friday, which meant a long holiday weekend. Since the weather throughout the country was pleasant, many would-be demonstrators seem to have been relaxing with their families in the countryside.

Still, the numbers were impressive, and, sign of how difficult times bring even antagonists together, all the major unions formed a united front in the marches. The May Day “mayday” complaints were common ones.

  • Workers had nothing to do with causing the economic crisis, but they are bearing the brunt of it. Not only are they being fired but, adding insult to injury, their taxes are being used to subsidize banks who did cause the crisis.
  • Workers help bring prosperity to companies which enrichens managers and shareholders. When things go bad, though, it is the workers who are dismissed as if their contributions meant nothing.
  • It is a mistake to think that nothing can be done and laborers should just resign themselves into the role of passive pawns in the process.
  • Political leaders who should represent their electorate have become, in effect, an extension of the industrialist class.
Although the demonstrations were peaceful, labor activism in France this year has been marked by a heightening of tensions. A government office was ransacked as workers heard the news that negotiatons had not resulted in jobs being saved; fires have been set outside a tire fabrication plant about to be closed; and sequestration des cadres or “bossnapping” has been a favorite strategy to up the ante in negotiations.

All this might lead people to think that France is a country with widespread unionization. This would be a mistake. According to 2004 figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, France is among the least unionized of the major industrial countries. A little over half the workers in Belgium and Norway are unionized. In France the rate is 9.7 percent. Even the U.S. has a higher level of unionization at 12.8 %.

What France does have is unionization in key sectors and general popular support for workers. When the railroad workers or the subway workers go on strike, the effect is immediately noticeable. Workers at the national electric company have recently resorted to the strategy of cutting off service. When that proved unpopular, they switched to manipulating meter reading so individual bills would be lower. The latter move was inspired by the desire to preserve public support. Even when it comes to “bossnapping” some 64% of those surveyed did not think the workers should be prosecuted.

It is not yet clear whether the economic crisis, its attendant job losses, and worker unrest will make a major difference in the country’s political situation. Most French people surveyed may express sympathy with the May Day demonstrators, but in the last three presidential elections they have voted for the center right party, one friendlier to market liberalization, U.S. style. The current president, Nicholas Sarkozy, elected while promising market liberalizing reforms is not finding popularity surveys to be especially favorable. This should be a good sign for the opposition, but, this being France, there are lots of opposition parties, and, given their ideological differences, getting united behind a single presidential candidate, and getting a majority in the national assembly, may represent overwhelming hurdles.

Until then, the next presidential election is not until 2012, the major question will continue to be whether job losses can be slowed down and reversed. Meanwhile French workers will continue to ask themselves why, in neighboring countries, protests are so passive.

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