Air France shirt-ripping incident reveals French unions’ lack of muscle

Indecent exposure. Jacques Brinon/PA

The British press has been looking askance at events in France, where Air France’s director of human resources and another senior manager were attacked by angry workers and forced to flee over wire fences with their clothing in tatters – all in plain sight of the international media.

The ugly events erupted during the company’s works council meeting, which was convened to consider the fourth “social plan” in three years, outlining how management plans to handle 2,900 redundancies. A number of employees were injured in the incident, including a security guard who was taken to hospital unconscious. The meeting was adjourned, but company management have confirmed that talks will continue.

This is not the first time that French workers have resorted to extreme means of expressing their anger. Highly-publicised “bossnappings” are not quite – as Fortune Magazine claimed last year – “as French as baguette and brie”. But they are certainly a distinctive feature of the French economic landscape.

Extreme protest

In 2009, 3M, Caterpillar, Molex and Sony all saw senior managers being taken hostage or locked inside factory premises, in protest against planned plant closures. In 2010, managers at the Nanterre office of the national postal service were locked in, and in 2012 an executive from carmaker PSA was taken hostage, while two executives from the US-based manufacturer Superior Essex were also detained in their office by employees protesting over redundancy pay. And just last year, two executives at the Goodyear tyre plant in Amiens were locked in by workers, in response to plans to close the site with the loss of over 1,000 jobs.

Such “bossnappings” or “lock-ins” have a long history in France. But they have became more frequent since the onset of the global economic crisis and the continued rise in unemployment. Graeme Hayes at Aston University has identified no fewer than 33 detentions of managerial staff by protesting employees between 2008 and 2011, noting a peak in 2009.

Violence has also taken other forms, such as the destruction of company property and even the burning of toxic materials during strikes. One example is the emblematic Cellatex dispute in 2000, which saw strikers threatening to pour acid from the plant.

These “extreme” forms of worker protest are usually last-ditch reactions to large-scale plant closures. They have often taken place in France’s “rustbelt” northern regions where long-term unemployment is significantly higher than the national average, and where those laid off have little hope of finding re-employment elsewhere.

The year 2010 marked the arrival of a socialist government, committed to reversing the upward unemployment trend. French unions hoped that this new government would force companies to find ways of preventing mass-layoffs. But several high-profile disputes still ended in closure, such as the Goodyear case and the long-running Mittal steel saga. Since then, the litany of mass redundancies has continued.

Steel workers protest against ArcelorMittal in Marseille, 2010. marcovdz/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

As France has become increasingly socially volatile, unequal and divided (as Emmanuel Todd recently argued), it is perhaps not surprising that anger erupts into violence.

But outside observers will find it remarkable that in France, it appears that extreme methods may sometimes be the best, or even the only, way for workers to make successful claims for redundancy payments – as the Cellatex case shows. Meanwhile, it has become cliché to say that France needs to improve its “social dialogue”, as successive attempts at reform have so far done nothing to improve matters.

Trench warfare

The Air France debacle highlights specific problems with restructuring in the aviation sector, in the face of cost-cutting initiatives driven by international competition. European cross-border mergers have also played an important part, and worker unrest in the industry has spread across Europe.

In the French case, successive restructuring plans have been met with determined resistance by organised workers – despite discrepancies across different groups of employees, such as pilots, cabin crew and ground staff – resulting in a kind of trench warfare between management and unions.

Discussion about the recent events has focused on the role of the state, which has a 17% stake in the company and continues to hold strategic shares more widely in the sector. Last year, French prime minister Manuel Valls declared that the long and costly strike at Air France “unacceptable”. President Francois Hollande has said the same thing in relation to the latest action.

Back then, the government was widely criticised for refusing to use its power to nominate a mediator. Now, it is hard to see how the long-running feud can be defused without some kind of arbitration effort.

The most recent events at Air France have also drawn attention to the disorderly response among the leading trade union confederations. Channelling worker grievances has always been a problem for the French unions, which are activist-led, and membership and resource-poor. During its heyday, even the dominant CGT union often found it hard to funnel unrest into specific demands.

Today, France’s trade union movement is weakened and divided; a state exacerbated by the need for constant electoral competition to demonstrate workforce support. Deprived of channels of party political influence, it struggles to act as an institutional channel for the fear and anger of many workers, who know that if they are made redundant, the chances of re-employment are slim.