This has not been an easy time to get around France. By announcing that it planned to raise the age for retirement benefits from 62 to 64 and reconfigure the nation’s generous pension systems, the government of President Emmanuel Macron has triggered a nationwide strike of workers in occupations ranging from dancers to dockworkers.Employees of the nation’s railroads and subways — the Paris metro in particular — have all but shut down their systems.
To Americans, the strike may look like radicalism run amok, but by French standards, it is nothing if not traditional. France has been ruled by powerful central governments dating back to the 17th century court of Louis XIV. And from the world-altering revolution of 1789 through the upheavals of May 1968 and beyond, the French have often taken to the streets to bring their rulers down — or, all too often, die trying.
The current upheaval is the latest in a long line that have sought to preserve the rights and benefits accruing to French workers since the socialist-led government of Leon Blum created the French version of the New Deal in the 1930s.That version was more generous and all-encompassing than ours: Thanks to their pensions, only 5 percent of French seniors live in poverty, while the poverty rate for U.S. seniors is nearly four times that.In the mid-1990s, the government’s efforts to scale back benefits was blocked by strikes, and Macron’s government is facing a similar challenge today.
French public sentiment appears to be on the side of the strikers, who won the support of 53 percent of their compatriots in a recent poll published by Le Journal du Dimanche. But that wouldn’t be the sentiment here, right? We Americans don’t just take to the streets to strike for better economic conditions, do we?
Well, increasingly, we do. In the past two years, both the number of major strikes and public support for unions have risen to levels not seen in decades. Striking teachers, auto workers, hotel workers and others have put more people on picket lines than we’ve seen since the mid-1980s. And the share of the public that thinks favorably of unions — 64 percent in last year’s Gallup polling — is the highest it’s been in half a century.
Beginning with the 2018 strike of teachers across West Virginia, much of thepublic has backed teacher strikes in a host of states, many of them — such as Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and West Virginia — either historically or currently conservative and anti-union.
These strikes succeeded in winning the teachers’ demand for more school funding in good measure because parents, despite having to rearrange their lives while their kids weren’t in school, backed the teachers. They did so because the teachers were demanding not merely — or even primarily — raises, but more funding for the counselors, nurses and libraries that many schools do without. The teachers, to use a term recently popularized by labor strategists, were “bargaining for the common good.”
But these labor actions have differed in one significant way from the French strikes: They are localized. With power in the United States less centralized than in France and elsewhere in Europe where large-scale strikes occur, our national government doesn’t often have the clout to create or diminish most basic benefits.
We’ve had massive demonstrations aplenty — from the historic March on Washington for civil rights in 1963, to the huge antiwar rallies of the Vietnam era, to the Women’s March on the day following Donald Trump’s inauguration — but they’ve not chiefly focused on economic issues.
Except when they have. The great march and rally at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech, for instance, was billed as a march “for jobs and freedom” — and that economic emphasis was one reason why the landmark prohibition of employment discrimination was added to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
And even further back, we went through debilitating national transit strikes themselves to achieve better working conditions. America’s first nationwide strike took place in 1877, when railroad workers from the East Coast to the Midwest walked off the job to protest cuts to their already poverty-level wages — a strike that required federal troops to suppress.In the mid-1890s, a recession as deep as that of the 1870s led to a second national rail strike, again put down by the army.
These earlier strikes were not only defeated, but also a number of their leaders were imprisoned, since collective bargaining was not legalized until the mid-1930s. But once that happened, the following 40 years saw unions flourish, more strikes won than lost, and prosperity — for the only time in American history — broadly shared.
By the early 1980s, however, with the advent of foreign competition and increasing pressure to slow the growth of wages from a more powerful financial sector demanding higher profit margins, corporations began routinely firing striking workers and employing illegal strategies — like firing pro-union employees — to thwart organizing drives. (The 1935 National Labor Relations Act imposed virtually no penalties on employers for violating its provisions.)
Corporations were further emboldened by President Ronald Reagan, who in 1981 fired the air traffic controllers who’d gone on strike — a worker defeat even more resounding than the rail strikes of the 19th century.
Today, however, that dynamic has been turned on its head. The Trump administration’s shutdown of the government last winter, in which it made key federal employees work without pay, was brought to a halt when a number of air traffic controllers decided to call in sick, forcing LaGuardia Airport to stop accepting flights and compelling the president to end the shutdown.
After decades of corporations warring against labor, the share of workers in unions has shrunk to 10.5 percent (and just 6.4 percent in the private sector) from a high of more than one-third of the workforce in the years following World War II.
But organized labor has found other ways to push to improve workers’ lot, with street actions at the forefront of them. Unions have mixed demonstrations with election-year voter mobilization to persuade state and local governments to raise the minimum wage (in some states to $15), pass paid sick-day laws and secure other advances. Gains that were made through contracts with individual employers in the mid-20th century now are won in elections and in protests.
Bargaining with the power structure in the streets? A proud French tradition — and a growing American reality.
- Harold Meyerson is the editor-at-large of The American Prospect.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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