Refinery Strikes Typical of French Labor Relations

It’s not that the French strike more than other Westerners. It’s that when they do, they are louder and adamant.

Members of the Workers' Force union demonstrate against proposed labor reforms in Paris, France, May 12
Members of the Workers’ Force union demonstrate against proposed labor reforms in Paris, France, May 12 (FO)

France announced on Wednesday it would tap into its strategic oil reserves to make up for shortages caused by strikes at oil depots and refineries.

Some train and metro workers have joined the action to protest proposed changes in the labor code.

Earlier this month, President Fran├žois Hollande’s Socialist Party government introduced reforms that would make it easier for firm to lay off workers and give small companies more flexibility to negotiate wages and conditions directly with their employees.

Most unions, many of which are affiliated with the Socialist Party, have endorsed the reforms, which were watered down in order to win their support.

But the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and Workers’ Force (FO), the country’s first and third-largest federations, are divided.


Contrary to stereotype, the French are not extraordinarily prone to industrial action. In terms of days lost to strikes, the French hold up well compared to other Western nations. The Dutch, Germans and Swedes rarely put down their work, but the Canadians and the Danish quietly strike more.

Quiet French workers are not. When they strike, they are loud and sometimes violent. Images of burning tires and police using water cannon to disperse crowds are not unusual.

This may have something to do with the unions’ far-left roots. The aforementioned CGT didn’t cut its ties with the Communist Party until the 1990s. The Workers’ Force was founded in opposition to communist influence in the larger trade union.

Combustive mix

Surprisingly few French workers are actually in a union. Figures from the Federation of European Employers show that around a third of workers in Italy and the United Kingdom are unionized. In France, it’s only 8 percent. That’s lower than in the United States!

French unions are also fragmented. Many sectors have their own unions and cooperation within the federations can be tenuous.

Hence management tends to ignore the unions unless they push their case. French work culture is more hierarchal than in other Western European countries. Unlike is the case in Germany or the Netherlands, employers don’t typically consult with their workers about planned layoffs or reorganizations before making a decision.

This all adds up to a combustive mix that has exploded once again this week.

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