My husband had a student who was doing a sandwich course that included twenty weeks in an industrial setting, working on a project to improve some particular aspect in a factory. The student said that he had never before had to choose his words so carefully. If he implied that better efficiency might have the effect of reducing working hours the unions would call a strike because reducing hours meant losing jobs. I often tell my students that France needs a Mrs. Thatcher. She stopped the unions being so powerful by insisting that strikes would be legal only if voted for by a secret ballot and more than 50% of the workforce was in favour of a strike. The power of the shop stewards to call for a walk-out was over. Unions had to be democratic. In France their powers have never been curbed. There have been transport strikes because the new trousers of bus drivers were too tight! There are the continual air traffic controller strikes. I have taught air traffic controllers and have asked why they are going on strike. Often, they don’t know! I always ask the bus driver, why there is going to be a strike, I just get a shrug of the shoulders! On the other hand, the unions have won tremendous advantages for their workers. In French pay packets there is often a 13th month. If you haven’t saved for Christmas it doesn’t matter as your salary is doubled each December. Some companies give a double salary just before the holidays! There are also restaurant vouchers, subsidized travel tickets, outings and paid days off for weddings and funerals, Christmas presents for your children, birthday presents for you and more. If a company has more than 50 employees there must be a union, yet overall only 7% of French workers are members of one. I recently read that one of the most powerful unions receives 1% of the income of a big energy company. Money always equals power unfortunately. When I heard a French union leader say that ‘compromise’ was a dirty word, it was enlightening.

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