Q&A: Workers Strike at France's Major Ports

Editor Dana L. Brundage and Bruce Barnard, European correspondent for The Journal of Commerce, discuss the two different strikes in France and how these strikes are affecting France's major ports and terminals.

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Q: Bruce, right now there are two different strikes situations happening in France. Could you tells us please a little about each of those work stoppages?

A: The first work stoppages are part of nation-wide strikes by all sectors of French industry including the ports against the government’s plan to increase the minimum retirement age in France from 60 to 62. All of the unions and 70 percent of the public, support strikes to put pressure on the government to water down the proposals. So every time the unions call for strikes, all the dockworkers come out in support of the nation-wide strikes. We’ve had a couple in the past two weeks, and they were 24 hours strikes. And the dockworkers always respond to calls for strikes nationwide. So that is one type of strike.  And they have always been 100% supported.

There is another problem in the ports, which is totally unrelated to the pension issue, and this is something that concerns only the ports. It has mostly been resolved but now and then the dispute flares up again. In the past three weeks, going on a month now, the port of Marceille, its oil terminal, workers there had been on strike for nearly 30 consecutive days, it’ll be this week, protesting against government mandated plans to transport the workers from the pail of port authorities to private stevedores. Now the in ports have been protesting against this for the past two years, there have been rolling strikes for five, 10, 15 days in 2008 and in 2009, but in the end the unions in all of the major ports including Le Harve, Bordeaux, Loreient, have struck deals with the port employers about how to transfer workers from the public pail onto private stevedores, jobs for life, wages, job security, etc.

But in Marceilles the oil terminal workers are refusing to cut a deal and so they have been on strike, independent of the nation-wide strikes. The problem is that the oil worker strike at the terminals are having a very a big impact because they have choked off all supplies to the French economy. That has been going on for two to three weeks, now in the fourth week. Oil refineries workers all over France have also joined in the nation-wide blockades. So France is running low as we speak of oil supplies. So those are the two different dockworkers strikes: one is nationwide, one is at the Fos and Lavera oil terminals in Marceilles. One of the biggest oil import terminals in the world actually.

Q: Besides the oil shortage situation, what else can you update us on in terms of these strikes?

A: Well the situation now is actually on a knife edge because the government last Friday, the senate, voted for increasing the retirement age. And within the next 42 hours there will be a vote in the upper and lower houses pass this legislation. In response, the major unions have called for two more nation-wide strikes, one on Oct. 28 and then on Nov. 6. And it’s 100% guaranteed that the dockworkers will follow the union. The union is extremely strong on the water front.

So all the ports like Le Harve, Bordeaux, Marceilles, will come to a standstill for 24 hours on these two dates. Going beyond that is difficult to say what will happen because this pension reform is really a flagship policy of President Sarkozy. And if he buckles in front of the union then he’s a dead-duck president. So I really can’t predict what’s going to go on. The unions may just shrug their shoulders and say well there’s nothing more we really can do. Already a couple of the unions are saying once it’s law we’re not going to strike anymore. But the CGT union, the second biggest union in France, dominates the ports industry. And if they call on strikes, it’s100% certain the dockers will always follow them.  That’s how it is.

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