Thursday, June 24, 2010

On Strikes

Power concedes nothing without a demand.

What would it be like to live in a country where people are so politically active, that large general strikes occur frequently in response to policies that affect working people?

The government of France wants to raise its retirement age (and the age after which citizens are eligible for pensions). The current retirement age is pretty low: 60. The problem is, their pension system is already losing money and (as in the U.S.) there is a large generation of retirees starting to become eligible. So, among other reforms to deal with France's deficit, the Sarkozy government wants to raise the minimum retirement age of 62.

The purpose of this post is not to get into French economic policies or second-guess the government's solutions. (For what it's worth, the proposal seems mild compared to reforms in other european nations, and has the support of conservative and labor lawmakers.) What is of interest to me this morning is the reaction in France to this proposed reform:

Many French trains stood still, schoolchildren played instead of studied and post offices were shuttered as workers nationwide went on strike Thursday to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to raise the retirement age to 62.

Nearly 200 marches and protests are planned for several cities over a broad reform to the money-losing pension system, part of efforts around Europe to cut back on growing public debts.

In the capital, while some commuters were unaffected by the strikes, others had to cram into overcrowded buses and subway trains because of strikes by drivers.

Hundreds of passengers were stranded at Rome's main train station Wednesday when the overnight train to Paris was canceled because of the strike. Authorities were putting the passengers on buses instead. Swiss national railway company SBB said about 60 percent of trains between France and Switzerland have been canceled because of the strike.

The French civil aviation authority, DGAC, asked airlines to cancel 15 percent of their flights out of Paris' Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports because of strikes by air traffic controllers. Air France said all of its long-haul flights would remain unaffected.

What outrage would be required for Americans to strike on a scale like that? I've seen union pickets, I've seen anti-war protests, I've seen demonstrations against legal abortion. In Los Angeles a few years ago, I was personally inconvenienced by a fairly powerful strike by transit workers. But nothing like this one strike in France. Sixty percent of the trains between France and Switzerland canceled! 20% of France's teachers on picket lines! Dock workers, postal workers, airline workers, too!

Not that there is universal agreement over the issue, of course. The culture of protest can understandably get a bit uncomfortable, because that's exactly what strikes are designed to do.

Stephanie Larcher, a 29-year-old town planner, from Buressuryvette, in the outskirts of Paris, said she's had to add an extra hour onto her daily four-hour journey.

"I find it completely irritating, especially because train workers go on strike for any little thing," she said. "It's already the fourth strike this year."

Strikes are designed to maximize inconvenience and slow, or halt, economic activity -- "business as usual." If you don't agree with the strikers, it's understandably irritating. But wait a minute, did she say that's the fourth strike this year?

That is so -- well, foreign to me.

My own countrymen are excellent grumblers, myself included. And that's just those of us who pay attention to current events. Many of us don't at all, or very little. (Notice which posts get the most comments on this blog. The political posts elicit yawns.) It takes a great deal to get even the most ardent leftists to protest in mass numbers, although I should note some large actions in protest of the WTO. No matter how much Fox News tries to inflate the Tea Party phenomenon, their demonstrations are small and have been dwindling.

It is hard to believe in 2010 that only half a century ago, civil rights activists went so far as to build a temporary city near the White House, mobilized enormous numbers of people under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., and won some huge reforms by filling American streets with human beings. It is hard to believe that little more than a century has passed since American workers seized factories and withstood deadly force striking for an 8-hour workday.

Compared to these generations, we resemble sheep.

From Robert McChesney and John Bellamy Foster:

Consider why rulers in other nations, like France or Greece, tend to have greater difficulty implementing cutbacks in social programs during crises: Because, when they look out the window, they see a mass of people who would threaten the perpetuation of their system, if the vested interests were to engineer a class war from above in an attempt to turn back the clock. This makes the position of the capitalist class in such countries much more tenuous...

From the birth of democracy in antiquity, it has been true that those with property will only concede fundamental rights to those without property when they fear for the very survival of their own privileges. "If there is no struggle," as Frederick Douglass said in 1857, "there is no progress...Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will...If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others."

In our republic, where we indulge the idea that we are a beacon of self-determination and civil freedom for the entire world, we are more content to make sarcastic jokes around our barbecue grills or during commercial breaks in our cherished football games, than to stop everything, to be uncomfortable, to make a clear statement and back it up with our own asses. Some of us go as far as writing a letter to the editor, maybe leaving a voice mail for our Congress-critter.

What does it take for Americans to break the rules, to risk a job, to risk making their neighbors angry, to block a street, when the cause is right? It is, honestly, not very difficult to contain our meek protests while wars are launched and corporations expand their rule at the expense of our rights and liberty. We fancy ourselves fighters, but for the most part, we roll over and put up with it all.

There is much more to be said about the right kind of strike, how to integrate a clear goal and maintain discipline on marches, to prevent violence and absorb the efforts of agents provocateurs, to preserve satyagraha and prevent a melee.

You can't even get into those questions, however, when your culture has been divorced from the idea of striking as a response to policy -- or when working people resent a traffic jam far more deeply than injustice, oppression, and unnecessary death.

1 comment:

Nathan said...

One of the challenges, I think, is that Americans generally struggle terribly with uncomfortableness. We don't know how to uncomfortable because we've done everything we can to eliminate facing it in daily life.