The French government recently passed a rather silly law. In brief, it will require certain sections of society to work an extra two years in order to qualify for a full pension. It is not a crushingly evil plan, but by the scale of the protests, one might believe that Monsieur Sarkozy had decided to force the entire population to spend an extra 15 years at the coalface. However, in a country where youth unemployment hovers around one in five, young people are angry that workers will be forced to retire later, which they believe blocks young peoples' access to jobs.
Trade unions and student groups have responded angrily, with protests and strikes all over France. It is important to recognise that both students and workers want to work, despite governments and commentators branding both groups as alternately work-shy or strike happy.
Trade unions, using strikes as their last tactic, must be supported as they defend our public services. The inconvenience caused by strikes is minuscule compared to the consequences that many are attempting to prevent. For example, the proposed fire brigade strike this month was driven by opposition to the shortening of night shifts with ‘flexible’ (read: reduced) coverage. This threatens safety. It is commonly thought that the current government's cuts are going too far, too fast. These cuts threaten the provision of services which most people rely on.
Yet there is also a misconception about trade unions, namely that they always want pay-increases and that they strike to take time-off. These myths make many people reluctant to support trade unions. Most of the time when unions argue for pay rises, it is to keep their members' pay in line with inflation, else in real-terms they are forced to take a pay cut. When unions vote to strike, it is not always over pay. It is just as often about bullying at work, or passenger safety, as in the case of striking London Underground workers.
Workers do not strike ‘for a couple of days off’, most union members go without pay when striking, or have to draw on limited union funds. It is not a decision taken lightly. Unions are not perfect, but they play an important role in a liberal society. Next time you hear about a group of workers on strike, remember that it is likely about someone's job, somone's dignity or someone's safety. When workers stike it is a sincere decision, as well as a last resort against a government which once it starts cutting, just can’t seem to stop.