Silent protest in private bus companies

Bus drivers working for Luxembourg’s private bus companies held a two-week protest in June 2011, in which they grew beards or wore green wristbands to signal their discontent with working conditions; namely long working hours and a lack of toilet facilities. The protest, called ‘Operation La BARBE!’ was intended to attract the attention of employers and the public, without disrupting bus services. It took place as negotiations on a new collective agreement were taking place.

Passive protest

In June 2011 the association for bus drivers working for private bus companies (ACAP) and the transport section of the Federation of Christian Trade Unions of Luxembourg (LCGB-Transport) began a campaign called ‘la BARBE!’.

The protest was known as ‘Operation la BARBE!’ because the phrase is a pun in French, meaning beard, but also meaning ‘fed up’. Each bus driver was asked to grow a beard and/or to wear a green bracelet as proof of their support for the collective action.

The employee association and the trade union came up with this unique plan to get employers to see that the bus drivers were fed up with their working conditions. According to Aloyse Kapweiler, Secretary of the LCGB-Transport section, in an interview in Bonjour News352, the length of shifts and the absence of lavatories in some bus stations are daily concerns for the bus drivers.

Pressure to renew the collective agreement

ACAP and LCGB-Transport hoped this action would exert the necessary pressure on employers to make improvements, as it took place while negotiations for the renewal of the sector collective bargaining agreement were under way. The action was all the more symbolic since it ended on the same date as the current collective agreement.

The sector agreement is governed by a collective agreement signed on 1 December 2010 by LCGB and the Onofhängege Gewerkschaftsbond Lëtzebuerg (OGB-L) for the trade unions and the Luxembourg Federation of Bus Companies’ managers (FLEAA) on behalf of the employers. The current collective agreement was concluded for a seven-month period, expiring on 30 June 2011, though it was only declared generally binding in March 2011 under a grand ducal regulation. Therefore from March 2011 the agreement has been applicable to any private bus company established in the country.

‘Razor strike’ without work disruption

What was most noticeable about this action was the fact that even though the complaints from drivers about the length of their shifts and access to lavatories are not new, the ACAP and LCGB-Transport unions openly announced their wish to lead a ‘peaceful’ protest that would provoke the public’s curiosity.

In August 2008, the OGB-L-Transport union drew the Labour and Mine Inspectorate’s (ITM) attention to the problem raised by taxi and bus drivers concerning the lack of lavatories in public premises.

In an ‘open letter’, the trade union referred to the fundamental right of all workers to have free access to a lavatory in their workplace. Later, in a letter dated 29 October 2009, the OGB-L-Transport union brought the issue to the attention of the Minister of Education and Vocational Training Mady Delvaux-Stehres, when several bus drivers were refused access to a lavatory on school premises.

Furthermore, during negotiations for the renewal of the collective agreement in 2008, trade unions were already highlighting longer working hours as a concern. One demand they put to the employers was to cut shifts from 11 to 10 hours. However it is clear this demand has not been taken into consideration so far, as the current agreement still allows for drivers to work up to 11 hours.

Commentary

‘Operation la BARBE!’ could be a sign that trade unions are less able to exert pressure on employers through social dialogue than they were in the past. In addition to their wish not to inconvenience customers, the trade unions decided to use a form of passive protest because of their concerns that their employment may be put at risk due to strike action (cf. LCGB-Transport press release).

It seems the social partners may have had in mind Article L. 162-11 of the Labour code, which prohibits strikes and lock-out actions when a collective agreement is in force.

The LCGB-Transport union has stated that it is too early to assess the effect of the ‘BARBE’ action on social dialogue.

Guy Castegnaro & Ariane Claverie, CASTEGNARO, member of Ius Laboris, for HERA

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