Lorry drivers' strike raises European issues

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The effects of a lorry drivers strike in November 1997 extended beyond France. The dispute quickly took on a European dimension, provoking reaction from many countries and warnings from the European Commission. Over and above the purely national causes, and in particular poor industrial relations, the strike has raised many questions about free competition within the European market.

The French lorry drivers' strike of November 1997 was the fourth such strike seen in France in 13 years - the others being in 1984, 1992 and 1996. The strikes have always been spectacular, with road blockades to either stop traffic on major routes or close access to fuel depots, warehouses etc. In 1984 and 1992, the strikes were supported by employees and employers alike: the 1984 strike was in protest at industrial action by customs officers; and the 1992 strike was in opposition to the introduction of the penalty-point driver's licence (under which each licence has 12 points at the outset and points are deducted for every traffic offence), which lorry drivers did not want to apply to them in view of their "special circumstances." The two most recent strikes have been more directly linked to the drivers' working and living conditions.

The context

France's road haulage sector has undergone drastic changes since tariff deregulation in 1987. Until this date there had been a uniform tariff (statutory haulage charges), which was a real obstacle to competition. Employers themselves wanted to see the lifting of this regulation which imposed a uniform price per kilometre and state control of the profession. Deregulation should have brought about restructuring of the sector. Normally, deregulation leads to a price war - and indeed prices have decreased by about 30% over the last 10 years - but it generally also leads to concentration, as the least competitive go out of business. In fact quite the opposite phenomenon can be observed; the number of haulage companies has been increasing by about 1,000 per year. Today, the 340,000 workers in the haulage sector are employed by 38,000 different companies. Of these companies, 32,000 have fewer than 10 employees and 27,000 employ fewer than five.

Many factors have contributed to the reduction of prices, including a squeeze on wages and working conditions. The result has been a situation that seems to many to be anarchic, where many companies pay no attention to regulatory, statutory or negotiated mechanisms. Offences have been on the increase, especially in small companies, due to the small number of industrial inspectors and limited trade union representation.

After the 1992 strike, negotiations were held between employers' representatives - UFT and Unostra- and trade unions, aimed at "cleaning up" the profession. In November 1994, "a contract for progress" was signed by employers' organisations and the CGT-FO, CFDT and CFTC unions. This agreement, which contained various measures including some relating to working hours, was implemented by only a small proportion of companies.

In 1996, faced with a decrease in freight haulage and a rise in the number of hours worked, unions called a strike and blockaded roads. Their grievance was based not only on the sidestepping of the "contract for progress" but also on the calculation of pay and more especially the waiting time involved in loading and unloading. To avoid billing customers for this time, it had been considered as rest time and as such was not remunerated. During the strike, demands were made for the creation of an early retirement policy and even for a FRF 3,000 bonus. Negotiations were held in spring 1997 and an agreement was reached on early retirement (FR9702106F). The bonus, however, is very rarely paid and salaries have remained close to minimum wage levels, while waiting time is rarely counted as working time. The unions felt that they had been "taken for a ride" as the agreements reached were upheld by only a handful of companies.

The November 1997 strike

The unions demanded further negotiations to clarify the situation. They laid down an ultimatum that if there was no agreement on their demand for FRF 10,000 for a 200-hour working month by the year 2000, they would set up blockades at 22.00 on 2 November. During the week-long negotiations that ensued, employers split. The UFT, which represents 80% of the industry, walked out whereas Unostra (representing primarily small companies) stated that it was willing to agree to the unions' demands. The unions put the agreement to their members on 2 November, but the majority were fearful that an agreement with only one of the employers' organisations would have little value. Blockades were set up on the afternoon of 2 November, and two days later there were more than 150. In contrast to preceding strikes, the blockades did not block but rather filtered, allowing through private vehicles and stopping lorries. Striking truckers quickly pinpointed key targets such as oil refineries and supermarket distribution warehouses. Other countries and the European Union itself were concerned by these blockades.

The European Commission intervenes

On 3 November, the member of the European Commission responsible for transport, Neil Kinnock, asked the French Government to ensure freedom of movement within France. The following day a spokesperson for the Commission threatened to "examine the circumstances in which legal proceedings could be begun against France if the blockade was not lifted quickly. (...) This would be a very serious matter." The French Government, while insisting that it upheld the right to strike, deployed police to dismantle the blockades that had been erected at French border crossings. It was also keen not to let the situation "stagnate". The Government was very insistent that the UFT come back to the negotiating table.

The agreement

On Wednesday 5 November, after a meeting with the Transport Minister, Jean Claude Gayssot, the UFT delegation returned together with Unostra and the unions to new negotiations held at the Ministry. A new agreement was hammered out which included a few modifications to the agreement reached with Unostra on the preceding Sunday. On Saturday 8 November, the CFDT and the CGC decided to sign the agreement after consultation with their members. The main points in the agreement are as follows:

  • Immediate increases in pay. Long-distance lorry drivers will obtain a pay increase of 6%, backdated to 1 October 1997. For those on different salary scales, the increase will be between 4% and 5%.
  • The introduction of a minimum guaranteed monthly salary. The minimum guaranteed monthly salary (salaire mensuel professionnel garanti, SMPG) is a new system of salary calculation, which does not include bonuses as the existing guaranteed wage does. In this way, employees can calculate their basic hourly rate by dividing their monthly salary by the number of hours worked.
  • A gradual upgrading of pay levels. By 1 July 2000, long-distance lorry drivers - accounting for 10,000-15,000 of the 220,000 employees - will be paid FRF 120,000 per annum (or FRF 10,000 per month) for a 200-hour month. For the most highly qualified staff in the industry, other than drivers, monthly pay will increase from FRF 7,301 to FRF 8,135 by 1 July 2000.
  • Working time and qualifications. As soon the agreements is signed, negotiations will be launched on the "organisation of working time and service" and on the redefining of qualifications. These negotiations, which should lead to agreement before the end of the third quarter of 1998, will primarily target the "setting up, as a vital element for the reduction of time worked (...) of a system of calculating working and service hours over all or part of the year."

Union reaction

The CFDT, which gained the most votes (17.9%) in the sector's most recent works council elections, thought that it had attained six out of seven of its goals, the most important of these being "FRF 10,000 for 200 hours," "a larger immediate pay increase" and "a definition of the hourly rate and monthly pay." It admitted that the agreement on the FRF 3,000 bonus was inadequate, stating that "like all compromises, the agreement had positive aspects as well as limits."

The CGT, which did not sign the agreement, stated that, "not all the demands had been met" but that the "strike had led to progress primarily in the form of a government commitment to supervise more effectively the industry and the agreement on the implementation of a minimum wage for the sector."

The FO was more scathing in its rejection of the agreement. Its transport sector head stated that the pay agreement was too limited, as the increase to FRF 10,000 per month applied only to long-distance lorry drivers. It called for lorry drivers to be ready for new industrial action.

Cleaning up the industry and preparing for European deregulation

Two days after the signing of the agreement and the lifting of the blockades, the Minister of Transport put a bill before the Council of Ministers stating that "deregulation in the road haulage sector had led to extremely fierce competition and created very difficult working conditions for truckers and repeated breaches of social regulations."

The bill includes several sections aimed at "cleaning up" the industry. The most fundamental of these measures are the extension of the requirement for all lorry drivers to undergo vocational training and the creation of mandatory vehicle immobilisation in the event of a traffic offence (a mechanism which does not yet exist in French law). The bill would also give powers of investigation and report to transport inspectors.

A decree has been published setting out the minimum financial resources for transport companies, designed to make it more difficult to start a business. The Government is also trying to create social harmonisation before the 1 July 1998 when total deregulation of the European market will take place. This is a desire that is shared by the European Commission which published a White Paper in July 1997 detailing its intent to extend the 1993 Directive on the organisation of working time to sectors and activities currently not covered - including the haulage industry (EU9707138N). This would limit truckers to a 48-hour week, while the Commission also intends to propose measures concerning loading and unloading time. This would put an end to many legally authorised dispensations and set up a code of rights to be applied uniformly across the industry. This would primarily deal with paid annual holidays, minimum rest time and the annual maximum number of authorised working hours.

Commentary

The French lorry drivers' strike took on a real European dimension: firstly owing to the reaction from the public in other countries of the European Union, which was often violent and one of incomprehension as to the reasons for the strike; secondly, because of the direct involvement of the European Commission; and finally by the remedies the Commission suggested.

This strike was rooted in a type of deregulation which has not allowed the haulage industry to become competitive with other countries. On the contrary, it has in fact led to excessive internal competition by squeezing prices and pay. In a situation where there are a large number of small companies, employers' associations are faced with questions of legitimacy. They signed two agreements in 1994 and 1996, both of which they failed to uphold. Can the new agreement and government measures designed at cleaning up the industry really work ? One of the keys lies with the Commission, which wants to see an end to ferocious competition by companies due to varying legislation from one country to another. (Alexandre Bilous, IRES)

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