A Letter From London To Our French Comrades

FRENCH workers are now engaged in a historic struggle in defence of their rights.

Commentary icon10 Jun 2016|Comment

Lord John Hendy KC

Chair of the Institute of Employment Rights

10 June 2016

By John Hendy QC and Professor Keith Ewing

FRENCH workers are now engaged in a historic struggle in defence of their rights. The struggle is international, as workers and trade unions face the neoliberal onslaught rolling back generations of achievement.

It is to the eternal shame of the French socialists that they have wrapped themselves in the discredited mantle that Tony Blair took from the shoulders of Thatcher. But this is all the fashion in Brussels, as well as the national capitals in Europe and beyond.

If there are French workers who have any doubts about what is at stake, they should look at what has happened in Britain.

We too had a proud social state with trade unions fully integrated. On the eve of the Thatcher-Blair revolution, 60 per cent of British workers were unionised, and 82 per cent were protected by collective agreements. We also had extensive protection for the right to strike.

Under Thatcher that structure was stripped bare as the social state became a neoliberal state, serving the interest of business rather than labour.

Strikes were provoked, the police militarised to crush resistance, and the law changed.

Trade union membership fell and collective bargaining coverage collapsed to about 20 per cent today. Fewer British workers are now protected by a collective agreement than before the first world war.

The result? British workers work longer hours than most of their European counterparts.

Compared to other European workers they generally receive less education and training, and (because of lack of employer investment) their productivity is lower.

They get fewer paid holidays than most European comparators and their pay is so low that a great proportion of them are in poverty, with low wages subsidised by the state. Welcome to our world of deregulation, decentralisation and insecurity.

Britain has a high proportion of its workforce in so-called “self-employment,” agency work, temporary work and/or in zero-hours contracts.

It has more part-time workers who want full-time jobs than other European countries.

British workers have less entitlement to redundancy pay, sick pay and maternity pay, while rights relating to unfair dismissal and discrimination are now practically unenforceable by the imposition of high access fees for applications to tribunals.

We are the paradigm for modern capitalism. Weak trade unions, enterprise-based collective bargaining and no meaningful right to strike.

This is the US model in Europe, which the EU institutions wish to impose on all other member states, through a combination of:

  • Austerity changes imposed by the Troika
  • New rules of economic governance by Brussels’s bureaucrats introduced in 2010
  • Free trade deals with the US and others

It is important that French workers are fully aware of what is at stake. Once this journey towards deregulation starts, there is no end to it.

The attack is constant and unrelenting, as the recent legislation imposing further restrictions on the right to strike in Britain makes clear.

We look to France for inspiration, to demonstrate that labour law can still be an instrument of empowerment and protection, a labour law underpinned by liberty, equality and fraternity.

We wish you well: your struggle is our struggle; your struggle is a global struggle.

This article first appeared in L’Humanité

Lord John Hendy KC

Lord Hendy KC is Chair of the Institute of Employment Rights. He is a barrister specialising in industrial relations law, based in Old Square Chambers, London. He is President of the International Centre for Trade Union Rights (ICTUR) and a Vice President of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom.