Freedom Socialist LABOR BEAT — Summer 2016

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France: Viva la strike wave!

Militant strikes have swept across France since March. Students and teachers kicked off the months of demonstrations by denouncing their government’s proposed changes to the country’s strong labor laws. Striking workers have blockaded oil refineries and disrupted nuclear power plants. Half of France’s 10,000 gas stations were out of or running dangerously low on fuel early in June. Public transportation unions have been calling for open-ended strikes affecting buses and trains. Airline pilots and air traffic controllers have joined the strike wave threatening the lucrative summer tourist trade.

Strikers and the majority of the French public are demanding that the government withdraw a labor “reform” bill from parliament. The proposed new law would lengthen the French work week and allow employers to easily fire workers. France’s president and prime minister are both from the Socialist Party, elected by the French people to protect them from the austerity measures being forced on countries like Greece, not to lead an assault on hard-won labor rights.

French president Hollande has shown what a sorry socialist he is by setting riot police on the picketers. Hollande has also tried to crush resistance by using the “national security” excuse to refuse march permits to protesters. A socialist managing a capitalist state cannot change the state’s nature any more than a socialist running a slaughterhouse can change it into a petting zoo.

NLRB rules against scabs

In May, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) made a decision limiting the power of employers to hire permanent replacements for strikers.

Supreme Court rulings have given companies the right to hire permanent scabs “in an effort to carry on the business.” But they were barred from doing it for reasons barred by the National Labor Relations Act.

For over 25 years, the broadest possible interpretation of this power — to cover any reason whatever — has effectively nullified the right to strike that was granted on paper. Permanent replacement has been routine, and strikes in the U.S. have dropped dramatically.

How far the new ruling will go to level the worker/employer playing field remains to be seen. In the decision against Piedmont nursing home in Oakland, Calif., the board majority focused on the company’s stated intent to violate the right to strike. It had said it wanted to punish the strikers and prevent future actions!

The problem with basing decisions on intent is that employers simply wise up and keep quiet about their true intentions. This lesson has been learned painfully by many victims of race and sex bigotry, as nondiscrimination law also focuses on employer intent.

Women lead resistance at Walmart

Women workers, many of them women of color, are the backbone of the labor campaign Organization United for Respect at Walmart or OUR Walmart. It spearheaded sit-down strikes, Black Friday protests against company pay and policies, and a public campaign to shed light on the plight of these poverty-wage workers. The actions successfully pressured the largest company in the world to raise wages, provide more regular work hours, and improve accommodations for pregnant employees, despite the retail giant’s claim to have made the changes on its own.

But the gains came at a high price for the brave activist workers. Most of them were laid off or fired. Walmart’s ferocious anti-unionism also prevented most workers from joining United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which financed the drive until 2015.

So despite the successes, UFCW withdrew its funding. Regardless, OUR Walmart organizers have pledged to continue the fight. It sent representatives to the annual shareholder meeting in June to “call for $15, full-time hours, and respect.”

An ongoing campaign is needed. And the key to success is defending workers who join the fight. Walmart workers enjoy mass public support, which could be mobilized into picket lines whenever the company retaliates. This kind of direct pressure can gain real worker power and help build a union.

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