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(en) France, Wildcat No. 71, The Experience of the Paris Solidarity Collectives - A New Stage - Thoughts on the strikes at Pizza Hut, McDonalds and Frog Pub

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Mon, 20 Dec 2004 11:12:55 +0100 (CET)

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The article was published in the first issue of the new French revue La
Question Social - Revue Libertaire de Re flexion et de Combat (The
Social Question - Libertarian Journal for Reflection and Struggle).
The following is the part of the text dealing with the strikes at Frog Pub, a
strike that was less internationally known than the McDonalds strike.
After the successful strikes in 2001/2002 the Paris solidarity collectives
had already dissolved themselves when new conflicts erupted in 2003.
During these struggles, which were not always successful, unexpected
contradictions and difficulties emerged, which only contributed to them
becoming valuable experiences.

About the strike at Frog Pubs in Paris

There are several Frog Pubs in Paris, English style beer pubs, whose
menus and 'sport events on big screens' are aimed at a young and solvent
clientele. Expenses reduced by all means necessary: the kitchen staff work
in tiny kitchens (e.g. 12 square meters kitchen for 450 square meters pub
area). The wages vary between the minimum wage and 1200 euros for the
chef. The working time, the reasons for dismissal etc. are defined by the
boss alone. There is no clock to punch in and out, so the boss often
'forgets' the payment of extra hours. The costs for having to take a taxi
after closing time of the subway are not refunded, although most of the
workers live in the outskirts. The staircase serves as changing room.

The waiters and service staff are mainly British; the kitchen workers are of
Tamil origin. Most of them don't speak French. The whole kitchen staff is
recruited within the Tamil community by a guy of Tamil origin. He is the
only one who speaks good French, he is the middleman of the boss, he
organises the work and decides whether a worker gets penalised or not. He
is the only channel if someone wants to talk or negotiate with the boss. In
this position he also represents the interests of the staff and was later on
elected as their delegate. November 2002 the kitchen workers were trying
to get in contact with unionists. In order to protect themselves, initially
also against their representative, some of them developed a form of
collective resistance and turn to the CNT. The CNT reacted like a union
would react and informed the management about the existence of a union
representation within their company. The precondition for such a union
representation is a minimum number of 50 staff, which the management
had tried to prevent up to then, by declaring the single branches as
independent companies. The CNT wanted to gain recognition by going to
court. First of all the management sacked the elected delegate and
recruiting guy. Although he was not their friend, on April the 13th, the rest
of the workers voted unanimously for strike. After a confrontation the
company dismissed another kitchen worker. The workers at Frog had no
experiences of struggles in France, they were union members for the first
time and they were on strike for the first time. They couldn't assess
what was possible and what was legal. They also couldn't assess the
real power of the union and therefore they had to rely on partly vague and
sometimes big-mouthed statements of the CNT, which gave the
impression that they could break the resistance of the bosses. The ethnical
divisions within the staff, which was consciously implemented by the
management, could not be overcome in process of the strike. On the other
hand, the ethnical identity of the Tamils ensured a unity for several

The targets

On April the 16th, 28 out of 29 kitchen workers of the Frog chain walked
out. They demanded: the cessation of dismissals, the annulling of all
penalties, the adherence to the conditions prescribed in the work contracts,
better health and safety conditions (separate toilettes, showers, dry
lockers), payment of the extra hours, if they can not be avoided in the first
place, election of delegates in all four branches of the chain in Paris, paid
holiday, payment of the travel costs, extra pay for working after midnight,
100 per cent extra pay for nightshifts, an extra months wage at the end of
the year, improved work organisation (no divided shifts, e.g. two hours in
the morning, four hours in the evening; no end of shift after closing time of
the subway), freedom of union activities. The boss refused any
negotiations and told them that they could stand in front of the restaurant
as long as they want, that he wouldn't give a damn. Obviously he
couldn't imagine that a strike of these immigrants - who
haven't got a clue about anything - could have an impact on his
business. Convinced that he had the law on his side he immediately went
to court. There he obtained a legal order declaring that the strikers and the
CNT were not allowed to enter or to block the restaurant. The striking
kitchen staff were replaced by British service workers, now on duty in the
kitchen. Soon the strikers realised that mere picketing and leafleting
wouldn't be enough, but facing the legal order the CNT didn't want to
enter the restaurant. First there were some doubts raised about the actual
power of the unions. Now the striking Frog workers contacted the
collective who previously had been supporting the strike at McDonalds.

The cooperation started with a joint participation of Frog and McDonalds
workers at the Mayday demonstration and with the rather chaotic
occupation of the pub in Bercy by sixty people after the demo. On the 3rd
of May, Frog and McDonalds workers, together with a large number of
supporters, entered the pub of the Rue Saint Denis, where they clashed
with the boss and some of the service workers. Afterwards they occupied
the McDonalds restaurant at des Halles. The strikers were in good shape
and wanted to continue the action, but the CNT tried to hold them back.
On May the 7th, the pub in Rue Saint Denis was occupied again. The very
aggressive boss locked in clients, strikers and supporters until the cops
arrived. The cops ordered that the doors be opened, negotiated a smooth
retreat of the strikers and pressured the boss to enter the negotiation
process. The boss promised to do so, but the very next day he refused to
negotiate again. The workers continued pressuring the boss by occupying
the restaurant the following day. At this point the internal quarrels within
the CNT became ever more obvious. It also became clear that not the
workers and their struggle, but the advertising effect of these actions for
their union were most important to them and they tried to increase this
with banners, stickers and badges. In contrast, the solidarity collective only
had the aim of helping the workers win. It also became clear that only the
"tough actions" - as the strikers called them - would be able to
force the boss to negotiate: without the occupation the restaurant ran as
normal, with the help of scab work by the service staff. At this stage the
strikers enforced joint meetings of workers, the solidarity collective and the
unions. The CNT had always refused to have this kind of meeting. The
CNT was focussing on a legal arbitration and announced that the legal
process would require the suspension of any actions in front of the
restaurant. At this point the strikers planned an occupation that was
supposed to last for at least three days. The union secretary brought an end
to the occupation on the first evening, and all the CNT members joined
him. For the strikers and the supporters there was nothing else left to do
but to follow them.

The strikers could no longer assess to what extend the union would
support them. The arbitration process had a demoralising effect.
Eventually the actions in and around the bar became less important for the
CNT than the legal process. The solidarity collective didn't question the
monopoly of the CNT in regard to the legal activities. It confined itself to
the struggle on and in front of the pub floor, which the CNT was unable to
fight. This division of tasks resulted in the struggle having to submit to the
legal confrontation. In front of the pubs a constant pressure was exercised
on the clients. They were asked to show some solidarity and not to enter
the pub. The biggest and most profitable pub was our main target. We
tried to have pickets every afternoon, whenever possible. Every time the
police were called in order to prevent our activities and to make us leave
the allegedly private land. Everytime we responded by saying that we are
acting as part of a labour dispute (which, in France, forbids the police to
intervene). With every action we managed to stay in front of the restaurant
and to extend the boundaries of legality. By end of the summer we had
managed to make sure that one of the previously most visited pubs of the
area was nearly empty. At the end of the arbitration process the boss
complained that he had lost about 500,000 euros. Also at the other
branches we had similar a success.

The employer finds a weak spot

The boss took a harder stance and only later we understood why. Unlike
the CNT he didn't want to solve the conflict in front of the court. At the
beginning of the summer he contacted the nationalistic organisation
Tamile Tigers, which was dominating the Tamil community. He
demanded that the organisation should put pressure on its striking
members to return to work. He claimed the strike would harm the
reputition of the community in France. In front of the staff he boasted that
the head of the organisation had promised to intervene. We only heard
about that later, when the striking workers broke the taboo of talking about
this question bit by bit. It was only then that we realised the extend of the
divisions within the community and the impact which their political past
still had, far away from their home country. But now it was to late to
counteract this attack, the shit had already hit the fan: the strikers were
already divided over this question. We found out that one of the most
combattative strikers was repetitively threatened. The collective tried to use
informal ways to deliver the message to those responsible for the threats,
that any attack on the striking workers would have big repercussions
within the militant movement and that this would also harm those
repsonsible for the threats considerably. It took a long time before the
message arrived, but finally it did. The employer realised that he had found
a weak spot and he made use of it. He urged strikers individually on the
phone to give up their jobs. He offered money. He threatened them with
heavy repressions if they turned up at the work place. Some of them
cracked , but we only understood that much later, partly due to
communication problems and the strikers fears of being seen in a bad light
by their supporters. By mid September eight out of the 28 strikers had gone
back to work, eleven had accepted their dismissal on the level of individual
arrangements, and eight were still on strike, of which three had gone to
court over their dismissals. This core of workers were determined to fight,
but were more and more discouraged. At the end of September they told
us, that they did want to negotiate about leaving the job for money. They
thought it was impossible to go back to work facing this tension charged
atmosphere. They were convinced that the boss would sack them on the
slightest pretext.

We re-assured them of our support and respect, and advised them to
stick together in order to achieve the best results. Two of them
nevertheless signed individual arrangements and disappeared from the
scene. On Sunday the 19th of October the lawyers started the negotiations
on the base of the 5,000 euros which the boss had offered as leaving pay
and which the striking workers had refused. On November the 3rd, an
agreement signed by both parties finished the conflict: the last strikers
accepted their dismissals for a leaving pay of 5,000 euros (2,000 euros for
the two workers who had been hired at the beginning of the strike) plus
payment for the outstanding holidays; the CNT received 10,000 which
they handed over to the strikers who distributed the money evenly amongst
themselves. That's how the last striking workers finished the conflict
collectively and demonstrated to those who had given up the strike earlier
and who had preferred individual arrangements that it pays to stay
determined together. The boss who believed that the whole story wouldn't
cost him too much underestimated the long term affects which the work of
the collective had on his clientele; because his former popular pubs are still
half empty...

Some preliminary conclusions

The reason for the eruption of the strikes, their endurance and for some of
them having been successful was mainly the tenacity of the striking
workers, but also the fact, that they took the organisation of the strike into
their own hands. They had defined their aims according to their own
demands and to their perception of the power relations - this
excluded any falsification by external forces, supporters or political
experts. According to the situation the strikers coordinated with other
struggles and joined them when possible. The will of the striking workers
was also the decisive factor at these times. Sometimes, as happened during
the Frog strike, the workers tried to contact other workers in struggle,
because they needed support and they were aware that solidarity is
something reciprocal. Recently some structures have tended to claim
openly or indirectly the successes of the struggles, which the solidarity
collectives had supported during the last three years. This is most obvious
with the strike of the cleaning women of Arcade, which had suffered from
a lack of support by external activists. It is often ignored how much work
was necessary and how many problems the strike had to confront before it
was finally successful. In order to change an unfavourable relation of
forces more is necessary than some reports in the media, demonstrated
union membership and some mates who turn up on demonstrations every
now and then.

CNT - anarchosyndicalist union in France

aus: Wildcat 71, Autumn/Herbst 2004

Link: http://www.wildcat-www.de
Copied from infoshop.org

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