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French airport workers strike over ‘right to strike’

Text by Sophie PILGRIM

Latest update : 2012-02-06

Hundreds of striking aviation workers gathered outside Paris’s main airports Monday to protest against a draft law designed to protect passengers from industrial action, which they say threatens their “right to strike”.

Leaving behind baggage halls, security posts and cabin trolleys, French aviation workers staged a nationwide strike on Monday against a law which they say will impede their right to strike. At Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports near Paris, hundreds of strikers gathered outside to demonstrate, stopping traffic between terminals.

The draft law causing the dispute was approved by France’s lower house in January and is currently being studied by the Senate. If passed, French aviation workers will be required to individually forewarn their bosses at least 48 hours before taking strike action.

The French government argues that the bill will protect passengers from travel delays, but the workers say it infringes on strict French labour rights laws, which stipulate that every worker has the right to strike without warning.

“An employee can’t be expected to ask their boss to go on strike,” explained Akakpu, a freight handler who has worked at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport for over 19 years. “If they don’t have a good working relationship, which is more likely the case since they need to strike, then how do you expect them to get permission from their boss? It will most likely cost them their job.”

Another demonstrator, 55-year-old Mr Lentenff, said that going on strike was the last resort for workers but an essential negotiation tool. “Most of us are very poorly paid,” he said. “We can’t afford to lose our only negotiation tool against our employers. This law would do that.”

Mr Lenteff has worked as a baggage handler for 33 years at the airport. “It is part of our job to make sure planes take off on time, so striking is not something we ever want to have to resort to. We’re here today because if we lose the right to strike, we lose the right to negotiate. That’s not normal.”

“Worth the wait” for delayed French passengers

The strike affected only around 15 to 20 per cent of Air France flights according to the airline; unions claim this number reached 50 per cent. Most other airlines managed to maintain their regular schedules. But heavy snowfall on Monday caused disruptions to flights in and out of the south-east of the country, adding to setbacks and missed connections.

French aviation strike

Passengers booked on Air France flights between February 6 and 9 may reschedule without charge.

Find out more on Air France's website.

Valérie, a passenger from Nice who was returning from Cuba with her husband and friends, found herself doubly delayed. “First we got stuck because of the snow and now we’re stuck in Paris because of the industrial action,” she explained, surveying the cheering crowds outside. She refused to blame the strikers for her wait at Paris Charles de Gaulle however. “We have the right to strike in France and we need to hold on to that,” she said. “Even if it means waiting a few more hours for our plane.”

Barthes, an elderly passenger from Toulouse, also sympathised with the strikers. “Yes we want to get home and it’s true that the workers should give notice if they plan to go on strike,” he said. “But the government is trying to squeeze their rights by making it mandatory. If they go ahead with it, then it’s an attack on our rights as French citizens.”

But Transport Minister Thierry Mariani vowed to go ahead with the law despite the protests. "We will go all the way. This is necessary and the French people understand that," he said on RTL radio.

A heavy police presence overshadowed the demonstration at Charles de Gaulle on Monday morning. Riot police surrounded the marchers, and also guarded the entrance to the airport and the Air France check-in desk inside. As the protesters made their way from terminal 2C to 2F, tear gas was fired into the crowd, sparking anger among the protesters. “Why are they firing at us?” asked Akakpu. “This is a peaceful protest. It’s pure provocation.”

The strikes are planned to continue until Thursday.

Date created : 2012-02-06


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