French Industrial Relations – should the UK beware?

Do the French love to strike? Internationally, they have earned a reputation for being among the ‘heavyweight’ countries in terms of industrial action.

Over here it tends to capture our attention mainly during the tourist season (because of the potential disruption to our holidays) or ahead of a celebrated event, such as was the case with Euro 2016.

However, in fact, the European Trade Union Institute shows that on average 125 days of work per 1,000 employees were lost in France to strike action between 2010 and 2016. This is one of the highest for Europe – only Cyprus topped that figure with an average of 359 days lost.

Even despite such a fractious employer-worker history, events at Air France-KLM and the critical impasse with staff over a pay dispute have been astonishing.

To date, around 14 days of strike action have been racked up this year. The protracted and painful conflict has even seen off the company’s CEO Jean-Marc Janaillac, who resigned over the matter in early May. He was the man, according to the FT, brought in “with a mandate to build better relations.

The carrier’s pilots, ground staff and cabin crew are calling for a 5.1 per cent pay rise in the wake of what they say has been an effective pay freeze since 2011. Air France has offered seven per cent over four years. Walk-outs have so far cost the company at least €300m and soon after Janaillac’s resignation, France’s economy minister, Bruno Le Maire warned that the carrier’s future was very much hanging in the balance.

Despite 14.3 per cent of Air France being state owned he was clear that the government couldn’t be relied upon to step in and rescue the situation.

So what’s the latest? Transitional arrangements are that a committee of three CEOs are now in place – ironically not one of them have the authority to sit down and negotiate with the unions. That will be left to the person hired on a permanent basis to replace Janaillac.

So for now there’s no real end in sight.

For France, this hugely disruption strike is only part of the picture.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s planned reforms and cuts across the public sector, as well as sweeping changes to the rail system, have sparked strike action by tens of thousands of workers. Rail company, SNCF has a schedule of regular strikes stretching into June.

In the UK, we have suffered plenty of crises ourselves, of course. How many passengers have vowed never to fly with British Airways again because of the travel chaos they faced caused by walk-outs?

But events across the Channel are a warning as to just how dire and toxic organisational problems can get if industrial relations are not managed effectively.

Perhaps it’s also a little reminder that things aren’t so bad over here after all.

Andy Cook is CEO of Marshall-James

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