French Workers Fight Fake ‘Shorter Workweek” Law

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Today all over France, workers are fighting back against a French law that was held up to them as a step in the fight against unemployment.

Back in 1997, French workers were very concerned about high unemployment-over 12 percent officially-the increase in the rate of poverty, and a generalized economic crisis that attacked their standard of living. The Socialist Party government announced that it was planning to legally cut the workweek to 35 hours, saying this would help to create more jobs.

The first phase of this new Aubry law, named after a Socialist Party employment minister, who was also a former manager of a large French company, took effect in June of 1998, followed by a second law in January of 2000.

The National Federation of French Employers made a big fuss in response to the Aubry law. The CFDT, a major French union aligned with the Socialist Party, openly supported the law. But the CGT-a major union aligned with the Communist Party-and the FO, a smaller union, were more cautious. They said it was up to the workers to ensure how the law would be implemented. What does this mean?

The law is written so that the unions and the bosses must negotiate how the law would be implemented at each workplace. So instead of the workers making a common struggle throughout the country, using their power as a class to fight at the same time, each group is left to fight alone.

The bosses are only eligible for a state subsidy to make up for any cuts in the workweek if they negotiate a contract with the unions. So this process tried to give the unions plenty of credibility in the eyes of the workers. The state gave the bosses a sure fire way not to cut their profits.

Though this law theoretically limits the workweek to 35 hours, the bosses can still employ workers in overtime. And breaks and lunch hours are not included as working time in the 35 hours!

For workers who earn no more than the minimum wage, the cut of hours will not cut their pay. But for workers who make more than the minimum wage, the new law does not guarantee that their previous wages will be maintained. Thus this law that was sold as something to benefit the workers has turned out to be a new attack on many workers’ standard of living.

The Aubry law allows the bosses to calculate hours on a yearly or cyclical basis. For example, 35 hours a week equals 1600 hours per year, with a 48 hour a week maximum. So hours worked over 35 are not considered as overtime and don’t receive overtime pay.

As part of this “math game,” the bosses have tried to introduce Saturday work where it didn’t exist before. All of this means a big benefit to the bosses in arranging the work schedule to suit their convenience. It can mean overtime with no overtime pay, followed by reduced hours or shift work.

This wreaks havoc not only with workers’ pocket books but also with their sleep, their health, and their personal lives. Also this flexibility allows the bosses to hire fewer workers and thus shows the lie to the promise that this law was a partial solution to unemployment.

In many cases, French workers have not been fooled by the talk of their so-called representatives in the Socialist and Communist Parties and in their union leaderships. All over France-in auto, rail, textile, government offices, hospitals, and schools, in the private and public sector-there have been militant strikes, demonstrations by tens of thousands and factory occupations to protest this law.

To imagine how large this protest by the workers is: in the post offices alone, there have been thousands of walkouts and strikes since the beginning of this year!

The fight for a reduction of the work week with no cut in pay has long been on the order of the day in the working-class movement. It has long been fought for as both a way to fight against unemployment and for the right of the workers to have more control over their time and lives. But for the shorter workweek to be of benefit to the working class there must be no cut in pay and no worsening of working conditions.

The French workers in their current struggles, depending on their own forces, could have the power to impose a real 35 hour workweek and a real diminution in unemployment.

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