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Thursday 20th March 2014


French workers often engage in militant action. But could bossnapping catch on over here?

Consider this scenario. Your company is feeling the squeeze and you need to think about closing one of your sites. How do you expect the affected workers to react?

Should they carry on as usual? Should they walk out? Should they enter into full, meaningful negotiations?

Or should they hold some senior managers hostage while staging an occupation at the building?

Your answer will probably depend on whether you’re operating in the UK or in France. Last month saw the latest French example of the third option, in which workers at a Goodyear tyre factory responded to the threat of closure in a way that raised few eyebrows over there, but which hit the headlines over here because of the boldness of the tactics used.

Perhaps there’s an element of vicariousness involved. We’re interested (and perhaps relieved) to hear when workers resort to extreme tactics because it’s unlikely to happen over here.

And it’s not for nothing that French workers have grown to be perceived as the most volatile strikers this side of Luis Suarez. Blockades, occupations and, to a lesser extent, ‘bossnappings’, are all weapons in the armoury of the French workforce.

But why is the French approach to industrial action so different to that in the UK?

Be grateful for unions?

Elena Crasta is a member of the Franco-British Council and senior policy officer at the TUC’s Brussels office. She says the differences are due to a combination of culture and legal backdrops.

‘I believe a lot of it is cultural, especially with regards to demonstrations,’ says Crasta. ‘However, the constraints of UK industrial action law definitely play a part. It’s a lot harder to call a strike or any other form of lawful industrial action in the UK.’

‘Demonstrations hit the headlines in France much more than strikes,’ she continues. ‘In the UK it’s the other way around, partly because demonstrations there don’t attract that many people. In France, the population seems to be more sympathetic when unions call people out onto the streets.’

‘Secondary action is not allowed in UK, unlike France,’ she adds. ‘Also, strikes of a political nature are lawful in France, whereas in the UK they have to be strictly related to an industrial dispute.’

Gregor Gall, professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford’s School of Management, agrees that the differences are largely due to law.

He says: ‘Generally, there is much more direct action in France, whereas in Britain the legal requirement, since 1984, to have ballots has led to a fall in unofficial action. The police response to unofficial action would be very different in Britain,’ he notes.

‘The French ‘tradition’ comes from there being comparatively low levels of unionisation and an under-development of collective bargaining,’ he adds.

Not so laissez-faire

Gall agrees that methods used in France are hardline: ‘The actions of French workers are more militant in aims and means,’ he says. “No closures’ as opposed to ‘no compulsory redundancies’, and the taking over of a city centre, or sitting on railway tracks to stop trains, for example.’

By contrast, Gall points to an altogether more gentle UK equivalent thanks to union involvement. ‘Ballots of action have become a way that unions in Britain attempt to pressurise employers without having to take the action itself.’

He says the scale of action used in France has increased since the recession, and the comparative absence of similar action in the UK underlines how the two countries have grown to approach these matters in contrasting ways.

‘From 2007 onwards, there have been around 100 cases of occupation, with a minority of these involving bossnapping,’ he says. ‘In Britain over the same period, there have been barely ten occupations and obviously not a whiff of bossnapping.’

However, Gall does suggest that UK workers could learn to adopt a more direct action approach, albeit within legislative parameters.

Perhaps fortunately for UK employers, however, Crasta says she cannot imagine UK workers going back to the more direct methods they might have used in the 70s and 80s. She says: ‘There would be so many repercussions, both legal and otherwise, that I really don’t think any union would even remotely contemplate it as a negotiation tactic.’

Gall agrees with this point, and explains: ‘At the moment, the dominant response over here has been to accept wage cuts and short-time working. There’s also not the degree of nationalism, for example anti-Americanism, in Britain to drive these actions, as there in France.’

So, while union involvement in UK industrial disputes is dreaded – and often resented – by employers, we only need to look to France for an indication of how industrial action could take a very different approach if it weren’t for the existing legal backdrop and the effective presence of unions in negotiations.

Perhaps employers – and to an extent the wider public – should be grateful for the extent to which unionisation has helped to ensure a more pragmatic system of workforce rebellion.

On reflection, while it seemed an inconvenience at the time, maybe we should be grateful that the worst thing we’ve recently experienced in the UK was a two-day tube strike.

About the author

John Eccleston

John is a writer and editor who has written about HR and recruitment, among other topics, for as long as he can remember. If he's not at his keyboard, you'll probably find him in the kitchen, at a pub quiz, or buying more trainers.