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crypto and public policy

Blackmail: When Unions Go Too Far

Filed under: General — June 17, 2004 @ 12:58 am

Today, the French electrical company intentionally shut down power to the Eiffel Tower and the French President’s home (and to the American and British embassies, and to the Prime Minister’s home, etc…). No one will be arrested. No one will answer for these actions. Here’s why.

The French government is working on privatizing parts of EDF and GDF, respectively the national Electrical and Gas companies in France. If you have electricity in France, you’re getting it from EDF and only EDF. EDF is one of the last big public company holdouts in France, and many of its employees are not too pleased to hear that EDF might one day be a private company, at which point their incredible benefits will likely be reduced. After all, early retirement, 11 weeks of vacation per year, the right to work 4 days instead of 5 for only a 10% reduction in salary, and electricity at a bargain price… those benefits are tough to give up! The French call these “les acquis sociaux”, aka acquired social benefits, aka something they will never give up, ever.

Now I believe that unions are a good thing. A civilized nation must respect its working class, and the only way to allow this in the context of a free market is through the establishment of unions. But there is such a thing as too much union power. In the US, when a critical service might be endangered because of a strike, the President has the ability to force everyone to a negotiating table and, if necessary, disallow the strike.

While that may be too much Presidential power, consider the opposite extreme in France: when truckers are angry, they’ve been known to block the highways and prevent refueling tanks’ access to gas stations. When baggage handlers go on strike at Charles De Gaulle, luggage from foreign countries just finds its way through security without ever going through customs. When one means of transportation goes on strike, a number of others do, too, in what’s called a “sympathy strike,” and Paris is paralized for days at a time.

And now, when the sole, monopoly provider of electricity doesn’t like the way things are going, they shut down officials’ power. On purpose. And no one, not even the President, has any say in it, because it’s the “right to strike.”

But denying power to certain users on purpose isn’t the noble collective bargaining that is traditionally meant by “the right to strike.” Blocking legitimate use of the highways isn’t the right to strike. It’s blackmail, pure and simple. The French unions have gained so much power, they effectively control the State. Maybe they represent the working class, so that’s fair in a socialist country? No: the most vocal unions now represent less than 10% of the workers yet still get prime seats at the negotiating table. This is, in my mind, one of the most abominable perversions of what a union should be.

So the next time someone in the US complains because they have to pay union rates, just remember: at least most US unions are negotiating what’s in their right to negotiate.

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