Sarkozy’s brilliant game with the unions


Following up on my last posting about the brinksmanship of digital camera manufacturers, I think it only makes sense that we move on to discussing French politics. As the French transportation strike lumbers on into a second week, Sarkozy still has done nothing about it, leading to questions as to exactly what he’s up to. Given that he’s not known to take a low profile with regard to anything, let alone running the government, the only thing people are certain of is that he is up to something. One theory, as reported in Time, is that he’s simply letting the two sides soften each other up, watching how the negotiations play out before he steps in and saves the day with a compromise. Too boring to be a plausible explanation for politics in France, if you ask me.

While acknowledging that speculating about French labor policy is about the last thing I’m qualified to do, I think I have a good guess as to what he’s up to, and I hope I’m right. He’s not waiting for a compromise to present itself, he’s waiting so that the government doesn’t have to compromise. By letting the strike drag on, he’s letting the frustration of the people fester while they bike and walk and beg rides into work for weeks. Sarkozy knows that even the most hardened leftists get blisters. He is not going to act until he has the support of the people of France to hold a hard line against the strikers, and I doubt it will take much time for that to occur given the political climate for change and the shaky state of the financial system in Europe. Solidarity with the workers will soon start to soften, eventually giving way to outright resentment for bus drivers who are willing to compromise the livelihood of their fellow workers so that they can enjoy retirement perks not even well educated French white collar workers have. Égalité has its limits, even in France.

The influence of unions has been suffering a prolonged and well-deserved death in most of the world. Organized labor long ago exceeded its useful life as an idea, and most unions have grown into lumbering self-destructive concentrations of power, abused by their corrupt leaders at the expense of their own rank and file (not to mention society as a whole). As western countries see their industry flow east, and inflation eat away at real incomes, people are starting to have little patience for welders who expect the security and pay of tenured university professors, or airline pilots that make $250k for about 90 days of work. And prospective union members are rightly starting to wonder about the level of security that could possibly be offered by an institution whose numbers are so rapidly dwindling.

Sarkozy was elected to reform the French economy, and the unions are a good place to start. As the strike lingers on, he smells blood in the water. So do the unions, apparently, except they don’t realize it is their own.


2 responses to “Sarkozy’s brilliant game with the unions”

  1. Here’s something I always had a tough time with: Why do libertarian sensibilities usually come packaged with an iron-fisted union-busting attitude? If we’re going to let everybody be free to do what they want, doesn’t that include organizing into unions for collective barganing? Isn’t that just a manifestation of a free-market that will live or die by it’s ability to compete?

    I think the answer is the vague sense that unions smell like communism, and that most people who consider themeslves libertarian really aren’t.

    There’s also plain old pragmatism, of course. Strikes suck for everybody else. That’s especially true for general strikes, which we don’t have anymore becuase they’re very illegal (I’m not sure you’re aware of just how far we went in the 20th century to emasculate unions through legislation). But if you’re ready to allow that much government intervention to make daily life work, aren’t you already admitting that big-government is a useful force?

  2. Dave:

    I can’t speak for most libertarians, but I don’t think the government should outlaw unions in theory, or prevent them from striking. Free markets aren’t anarchic markets, though. Unions, in practice, tend to be abusive of their power and distortive of free markets. I would have no problem if unions were voluntary and essentially a collection of individuals exercising their right to cooperation. But when unions “take over” an industry, and prevent non-union workers from operating, they are just as bad as any corporation, and just as abusive of their power. That should be prevented by government just as much as price-fixing or fraud should be, not as intrusions of government into free markets, but as protections of them as free.

    I’m perfectly willing to admit government is a useful force. I love it when it intervenes in the operations of criminals, for example. I’m not sure of the official definition of when government becomes “big” government, but I’m for whatever amount of government is necessary to fulfill the duties for which a government is best suited, such as the protection of rights.

    Aside from the questio of what is fair for the government to do, I think unionization is almost always a bad idea in practice. They were once necessary, but eventually they do more harm than good. They have pretty much destroyed American manufacturing, and are a large part of the reason our public schools are so bad. Once a shop goes union, the ability to operate within the bounds of common sense becomes contractually prohibited.

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