Taxi Drivers Act Up

photo: striker scaling lion de befort

Taxi driver scales statue during strike.

Just One of the 'Strikes' of the Day

Paris:- Wednesday, 24. November 1999:- The French must be in first place for going on strike unless the Italians are still the champions. There are so many strikes a day in Paris that lesser ones go unreported, but this is no surprise because state radio and TV are on strike too..

Just outside my door at the Place Denfert-Rochereau, I find my 'story of the day' while looking around for the 'posters of the week' - in the form of non-owner taxi drivers striking against something or other. Signs in their taxis' windows say, "Nuts to Slavery!"

The striking drivers have hung some banners on the huge statue of the 'Lion of Belfort' in the center of thephoto: no-slave taxi sign intersection. They have a few taxis parked near it too. A few metres away, they have many more parked taxis, with many 'slavery' signs.

The sign says, 'No to slavery!'

This intersection at Denfert-Rochereau takes all the traffic coming into Paris from the A6 autoroute - from Orly, Lyon and Marseille, as well as Italy and Barcelona - and all the traffic headed the other way, going in those directions.

It isn't a usual demonstration-strike scene, but these taxi drivers know their Paris traffic inside out, so they've picked a key point; to annoy as many civilian drivers as possible.

Police are good-naturedly directing northbound motorists around the narrow passage left. Fewer cars are getting through heading south from Montparnasse. Getting past the double-parked taxis in front of the métro entry is like threading a needle.

There is another line of taxis parked tidily three abreast on the other side, over by the RER train station.

Civilian drivers are steaming; practicing screeching their brakes, waving their fists, screaming into portable phones and honking their horns, while police are calmly tooting their whistles.

When an opening momentarily appears all the drivers sprint for it to try to funnel into it while the police hurry them up by windmilling their arms. You see the police in Paris doing this fairly often - trying to speed up traffic. No wonder many drivers are unaware that 'speeding' is a serious offense - sometimes.

Cars get crosswise; motors hit high revs. Cars back up and there are honks; then they crank their front wheels as far as they will go - and get cut-off. Motorcyclists and pedestrians weave through it all, avoiding bumper-car contacts.

At some discrete signal, a gang of taxi drivers head for their triple-parked cars over by the RER, get in them and file three-abreast into the center of the intersection - turning left around the 'Lion' monument in the center.

This completely blocks all the traffic trying to get through the intersection in any direction. Steering wheels get strangled in frustration. The police appear unruffled. This is not random chaos; this is everyday Paris.

Meanwhile, underground in the métro, garbage is piling up as a result of a strike by the cleaners that has passed the two-week mark. These are not métro employees, but are supplied by an independent contractor named 'Onet.'

The strike of the métro cleaners is a semi-annual affair, but this time the 35-hour week is also involved. The strikers - who mostly get less than the minimum wage - the SMIC! - want a 'bonus' of 400 francs.

'Onet' management has said it will go bankrupt; it cannot afford a 'bonus' of 200 francs.

And the métro cleaners want proper facilities. The métro's public areas are usually not onlyphoto: taxis move into place spotlessly clean, but polished. Meanwhile, the cleaners' areas are like underground slums stuffed into idle and dank closets. They have no toilets either.

Horde of taxis cruise into the place.

Also today - for the first time, managers - who are not paid by the hour or the day - have their day of protest strike and they are marching 5000-strong through the Latin Quarter from the Place Saint-Michel to the Assembly National - wearing their suits and carrying colorful banners and huge, white styrofoam numbers, 'three' and 'five.'

TV-news tonight, in a brief non-strike moment, showed one demonstrator who said the protesters also represented the absent 'silent majority' of managers. Others, somewhat more militant, said non-marching managers were boot-lickers. "If we win, they will profit too," another said.

One provincial manager said he would kick in some shop windows if forced to return halfway across France to Paris for another demo, but this seemed to be a minority attitude.

Instead of a 35-hour work week for managers, a fixed number of days per year has been proposed. Managers think this will force them to work 11-hour days.

One of the major reasons for the introduction of the 35-hour work week is an unemployment level of about 11 percent in France. This has been falling steadily lately, but slowly. A million people would have to go to work to reduce the unemployment rate by ten percent.

Everybody who is looking at doing 39 hours' worth of work in 35 hours, thinks maybe their employers should hire some new staff - which employers are reluctant to do.

At the same time, the economy has firmed up. The Paris stock exchange has been marking pluses almost non-stop month after month. Companies are announcing record profits. Companies that do this and announce layoffs at the same time - like Michelin did - get into trouble.

The reduction of weekly working hours, which has already started, has not resulted in any massive wave of new jobs - except for a huge number of part-time jobs in the services sector. This part-time stuff allows employers to pay a lot less than the minimum wage, plus allows 'flexible' working hours - which are not tuned to any regular times.

Generally, employers are hoping to get the same amount of productivity out of their present workforces in fewer hours; mostly for less pay.

Salary increases have been minimal for years if not decades. French workers are not crazy to think this stinks.

They see companies making profits, they see companies introducing part-time work, they see 'globalization' - and they see an end to the 'French way of life.'

For employees, the slight good news of near-zero inflation and low interest rates has been offset byphoto: moto seeks escape rising taxes of all sorts. - the 'Euro' had to be paid for, for years in advance; now comes the bill for the 35-hour work week.

Motorcyclist seeks way out of taxi maze.

Tomorrow, some employees at France Télécom will be on strike. Some postal workers will go out too. State-owned Radio France has been 'on strike' since 16. November. Department store employees are on strike today. Cafe, hotel and restaurant workers are having an 'action day' as well.

On Friday, computer staff at the Ministry of Finance will have their strike; the rest of the staff have their go at it on 28. November. Several other branches have their computer staffs on strike, such as Bull. The banks have been stalling for years, and still have no agreement with their employees.

Understandably, all workers want to 'profit' now from their past efforts at belt-tightening. Because if not 'now,' then 'when?'

The next time the truckers blockade the autoroutes, they will be asking for the agreements of their last two strikes to be honored, plus making new demands.

Meanwhile, except for car drivers who are nearly certified loonies anyway, how do Parisians cope?

It is quite simple. Paris was built to misfunction. It can have two major and a half-dozen minor street demonstrations at once, without overly disturbing the lives of its inhabitants.

Everybody - except car drivers - knows anything can happen at any time; and it does with such regularity that quick adjustments are almost routinely made to circumvent whatever is blocking the way.

This Parisian ability to 'sidestep' is not necessarily fatalistic - Parisians can blow their tops and do. Disgruntled stockholders may stand outside the Crédit Lyonnais headquarters, shouting at the building.

But in general, by living in a constant state of near chaos, resilience is built-in. Most street demonstrations, no matter how large, are quickly over. Most 'strikes' only last a token three hours. If you arrive late all you'll see are the street cleaners, unless they too are on 'strike.'

The métro loudspeakers - sometimes intelligible - announce a 'technical problem' at rush hour, and everybody piles out to catch another line or up onto the street to seek the work-around, get-around - like water that gets to the sea any way it can.

It is hard to say whether anybody pays any attention to 'protest' strikes. To see them, they often appear somewhat like jolly parades; with chanting, slogans garbled over loudspeakers, banners covered with obscure initials and mobile snack stands.

Nurses march, doctors march, the unemployed march; the farmers and members of the peasant league come to Paris and they march - even the people without legal papers, march to demand papers.

Firemen were marching last week; they want their profession re-classified as dangerous and dirty, likephoto: taxi drivers and statue the sewer workers - who can retire at 50. Unlike sewer workers, firemen haul people out of the sixth floors of burning buildings and climb down the ladders with them when they are 55.

Strikers, standing around with their hands in their pockets.

At times, even the police have street demonstrations. Before they do, they draw straws to see who gets to march and chant, and who gets to stay on duty to do the traffic control.

This is absolutely necessary. The only people in Paris who never take part in Paris street demonstrations to protest one thing or another, are car drivers.

Truck drivers, yes; bus drivers, yes; motorcyclists, yes; taxi drivers, yes; car drivers, never.

For me, it is quite handy. I can walk to half of Paris' demonstrations. Although the Left Bank is smaller than the Right, the Assembly National is on this side and it is the destination of a lot of the protest parades.

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