'Come on you Rosbifs: Vive la public sector revolution'

19th November 2010 at 00:00
French teaching union activist tells NUT the British have 'the spirit' for national strike

The notorious revolutionary zeal of Gallic workers, which brought France to its knees last month with marches, strikes and riots over pension reforms, could hit British shores after a teaching union turned to a leading French activist for advice.

Odile Cordelier, national secretary and international envoy for the French SNES-FSU teaching union, addressed leaders of the NUT to explain how unions co-ordinated the action, which led to rubbish piling up in the streets, school closures and blockaded oil refineries.

Her visit came as many public sector unions in Britain consider how to respond to a wave of cost-cutting measures that members will have to absorb over the coming years, including a pay freeze and an assault on pensions.

Ms Cordelier said that recent student protests over tuition fees indicated the British had "the spirit" to undertake similar action, even though calling strikes is harder here because of tougher labour laws.

French workers - especially the cheminots, or railwaymen - have become renowned for their willingness to down tools over issues with employers, which they can legally do at the drop of a beret.

While hard-left British unionists may have been impressed by the angry face-offs with President Nicolas Sarkozy's riot police in Lyon and Nanterre, Ms Cordelier warned that the British should not expect to "mechanically copy" what happened in her country.

"I cannot claim I have the recipe for them to do exactly the same thing," she told The TES. "But I think the spirit is there in England.

"With the student protests when I was in England, you had the first real mobilisation for 10 years.

"I am encouraging unions here to listen carefully to their members - it's important to have the debate on every level," she added.

But British strikes are hampered by the strict system of ballots and notifications brought in by Margaret Thatcher, she said.

Injunctions to stop strikes on the basis of small legal loopholes are becoming more common as well, making striking even more difficult.

Ms Cordelier said that although the mass movement in France had not led to the government changing its mind, she insisted they had not lost the principle of the campaign.

Many British public sector unions are now believed to be devising plans of action for the spring.

Public sector pensions are expected to be the issue that brings unions across a number of different sectors together. Already, there is fury over the switch to calculating pensions using the consumer price index rather than the generally higher retail price index.

Unions say the average teacher pensioner could lose out on #163;49,000 over a 25-year retirement due to the change.

There is also anger at the prospect of public sector workers having to make higher contributions to their pensions and the possibility of an end to final salary schemes.

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