An account of a strike of mostly Sri Lankan workers, aided by outside militants, at a British-owned pub chain in France, which won some concessions for the workers.
There are several Frog Pubs in Paris, English style beer pubs, whose menus and ‘sport events on big screens’ are aimed at a young and solvent clientele. Expenses are reduced by all means necessary: the kitchen staff work in tiny kitchens (e.g. 12 square metre kitchen for 450 square metres pub area). The wages vary between the minimum wage and 1,200 euros for the chef. The working time, the reasons for dismissal etc. are defined by the boss alone. There is no clock to punch in and out, so the boss often ‘forgets’ the payment of extra hours. The costs for having to take a taxi after closing time of the subway are not refunded, although most of the workers live in the outskirts. The staircase serves as changing room.
The waiters and service staff are mainly British; the kitchen workers are of Tamil origin. Most of them don’t speak French. The whole kitchen staff is recruited within the Tamil community by a guy of Tamil origin. He is the only one who speaks good French, he is the middleman of the boss, he organises the work and decides whether a worker gets penalised or not. He is the only channel if someone wants to talk or negotiate with the boss. In this position he also represents the interests of the staff and was later on elected as their delegate.
In November 2002 the kitchen workers were trying to get in contact with trade unionists. In order to protect themselves, initially also against their representative, some of them developed a form of collective resistance and turned to the anarcho-syndicalist union the CNT-France.
The CNT reacted like a union would react and informed the management about the existence of a union representation within their company. The precondition for such a union representation is a minimum number of 50 staff, which the management had tried to prevent up to then, by declaring the single branches as independent companies. The CNT wanted to gain recognition by going to court. First of all the management sacked the elected delegate and recruiting guy. Although he was not their friend, on April the 13th, the rest of the workers voted unanimously for strike. After a confrontation the company dismissed another kitchen worker.
The workers at Frog had no experiences of struggles in France, they were union members for the first time and they were on strike for the first time. They couldn’t assess what was possible and what was legal. They also couldn’t assess the real power of the union and therefore they had to rely on partly vague and sometimes grandiose statements of the CNT, which gave the impression that they could break the resistance of the bosses. The ethnic divisions within the workforce, which were consciously implemented by the management, could not be overcome in process of the strike. On the other hand, the ethnic identity of the Tamils ensured a unity for several months.
On April the 16th, 28 out of 29 kitchen workers of the Frog chain walked out. They demanded: the cessation of dismissals, the annulling of all penalties, the adherence to the conditions prescribed in the work contracts, better health and safety conditions (separate toilettes, showers, dry lockers), payment of the extra hours, if they can not be avoided in the first place, election of delegates in all four branches of the chain in Paris, paid holiday, payment of the travel costs, extra pay for working after midnight, 100 per cent extra pay for nightshifts, an extra months wage at the end of the year, improved work organisation (no divided shifts, e.g. two hours in the morning, four hours in the evening; no end of shift after closing time of the subway), freedom of union activities.
The boss refused any negotiations and told them that they could stand in front of the restaurant as long as they want, that he wouldn’t give a damn. Obviously he couldn’t imagine that a strike of these immigrants - who haven’t got a clue about anything - could have an impact on his business. Convinced that he had the law on his side he immediately went to court. There he obtained a legal order declaring that the strikers and the CNT were not allowed to enter or to block the restaurant. The striking kitchen staff were replaced by British service workers, now on duty in the kitchen.
Soon the strikers realised that mere picketing and leafleting wouldn’t be enough, but facing the legal order the CNT didn’t want to enter the restaurant. First there were some doubts raised about the actual power of the unions. Now the striking Frog workers contacted the collective who previously had been supporting the strike at McDonalds. The cooperation started with a joint participation of striking Frog and McDonalds workers at the Mayday demonstration and with the rather chaotic occupation of the pub in Bercy by sixty people after the demo. On the 3rd of May, Frog and McDonalds workers, together with a large number of supporters, entered the pub of the Rue Saint Denis, where they clashed with the boss and some of the service workers. Afterwards they blocked the McDonalds restaurant at des Halles. The strikers were in good shape and wanted to continue the action, but the CNT tried to hold them back.
On May the 7th, the pub in Rue Saint Denis was occupied again. The very aggressive boss locked in clients, strikers and supporters until the cops arrived. The cops ordered that the doors be opened, negotiated a smooth retreat of the strikers and pressured the boss to enter the negotiation process. The boss promised to do so, but the very next day he refused to negotiate again.
The striking workers continued pressuring the boss by occupying the restaurant the following day. At this point the internal quarrels within the CNT became ever more obvious. It also became clear that not the workers and their struggle, but the advertising effect of these actions for their union were most important to them and they tried to increase this with banners, stickers and badges. In contrast, the solidarity collective only had the aim of helping the workers win.
It also became clear that only the "tough actions" - as the strikers called them - would be able to force the boss to negotiate: without the occupation the restaurant ran as normal, with the help of scab work by the service staff. At this stage the strikers enforced joint meetings of workers, the solidarity collective and the unions. The CNT had always refused to have this kind of meeting.
The CNT was focussing on a legal arbitration and announced that the legal process would require the suspension of any actions in front of the restaurant. At this point the strikers had planned an occupation that was supposed to last for at least three days. The union secretary brought an end to the occupation on the first evening, and all the CNT members joined him. For the strikers and the supporters there was nothing else left to do but to follow them.
The strikers could no longer assess to what extend the union would support them. The arbitration process had a demoralising effect. Eventually the actions in and around the bar became less important for the CNT than the legal process. The solidarity collective didn’t question the monopoly of the CNT in regard to the legal activities. It confined itself to the struggle on and in front of the pub floor, which the CNT was unable to fight. This division of tasks resulted in the struggle having to submit to the legal confrontation.
In front of the pubs a constant pressure was exercised on the clients. They were asked to show some solidarity and not to enter the pub. The biggest and most profitable pub was our main target. We tried to have pickets every afternoon, whenever possible. Every time the police were called in order to prevent our activities and to make us leave the allegedly private land. Every time we responded by saying that we are acting as part of a labour dispute (which, in France, forbids the police to intervene). With every action we managed to stay in front of the restaurant and to extend the boundaries of legality. By end of the summer we had managed to make sure that one of the previously most visited pubs of the area was nearly empty. At the end of the arbitration process the boss complained that he had lost about 500,000 euros. Also at the other branches we had a similar success.
The employer finds a weak spot
The boss took a harder stance and only later we understood why. Unlike the CNT he didn’t want to solve the conflict in front of the court. At the beginning of the summer he contacted the nationalistic organisation Tamil Tigers, which dominates the Tamil community. He demanded that the organisation should put pressure on its striking members to return to work. He claimed the strike would harm the reputation of the community in France. In front of the staff he boasted that the head of the organisation had promised to intervene. We only heard about that later, when the striking workers broke the taboo of talking about this question bit by bit. It was only then that we realised the extent of the divisions within the community and the impact which their political past still had, far away from their home country. But now it was too late to counteract this attack, the shit had already hit the fan: the strikers were already divided over this question. We found out that one of the most combattative strikers was repetitively threatened. The collective tried to use informal ways to deliver the message to those responsible for the threats, that any attack on the striking workers would have big repercussions within the militant movement and that this would also harm those responsible for the threats considerably. It took a long time before the message arrived, but finally it did.
The employer realised that he had found a weak spot and he made use of it. He urged strikers individually on the phone to give up their jobs. He offered money. He threatened them with heavy repressions if they turned up at the work place. Some of them cracked, but we only understood that much later, partly due to communication problems and the strikers fears of being seen in a bad light by their supporters.
By mid September eight out of the 28 strikers had gone back to work, eleven had accepted their dismissal on the level of individual arrangements, and eight were still on strike, of which three had gone to court over their dismissals. This core of workers were determined to fight, but were more and more discouraged.
At the end of September they told us, that they did want to negotiate about leaving the job for money. They thought it was impossible to go back to work facing this tension charged atmosphere. They were convinced that the boss would sack them on the slightest pretext.
We re-assured them of our support and respect, and advised them to stick together in order to achieve the best results. Two of them nevertheless signed individual arrangements and disappeared from the scene.
On Sunday, the 19th of October, the lawyers started the negotiations on the base of the 5,000 euros which the boss had offered as leaving pay and which the striking workers had refused. On November the 3rd, an agreement signed by both parties finished the conflict: the last strikers accepted their dismissals for a leaving pay of 5,000 euros (2,000 euros for the two workers who had been hired at the beginning of the strike) plus payment for the outstanding holidays; the CNT received 10,000 which they handed over to the strikers who distributed the money evenly amongst themselves.
That’s how the last striking workers finished the conflict collectively and demonstrated to those who had given up the strike earlier and who had preferred individual arrangements that it pays to stay determined together. The boss who believed that the whole story wouldn’t cost him too much underestimated the long term affects which the work of the collective had on his clientele; because at the time of writing in 2005 his formerly popular pubs are still half empty.
Edited and altered by libcom from a longer article About the Frog Pubs strike, 2003 from La Question Social - Revue Libertaire de Reflexion et de Combat. The longer version contains conclusions of the authors.
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