The French union in a ‘fight to the death’ with government

The battle between the hardline CGT union and the French government over the labour reforms has been described a sa fight to the death. Who will emerge as winners?

The French union in a 'fight to the death' with government
All photos: AFP

France's largest union, the CGT, has opted for a do-or-die strategy of choking off the nation's fuel supplies after failing to galvanise the masses against the Socialist government's labour reforms, analysts say.

Given what is at stake for both parties, one politician described the battle as a “fight to the death”.

A springtime of discontent over the job market reforms, seen as heavily weighted in favour of employers, has run out of steam after wresting a handful of concessions from the government.

France has a reputation for chronic strikes and protests, but union action does not often force a major government climbdown.

Undeterred, the CGT last week launched blockades of oil refineries and depots, threatening to paralyse the country unless the labour reforms are scrapped altogether, barely two weeks before France begins hosting the Euro 2016 football championships.

The union is “going for broke” with headline-grabbing actions because it is “having trouble inspiring the masses,” said political scientist Dominique Andolfatto.

CGT leader Philippe Martinez (see below) himself posed for the cameras last weekend as he threw a tyre onto a flaming barricade set up at a fuel depot in northern France.

The union, formed in 1895, has been dominated by Communist Party stalwarts since World War II, but Martinez is its first leader who is not a card-carrying communist — he left the party in 2002 while retaining “a certain number of ideals”.

Since the 1990s, the CGT has been increasingly open to compromise, but Martinez is now returning the union to its roots, said labour rights specialist Bernard Gauriau.

“He is adopting a more trenchant attitude than his predecessors, often stressing the theme of class struggle, to rally the ranks,” Gauriau said, adding that the move is a way of “distinguishing himself from other unions”.

Protests over the proposed labour reforms reached a fever pitch at the end of March, when some 390,000 people took to the streets across France, according to an official count, while organisers put the number at 1.2 million.

That coincided with the birth of a new youth-led movement called “Nuit Debout” (Up All Night), which has seen advocates of a broad spectrum of causes gather in city squares at night to demand change.

Stark choice

But both movements have largely fizzled out, even though nearly every week has seen strikes and protests, some descending into violence.

In the general public, while seven in 10 people still oppose the labour reforms, 58 percent want the protests to stop, according to a recent poll.

The CGT counts only 700,000 members out of an overall workforce of 24 million, but insists the government is to blame for the current showdown because it has not responded to workers' demands.

Martinez, 55, was re-elected in April at a time of deep disappointment within a union that had endorsed Francois Hollande for president in 2012.

“Was gutting the labour code in Hollande's programme?” Martinez asked. “The government has turned its back on its commitments and it is paying the consequences.”

If the CGT's current gambit fails, it will be the second time since 2010, when right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy pushed through the pension reform despite weeks of street protests and strikes.

Although less than 10 percent of the French workforce is unionised today compared with some 30 percent in 1950, the unions enjoy key bargaining power within companies, which helps them influence government policy.

But the last time a mass protest movement forced a truly memorable government climbdown was in 1995, when then-president Jacques Chirac made a first stab at the pension reform that Sarkozy achieved.

Unemployment still high

Parisians in particular remember that cold December when public transport was shut down completely — wiping out crickets living in the city's metro system normally warmed by the passing trains.

Hollande's labour reform package was initially billed as a signature initiative to address the issue he has staked his presidency on — unemployment — which remains at a stubborn 10 percent with elections less than a year away.

Pressure from the street, as well as parliament's back benches, caused the government to water down the proposals, which only angered bosses while failing to assuage critics.

But the CGT has made a stark choice, said labour historian Stephane Sirot.

“Once the CGT adopted a strategy demanding the withdrawal (of the reforms) it has only two options: either it stops the movement or it gives it a new impetus.”

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TOP TIPS: How to get a restaurant job in Sweden as a foreigner

For seasoned or aspiring cooks who’ve found a new life in Sweden, now might be the perfect time to join the Scandinavian culinary scene, argues Matthew Weaver, a writer and chef based in Malmö. 

TOP TIPS: How to get a restaurant job in Sweden as a foreigner

In the wake of the global “Great Resignation”, restaurants and hotels are desperate for staff, and foreigners working in Swedish kitchens are finding themselves with higher bargaining power and unprecedented leverage with prospective employers.

Chicago transplant, Matan Levy, Chef-Owner of the award-winning Two Forks Hummus Shop in Malmö, tells the Local:  “It’s become an employees’ market. Back in the day, in the US, if you didn’t want to work for the terms that were offered – low wages, long hours, etc. there were plenty of people who would happily take your place. If you wanted good terms you had to put in the time.”

“That isn’t the case anymore. Now, it’s much more common to be having discussions about terms that I could only dream of as a young cook, even after 20-plus years in the industry.”

Levy runs Two Forks along with his Swedish wife Charlotte. 

Matan Levy, chef owner of Malmö restaurant Two Forks, in his kitchen. Photo: The Local.

What’s drawing foreign chefs to the Swedish food scene? 

The Scandinavian food trend kicked off in the early 2010s, when Copenhagen’s Noma won World’s Best Restaurant three consecutive years in a row,  attracting waves of customers and cooks drawn to New Nordic cuisine.

Soon after, Ethiopian-Swedish chef, Marcus Samuelsson, of Aqavit fame, opened his New York restaurant Red Rooster Harlem, introducing Scandinavian fusion. This combined Swedish classics, such as pickled herring and meatballs, with American Soul Food and Ethiopian cuisine. 

Cooks from abroad have found themselves working in Scandinavia, where restaurants have been freed up, with less emphasis on old-school “brigade” hierarchy, and more emphasis on collective creative input.

Another part of the attraction is the culture of forward-thinking, innovative food, with an emphasis on locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. Comparatively higher overall pay and benefits, working conditions, gender equality and attention to work-life balance continue to attract an international labour force.

Should you find yourself seeking work in Swedish “kök”, here are a couple essentials to acquaint yourself with to help ensure you aren’t tossed out of the frying pan and into the fire.

First things first…do you need to speak Swedish?

Seldom would this be in issue. In many, if not most, kitchens in major Swedish cities, English is tolerated and commonly accepted as a working language. Besides Swedes, you’ll often find yourself working alongside people from every continent.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t and won’t be picking up a little svenska as you go. After a handful of shifts, you’ll often find yourself forgetting words for certain fruits, vegetables and utensils in your native tongue, and most likely acquiring an expressive battery of Swedish curse words to alleviate stressful moments on the line (see here and here)

Will you need a fancy Culinary School degree?

Not really, but there can be exceptions (on paper at least). For instance, when applying to the Nordic hotel chain, Scandic – especially for Sous or Head Chef positions. They state in their job listings that it’s a plus to have “completed cooking training or have acquired the corresponding skills in another way..”. But for the industry as a whole, it’s mostly unnecessary, and “skills in another way” could be open to clever interpretation.

Employers will want you to come in for a few (paid) trial shifts to “see how we get along with each other.” For the inexperienced, graft, a good attitude and eagerness to learn goes a long way.  These days, after all, you can consult a wealth of detailed, encyclopaedic cookbooks, as well as brush up on knife skills and mother sauces on Youtube.

If a senior cook or chef is unwilling to spend time running through the basics, have no shame in marching out the door and into the next restaurant, which is probably a stone’s throw in any direction. The archetypical, overbearing, spiteful boar of a chef has thankfully become near extinct in the last decade, and you need not worry about having a plate or searing pan cast in your direction.

Is cash-in-hand payment a good idea?

Best avoided. If you work cash-in-hand, your employer does not pay any social security contributions for you, nor do you pay tax on your income. The Swedish Tax Agency may require that you pay the unpaid tax in arrears. Working cash-in-hand is also considered a criminal offence and could result in up to two years jail time.

Rights, Contract, Salary, “kollektivavtal”

Cook’s salaries for the most part haven’t increased by much in recent years, but with present demand for skilled, experienced workers you’re stacked with cards that would’ve held less value pre-pandemic.

A collective bargaining agreement (‘kollektivavtal’) negotiates an assortment of working and salary conditions agreed between employers and union representatives such as the HRF (Hotel and Restaurant Union). Around 70 percent of Swedish employees are members of a trade union and 90 percent are covered by collective agreements.

Though none of the Nordic countries have a statutory minimum wage, and there is no law to regulate people’s salaries or salary increases, Sweden uses collective agreements, often differentiated by age, skill or seniority, as a mechanism for setting the base. The base is currently 140.69 kronor (€13.65) per hour without professional experience and 151.09 kronor (€14.66) for those with six or more years of professional experience.

While it is up to you to keep track of current salary trends, if your job is covered by a collective agreement, your employer may not pay you anything below the fixed minimum salary.

Besides salary, there are a number of other benefits worth brushing up on. Sick pay and holiday pay is governed by law, while overtime pay and pay for “inconvenient” (‘ob-ersättning’) hours (evenings, nights, and weekends) falls under collective agreements.

If the type of work you do is not covered by a collective agreement, check that the terms of other existing kollektivavtal agreements are incorporated into your own written contract of employment. It is important to get hold of this as soon as possible. By law, you are entitled to a contract within a month of starting your job. Salary reviews should be encompassed in the terms of your employment contract.

A-kassa, and union help

Joining a union is a good way to secure your income in the event of unemployment.

All unions have unemployment funds and income insurances (‘a-kassor’) which are designed to keep you solvent and cover up to 80 percent of your salary during periods of unemployment, although a-kassa can be joined independently of a union, monthly membership is generally much cheaper.

Unions such as HRF will provide help with information regarding salary review and intervention in the case your employer doesn’t provide the salary you are entitled to; act on your behalf in case of conflict, unjust working conditions, discrimination, or bullying, as well as helping you to navigate the ins and outs of your pension, insurance for work injuries, illness, unemployment and parental leave.

Tips and tipping culture

Because robust unions help ensure that restaurant and bar workers in Sweden get exceptionally good hourly wages, it’s possible for folk to make a decent living that’s up to scratch without getting any tips at all.

Though tipping, or dricks, isn’t nearly as prevalent as in the US and Canada (where restaurant owners often use tipping as a pretext to offer low wages to their staff), customers here often round up to the nearest amount of the bill. This will usually be gathered and accumulated over the course of a month or two, to be split amongst service and kitchen staff, eventually ending up added to your paycheck.

The (often daunting) process of obtaining Work Permits/Visas for non-EU members.

Finding work in Sweden as a third-country national has unfortunately become complicated and time-consuming. It is crucial to start your search well before arrival, as you will need a signed employment contract in order to obtain a work permit, and waiting times for work permit applications are currently quite long.

Keep in mind that before a job can be provided to a third-country national, employers must ensure that they have clearly advertised and made the position accessible to Swedes first. If there is no interest from local or EU talent, third-country nationals can be considered.

You’ll find plenty of information regarding registering with the Swedish Tax Agency (Skatteverket) and obtaining a personal ID number on their website, likewise with Arbetsformedlingen (Public Employment Service) and Migrationsverket (Migration Board), the latter of which explains the often tedious and exacerbating process regarding work permits for non-EU members. The Local clarifies both here