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Minimum Service, but Minimum Law?

A key election promise of the recently elected President Nicholas Sarkozy received parliamentary approval this month, but the new minimum service law for public transport falls far short of expectations. The new law requires that those proposing to take strike action give 48 hours' notice to the transport operator, and that after eight days' strike action employers have the right to ask that a ballot of workers takes place. However, no definition of ‘minimum service’ is given in the law, and there is no obligation on workers to abide by the results of the ballot. In a somewhat breathtaking belief in the power of legislation, the new law states that between now and January 2008 the transport operators and unions must sit down and negotiate a procedure for trying to resolve disputes before strike action. In the event that agreement cannot be reached, then the government intends to impose a procedure by decree. At the same time, the public transport authorities must also each come up with a definition of what is meant by ‘minimum service’, which they must oblige the transport operators to implement. The unions have already declared themselves completely opposed to the new law, arguing that it is anti-constitutional and an attack on the right to strike. However, judging by the recent poor turnout of their members to protest against it, it is not entirely clear they share the same view. International visitors will also be concerned to learn that the new provisions only apply to the French railways, bus and metro systems, so the status quo remains for the operation of air and sea ports. The French Prime Minister, François Fillon, recently floated the idea that the law could have wider application to other public services, (notably in relation to teachers), but it is doubtful whether the government have the appetite at the present time to take on the whole of the public sector on this issue. Arguably, the toughest provisions in the new law are against the transport operators themselves, who face the prospect of having to pay compensation to passengers if they fail to come up with suitable minimum service levels. It is also left to the transport operators to ‘discipline’ workers in the event that they take strike action without giving 48 hours' notice of their intention to do so. The implication seems to be that if an employee has not given prior notice, then they will not be entitled to take strike action. Whilst many on the left criticise the proposals as an attack on workers' rights, (the socialist party has put the matter before the Constitutional Court), others argue that the law is little more than a statement that there should be negotiations before strike action takes place.


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