Could the UK have strikes like France?

People stand in front of police during a protest in Paris, 19 October 2010 Despite the disruption to transport services, strikers in France continue to attract popular support

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While France is gripped by volatile strikes over pension reforms, in the UK hard- line trade unionists have been over-ruled in favour of less immediate action. Could French-style strikes happen here?

Street protests, clashes, strike-bound petrol stations - the scenes witnessed in France are being closely watched by left-wing activists in the UK, who would dearly love to see similar protests repeated here.

Bob Crow, leader of the RMT, has urged millions of people "who make Britain tick" to take to the streets against the cuts.

Mark Serwotka of the PCS union told a rally outside Downing Street on Wednesday night that France sets a "good example" of how campaigners can fight back against unpalatable government measures.

'Flunked it'

But behind the pronouncements and threats, there are doubts about whether the trade unionist movement could ever stage French-style protests in the UK.

"The culture is different," explained a leading union source, "the situation in the UK is very different".

A split has already emerged between hardline union leaders and moderates over the timing of any protest events.

Moves within the TUC to organise a national protest before the end of the year have been overruled by other less hardline union leaders who want the event put back until March 2011.

This has prompted one union leader to claim the TUC has "flunked its first test" in the campaign against the cuts.

Underlying the measured response from the TUC is a desire on the part of a number of union leaders to not tarnish the image of moderation which the movement has been trying to cultivate in recent years.

The news pictures of striking miners clashing with police at Orgreave still form the basic view of the labour movement for many people in Britain.

The TUC has worked hard to soften the image; a reversion to more extremist policies might undo all this work.

Obstacles to action

An even more fundamental reason why we may well not see French-style street protests from British unions are the constraints imposed under UK employment laws.

In simple terms the legislation makes it very difficult for workers to walk out. Unions need a majority in a strike ballot; any technical infringement of the ballot process can make the strike action illegal.

Unions must give employers seven days' notice of industrial action, and the legal immunity strikers enjoy can lapse after twelve weeks. Failure to follow the law can render the union liable to large fines.

By contrast, strike law is so much simpler in France. The right to strike there is a constitutionally protected principle.

Police and miners at Orgreave coking plant Police and miners at Orgreave coking plant, South Yorkshire, during the miners' strike in June 1984

This means that employers who sack workers for walking out risk being in breach of the law themselves. So while millions of unionists can take to the streets in France in overtly political protests, in the UK political strikes are now in effect outlawed.

The only issues which employees can take action over relate to workplace and employment matters. At a stroke this made secondary action in the UK illegal.

So while Bob Crow will call for a "generalised" strike against the coalition government's cuts, the reality is that employment laws make such action almost impossible.

But if unions are banned from organising such protests, other groups in society are not so hampered, and may well take a strong lead.

'Coalition for Resistance'

Students have traditionally been in the forefront of anti-government protest in France, activists expect them to play a leading role here as well.

At yesterday's rally organised by the umbrella group the "Coalition for Resistance" in Whitehall, Mark Serwotka called for the unemployed to join the campaign.

Bob Crow has previously urged pensioners and other benefits claimants to stage their own protests, including a startling suggestion that they could mount a sit in on the M25, as part of a campaign to stop the country's road network.

Such protests would escape the restrictions of the employment laws, and as one observer pointed out, might appeal to trade unionists as they lead to members losing pay for going on strike.

The TUC still believes a softly-softly approach, building alliances with community groups across the UK, will reap dividends in the form of a mass protest next March.

But some observers suspect that by then some militants may have decided to emulate the French and take matters into their own hands.

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