No one likes stereotypes. But seriously, what’s up with the French? I regularly travel overseas and know what it’s like for things to not quite go as planned. Unfortunately, French infrastructure does not seem like me. And it’s not just about trying to keep me from saying le weekend.
I’m now batting 1.000 in what has become a rite of Anglo-Gallic passage. I’m talking about the strikes, people. For multiple years I have traveled to Paris and beyond. And for multiple years their government unions have been waiting for me. For me, travel to France means suffering at the hands of air traffic controllers, airport baggage handlers, train operators, and truck drivers. I guess they got wind of the use of “competitive enterprise” in my job description.
Labor disputes in the U.S. rarely reach the level of regular disruption caused by unions in France, a nation whose government essentially controls its infrastructure. In the United States, government employees mainly police our streets, pick up our trash, put out fires in our homes and forests, and (still) control our access to air travel. The problem is that government is now the largest employer of anybody anywhere. And in government, American labor unions see their best prospects for growth. The result is a permanent lobby for bigger government. Government unions spend millions of dollars to boost politicians who do their bidding in the hope of gaining more campaign contributions in the future. There is no “union v management” fight here. Government union advocates sit on both sides of the contract negotiating table – and they are negotiating with our money.
That’s why last week’s Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn is so critical. The case concerned whether home health care workers who receive government assistance, such as Medicaid,are public employees and can be required to pay for union representation. In recent years, unions and their allies in several state governments have tried to classify these providers as state employees, because some of their earned pay comes from government dollars. By this logic, as the plaintiff’s counsel put it, every doctor in America could be considered a government employee for receiving Medicare payments. The Court ruled that home care workers could not be compelled to pay union fees.
The larger issue, however, is that those workers’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association are violated by being forced to pay fees to a union regardless of whether they agree with its agenda or not. When unions can exert control over people who dissent from their views, something is wrong.
Yet, the rest of us pay for government unions in other ways. A major problem with government unions is that they enjoy a privileged status as a monopoly. People, quite simply, don’t like being at the mercy of unionized workers who can withhold essential services.
I was reminded of that last week, when I enjoyed the Frankfurt airport for far longer than I anticipated. En route to a business meeting in Aix-en-Provence, I expected a short layover and easy passage to Marseille. Instead, I experienced the French version of the Berlin Airlift, albeit without the logistical brilliance. Rather than funnel thousands of planes into three wide air corridors, the French air traffic controllers narrowed those corridors and restricted the number of inbound planes. All because they wanted more vacation time.
It didn’t take a math genius to anticipate what happened next. Sure enough, we had to wait an extra hour for our takeoff slot. Meanwhile, on board, the German pilot announced, “Ve vill be very late becuz of za French (pause…pause…sigh…) air traffic strike!” At least, I thought, it couldn’t get any worse.
It got worse. As we descended into Marseille, the right engine blew. In any other part of the world, the plane would have continued its descent, but as the captain informed us, “Lufthansa does not want zehr broken plane in Frahnce, as zey wood like it to extually get fixed.” So we returned to Frankfurt. Four hours later we boarded a second plane only to redo the French air traffic delay dance.
When we finally landed in Marseille, the baggage handlers staged a one-hour “solidarity” delay. At this point, I envisioned the next day’s headlines describing the German transportation ministry’s Blitzkrieg takeover of its French counterpart.
Recently the French Innovation Minister (I’m not even going there…) said, “We must rediscover the meaning of hospitality. Everyone recognizes we can do better on the welcome and quality of service.” You don’t say. This after train operators staged a 24-hour strike on the first day of final exams for thousands of French high school seniors. If this is French unions’ idea of “innovation,” I’d hate to see what stagnation looks like.
In August I leave for two days in Paris. Wish me luck.