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The Air France Strike, October 1993

Translated from Mordicus No. 11


Air France is a conglomerate, and most of its stocks are owned by the French state. It is made up of:

-Air France proper has 44,000 employees.

-Air Inter has 12,000.

-The leftovers from UTA1 and its affiliates have 5,000.

The main departments of Air France are

-Total ground personnel, 34,000.

-Maintenance 6,300 (roughly 3,000 at Orly and 3,000 at Roissy).


-Air traffic controllers.

-Customer service (sales, reservations, etc).

-Various service departments (bus drivers, information, telecommunications, flight preparation, etc).

In 1992 the Air France Group showed a deficit of 3 billion Francs. For 1993 they expected one of 5.5 billion F, which is in part a result of a reduction of the amortization period from 15 to 2 years. Air Inter, like its affiliates, turns a profit. The expect deficit already included indemnity for the planned lay-offs, plus a new estimate of the reevaluation of the new amortization schedule. [???]

Chronology of Events

12 Oct.: National strike of transport workers called by unions.

13 Oct.: Strike spreads to Air France freight at Roissy, then to airport bus drivers, against the budget plan which called for 4,000 layoffs, a wage freeze, abolition of bonuses, and the farming-out of some jobs to subsidiaries.

14 Oct.: Strike spreads further to Orly freight and other sectors (landing, baggage, sales).

15 Oct.: Roissy strikers block a 747 from taking off for China with trucks and various machines.

16-17 Oct.: Weekend of reflection: movement continues.

18 Oct.: First demo on runways at Roissy; 2000 people block them all morning.

19 Oct.: Second demo at Roissy; runways blocked, some conflict with the cops. Strike at Resa in Paris.

20 Oct.: Third blockage at Roissy (2000 people), strong police intervention without excess, demonstrators blocked traffic then retook runways; a vehicle launched against the police went off course and smashed some landing gear in front of a plane. First blockade at Orly (3000 people), no police intervention. On radio, minister Bosson declares the plan "irrevocable." In Toulouse, runways blocked, then roads.

21 Oct: Demo without incident at Roissy. At Orly, violent clashes with police: many workers are armed and masked. A vehicle is hurled against the cops' water cannon. Demonstrators scatter out on access roads and block traffic. Baudis, liberal mayor of Toulouse, is spat on by demonstrators and protected by the Communist Party dissident mayor of Orly. In Toulouse, after blocking the runways, strikers block trains in the central station.

22 Oct.: Second day of violent conflicts at Orly: vehicles shoved against the cops smash windows of the south airport; runways blocked and police chased. Negotiations in the evening at La Défense, at the Transportation Ministry, between the undersecretary Beysson (who proposes giving up the wage decreases) and the unions. 200 strikers at Roissy, furious, demand participation in the negotiations. The CGT pilots' union declares its solidarity with the strikers. The unions of Air Inter and Aéroport de Paris (ADP) call a day of action for Oct. 26.

23 Oct.: Strikers reject government's propositions.

24 Oct.: Government withdraws its plan. That evening, Attali resigns. Live on TF1, Génoves, president of Force Ouvrière (Workers' Power), announces strike is over.

25 Oct.: Strike continues despite leaflet by Force Ouvrière calling for a return to work. Delegation (3000 people!) to Orly police demands withdrawl of charges against strikers who had been arrested, then released in the October 22nd fighting. C. Blanc named Air France boss.

26 Oct.: Demos at Orly and Roissy, reuniting Air France, Air Inter, and ADP. 7000 people march on Orly's runways, 5000 at Roissy. It's the victory demo, but for the majority, also the movement's funeral.

27 Oct.: Strike continues, waiting for the union/management meeting scheduled for Nov. 2nd. But strike's continuation heats up. At DM Orly, main Force Ouvrière delegate is kicked out of the AG (General Assembly) without being given a chance to talk.

31 Oct.: End of strike at DM Orly.

1 Nov.: Strike ends at Roissy freight. Sit-down demo/strike in Paris. 50 people occupy union halls with banners.

2 Nov.: Union-management meeting comes to nothing. In the afternoon, 700 people besiege union headquarters, trying to keep movement going.

10 Nov.: Strike at AirInter. Attempt to block Orly runways pushed back by police.


What was really amazing about this strike was its massive character. Even if it was a minority that set the movement off (freight workers at Roissy, then Orly, on October 13athe day after the union-organized "day of action"), for the first time since May 1968, it was the whole ground crewaincluding sales and information workersawho struck: almost 80% of the employees (not counting pilots and management).

This massiveness was first of all a strength because it forced the government to withdraw its plan, but also a weakness because it pointed out the divisions inside Air France between a strong anti-union minority that used violence and was starting to no longer a damn about the company, and the majority, worried about Air France's public image and basically demanding negotiation on the "reforms."

Even so, corporatist divisions were broken down, enabling some to see the problems as no longer those of a single section, but as the whole workforce's. Discussion often came back to the idea that this was everybody's movement, not the sole property of one group or section, no matter how active; and not just belonging to this or that union.

The movement has been a little like a baby who has just walked for the first time and is learning its strength, but by the time it's gotten somewhere is so surprised it doesn't know where to go next.

Nevertheless, the strikers didn't start the movement: it was management that forced them together to reject its plan, not they who put forth an organized response. There was, in fact, a juxtaposition of the movements coming out of the different services (freight, maintenance, landing crew, etc.) because mistrust of the unions developed into mistrust of anyone who couldn't be directly controlled, at least at the start of the strike. Years of partial actions manipulated by the unions have left a caution against anyone who appears as an unaccountable leader. Such a healthy reflex can become a hindrance (as in the SNCF strike in 19861), which, thanks to the massive character of the Air France strike, happily began to subside.

When they already knew each other, the strikers controlled the strike in their departments and worksites. But they didn't control it by entire site, nor between sites. That left a free field for the unions to divide and put the brakes on the movement, telling the Orly workers that the Roissy workers were going back to work, and visa-versa.

It isn't easy to learn to weave lines of communication that don't go through union or media channelsathis is a crucial question for movements to come. The struggle has broken down these barriers, and that's just what the government was afraid of: an effective and centralized organization of strikers on all sites.


The movement was fabulously popular among aviation workers, but for everybody else, too, including the "customers." There wasn't a single interview on TV with a stuck traveller complaining about the strike.2 During the second week, farmers from the "rural coordination" came bringing their support, and food. Many people said they understood and supported the strike. For many, air travel is still for "the rich," and it's always a pleasure to see a strike fuck them up. That isn't the case for subway or train shutdowns.

It became even more popular when the government, which until October 20th claimed the plan was "irrevocable," backed down; and still more when Attali resigned. For the first time, the irreversible was reversed. No one can say what impact that will have in the months to come on the consciousness of millions of workers. The government is discredited, but in revoking the plan it showed it sensed the danger of the strike spreading and was better able to play on its decay than its growth.

The government felt this fear upon witnessing the strong will to battle the police during the runway-blocking demosafirst at Roissy, then at Orly and Toulouse. But, while the strike was unrelenting, it was clearly seen by the bosses as a danger: 21 top executives of the industry put a full page ad in Le Figaro demanding the restriction of the right to strikeaand Pierre Suard, the CEO of Acatel-Alsthom accused the strikers, on TV, of being responsible for the deaths of three of his managers in a plane accident.


If they supported the strike at the beginning because it was a good way of showing to management that it needed them to keep the flock under control, the unions started singing a different tune in the face of the movement's extensiveness. They adjusted their aim, with Force Ouvrière (Workers' Power) playing the stoppers, and the CGT pushing to keep it going. Before the retraction of the plan, both FO and the CGT, at times, called for a return to work so that professional elections could take place! The evening of Sunday, October 24th, after the announcement of the withdrawal, Genovès was on TV celebrating the victory by declaring the strike ended! The next day, in the general assembly (AG), the strikers told him off by continuing the strike. And Wednesday October 27, at Orly, they kicked out the FO representative before he had a chance to speak! In the blue collar sectors, a lot of FO members tore up their cards when the return to work came.

The CGT played a more subtle role and knew how to adapt its language. In the General Assembly (AG) its representatives insisted on the role of the rank and file and the non-unionized workers, and presented itself as the loyal representative of the strikers. It is true that at Roissy, the CGT delegate for the maintenance department, is an LCR (League des Communistes Revolutionaires - Trotskyists) militant, a believer in a general assembly of both the unionized and the non-unionized workers, and begins each of his interventions with a lecture on direct democracy. On the whole, the CGT seems to have understood (since the 1986 trainworkers' strike, which saw the creation of "non-union" coordinations), that it needed to adapt its language to the new situation (the better to put the emergency brakes on the movement) or cease to exist. In the general assembly, the speeches of CGT delegates now begin with, "I'm a CGT delegate and I have my opinions on the direction the movement should take, but I am here to listen and retransmit your propositionsait's a democratic, rank-and-file movement."

Overall, a good number of strikers (a majority of Orly maintenance workers, who have a long tradition of struggle) have recognized the unions as enemies. One often hears thoughts like, "the unions are a pain in the ass," "the unions are rotten," and "I don't give a damn about those assholes," even while they let them organize the general assembly and propose the agenda and legal actions. For the illegal actions they manage very well by themselves.

At the same time, the unions haven't completely disappeared from the rank-and-file: in the workshops, rank-and-file CGT, or even FO delegates, indeed CFDT delegates, play a sort of shop steward role, controlled by their colleagues. They aren't soviets yet, but not just followers anymore.

In certain departments (sales, for example), the strike has inspired a rush of new union memberships, including to the FO.

If the unions didn't restrain the movement right away, it was partly because of the unanimity of the strikers, partly because a lot of the delegates and rank-and-file militants refused (consciously or because of pressure from the other workers) to restrain it, and actually did want to fight it out.


The strike was huge, but you don't have to believe that they were officially on strike all day long: for example, at Orly maintenance, they struck only 4 hours a day. But since there were two crews, it was enough to paralyze all activity while only touching half of their salaries.

Even if all the strikers didn't have a conscious hostility toward the unions, in practice they succeeded in evading them. During the hot week, at Orly maintenance, the morning general assembly called by the unions was quickly ended with the cry, "To the runways!" which allowed people to be amongst all of the strikers, not just in their own department, for a precise goal (blocking the runways or the access roads), and to discuss things outside of union channels.

In contrast, the victory demo on October 26th (the biggest ever at Orly, 7000 participants) was more easily controlled by the unions, with the strikers prefering to discuss with people they knew in their own departments, rather than organize a big general assembly.

The point isn't about proposing magic recipes or criticizing the movement for not taking pre-established roads, but about understanding the consciousness of the strikers, how it evolved in relation to its own goals at the time.


Before looking into the limits, we should first underline a very positive point: the way outsiders were welcomed. Tuesday, October 26, during the victory demo that brought together 7000 people at Orly for a walk around the runways, not only did people appreciate our leaflet, but they were especially happy that people from outside were coming to support them.

In a great majority of strikers there is still a loyalty to Air France, as well as a desire to participate in organizing reform and modernizations, and for the sales people, a concern about serving the public. Of course, all of that makes things easier for the unions: to make the bosses see them as indispensible to the smooth functioning of the company and the management of the crisis.

Someaand they're the largest numberastill think that the fate of their kind is bound to the company; that they have interests in common with it; that in any case the workers will have their say in the decisions on the reforms and modernizations. They'd like to be heard, to be recognized, to have a more human relationship to their place of work.

It's this identification between the workers and the company, this "company nationalism" which will be the main hindrance to future developments, because it means respect for the institution of work.

No one has any illusions about the coming plansamany say without hesitation it needs to be fought against, even more violently. But even so, at other times, the same people seem to be afraid of their own strength, all the more since their "victory" was won so easily. In a discussion, one guy who works on the runways repeated that it was too bad they had to block the runways in order to make themselves heard, but even so, he was proud of taking this violent action. The very hierarchical, even military, organization of Air France, with a lot of managers granted many privileges, might explain this need the strikers have for social recognition. Such a massive movement first of all expresses a conscious grasp of the peon's role one plays every day, but that doesn't bring with it a critique of "the game." It's more like a demand for promotion: the strikers often express their anger at management by pointing out that they weren't even asked their opinion about the plan.

The second limit is that the strikers haven't developed organizational forms capable of really outmaneuvering and fighting against the unions, leaving to the latter a monopoly of organizational ideas and rhetoric. Nevertheless, the strike has been an immense breath of fresh air in the present situation, for Air France workers as well as the all rest of us.


During the return to work, a striker from Roissy freight declared that they'd have to keep going until they were paid for all their days on strike. The journalist asked him, "And after that, if you get what you want?" He answered: "We'll keep on going."

They've gone back to work (avoiding the "suicidal" tendencies who wanted to carry through to the bitter end), but there's a completely new feelingaeven in sales, the managers keep their traps shut: the workers have learned to get to know one another, to respect themselves and to make themselves respected. As for DM Orly, work isn't really effective. At the slightest occasion, people gather around to discuss the latest rumor...

Solidarity remains enduring and exemplary: Monday, October 25th, 3000 Orly strikers went as a "delegation" to the police, demanding the charges against previously arrested strikers be dropped: the demand was granted on the spot.

What will become of the movement (regardless of Blanc's reform plans)? What is happening is that the strikers' collective consciousnesses (not uniform in each department) is taking stock of the vast open field of possibilites, but also of formidable obstacles in their wayanotably learning how to get completely around the unions (and other "rank-and-file" organizations which can play the same role), to refuse to delegate, to take charge of their own interests, and to break out of the framework of both their separate departments and of the company itself.

The first "gain" of the strike is the strikers' self-confidence, their feeling of collective power. But this confidence shouldn't blind them. If a difficult future conflict arises, not everyone will be willing to fight it out to the end. Differences and divisions could make themselves be felt, which will be exploited by management.

The strikers have brought the Economy's nightmare logic to a haltabut to a provisional halt. They have shown an example to other workers: what was "irrevocable" one day can be abandoned the next. And they have demonstrated to themselves and to others the amazing power we possess. They have not realized all the consequences.

"A mutineer on the Bounty"


Tuesday October 26th: some mordicants went out to see some Air France comrades. We joined the impressive crowd which soon swarmed over the tarmac. Suddenly, a plane started to take off. It took off right at the demonstrators who were at its nose. A group of 30 strikers, jackets padded and faces masked with hoods or bandannas breaks off and somebody tosses a gas canister as a ball, livening up their walk. One striker has written "Workers' Revenge" on his back. Everybody's having a good time. Questioned, I explained I don't work at Air France but I took the day off to come out and support the movement. Gratitude. The discussion is interrupted by the arrival of a Pakistani 747, nose pointing toward the runway's end, ready to take off. Mad dash to catch it before it has a chance to pick up speed. A smoke bomb is chucked in front of the plane. The pilot slows down, stops, then cuts the engine under a hail of victorious cheers. The cops are nowhere in sight. The journalists come back with loads of cameras. Everybody, faces masked, climbs onto the landing gear and gives the victory sign. The reporters are told: "Tell them the unions want to break the strike. They've sold out. We don't need the unions." Just then a group of unionists arrives. The tension mounts. A CGT bureaucrat: "Take off your scarvesatalk to us with unmasked faces!" "Bunch of assholesasell-outs!" Each of the demonstrators is soon surrounded by some big goons who explain to them that "there's 30 of you, but there's 3,000 CRS just waiting for this. It's better to rejoin the comrades to make democratic decisions on the future of the movement." A half-hour later the group moves on. They rejoin the crowd at the airport's terminals and head toward the warehouses, some kilometers away. It starts to get chilly. It's time for a break. In the distance, the Pakistani 747 starts its engines again.


Interview, November 7, 1993.

MORDICUS: The first thing that surprised me about this strike was its popularity. I think it's been so popular because it wasn't just a strike, but also, as Bosson said, a "revolt" which went beyond the defense of particular interests. It was a symbol for people. What's your impression of this strike?

P. (Orly baggage): It wasn't a revolt. A revolt, that's something else. A revolt for me means civil war.

M. (administrative services in Paris): No, nobody picked up the gun. But I think the media and politicians sensed that this was something more than a strike. Without that, they wouldn't have cracked so fast.

W. (Orly telecommunications): The revolt idea, that was because for the first time in Air France history, people dared to go out on the holy of holiesaon the runways. That wasn't even done in May '68. In the big strike of '75, which I know about from the old-timers, at no time did anybody take the runways. That's what they called a revolt. That said, nobody did take up arms, although...

M.: The unions were well outflanked, at least at the airports. I think that for Bosson, a strike means being able to discuss with people in charge, to talk numbers. But people had no desire to negotiate.

P: We've crossed over a pass. We've gone to the other side. Freight blocked, everything blocked. I've never seen that. They just wouldn't wait.

W: Foreign planes couldn't land, so you had a traffic mass at the global level. That's also why they were so quick to back down.

MORDICUS: How would you explain the huge size of this strike?

W: My workshop area had 70% on strike, but usually it's already good when you get 5%. We occupied the offices. I should point out that they were directly affected by the PR2.

P: Same for us at maintenance. Everything's subcontracted-out. The departments break up the prices to be market them. But the job is disgusting.

M: The bosses of the subcontractors are often buddies of the Air France managers.

P: It's a mafia. They want to sell off the most profitable pieces of the company and leave the shitty ones.

W: They privatize the most saleable sectors so a boss can get fat on the back of a public service.

P: The resale of UTAathere's a scandal. UTA was resold at two or three times its price.

W: The owner was Seydoux, intimate friend of Mitterrand.

MORDICUS: How did the idea of blocking the runways come about?

P: Out of a general exasperation. In all the euphoria, that was what everybody wanted to do. The idea was to affirm ourselves by stopping something else. The unions were outmaneuvered. When you have a general assembly of 400 to 500 people, when they're not too hyped-up, not too motivated, you can still keep them under control. But when you have 2- to 3,000 people saying "We don't give a fuck anymore!" you can block the runways and the unions will support itaat least up until things start to get...

MORDICUS: Up until when?

P: Until we started attacking the riot cops. (Laughs.)

MORDICUS: Can you talk about how the runway occupations developed?

P: The first two days, there weren't any problems, but it didn't stay like that. The third day, the riot police showed up. We knew they would come, but it was so intense that the CRS, if need be... you just wouldn't care. The CRS tossed some grenades, and it degenerated from there. On Thursday some guys got hurt (you probably saw that on TV). On the other hand, on Friday, the CRS took it full in the face. I saw one get smackedasure wouldn't have wanted to be him. And on TV they said none of them were injured! Isn't that special? The guys fought back at the cops with runway vehicles and the cops took off flying.

W: The unions were the ones who organized things in our workshop. It was the maintenance workers who swept us onto the runways! (Laughs.) The journalists showed what management wanted and for the first time they took it on the chin!

P: Where we were, too, you saw journalists showing these incredible things on TV. I can tell you, when you saw them go back on the next day... you can bet they corrected themselves! Because they were at the point of being lynched. I saw one get talked into joining the maintenance workers' side. Later, when they saw that public opinion was on their side, they followed it.

W: We saw the maintenance guys come out on Thursday. It was a really tight group who confronted the CRS. All the guys had their masks on; the first five rows had baseball bats and all the rest. The next day they had their parkas, gasmasks, slingshots, and fire-extinguishers to blow away the tear gas. Some guys launched a runway car at the cops, and threw molotov cocktails.

MORDICUS: Did the strike change people's relationships with each other?

P: Yes, of course. People who didn't know each other met, you discussed things with everybody... If you don't do anything, you're a slug. But be carefulayou didn't go out there for fun.

W: I was in the '74 PTT strike. There was a fundamental difference in that one. Some administration people joined the maintenance workers. It had a different look, a different interaction...

MORDICUS: And Tuesday?

P: Tuesday the 26th, that was a stroll in the park. There were lots of people, but they were a flock of sheep. The route was completely directed by the unions. For us, we didn't come there to be extras on the set. We came to block the runways with all the mass we had there, and to really put the boot in where it counted. We weren't there to be marched around like that.

M: In times like that, when folks came from all over and didn't know each other, because there wasn't any organization, the ones who were organized, like the unions, could lead them anywhere they wanted.

P: They herded us like cattle. It was really sad!

M: Either you knew there were people who were out to trick you, or you didn't and they could get away with it. The unions had the brains not to get in fights with the strikers. They followed and submitted. But whenever there was a need for organization, people let themselves be controlled.

P: The cops would've liked to have avoided fighting. They had a deal with the unions. The unions were insulted and got called every name in the book... I can tell you that at our shop, guys were really fed up, and didn't buy it. People were waiting for something else.

M: What really sucks is that we didn't make it to a higher level, we didn't organize ourselves without the unions.

W: The locations are huge, and the different sections were operating on different schedules.

MORDICUS: How do you rate this strike? What's the score?

P: You never know what's going to happen. The main thing is that if Blanc drags things out and reimposes the plan, it'll start all over again, and it'll be worse. If it had been up to me, because in the end we weren't agreed on it at DM, we shouldn't have gone back to work. At least as far as there weren't any documents signed (concerning the withdrawl of the layoff plan). You can negotiate when you have a basis in action, but can't when you've gone back to the normal routine. There you're gonna have to kiss ass the size of a house. It'll start again, no matter what. When, I don't know!

W: It's a small victory because they officially announced that the plan was withdrawn. But it was a purely defensive strike. The problem of an offensive against the bosses was never raised.

POSTSCRIPT, APRIL 1994.....................................

[To update the events leading to the recent agreement of the majority of voting employees to an austerity/privatization/layoff plan in April.]



Is France headed for another May '68? Le Figaro talked in November about a "pre-revolutionary situation." And looking at it from the outside, the situation does look massive and imposing: on October 12th there was a one-day general strike in the postal, aviation, and local transportation companies against the politics of austerity and privatization plans of the government; one day later the strike started in the freight dept. of Air France at Roissy; on Oct. 14th the Parisian printers struck against a planned reduction in their numbers; on Oct. 17th more than 20,000 industrial workers in Paris for measurements against unemployment; one month later students demonstrated. On November 18th there was a joint demonstration of the staffs of the public companies and state-owned firms against their boss, the French state. A coalition of shop stewards had called for a strike, contrary to the wishes of the national union leaderships against threatened privatizations. In the car factory Chausson, which is threatened with closure, are almost permanent on-going strikes, including heavy confrontations with the police. On November 23d, 30,000 workers of the gas & electricity companyain below-zero temperaturesademonstrated in Paris. One day later, miners from Lothringen [area near Metz] attacked a local government building with steel bludgeons and destroyed a stock of imported coal...

The press says...

asocial climate deteriorating

agreater desire to strike

afears a great coalition of all unsatisfied elements

The AF strike is THE example for everyone...

"Crisis" generally in France... structural one since the early 70s. Capital still hasn't found a real solution Now they are eager, and quick to try solutions, to restructure.

Much stronger precarization of labor markets.

BUT: struggles are all defensive.

Mitterand talked on TV about the possibility of a new May '68.

Former ideology of rationalizing all cutbacks & austerity by "crisis" now BROKEN by AF strike.

"Crisis" started in France earlier than in Germany. Very aggressive attacks, cutbacks. AF used the Gulf War to make attacks and cutbacks (forced early retirement and worsened work conditions; for ex.: doing away with a 25-minute lunch break).

With the exception of the maintenance (DM) workers, the AF employees accepted this without a fight. Now that the gov't got taken over by the Right in Spring '93, for the first time they've attacked the guaranteed workers' sector.

1 UTA. Union des Transports Airiens was a private French airline which had the ex-colonial lines to Africa, Vietnam, and the Pacific. Air France acquired it in 1990.

1 SNCF strike, 1986: a pamphlet on this movement, "France Goes Off the Rails," is available from BM BLOB, London W1N 3XX, UK.

2 Contrast this with the American Airlines strike of Thanksgiving, 1993, in the US. During that one, the American media made a great show of travellers upset and complaining, certainly showing solidarity with the struggle.

Five leaflets were distributed during the strike by several people, from both inside and outside Air France, who signed them "The Mutineers on the Bounty."