On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Paris shackled by civil service strikes

More than 40% of the 894,000 teachers in France's schools and colleges joined in the strike to protest against a hiring squeeze and other government policies.

To make it worse, all daytime flights to and from Bordeaux's airport in the southwest were cancelled as air controllers joined the protests.

In Paris, several major museums were closed by strikers, including the Louvre – where Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is displayed – and Musee d'Orsay.

Just a few days earlier, postal workers, surgeons in government hospitals and rail workers had downed tools, disrupting train services.

On Thursday, teachers took part in a large protest march through Paris organised by civil servants. They were joined by hospital workers, and electricity and gas providers.

In other cities, over 5,000 people including Bank of France workers marched through the central French city of Clermont-Ferrand as they held banners claiming they were on strike to defend their salaries and status.

The taxi driver who drove me to my hotel from the Charles De Gaulle international airport told me more strikes were on the way.

"This trip will cost you 80 euro; it will be more if the trains stop running. No one can predict,'' he said in his French-accented English. At the same time he wore a wicked smile, seemingly delighted that he could take advantage of the chaos.

For a while, he reminded me of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, whose smiles often seem forced.

The strikes, ironically, received the support of 65% of the population, according to a poll.

But the general sentiment is that many Parisians also feel that there are too many civil servants and they cost too much.

"They are not very motivated and they all think they won't lose their jobs, that is the problem,'' said a hotel worker.

Somehow, such opinion seems familiar in most parts of the world, including Malaysia. Many of us have to put up with poor service at government departments and, as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said, many of us get pushed from one department to another.

How many of our letters of complaints to government departments and even offices of Chief Ministers and Mentris Besar get a reply?

The disruption in Paris has prompted many Parisians to push for a law guaranteeing minimum service during public-sector strikes.

In Malaysia, unionists who push for such strikes in areas involving essential services would have been arrested – and rightly so, too.

Unless unions adopt a new approach towards protecting the interests of workers, they may just find themselves becoming redundant.

As globalisation becomes a reality, out-sourcing jobs and hiring contractual workers have become the norm. However, some Malaysian unionists still attempt to work on the formula of collective agreements.

Worse, some attempt to insist that only unionised workers get to enjoy the benefits of the collective agreement, forgetting that all employees work for their companies and not the unionists. The principle of the right to join or not to join a union seems to be ignored.

The parting shot came from French Finance Minister Herve Gaymand who rightly said: "Listening is a two-way process. Don't forget we have to modernise the country. too."