French blockades have been followed by huge UK oil protests. Should employers worry?

Trade union leaders meeting this week for their annual conference in Glasgow are expected to raise the political temperature over issues such as the minimum wage and directors' pay.

Trade union leaders meeting this week for their annual conference in Glasgow are expected to raise the political temperature over issues such as the minimum wage and directors' pay.

With the possibility of an early general election and French workers providing a timely reminder of what can happen when industrial relations break down, British unions can afford to push their demands to the limit.

As one legal adviser to a top 50 blue-chip company acknowledges: "They could call for an all-out general strike in support of a demand for £50-an-hour minimum wage and we'd still feel grateful not to be dealing with the French unions."

Certainly France is in the throes of some of the worst industrial action ever witnessed in Europe. More worrying for political and business leaders in this country is the spreading of the protests across the Channel. Yesterday, UK-based oil companies reported 200 of their petrol stations near to closure following blockades by an alliance of lorry drivers, hauliers and farmers.

But there are other, more ugly, aspects of Gallic industrial unrest which have led to violent confrontation, bordering on acts of terrorism. In the economically depressed region of Givet, in the Ardennes, workers at Cellatex - a textile plant facing closure - threatened to blow up the factory.

If the French employment minister, Martine Aubry, didn't agree to meet their employer to discuss the terms of their redundancy they planned to carry out an explosion leaving a crater 30m deep and 500m wide. When discussions with their employer did not progress to their satisfaction, they cancelled the explosion and poured 5,000 litres of sulphuric acid into a local river, causing a minor environmental disaster.

A week later a second business was targeted in a similar way by its disgruntled employees. Workers at Adelshoffen, part of the Heineken group, in the French town of Schiltigheim, near Strasbourg, took possession of the factory and threatened to blow up two gas containers. Fortunately a negotiated settlement was reached on 26 July. French workers have a history of taking the law into their own hands when industrial relations break down. In 1993 the announcement that Hoover had decided to relocate to Scotland prompted a kidnap attempt of the management by workers.

Since the end of the miners' strike nearly 20 years ago, industrial action in this country has been largely conducted within the limits of the law. But the law has been changing fast. In the Eighties, under the Thatcher government, it became almost impossible to take part in an industrial protest without infringing some clause of the vast tracts of the then newly enacted employment legislation.

Since Labour came to power in 1997 the unions have benefited from 26 different pieces of employment legislation. Trade union activity is on the increase and union membership is growing. The latest Labour Force survey shows that between 1998 and 1999 union membership grew by 100,000 and is now nearly 7.3 million. But in the longer term, union membership has declined from a peak of nearly 14 million in Seventies. Trade union leaders are hopeful that the legal right of recognition, part of the Government's fairness at work legislation, which came into effect in June this year, will help boost the revival in their fortunes. And they have begun new organising drives.

Jessica Learmond-Criqui, a partner at London law firm Fladgate Fielder, says workers are also starting to use their new rights in more concerted ways."Employees are becoming more aware of their rights and are seeking ways of enticing their employers to the negotiating table to safeguard those rights," she says.

Ms Learmond-Criqui has also detected a greater willingness to push their rights to the edge: "UK employees have been restrained to date in the actions they take to force their employers to the negotiating table when compared with their French colleagues. Employers can and do use the law to deal with unlawful behaviour. Nevertheless, what is clear is that UK employers will need to give some consideration to the developments of organised activity on the Continent and will need to plan ahead to deal with any developments of this nature bytheir employees."

What must worry some British bosses is how different the UK petrol pump protests are now from those half-hearted actions staged earlier in the summer, before the French showed us how to do it properly. If France, with its tradition of passing pro-worker legislation, can be brought to a standstill over- night by demonstrating workers, why couldn't it happen here? And could we ever have our own Givet or Schiltigheim?

Givet, with unemployment rates of 20 per cent, is not much more economically depressed than parts of east Kent and Cornwall. And the factory played no more of an important part in the local economy than that of a large textile plant in the Midlands. In the end the Givet workers were willing to cause immeasurable pollution to the local rivers to force their employer to pay them higher termination payments after the closure of its factory.

But French redundancy and social employment rights are generally more favourable to workers there than they are here. For example, the employer has a legal duty to assist employees in finding alternative employment with other employers. On top of a comparatively generous redundancy package,the employer must also make payments into the pension scheme for the benefit of the employees who would lose their jobs.

Valerie Raynaud, a lawyer with a Paris law firm, says violent protests are part of "a growing trend in France for employees, through their trade unions or works councils, to take action to bring their employer to the negotiating table over serious decisions concerning the closure of businesses, and other decisions relating to acquisitions and mergers."

But not all developments in France reach the shores of the UK. "These developments," says Ms Learmond-Criqui, "have been referred to as flirting with terrorism and some observers have accepted that giving in to the demands by these actions may cause a wave of similar behaviour and will raise the stakes in the negotiating game. These extreme actions were played out in the environmental arena and have to date been successful. That must be of great concern to both French and British employers."