Prague, 9 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Several hundred militant truck drivers in France were joined by their counterparts in seven other European Union nations yesterday morning in blockades of EU border crossings. The actions were staged to publicize the truckers' long-standing demands for fewer working hours and better working conditions.
They were peaceful and in many cases ended by mid-day. That was just about the time the EU's Executive Commission said it would seek to limit working hours in the transport sector if current negotiations between unions and road hailers broke down at a meeting scheduled for late next week (Sept. 18).
Barbara Nolan, a spokeswoman for EU social affairs commissioner Padraig Flynn, told reporters that, in her words, "we are slightly baffled at the timing of this protest. We understood," she said, that talks "were going rather well on negotiating an accord on working hours." But Nolan indicated that if no agreement is reached, the EU would step into what she called "a very important sector (with) 3.5 million employed in (it)."
In fact, the European Commission never wanted the road transport sector excluded from the EU's 1993 Working Time Directive, which imposes a maximum 48-hour work-week for most employees. The Commission had called for all workers to be covered by the directive. But under pressure from employers organizations, national governments excluded transport and a few other sectors.
What's more, in 10 months' time (July 1999) a full deregulation of the road haulage market in the EU is due to take place that would allow trucks from any member state to pick up and deliver loads in other members. With French laws on haulage now among the strictest in the EU, French truckers are especially concerned that the deregulation will wipe out gains they achieved in long, nation-crippling strikes they staged last year and the year before. They fear exposure to even more competition in a business that many believe is already highly competitive.
Yesterday's blockades were organized by the London-based International Transport Workers Federation, which had also sought to mount demonstrations in the U.S., Latin America, Africa and India. But the heart of the actions were at French borders with Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Italy as well as in Austria, Spain and Portugal.
At a French-Belgian border post in Rekkem (Belgium), where truckers slowed traffic on both sides to a steady trickle, a French union (Force Ouviere) spokesman emphasized that drivers wanted full implementation of the EU directive on working hours. Rene Duhem said that many French truckers were forced by their employers to spend up to 60 hours on the road, creating a dangerous level of fatigue. The blockades, he added, were meant to warn employers before their meeting with union representative next week: "We have the means to apply pressure," Duhem said. "Everything we have obtained so far (is because of the) tough steps we took."
EU transport Commissioner Neil Kinnock urged both sides yesterday to approve a draft agreement that would limit average working time for truck and coach drivers to 45 hours a week. Current EU directives limit the time drivers should spend at the wheel, but does not include time spent on other work such as loading and unloading trucks or cleaning and maintenance of vehicles. The truckers insist that all work be included under the 45-hour ceiling.
Romolo Vivarelli, another trucker spokesman (for the Brussels-based Federation of Transport Workers' Union in the EU), estimated yesterday that more than 1,300 professional drivers were killed on European roads in 1996, many of them due to exhaustion. Summing up his colleagues' actions, Vivarelli said: "This was not a strike, it was a day of action to make a point."
The point was certainly made at EU headquarters in Brussels. How much it changed employers' attitudes, however, will not be known until the end of next week.