Labour struggles and acts of physical and symbolic violence

On November 30th 2016 suspended sentences were handed down by a French court to three former Air France employees.  The three men received the sentences after having been found guilty of violent conduct for having attacked two Air France executives after a works council meeting a year earlier where the company announced jobs cuts and restructuring plans.  The images of the ‘shirt ripping’ of the executives made headlines worldwide. There was much condemnation in the press and from the government but some sources also reported that while the public condemned the physical violence they also understood the reasons for it.

 

The ‘physical violence’ of the employees has been juxtaposed with the ‘social violence’ being inflicted on the employees who were being forced to accept job losses and restructuring.  Bourdieu’s concept of ‘symbolic violence’ is useful for understanding the context in which workers take such desperate measures.  This of course not only applies to the Air France case but can be used more widely to understand worker responses to the ‘symbolic violence’ experienced as a result of the negative externalities within increasingly intensified systems of financialised capitalism.  What makes the Air France case most interesting is the fact that an act of physical violence by employees provoked debate around the physical and symbolic manifestations of ‘violence’.

 

First some detail on the case itself.  On Monday 5th October 2015 Air France employees broke down the gate of the perimeter fence at the company headquarters near Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.  This gate was normally open and in the later court hearing the defence argued that padlocking the gate on the day of the works council meeting was a ‘provocation’.  After breaking through the gate, around 100 workers broke into the conference room where management officials were unveiling the restructuring plan to the company’s works council.

 

The large scale restructuring plan by Air France, which employs about 55,000 people, would have meant 2,900 redundancies in 2016 and 2017.  Air France-KLM returned to profit in 2015 after seven years of losses, but still faces stiff competition from Asian and Gulf airlines as well as new, low-cost long-haul alternatives and so has set out to make €1.8bn (£1.3bn) savings.  After several weeks of negotiations no agreement was reached as Air France management set conditions which were impossible for the unions to accept.  The company demanded that pilots work an extra 200 hours a year for the same salary; several routes would be closed; and 400 pilots made redundant.  Alexandre de Juniac, the Air France-KLM chief executive, announced that the company would go ahead with the cuts and redundancies regardless of the outcome of the negotiations.

 

So on the October 5th 2015, as the negotiations had been making no progress, the staff at the works council meeting became angry, and tussled with some company officials.  As well as human resources boss, Xavier Broseta, another executive, Pierre Plissonnier, had his shirt and jacket torn in the incident.  Guards employed by the company were also injured in the melee.  The French prime minister, Manuel Valls, said the men, whom he labelled ‘rogues’, should be given stiff sentences.  After the action by employees, the restructuring proposals were dropped.

 

In total 16 employees went on trial in September 2016 for their part in the incident.  Five men were accused of violence towards the executives as well as a security guard and bodyguards.  Eleven others were on trial for criminal damage for forcing open metal barriers outside the building.  On November 30th the court gave three men suspended sentences of three to four months for ‘organised violence’, while two others were found not guilty.  The eleven other employees were handed €500 fines for property damage.

 

Direct action has been a relatively common feature of French trade unionism within traditions of anarcho-syndicalism.  However this action was viewed as going beyond ‘boss-napping’ and strikes, particularly from the way the acts of ‘physical violence’ were reported in the media.

 

On the flip side, how should we interpret the acts undertaken by the Air France management in this case and to what extent are they acts of ‘symbolic violence’?  Bourdieu refers to symbolic violence as relations and mechanisms of domination and power which do not arise from overt physical force or violence on the body.  Keith Topper’s analysis is worth highlighting: Symbolic violence clearly lacks the intentional and instrumental quality of brute violence, and works not directly on bodies but through them…by extending the concept of violence to the symbolic domain, Bourdieu spotlights an often unnoticed mechanism for instituting or reproducing relations of domination.  And to the extent that such mechanisms go unnoticed they remain outside the purview of political deliberations or remedial action’.

 

While ‘overt violence’, as we see in the Air France case, attracts social disapproval and unwanted consequences, symbolic violence is a more efficient and effective mode of domination as in disguising the true nature of the relationship, it forestalls any such reactions.  As Richard Jenkins points out, symbolic violence is the imposition of systems of symbolism and meaning (i.e. culture) upon groups or classes in such a way that they are experienced as legitimate.  This legitimacy obscures the power relations, which permit that imposition to be successful.

 

Thus the insidious and invisible nature of symbolic violence as a mode of domination which acts upon employees within capitalist systems, in this interpretation, but which goes unrecognised, is important.  Symbolic violence is embedded in normal routines of everyday (working) lives and shapes social experiences and subjectivities in myriad ways.  This suggests the need for a broader understanding and conceptualisation of ‘violence’, including its symbolic manifestations.

 

There are multiple and often hidden costs of unemployment and poor working conditions.  These costs extend to so-called flexible forms of employment and a ‘disposable labour model’ which are often heralded as the answer to solving productivity problems and economic growth.

 

Back in the UK, during December and over the New Year period there has been industrial action involving postal and railway workers (among others).  The actions have been described as ‘vindictive’ and designed to bring ‘maximum damage and disruption’.  Again, underlying much of this is the ‘symbolic violence’ that workers are subjected to through the undermining of existing terms and conditions in the case of railway workers, and the constant restructuring of business activities in the case of the Post Office.

 

As we see in the Air France case, the build-up of symbolic violence experienced as a result of the vagaries of financialised capitalism, including constant restructuring, intransigent management and threats of redundancies, leads some to take desperate measures in desperate times.

Heather Connolly is Reader in European Employment Relations, and co-director of the ComparativeHeather-Connolly-100 Employment Research Centre (CERC) within CROWE. 

This post was originally published on the SPERI blog, University of Sheffield.