Acting outside established trade unions through self-styled coordinating committees, France's striking rail workers are enjoying a heady feeling of power, and are proud of the rather surprising success of their wildcat strike. The workers were so pleased with their new-found power that, despite significant victories won last week, their answer to calls for an end to the strike was an emphatic non.
The government and some union leaders are genuinely worried. ``It could reach the point where nobody controls anything,'' warns Andr'e Bergeron, head of Force Ouvri`ere, France's second-largest union.
The French unions initially opposed the movement, which began Dec. 18, so the workers organized themselves, holding general assemblies and electing delegates much as French students had done only a few weeks earlier. Like the students, who had invited the unions to participate in their protests, the train workers were wary of seeing their movement taken over by the unions. When they ``invited'' the unions to join them, it was with the clear understanding that the workers were to remain in charge.
After a full week of negotiations, the rail workers voted to delegate authority to unions to negotiate with management, but on the condition that they be accountable to the workers. They began using their union expertise and logistics to print up tracts and to chair meetings, but as neutral parties. The press dubbed them ``taxi-unions,'' since their role was confined to carrying messages between railway officials and the workers.
Edmond Maire, the progressive leader of the socialist CFDT, France's third-largest union, last year delivered an elegy for strikes, saying they were ``outdated.''
But the latest social turbulence in France suggests that his views are not shared by rank and file workers. One government official was heard to say recently that ``Maire is representative of nobody but himself.''
The Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT), France's largest union, also seems out of sync with the workers. In the 1950s and '60s, the communist-backed organization was famous for its ability to bring the government to its knees with strikes. But today, train workers mostly remember how the CGT refused to support their attempted strikes in 198l. Since members of the Communist Party were part of the (Socialist) government at that time, it confirmed their view that unions were the organs of political parties.
Since then, CGT efforts to mobilize workers have been notable flops. The strike at Renault in the fall of 1985 petered out within days with no gains for the workers. The periodical one-day strikes called by the union are lackluster, and largely ignored by workers and the public alike. ``We're tired of wasting strike days. This year  we've already put in 14 days of strikes for nothing. Fourteen days in a row is better,'' says a rail worker at the Paris Nord train station where the strike began.
French unions today are becoming an anachronism. Membership in France, never as high as other European countries, has fallen sharply, and is now down to 12 percent after a high of 20 percent in the 1970s. The demise of smoke-stack industries has shaved away the unions' traditional base of support - the blue collar workers. The 1981 arrival of the Socialist government, viewed as sympathetic to workers, was first seen as a panacea. But government-union relations soured after 1983, when the government demanded profits from France's nationalized industries and condoned the firing of workers to keep from going bankrupt.
The spectacular strikes of the 1960s and '70s have all but disappeared in the '80s. Unions have begun to focus more on slowing the tide of layoffs and negotiating unemployment compensation than on fighting for wage increases. Their role has quietly shifted from organizing worker protests to organizing worker leisure time - gym classes, ski holidays, and getting football tickets and discount prices on hi-fi equipment.
Yet workers say they do not want the unions to disappear. The absence of professional bargainers makes it harder to reach a settlement, as the railway management is now learning. The unions at least know how to end a strike once the workers' principal demands have been satisfied.
The rail strike could still turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the unions if they heed the message. From now on, they must put political power struggles on the back burner and listen to their own workers - or be out of a job. ``It is a good lesson for all, including the CGT,'' says Henri Krasucki, leader of the communist-backed union which now fully endorses - and, in fact, fans the flames of - the strike.
More strikes are scheduled this week in other sectors, including French utilities and postal services.