France: Rail bosses agree to negotiate

Issue 

A nationwide train strike that had crippled France for nine days in protest against right-wing President Nicholas Sarkozy's attack on the rail workers' pension system began to end on November 23. News agencies reported that day that rail workers were voting throughout the country to return to work.

Associated Press reported on November 22 that in 42 of 45 morning meetings, rail workers voted to return to work on the following day, "a tendency that continued in the afternoon, union officials said … Pockets of resistance remained in southern France where strikers held out."

AP noted that the "special retirement reform that triggered the transport strikes struck a special chord. Under the plan, which concerns about a half-million people, employees will have to work for 40 years to qualify for full pensions compared to 37.5 years currently.

"Previous governments have reformed the pension system in increments since 1993 but left the special retirement benefits alone. Trying to retool it in 1995 led to a three-week wave of strikes widely considered the worst since the protests of May 1968 that shook the government of then-President Charles de Gaulle."

On November 20, hundreds of thousands of public sector workers — teachers, postal staff, nurses, air-traffic controllers — staged a one-day protest in solidarity with the rail workers' and to demand pay rises and an end to government plans to cut public sector jobs.

Agence France Presse reported the next day that the "stoppage left many schools closed, hospitals providing a minimum service, and newsagents without newspapers, adding to the popular exasperation after seven days of severe transport problems.

"Demonstrations drew tens of thousands in Rouen, Marseille, Grenoble, Lyon, and other cities. According to government figures, some 30 percent of civil servants were on strike.

"In addition protesting students disrupted classes in half of the country's 85 universities, in a campaign against a law giving faculties the right to raise money from private companies.

"Unions representing 5.2 million state employees — around a quarter of the entire workforce — say their spending power has fallen by six percent since 2000, though the figure is disputed by the government. They also oppose plans to cut 23,000 jobs in 2008, half in education.

"Sarkozy, who has kept an unusually low profile over the last week, was expected to speak publicly in the coming days, possibly spelling out new measures to boost family budgets. A recent poll showed confidence in the president falling to 51 percent."

AFP reported on November 23 that a "breakthrough" in the rail dispute "came after the opening of conciliation talks on Wednesday [November 21] between unions and the management of the state-owned SNCF rail company and the RATP Paris metro operator.

"The government has given a month for the talks to produce a deal acceptable to the unions, but has said it will not yield on the core of its reform plans."

However AP reported that, "Workers were expecting generous concessions during the talks, to conclude before the end of December". According to AFP, "the management of SNCF has put on the table a 90-million-euro a year financial package of inducements including pay rises and top-up pension schemes".

AFP also reported that, "Most unions appear to have accepted the principle of a realignment of the [rail workers'] 'special' pensions systems", and that only "the hardline Sud union", in which members of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) play a leading role, "continued to reject any change to the status quo.

"However a statement from the RATP branch of Sud said the union leadership was continuing the strike 'without any great conviction, and only out of respect for those members who are still pursuing the action'. It said it could join the round-table talks once the strike is definitively over."

AP quoted French sociologist Guy Groux, of the prestigious Institute for Political Science in Paris, as saying that through the rail strikes, "the unions were able to get their demands on the negotiating table in a very public way".

AP noted that "Sarkozy faces other protest movements, from students to civil servants who have demanded talks over salary hikes before the end of the month."

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