Rail strikes shutdown France to save network, fight for rights

April 4, 2018
Public sector workers and students truck and protested on April 3.

On the 50th anniversary of the huge May-June 1968 strive wave that brought France to the brink of revolution, workers are still fighting for their rights. This was seen clearly with the rail strikes that crippled France on April 3.

Tens of thousands of public sector workers and students, led by the National Society of French Railways’ (SNCF) staff, went on strike to protest a series of attacks on workers’ rights proposed by President Emmanuel Macron.

According to some estimates, the protest could be among the largest to hit France in decades, TeleSUR English reported.

In a series of protests, labelled by French media as “Black Tuesday”, railroad workers struck to demand Macron backtrack on his proposed reforms, which directly affect the state-owned SNCF and its employees. About 77 % of SNCF drivers and 34% of its overall personnel were said to have joined the strike,

The strikes caused travel chaos, Morning Star Online said, with only one in four trains running in the Paris region. Just one in eight high-speed TGV services was running and one in five regional trains.

The strikes were only the start of a campaign of action. Railway workers have pledged to strike for two out of five days until the end of June if they cannot come to an agreement with the government.

TeleSUR English said protesters fear that Macron’s intentions to overhaul the SNCF and turn it into a publicly listed company is a step towards its planned privatisation, something the government denies.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the reform proposals were needed to change a situation that is “no longer tenable”. The government claims that SNCF’s huge debt is holding it back, and that the state-owned company needs restructuring so it can compete against private services entering the competition during the next year under EU rules.

However, trade union leaders said the fight was to “safeguard a public service that meets the needs of the population and guarantees equal access in all territories”.

The unionists said of the government’s planned restructuring: “For users, this step towards liberalisation is synonymous with line closures, lower quality of service and increased prices for train tickets.”

TeleSUR English said the government’s reforms involved attacks on railway workers rights such as removing the life-long job contracts, annual pay rises, and early retirement provisions.

 “We’re defending the French public service, not just rail workers,” said Emmanuel Grondein, head of Sud Rail, one of the unions backing the strikes.

Morning Star Online reported that a public letter in France’s l’Humanite newspaper signed by dozens of signatories, including French Communist Party leader Pierre Laurent, expressed “total support” for the strikes. It said a victory for the strikes was “essential for public services, for balanced territorial planning and to meet the environmental and energy challenges of the 21st century”.

“The Macron government targets the status of rail workers in order to challenge all labour status and all social gains in the private as well as the public sector.”

Other sectors have joined the general strike in support of workers’ rights, which could face tough times ahead of a neoliberal-oriented government, TeleSUR English said.

Students and unions alike joined the protests in a bid to force the government to backtrack on its proposed neoliberal policies. But the government hoped strikes would cause more anger than sympathy among those who are immediately affected, eventually leading to victory for the government.

“We need to rid this country of its strike culture,” said on Monday Gabriel Attal, a spokesman for Macron’s party, La Republique En Marche.

TeleSUR English said unions of Air France, the French flagship carrier and founding member of SkyTeam, also struck on April 3 to demand a 6% pay rise that has been rejected by the management. Further strike days have been programmed for April 7, 10 and 11.

Unions are also calling on trash collectors to join the protests and organise a national collection service association to fight for better working conditions and benefits.

Energy workers also reportedly joined the protests to demand an end to Macron's calls for reforms and liberalisation of the energy market.

TeleSUR English said that unions were weaker than in the past now and divided over how best to handle Macron’s many social and economic reforms — a division Macron hopes to be able to exploit to his advantage.

But the workers who shut down France on April have made it clear they have no intention of simply lying down. With ongoing strikes and protests planned, the battle over France’s future is underway.


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