Thursday, November 15, 2007


As of yesterday transport and power workers in France have been on a nationwide strike to protest the Sarkozy government's plans to "reform" a portion of the pension plans governing public employees in that country. This is, of course, the thin edge of the wedge as Sarkozy's ambitions are far broader than a mere retooling of a small portion of France's social service budget. Only about 6% of the pensions in France's system fall under the "special regime" that the present government wishes to "reform" (read "abolish"). These regulations allow workers who fall under their purview to retire after 37.5 years worked as opposed to the 40 years for other employees both public and private. The special regime covers people such as employees of the SNCF national railway, EDF electricity producer and miners. The government has plans to tighten the entire pension system, and they have deliberately picked this issue as the 'first bite". Judging from most polls this tactic seems to have worked, as about 60% of the French population feels that the strikes are not justified. The scale of worker participation also seems to be lower than that of the last one day strike on this issue, last October 18th. Rail workers report a 61.5% observance rate, transit workers about 40% and power company employees only 37%. Demonstrations held in support of the strike in Paris are also considerably smaller than those of last October, down to 24,000 to 53,000 from estimated figures of 150,000 to 300,000 on October 18th. Should the unions back down on this matter in the face of poor public support the government will have created momentum for its further cuts in the future. One of the central plans of Sarkozy's schemes is to index pensions to a consumer price index rather than to wage deals won by unions. This is not just a money-saving plan. It is also a plan to take some of the militant steam out of strikes and labour bargaining, removing a considerable power of workers to bargain for their future living conditions and putting such matters in the hands of a technocratic bureaucracy that can more easily be made to see things "realistically".
There are other plans that the French government has that will go much more smoothly if they win this round. There are plans to merge the French national employment agency ANPE and UNEDIC, the agency that pays out France's unemployment benefits. From their perspective of denying unemployed workers their benefits the advantages of such a merger are obvious. The government also plans to increase the cost of health care borne by the individual citizen rather than the medical insurance system. There is also a new law, due to come into effect next year that will guarantee minimal service during strikes. Finally, there is a plan to eliminate nearly 23,000 civil service jobs beginning next year. The paring of the civil service will accelerate after that.
It is the latter plan that gives urgency to the government's efforts to beat the present strike as quickly as possible and gives hope to the idea that the strike may yet win its objectives, despite adverse public opinion, if it can at least hold on. The present strike is taking place against a background of continued student unrest as students have been protesting against so-called 'reforms" of the French university system (The 'LRU Reforms') that offer universities a false "autonomy" as a prologue to their privatisation. Many universities are presently under occupation, and a national coordination of students has called for a general university occupation and solidarity actions with the striking transport and power workers. More importantly, as pointed out by the French CNT, an anarcho-syndicalist union federation, the Fonction Publique 2012 plan of the Sarkozy government proposes to eliminate close to 200,000 jobs in the public sector over the next five years (see the article 'Etendons et intensifions la luttle' at the website of the CNT- article in French). Public sector workers (hospitals, post office,teachers,etc.) have called for a general strike in their sectors on November 20th, next Tuesday. The CNT has called for the strike movements in transport,energy, the universities, and the public sectors to merge into a larger and more powerful movement that would make the government's divide and rule tactics both transparent and ineffective. Should this happen there is a chance that public opinion will swing against the government as the politics of solidarity replaces the politics of resentment. "We're in this together" versus "his pension is better than mine".
The CNT's website carries regular news of the ongoing conflict as does the English language LibCom site. The online solidarity site Labour Start also has a news aggregator section devoted to these events, mostly using sources from the mass media. What follows below is the international press release from the French CNT giving their view of the situation and what they think should be done:
"Since the national strikes on October 18th 2007 the wider situation seems to be towards radicalization. The transport unions have realized that the Sarkozy government has no intention whatsoever about negotiating over the 'special regimes' for pensions. They are now making unified calls (which was not the case for the 18th of October) for a strike to begin on November 14th with the possibility of renewing the strike (MOLLY NOTE- This means that although the strike doesn't have the character of a strike of unlimited duration it can be renewed each day by general assemblies of the workers or by their delegates. The two largest and most reformist unions, the CFDT and the CGT, have expressed "interest" in sitting down with the government for discussions despite the government's firm statement that the matter of the pensions is not open to bargaining. More radical unions such as the CNT would like to see the strike continue until it has the possibility of merging into the larger strike movement due to begin on the 20th). Tomorrow the transport system will be almost entirely closed at a national and local level (trains, TGV, autobus). The Sarkozy government thinks that it is a position of strength to impose the "break" that it wants and its reforms.
According to opinion polls over 60% of the population seems to be in agreement with these reforms, and especially those aimed at the 'special regime' for rail-workers' pensions. It is in the context of a confrontation between two different tendencies in public opinion that those involved in the struggle are organizing.
Students are still mobilizing against the LRU reforms which will give "autonomy" to universities in order to privatize them. More than 14 universities are being blockaded by striking students. In many there have been violent clashes between striking students and non-strikers (in particular with the right-wing UNI student union) and attacks on pickets by police with many students injured or arrested. This weekend a national coordination meeting was held at Rennes by students. It called for all universities to be occupied and for students to act in concert with the rail workers on the 14th and blockade railways. The student sections of the CNT and the FAU are actively participating in the movement. The President of the University of Nanterre went so far as to denounce "a student movement manipulated by radicals from the CNT and the JCR (a Trotskyist group)."
The energy workers (gas and electricity) will be on strike from the 15th of November. public sector workers (hospitals, postal service,teachers) will strike from the 20th. The CNT is calling for all those struggles to converge, for the public and private sectors to unite to form a general strike.
We all remember November-December 1995. Twelve years ago we won against the Chirac government, defeating their social security reforms. this time victory depends on our ability to continue and extend the movement of resistance.
-Jeremie Berthuin, International Secretary of the French CNT.


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