French transport workers take on Macron over pension reform

Protestors in Nantes, January 9, 2020. (Photo by Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP)

by John Edmundson

Starting on December 5th, 2019 workers in the Parisian rail network commenced an open-ended strike in opposition to French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed changes to their pension scheme. Rail workers in the Metro Underground have, for decades, had retirement conditions that compensate them for the low wages, unhealthy work environment and antisocial hours that come with their jobs. Driving trains in the Underground rail network means spending hours of every workday under the ground and so the workers are seldom able to even see the sun. It is well documented that this is not good for human health. In addition, working in the Metro means frequently working antisocial hours due to the requirement for shift work. Shift work is of course, another contributor to poor health outcomes.

Macron, who ran for office as a “political outsider”, neither right nor left and uncontaminated by the mistrust many French workers have for the dominant mainstream Parties, came into politics from the world of finance, claiming that he would surmount traditional political divisions and lead France from the centre, devoid of the ideology he claimed cripples the French political system. Since assuming office, Macron has continued the sort of austerity policies familiar to many throughout the Western world, attempting to shift more costs onto French workers, while forcing them to work longer into what should have been their retirement years.

French Metro drivers can, in theory, retire at 50.8 years because for decades, the drivers’ union has protected early retirement as a means of compensating the drivers for the poor working conditions that they endure. Despite this, low pay means that often the drivers work almost five more years than that, retiring on average at 55.5 years. Most other employees of RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, the state owned transport provider) are eligible to retire at 55.8 years, administrative staff at 60.8 years. This is not acceptable to the employer (the State) or the government. Macron wants to push through a “one size fits all” pension plan that would raise the retirement age for all workers to 62 years, irrespective of the working conditions or previously negotiated terms and conditions.

The strike has continued well into January, making it the longest continuous strike in the history of the French national rail network. The industrial action has had a significant impact on travel around Paris. The employer (RATP) has had to stoop to such measures as making e-scooters available to commuters to compensate for the lack of trains on the route.

France has some of the most militant unions in the Western world and although membership rates are not always high, support for the unions and, specifically, for this action, have remained high also.

Universities have cancelled or rescheduled exams owing to the difficulty students are facing getting to the campuses. One university, Nanterre, refused to do so, recommending that if students were concerned about arriving on time for their exams, they could roll out sleeping bags on the University gym floor. Students chose instead to blockade the entrance to the exam facilities in solidarity with the strike.

Plans have been announced by two of the unions involved to expand the industrial action to include the shutting down of refineries. Further mass demonstrations in support of the striking workers and against the attacks on pension rights are planned.

In New Zealand, trade union membership has declined drastically since the 1980s and many younger workers have no experience of working in a unionised workplace. If New Zealand workers are ever going to take control of their own destinies, they could do well to look at some of the action workers are taking in other parts of the world, including the rail workers in France, who are showing that there is still strength in the union.