The movement will not weaken

What began as a protest against pension cuts in France has turned into a social movement for a more equitable and just society.

On Thursday, two million people across France participated in 270 demonstrations to protest the new pension law enacted earlier this week by the French parliament.

This was the seventh demonstration against the pension cuts since September. Such a large turnout shows that a lot of people want to continue the fight against the cuts and expand it into a broader movement for social justice.

“The movement is not weakened,” read one of the signs carried by a protestor in Aurillac in central France.

The government’s plan to cut pensions for all French workers, which it calls “pension reform,” raises the age at which workers can draw a full pension by two years, thus reducing the amount of money that retired workers will make after retirement.

The new law will raise the age of retirement with full benefits from 60 to 62 for some workers and from 65 to 67 for others.

French president Sarkozy says that the pension cuts are essential because people are living longer, but people fighting the cuts view them as an attack on hard-won social benefits.

[Sarkozy] argues that we have to work longer because we are living longer,” said Christian Renard, an electrician. “But I say we are living longer because of the hard-won social conditions and benefits that were fought for. If we no longer have them, who is to say that life expectancy will not fall, as it has in Russia?”

Some students who joined the protests think the cuts will make it harder for them to find work when the enter the job market because workers will be waiting longer to retire.

“All of us want to get good jobs,” said Alexandre, a middle-school student. “I don’t want to be out of work when I graduate. That would be a big waste of time.”

Others see the pension cuts as a measure that puts the interests of the rich over the interests of workers. “The government says there is not enough money for pensions,” Juliane Charton, a high school student. “But it is a political choice where to look for it. If they did away with the many exemptions given to employers and bosses and imposed higher taxes on those who make billions every year it would raise about 72 billion euros, when the pension system needs 30 billion euros to (keep pensions at their present level).” 

 “This is about more than just pension reform,” said Pascale Heurteux, a union official. “It’s about changing the whole of society.”

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Austerity for whom?

“[Romania] is now at the crossroads, and strong decisions should be made in terms of reducing public expenses,” said Vincent Alexandre, an emerging-markets economist at BNP Paribas, France’s largest bank.

Alexandre was responding to a question from a reporter about yesterday’s protests in Romania where 30,000 workers, pensioners, and unemployed people took to the streets in Bucharest, the nation’s capital, to protest recent austerity measures announced by the government.

The austerity measures cut pensions for retirees, cut pay for public sector workers, and eliminate the jobs of 74,000 public sector workers.

The protests, organized by five Romanian unions, urged lawmakers to support a no confidence vote against the government, which would have toppled the current government and forced new elections.

Today, the government survived the no confidence vote by a narrow margin much to the relief of BNP Paribus’s Alexandre, who told the reporter, “the biggest concern is that if the government falls, we aren’t sure what comes next and that magnifies uncertainty.”

BNP Paribus, however, wasn’t as concerned about government spending two years ago when it faced collapse.  It gladly accepted $7.5 billion from the French government’s State Shareholding Corporation to cover losses it was facing because of its exposure to US mortgage-backed securities. 

It also took $4.9 billion from the US government to cover the bank’s exposure to AIG’s worthless credit swaps, and it took advantage of the Us government’s Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program to issue a billion dollars worth of bonds that had the full backing of the US government.

Thanks to help from the French and US governments, BNP Paribus was able to avoid catastrophe and return to profitability. In 2009, less than a year after receiving government aid, BNP Paribus paid its financial managers bonuses totalling one billion euros. Shortly after paying the bonuses, the bank announced that it would begin repaying the French government for its aid.

It appears that in the eyes of bankers, government spending is good when it helps banks bridge tough economic times, but bad when it does the same for workers.

“It’s not over yet”

The French National Assembly today passed the final version of the bill that cuts French workers’ pensions. The Senate approved the measure yesterday, and it goes to president Sarkozy next week for final approval.

But leaders of the protest against the cuts said that they will build on the social movement that grew out of the widespread protests against the unpopular cuts.

“The movement will persist,” said Bernard Thibault, president of CGT, France’s largest union. “We will change the mode of protest, but we won’t give up.”

Thibault told Liberation, a daily newspaper, that he is confident that tomorrow’s one-day general strike will show that the movement is alive. Unions are also planning a national day of protests on November 6.  Students will hold national demonstrations on November 4.

After the assembly passed the final bill, nine out of the 12 refineries remained on strike, and about 20 percent of French gas stations were without fuel.

On Tuesday before the Senate vote, workers and students marched together protesting the cuts at local demonstrations in Paris, Marseille, Bordeaux, and Lyon.

After a two-week strike against the cuts, garbage collectors in Marseille voted Monday to return to work.  A reporter for Euro News asked one worker if he was returning to work without having won anything. The worker replied, “For the moment, (yes), but it’s not over yet.”

Keep moving, nothing to see here

The Texas Teachers Retirement System provides 1.2 million currently employed and retired teachers and public university workers with a safe and secure retirement.

With assets of over $100 million, TRS is the 17th largest public pension plan in the world. Being one of the world’s largest institutional investors makes TRS an attractive partner for investment firms both large and small. Some of these proposed investments are worth the risk, some are not

Recently, the Austin American Statesman reported that in 2009, a high-level TRS whistleblower had alleged that TRS’s chief investment officer and some TRS board of trustee members were pressuring staff to approve dubious investment proposals.

The dubious investments were pitched by big financial supporters of governor Rick Perry. The board members in question were also financial supporters of the governor. 

But a TRS spokesperson assured the Statesman that an independent investigation of the whistleblower charges had cleared everybody concerned. 

 The investigation that cleared everybody was carried out by Roel Campos of the Washington DC law firm Cooley Godward Kornish. But as it turns out, he wasn’t all that independent. He and Cooley have an ongoing contract with TRS for legal services worth $820,000. 

Furthermore Campos had a questionable record when it comes to looking into financial investment activity with due diligence.

Campos in 2008 was selected to be TRS’s new fiduciary counsel, an independent attorney that is supposed to ensure that TRS investment decisions are made with the best interest of TRS members in mind, not the private interest of board members or political office holders.

The decision to hire Campos sparked some concern and was canceled after the Texas attorney general found that Campos and Cooley had a conflict of interest because they represented venture capitalist seeking investments from TRS.

Campos had been selected to replace Ian Lanoff, a leading expert on pension governance issues who had served as TRS’s fiduciary counsel for 12 years and who had hoped to be reappointed after his contract expired in 2008.

Campos didn’t get the fiduciary counsel position, but as a consolation prize, he and his law firm landed an ongoing legal services contract.

Campos had no experience as a fiduciary counsel, but he did have political connections. Campos, a Democrat, supported George W. Bush for president. Subsequently, president Bush appointed him to a seat on the Securities and Exchange Commission.

As a member of the commission, Campos demonstrated his lack of investigative skills in one of the most important decisions that the SEC ever made.

At a meeting April 2004, the commission was asked by large investment banks to exempt them from the net capital rule, which requires brokerage firms to keep enough capital in reserve to cover potential losses in the event of a catastrophic market decline.

The large investment banks wanted to free up the capital held in reserve by their brokerage units to invest in mortgage-backed securities, derivatives, and other risky investments.

Financial giants, including Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Goldman Sachs, sent letters to the commission urging it to grant the exemption. They argued that the net capital rule was unnecessary because markets were self-regulating and it wouldn’t be in the banks’ best interest to make imprudent investments.

There was one dissenter among the letter writers. Leonard D. Bole, a designer of risk assessment tools, said that lowering the capital requirements would “erode the system that has safeguarded US investors.”

Campos and the other commissioners ignored Bode’s warning. One commissioner noted presciently that  if anything goes wrong, “it’s going to be an awfully big mess.”

Campos chimed in “I’m very happy to support [the exemption]. And I keep my fingers crossed for the future.”

Unfortunately, the crossed fingers didn’t work. In 2008 after many mortgage-back securities and derivatives turned bad, some banks didn’t have enough capital on hand to cover their losses. Bear and Sterns and Lehman Brothers went out of business, the government bailed out Goldman Sachs, and the economy sank into its worse economic meltdown since the Great Depression.

French strike against pension cuts enters second week

Fuel shortages continue to plague France as a nationwide strike against the government’s plans to cut pensions enters its second week. Workers at three of France’s 12 refineries voted to return to work, but workers at seven other refineries voted to extend strike as the government scrambles to restock empty gas pumps.

Workers represented by CFDT at the Esso refineries at Fos-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean and Gravenchon on the north coast voted on Monday to return to work.

CFDT members at a Reichstett Petroplus refinery near Strasbourg in Alsace also voted to return to work. Reichstett workers had been on strike since October 15 to protest Petroplus’ plan to downgrade the refinery to a fuel depot. The strikers voted to return to work to ease local fuel shortages and win goodwill in hopes of gaining local support for persuading Petroplus, a Swiss company, to keep the refinery open.

“We stopped work for a specific reason, even if we are in solidarity with the national strike,” said Jean-Luc Bildstein of the CFDT. “We want our site to be safeguarded in its entirety and for our jobs to be maintained.”

Meanwhile workers at seven other refineries including all six of the refineries owned by Total, France’s largest oil company, voted to continue their strike.

At the Total Grandpuits refinery near Paris where workers were forced back to work by a government requisition, most workers remained on strike after a court overturned the original requisition, an order issued by the government requiring workers to return to work.

After the original requisition was overturned, the government obtained another one that requires only workers who refuel fuel trucks at Grandpuits to return to work. These workers remain on the job, but on Monday CGT, the union representing Total workers, was appealing the new requisition.

As France tried to open for business Monday morning, motorists in some parts of the country were having a hard time finding gas. Gas shortages were most severe in Normandy and Centre provinces where 71 percent to 92 percent of the gas stations were reporting shortages. Gas shortages persisted in Paris, Provence, Brittany, and Pay de la Loire where 48 percent to 70 percent of the gas stations were reporting shortages.

Small business owners complained over the weekend that the fuel shortages were hurting their businesses and the economy as a whole.  The General Confederation of Small and Medium Enterprises issued a statement saying, “The economic recovery that was under way before the strike has suffered a severe setback because of the fuel shortages.”

The government confirmed this assessment. Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said that the strike is costing the French economy between 200 and 400 million euros a day.

The French parliament is reconciling the pension bills that passed both the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, and both houses will probably vote on the reconciliation Wednesday. If parliament votes for the reconciled bill, it will go to president Sarkozy for his signature next week.

But the mobilization against the pension cuts will continue. The coalition of unions that have mobilized against the cuts will hold another 24-hour general strike on Thursday and a another national day of action on November 6. Students will also hold a national day of action on November 2.

Requisition fails to dampen French strike

The government’s efforts to end strikes at French refineries suffered a setback Friday when a judge found that the requisition ordering strikers back to work under threat of prosecution was “a serious and obvious infringement on the right to strike.”

The judge’s ruling came shortly before the French Senate passed the pension cuts proposed by the Sarkozy government. Unions in response to the vote said that their mobilization to stop the cuts would continue and called for more demonstrations this coming week.

The refinery workers’ strike, which has stopped production at all 12 of France’s refineries, and the blockade of fuel depots by the strikers has severely curtailed gas deliveries and caused fuel shortages across the nation. 

Transport Minister Dominique Bessereau said that 35 percent of the gas stations in the Paris region had run dry and that there were shortages in the eastern and western parts of the country.

French president Sarkozy has made reopening the refineries a priority and on Friday had local authorities issue a requisition to force workers at the Total Grandpuits refinery back to work. A requisition is an order requiring workers to return to work when authorities deem that there is a threat to public order. The requisition applies only to strikers at the Total Grandpuits refinery, near Paris.

Local authorities issued the requisition Friday morning. Shortly after the requisition was issued, police charged picket lines at the refinery and the local authorities served strikers with the requisition.

Strikers could have been jailed if they defied the requisition, so in the afternoon they begrudgingly returned to work. One worker wore a jacket with REQUISITIONED scrawled on its back. “I’ve been requisitioned,” he told reporters. “But it stinks.”

Shortly after the refinery opened, the CGT, the union representing the Grandpuit workers, asked a judge in Melun, a Paris suburb, to vacate the order, arguing that the requisition undermines the right to strike, a constitutional guarantee in France.

The judge agreed saying that the requisition was too broad. When workers in the Grandpuit got word of the judge’s decision, they walked off the job again.

After the ruling, the government issued another, more specific requisition that requires only workers who load fuel onto fuel trucks to return. The union has appealed that requisition and a ruling is pending.

Charles Foulard of the CGT told reporters that the strikers’ next actions will depend on the ruling on the latest requisition. “The requisition is in effect, so we’re going to meet with the organization, and debate with workers to see how we’re going to continue the struggle.”

In the meantime, other French strikers continued to pressure the government. Workers at Total refineries near Lyon and Donges voted Friday to extend their strike another week.

Flying pickets blocked fuel depots in lower Normandy and Cournon ‘d Auvergne. They dispersed when they were attacked by police.

UNEF, the university student’s union, reported that 10 universities were either shut down or partially shut down by students opposing the pension cuts.

The CDFT, a union that said that it would suspend its strike action, changed its mind and decided to continue supporting the strike after union leaders listened to rank-and-file members.

Strikers rely on nimble tactics to keep fight against cuts alive

Workers and students used guerilla-like tactics to keep their massive protests against the government’s proposed pension cuts alive, and France’s labor unions and student union called for more national days of action against the proposed cuts.

Meanwhile, French president Sarkozy, frustrated by the success of those opposing pension cuts, ordered striking refinery workers back to work under threat of prosecution.

Sarkozy’s actions led one union leader to compare the French president to General Petain, the French head of state during the German occupation of the 1940s, who temporarily replaced the French Republic with an authoritarian state.

“In our country’s history we have gone through moments of Petain,” said Charles Foulard CGT’s Total representative. “Today, there are raids on our social agenda, on our pension, raids on the right to strike.” CGT is France’s largest union.

Earlier today Sarkozy issued an emergency decree ordering strikers at France’s 12 oil refineries to return to work. The emergency decree, known as a requisition, makes workers liable for prosecution if they refuse to obey.

Shortly after the requisition was issued, police charged a picket line at the entrance to Total’s Grandpuit refinery near Paris. Total is France’s largest oil company.

The workers locked arms and defied the police. Police using clubs and shields against the unarmed workers injured three strikers before breaking through the picket line.

After the police broke through, they lined up outside the refinery’s closed gate and looked at the strikers, who remained just outside the gates in defiance of the police and Sarkozy.  

Police used tear gas to break up another demonstration at a fuel depot in Toulouse in southern France. President Sarkozy has been trying to keep fuel depots open because of shortages at France’s gas stations. Between one-fifth and one-third of the country’s gas stations remain low on fuel or have run out.

But to keep pressure on the government, strikers have been using flying pickets to close down selected fuel depots. When police move to open one depot, strikers disperse and move on to close another. Last Tuesday, police broke through a blockade at a fuel depot in Grand Querilly in western France, but on Thursday picket lines reappeared and shut down the depot again.

Flying pickets have also disrupted the supply of imported oil.  The head of the nation’s petroleum lobby said that France is having trouble importing fuel supplies because of the flying pickets at France’s two largest oil terminals at Marseille and Le Havre.

Meanwhile students continue their strikes. Yesterday 17,000 students marched in Paris, 5,000 in Bordeaux, and 1,500 in Montpellier. Twenty-nine youths were arrested as police tried to disperse the demonstrations.

President Sarkozy and his allies in the Senate have called for a vote in the Senate tonight on the proposed pension cuts in hopes that a final vote in favor of passage will cause the strikes to wane.

But the unions announced yesterday that the fight against the cuts will continue no matter what happens tonight. In a joint communique issued last night, the unions leading the protests announced two more national mobilizations against the cuts: one, a general strike, is scheduled for October 28; the other, a national day of protest, is scheduled for November 6.

In announcing the decision to hold further protests, the  CGT issued a statement urging more action against the cuts: “Strengthened by the support of the workers, the young, and the majority of the population. . . the labor organizations have decided to continue and broaden the mobilization.”

Today, France’s main student union called for members to join street protests and sit-ins scheduled for Tuesday.

A poll conducted by the BYA institute and broadcast on Canal Plus television found that 69 percent of those polled supported the strike.