For the second time in five days, French rail workers on April 8 went on a two-day strike to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to eliminate hard-won labor rights and to transform France’s state-run rail system from a public service into a business.
Euronews reports that because of the strike only one in seven high-speed trains that connect the nation and one in five regional trains were operating during the two-day walkout.
The first two-day strike took place on April 3 and April 4, was equally disruptive.
Bloomberg reports that the four days of strike have cost SNCF, which operates France’s state-owned rail system, $100 million euros.
Four unions of rail workers have joined together to plan and organize the strike.
These two-day strikes will take place every five days and continue until the end of June unless President Macron re-thinks his decision to implement by decree changes to workers’ pension rights and job protections.
The unions are also concerned about Macron’s plan to turn SNCF into a business whose stock will be listed on stock exchanges.
Even though the government will maintain control of the stock, union leaders think that turning SNCF into a business will lead to its privatization.
While the original plan for the nationwide two-day strikes is for them to end in the latter part of June, Philippe Martinez, leader of CGT, the largest of the four striking rail unions, said that if the Macron government continues its present course of stonewalling negotiations, the strikes could last longer.
Martinez called on Macron and his negotiators to “unblock their ears to hear the worker’s discontent.”
“It’s this unwillingness to listen to the railway unions that has caused this situation,” Martinez said on LCI television. “We are a social opposition and that’s our role as a union.”
The discontent referred to by Martinez is the result of Macron’s announcement that he will if necessary issue a decree that eliminates early retirement and job security rights for newly hired rail workers.
Right now, rail workers can retire when they turn 52 years old and they have the guarantee of a job for life.
While the business-friendly press has characterized these benefits as privileges, they are in fact benefits that compensate rail workers for doing a hard job vital to commerce, leisure for others, and national unity.
“These rights were won by hard struggle and are seen (by workers) as some compensation for the low pay and the unsocial and unhealthy hours which must be worked to run a national rail network in a large country,” reports John Mullen for Counterfire.
There other reasons for concern among striking rail workers.
Macron wants to change the status of SNCF from that of a state-run public service to a joint-stock company.
Macron has characterized this change as an attempt to make SNCF more efficient, so that it can compete when France’s rail service is opened up to competition as required by the European Union.
The opening is supposed to begin in 2019, but Macron could postpone that intrusion until 2033 if he chooses.
Union leaders like Thierry Nier, deputy head of CGT’s rail workers union, are wary that Macron’s proposal will undermine the public nature of France’s rail system.
“The issue is this,” said Nier. “Does the state want to use this public good to meet the needs of the common interest, or play Monopoly with the SNCF? Competition doesn’t work, and it hurts passengers.”
There is also concern among the public that changing the structure of SNCF will lead to privatization of France’s rail system.
Critics of Macron’s proposal point out that the privatization of France Telecom began in a similar way.
Public opinion about the strike is divided.
The strike has been disruptive, which has been stressful for commuters trying to get to work and to travelers trying to reach their destination. That stress has led to frustration and anger.
But people are also concerned about the long-term impact that Macron’s proposals could have on the nation’s social fabric, leading many to support the strike.
In just two weeks, supporters of the strike have donated more than 500,000 euros to a strikers’ solidarity fund that will be used to supplement wages lost during the strikes.
“I unreservedly support the rail workers in their defense of public service,” wrote one donor.
“I completely agree with the rail workers and the reason behind what they’re doing,” said Hemet Sylla, a rail passenger whose train had been delayed, to The Local. “It’s absolutely vital to protect your rights and keep on fighting those trying to take them away. And the disruption to our day might be annoying but this is part of living in a society where you have the right to protect yourself.”