France’s transport network was brought to a standstill on Thursday of last week as thousands of railway workers came out on strike against president Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to end “exceptional pension schemes”.
Over 130 demonstrations were held across the country. Nearly three quarters of railway workers went on strike – a greater proportion than at the high point of the massive public sector movement of 1995, the last time united all out action was taken by all railway unions.
As many railway workers noted, this time round the strikes involved people who had refused to take action in 1995. Agitation from below by local union activists saw the strike go into a second day in many areas – against the wishes of the CGT, the main trade union federation.
French railway workers reach pensionable age after 37.5 years of contributions, against 40 years for most people, but they make higher than average monthly contributions.
They won the right to retire earlier in 1945, when it was envisaged that everyone would be levelled up in line with the railway workers’ scheme. Instead, the government now wants everyone to work longer.
The attack on pensions also affects other groups of workers. More than half of gas, electricity and Metro workers followed their unions’ call to strike on Thursday 18 October.
In sectors where there was no national call for action – especially education and the civil service – significant action was built from below.
Up to 10 percent of teachers and civil servants joined the strike, along with some private sector workers. A further day of action has been called for next month.
Sarkozy is hoping that he can split the movement. The CFDT union, for example, has made it clear that it is prepared to discuss extending the years of contribution – something the other main federations have rejected as non negotiable.
The government is already in separate negotiations with an independent train drivers’ union which withdrew its original call for the strike to go into a second day last week.
Past experience shows that all out, united and indefinite strikes can win. In 1995 attacks on pensions from Alain Juppé’s right wing government were defeated by such tactics.
But in 2003 further attacks were successful because a huge movement to defend pensions was fragmented by a succession of single days of action. As a result, the government was able to split the unions.
As things stand, the CGT is not prepared to call for indefinite action – although dozens of local CGT union branches have defied their leadership and voted for it.
This is the first major confrontation between the unions and Sarkozy. His government has just introduced a measure limiting the right to strike in the public sector. Sarkozy has threatened to call on the army to ensure this law is obeyed.
If the government wins this battle over pensions, it will believe it can go on to raise the average pensionable age for all workers.
The workers’ movement can succeed. To do so will require opposing any move to extend the pensionable age for railway workers – and taking action that can win.
As Catherine, a Paris metro worker interviewed by Rouge, the newspaper of the left wing Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, put it, “There is a big question mark over what happens next. For the movement to be hard, it needs everyone to have the same goal.
“But not all the unions called for a strike on 18 October, and not all reject the reform outright. What happens next will be played out in the mass meetings.”