Unions take aim at Virginia

The majority rule in the State House and Senate hangs in your hands. With two weeks until elections, Democrats and Republicans are doing everything they can to ensure you turn out at the polls and vote for them.

"Politics is really opening up in Virginia. People are really willing to vote for Democratic candidates," says Governor Tim Kaine.

Kaine spoke to AFL-CIO members Saturday morning as they got ready to go door to door on behalf of Democrats. Kaine says union workers were key in last year's Senate upset with Democrat Jim Webb taking the seat from Republican incumbent George Allen.

State Senator Ken Stolle is concerned by Kaine's focus on the AFL-CIO.

"The challenge that Governor Kaine is throwing down in essence is, Virginia is the northern most right to work state. You can't be forced to join a union. If you want to join a union, knock yourself out and join the union, but you can't be forced to join a union and as a result of that, that's one of the reasons Virginia is one of the most business friendly states in the nation," says Stolle.

"What Kaine and the Democrats are doing is they're saying, in essence, we will change the right to work laws in Virginia and we'll make it a union state and that is why they're trying to appeal to the union vote. I don't think that's good for Virginia. I think that a worker should be able to choose whether they want to be part of a union or not."

Kaine says people in this normally "red" state are voting for change. He says they're tired of the Bush administration's "mismanagement" of the war. He also believes they're furious with his recent veto of S-CHIP.

"What is the principle at stake when we're spending hundreds of billions of dollars on war or on tax cuts? What is the principle at stake for not signing a bill that was passed with overwhelming majority support to give health care to the poorest children in this country? I mean there's no principle at stake behind that," says Kaine.

Stolle is quick to point out, decisions on S-CHIP and the war are federal decisions not state.

"We want to be evaluated on what the state government does because that's what we're a part of," says Stolle. "The FAMOUS program is a very well run program at the state level. We will probably have to pick up any shortage that the federal government gives us and it's become a well-run program under Republican leadership."

Both Kaine and Stolle say this is a year for low voter turnout because there's no high profile race like governor or president, but they say your vote counts and they hope to see you at the polls.

"We've got a great chance this year to take the Senate, control the Senate and dramatically close the gap in the house," says Kaine.

"I think the difference will be narrow, but I think the Republicans will maintain control," says Stolle.

The elections this year are November 6th.


Unions advance Sick-Day Act as statewide ballot measure

Next month's ballot will be free of statewide issues — but don't think voters in a state so pivotal to the 2008 election will get off so easily next year.

With the presidential contest coming, outside groups with a stake in who wins are sure to find Ohio's ballot an attractive place to help them reach their political goals.

The strategy helped elect President Bush in 2004 — when conservative voters came out in high numbers to approve the gay-marriage ban supported by one of Bush's biggest contributors — and groundwork is already being laid to adjust voter mindsets in ways beneficial to certain candidates before next year.

Though labor unions have played down the link, the sick-day initiative they're backing for a possible ballot spot in 2008 would bring out many voters who'll side with whatever Democratic candidate ends up winning the party's nomination. They'll be trying first to force the Legislature to pass it.

Dubbed the "Healthy Families Act," the mandate to require bigger employers to offer a minimum of seven sick days per year will surely resonate with the state's working class voters, most of whom lean Democrat or independent.

In an August poll by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, 88 percent of registered Democrats and 84 percent of independents reported being either favorable or indifferent to union endorsements of candidates, an attitude that presumably means those voters are amenable to the work-life issues that unions push.

Building on the victory of a similar issue in San Francisco last year, 14 states and two other cities are now pursuing similar measures, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families.

The issue could be particularly helpful to Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton, if she becomes the nominee, by bringing out the women's vote she is cultivating. In a state where 61 percent of women over age 16 are now the primary breadwinners in their families, female voters may be motivated to force their employers to offer them more sick time.

Republicans, though, may emerge with a family issue of their own to counter the Democrats' values talk: a gay adoption ban.

Social conservatives from Citizens for Community Values who backed the 2004 prohibition against gay marriage — an issue that caught fire in 11 states that year — have signaled that keeping same-sex couples from adopting children is the next logical step in their effort.

An Ohio proposal to ban gay adoption fizzled last year, after Republican House Speaker Jon Husted rejected it as too divisive. But the issue, with variations on the theme, is far from dead.

After bills or ballot initiatives that would have banned gay adoptions appeared in 16 states, including Ohio, in 2006, it is logical to assume that the issue has simply gone dormant in anticipation of the 2008 election.

Already this year, the Arkansas Family Council has pushed a ballot measure in that state aimed at preventing same-sex couples from adopting foster children. And a gay marriage ban in Florida, where gay adoptions are already illegal, is also on track to appear on next year's ballot.

Though there is some evidence to suggest that Ohioans are tired of moral debates — particularly after this year's endless fight over whether to restrict strip clubs. And Democrats have made a concerted effort to move the family values pendulum their way in the wake of President Bush's veto of a bill that would authorize additional spending for children's health insurance.

Still, in bellwether Ohio, trying to appeal to voters on values issues can be tricky business. The state has both a large population of evangelical Christians and a vocal and well-funded gay community.

Experts are quick to point out that most voters in presidential election years are already motivated to go to the polls to vote for their favorite candidate — but the issues that appear alongside those names get people thinking about what they stand for.

Ads for and against those issues also tend to fill the television in the weeks before the election, turning public debate in their direction.

So if an issues sways turnout by only a couple percentage points, that can make a difference.

President Bush beat his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, in 2004 by just 118,000 votes, or 2.1 percent, in Ohio. That was enough to win all 20 of the state's coveted electoral votes and put him in the White House.


Congress promotes unions over workers

The Democratic congressional majority continues to pay off its campaign debts to organized labor, which spent lavishly to elect Democrats in 2006. That means helping unions and hurting workers.

On the Senate agenda is the House-passed Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2007 (H.R. 980). Several Republicans who don't want to appear to be against "employer-employee cooperation" back it.

Of course, on Capitol Hill titles disguise the true purpose of legislation, such as H.R. 980. Washington would override states and localities to mandate unionization of emergency medical technicians, firefighters, and policemen across America.

Union representation in the work force has been falling ― down to only seven percent of private sector workers. But union membership among government employees has jumped to 36 percent. Many public safety departments, too, are unionized, with about half the states agreeing to union "exclusive representation."

Warns James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation: "The collective bargaining framework pits employers and employees against each other. Sometimes it leads to greater cooperation, but other times it creates conflict and strife."

He points to illegal strikes by unionized teachers and transit workers. The reason why public sector unionization so often has deleterious consequences is two-fold. One is that government is a monopoly, so if unions capture control of the local or state authority, they can impose their agenda on the public.

Moreover, politics amplifies the power of well-organized interest groups. Concentrated interests, such as public employees, have an incentive to spend lavishly to win elections and influence government decisions.

The public, for whom the costs are much more diffused, is far less able to organize in opposition.

Thus, it's no surprise that with both House and Senate in Democratic hands organized labor is attempting to get through politics what it cannot win in the marketplace.

Today state and local governments are free to set the terms of negotiation with employees. But H.R. 980 would shift oversight of state and local labor relations with public safety employees to the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

State and local rules found to be out of compliance with the measure's "core provision" ― namely, monopoly bargaining by unions ― would be supplanted by federal diktat. Uncle Sam would preempt 26 state and untold local laws.

The likely result would be an upsurge in wage expenses. States and localities would pay substantially more to compensate workers as well as to comply with debilitating work rules.

Equally serious is the likely upsurge in strikes, which have typically increased four-fold after states approved monopoly union bargaining. Although the bill includes a strike ban, such provisions are typically ineffective since unions typically demand an amnesty.

H.R. 980 also would preclude state and local governments from placing critical issues beyond negotiation. Under the proposed legislation, public employers would have to negotiate on every topic other than state "right-to-work" laws and pension benefits.

Yet public safety work raises unique issues. For instance, Michigan and Wisconsin deal with public employee unions, but the former requires merit-based promotions for police officers; the latter applies that principle to most of its workforce. That would become impossible.

Another pernicious impact of H.R. 980 would be to virtually end the practice of professional firefighters serving as volunteers. Although professionals usually take the lead in more urbanized areas, only 12 percent of the nation's 30,000 fire departments are made up entirely or primarily of professionals.

Volunteers make up nearly three-quarters of all firefighters. Notes Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee: "officers of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) union locals have an extensive track record of exploiting their monopoly power to punish 'two-hatters,' professional firefighters who serve their own local communities as volunteer firefighters when they aren't on the job."

Moreover, whenever possible the IAFF negotiates contracts that ban volunteering by professionals, even on their own time.

H.R. 980 would have another pernicious impact, effectively opening the wallets of hundreds of thousands of public employees to union officials for use in political campaigns from city hall to the White House.

Expanding forced union representation across the nation would create yet another employee piggy bank for organized labor.

If employees want to join a union, they should be free to do so. But they should not be free to force their union on other workers or employers, especially in sensitive public safety positions.

Even more so, the federal government should not decide labor policy for every city, county, and state in America. Washington should mind its own business.


NY Supreme Court likely to stay union-friendly

Nov. 6th is more than just another off-year election. Voters will have the unique opportunity to vote for three candidates to fill open seats for the New York State Supreme Court in the 6th Judicial District.

A review by the Broome County Bar Association has given three candidates the rating of "highly qualified." These candidates are Phillip R. Rumsey, a sitting Supreme Court judge in Cortland County; Michael V. Coccoma, an acting Supreme Court judge in Otsego County; and Richard W. Rich, the public advocate in Chemung County.

I am very fortunate to know all three candidates and how hard they worked to get their message out to all 10 counties that form the 6th Judicial District. In addition, Judge Rumsey and Judge Coccoma have been endorsed by the CSEA Local 1000 Region 5 AFSCME AFL/CIO, and Richard W. Rich has received the endorsement of the Chemung-Schuyler Labor Assembly.

On Election Day, Nov. 6th, please vote for Judge Phillip R. Rumsey, Judge Michael V. Coccoma and public advocate Richard W. Rich for New York State Supreme Court.

Joe Coletta, Elmira


Firefighters union members accused of arson

Two off-duty New York City firefighters were arrested last night on charges of spreading and igniting flammable fluid outside a Manhattan firehouse early Saturday, Fire Department officials said.

A firefighter inside the firehouse, in the Clinton neighborhood, noticed smoke seeping in from the main garage door and alerted colleagues, and they quickly extinguished the blaze, the officials said. No one was injured and the door appeared to be operable last night, though much of its exterior was blackened.

The two suspects, Michael Izzo, 30, of Staten Island and Richard Capece, 31, of Brooklyn, who were stationed at other fire companies, surrendered yesterday. They were charged with arson, reckless endangerment and criminal mischief, all felonies. The motive was unclear, law enforcement officials said.

Firefighter Izzo is a six-year veteran of the department assigned to Engine 242 in Brooklyn, and Firefighter Capece is a five-year veteran currently assigned to Engine 1 in Manhattan.

The fire was set at 2:15 a.m. at the firehouse of Engine Company 34 and Ladder Company 21 at 440 West 38th Street, the department said. The episode was taped by a surveillance camera, the officials said.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta called the crime "an outrageous, depraved act" and said that if convicted, the suspects would be terminated. For now, the two men are suspended from duty without pay.

The Uniformed Firefighters Association, the union that represents firefighters, did not immediately return a call seeking comment last night.


Ford motors on as UAW strikes Navistar

Production at Ford Motor Co.'s Kentucky Truck Plant, home of the F-Series Super Duty Truck, hasn't been affected by the United Auto Workers strike against Navistar International, a Ford spokeswoman said yesterday. Diesel V-8 Powerstroke engines made at the Navistar plant in Indianapolis are used in about 70 percent of the Super Duty trucks produced at the truck plant on Chamberlain Lane in Louisville.

"At this point and time, there is no immediate impact to the Kentucky Truck Plant," Ford spokeswoman Becky Sanch said in a telephone interview.

An estimated 3,700 UAW workers at Navistar plants in six states walked out Tuesday afternoon after contract talks broke down.

Despite the strike, Navistar will supply as many engines as Ford needs, company spokesman Roy Wiley said yesterday. If need be, the truck plant will receive diesel engines from Navistar's nonunion factory in Huntsville, Ala., he said. "We have a plan to continue to provide Ford with engines in this strike," Wiley said. "As many as they need, we will give them. Ford has been a good customer for a long, long time. Tell them to build more trucks, and we will give them more engines."

Navistar Chief Executive Daniel Ustian said during a conference call with reporters yesterday that "our key point is, we can make product for our customers. They (UAW members) know that."

Ustian said talks with the union have not restarted.

The UAW accused Navistar of unfair labor practices, including changing terms of employment and an illegal lockout at a Springfield, Ohio plant.

The company "moved our work to Mexico and to nonunion plants in Texas, cancelled our supplemental unemployment benefits and ignored our job security program," UAW Vice President General Holiefield said in a statement.

Wiley said the allegations of unfair labor practices are "totally unfounded."

Slow sales of Super Duty trucks recently prompted the furlough of Kentucky Truck Plant workers for two weeks. That move also shut down the Navistar engine plant in Indianapolis for the same time period, Wiley said.

As truck plant workers returned this week, the strike against Navistar has sparked fresh anxiety, UAW Local 862 Committeeman Rodney Janes said this week.

"Everyone is talking about it," he said. "People are worried we won't have enough engines to keep going."


Unions clash over Hollywood strike rules

With Hollywood obsessing about a looming writers strike, the Writers Guild of America's receiving plenty of static about its strike rules - especially when it comes to showrunners.

The Directors Guild of America is just the latest Hollywood player to take on the WGA about the strike rules, which could go into effect as early as Thursday if negotiations collapse. In the wake of mostly unproductive talks last week, the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers will resume talks tomorrow, with just-appointed federal mediator Juan Carlos Gonzalez attending.

In a recent message, the DGA told its members that its "no-strike clause" requires that they must continue working if they're under contract to do so -- even if the WGA's on strike. And the DGA missive took particular issue with the WGA's declaration that writer-directors who perform what the WGA deems as "writing services" will be subject to discipline.

The disagreement's certain to put added pressure on showrunners to decide which union -- the WGA or the DGA -- should have the final word on interpreting the hardline strike rules, issued three weeks ago. Four showrunners (Neal Baer of "Law & Order: SVU," Marc Cherry of "Desperate Housewives," Carlton Cuse of "Lost" and Carol Mendelsohn of "CSI") are members of the WGA negotiating committee.

"It is an essential element of our basic agreement that the guild not only refrain from striking during the term of the basic agreement, but also that the guild assure employers that our members will continue to perform DGA-covered services during the term of the basic agreement," the Directors Guild said. "These provisions are treated very seriously by the companies and the courts, and we take these obligations very seriously as well."

Using its usual measured language, the DGA made clear that those obligations will include a variety of showrunner tasks -- even though the WGA's already deemed those tasks off limits if there's a strike. The WGA has banned "writing services" such as cutting for time; bridging material; changes in stage directions; assignment of lines to other characters caused by cast changes; changes caused by unforeseen contingencies; minor adjustments before or during principal photography; and instruction, directions or suggestions made to a writer.

But the DGA pointed out that these showrunner tasks are "expressly excluded" from coverage under the WGA's basic agreement before noting that the WGA is contending that members employed as both writers and directors cannot perform such services when directing without being subject to WGA discipline.

"However, if you are employed as a director and these services are needed on your project, and your employer has requested in writing that you continue working, then you would be contractually obligated to perform them," the DGA said. "You may be subject to discharge and claims of breach of contract by an employer if you refuse to do so."

The DGA also advised its members that if they are asked to cross a WGA picket line, their employers must indemnify them for any WGA disciplinary action.

"Like any union, the WGA has the right within certain legal bounds to discipline its members to support a strike effort," the DGA said. "If you are employed in a DGA-covered category on a struck project and your employer requests in writing that you cross a WGA picket line, the DGA Basic Agreement provides that your employer must indemnify you from any monetary loss, including costs of defense, arising from any WGA disciplinary action against you for crossing the picket line."

The AMPTP has already told the WGA that it disagrees with the strike rules on showrunners, citing a recent National Labor Relations Board decision holding that hyphenate showrunners are supervisors and aligned with management, and it's threatened to sue the WGA over its strike rules on script validation, which require members to file with the WGA copies of all unproduced material written for struck companies.

The AMPTP's cease-and-desist letter claims that the scripts and other written material -- as well as their state of completion -- are the property and trade secrets of the companies and that the WGA has no right to receive or retain them.

The strike rules have also prompted the threat of a lawsuit by Thomas Short, president of the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, over the guild's plan to bar WGA members from writing animated features -- since much of that sector is covered by IATSE.

The DGA's disagreement over the strike rules comes with the Directors Guild next in line to launch negotiations with the AMPTP. Both the Screen Actors Guild and the DGA contracts expire June 30.

The DGA told its members it's started the work of preparing for negotiations but won't set a date until the WGA negotiations are resolved. "If we should decide to schedule an 'early negotiation,' we will be ready to go," it added.

The WGA and DGA have about 13,000 members each and share about 1,400 dual cardholders.

The WGA did receive strong support over the weekend from SAG, with unanimous passage by its national board of a resolution blasting the AMPTP's conduct in the negotiations as "unreasonable." The tone of the resolution's an early sign that the SAG bargaining -- which will most likely launch in the spring -- will probably be rocky.

"Our employers have thus far been unwilling to counteroffer the reasonable WGA payment proposal for Internet streaming and instead call such use 'promotional' even when whole pictures are shown and new revenue is generated," part of the resolution said. "Our employers have thus far been unwilling to recognize that the wages, working conditions and residuals provided in our basic contracts should govern work made for any platform, new or old."

Gonzalez, a mediator since 2000, is stepping in to mediate negotiations between the WGA and the companies after three months of mostly unproductive bargaining. The announcement came Friday evening after a day of negotiations concluded with no sign of significant progress.

"We worked very hard to narrow the issues and reach an agreement, but many issues remain unresolved," said AMPTP prexy Nick Counter.

The WGA's recap of the session said Writers Guild reps agreed to several AMPTP proposals and withdrew or modified several of its own proposals to narrow areas in dispute but accused the AMPTP of responding with new rollbacks in pension and health and rejection of the guild's modified proposals.

The WGA also released an opening statement from Friday's session by exec director David Young, which stressed the importance of hammering out an agreement on new media.

"Every new technology or genre, instead of being treated as a new opportunity for mutual growth and benefit, is presented to us as some unfathomable obstacle that requires flexibility from writers -- meaning a cheap deal that remains in place," he said. "This happened with homevideo. It happened with basic cable. It has happened with reality TV. Now you want it to happen with new media and the Internet."

Friday's session marked the first time both sides were able to engage in discussing the give and take of bargaining -- rather than merely presenting proposals -- but it's believed the movements were fairly small. The decision to take a three-day break will underline the town's growing certainty that the WGA plans to take the talks down to the wire, when fears of a strike may push studios and nets to soften on contract issues in order to avert a work stoppage.

WGA leaders could start telling its members to stop working and start picketing as early as next Thursday should the talks fall apart. But if negotiators are making progress, writers would work under terms of the expired deal.


Political feeding frenzy, union cannibalism Down Under

Western Australian unionist Joe McDonald was expelled from the Labor Party without a fair hearing on the orders of "ruthless" Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd, construction union boss Kevin Reynolds has said.

Mr McDonald, deputy secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union's (CFMEU) WA branch, was expelled from the party following a vote by the ALP national executive committee on Friday.

Mr Rudd recommended the move saying Mr McDonald had made "inappropriate and unacceptable" comments outside a Perth court on Thursday.

Asked if he had a word for Prime Minister John Howard, Mr McDonald had said: "John's gone. You know that. I'll be back". Mr Howard seized on the comments as proof union bosses would cash in on a Rudd Labor win at the federal election.

Mr McDonald had just been acquitted in the first of six trials for trespassing on Perth building sites, after having his right of entry permit revoked by the federal court.

CFMEU WA secretary Kevin Reynolds today said the union was seeking advice from lawyers Slater and Gordon to see if they could challenge Mr McDonald's expulsion. The vote should have gone before the whole national executive, he said.

"He hasn't had any opportunity to put his case. He's been hung, drawn and quartered without even getting to face his accusers, he said on ABC radio.

Mr Reynolds said Mr McDonald's expulsion was a political decision by a "pretty ruthless" Mr Rudd who wanted to show he was being tough on unions.

He said that if the ALP wanted to return the $400,000 donated by the CFMEU for the election campaign, he would not refuse.

Mr Rudd dismissed the comments as the unionist's normal "bluster".

"I expect full huff, puff, bluster and the rest from Mr Reynolds in the days ahead. That's just kind of what you expect," he said.


How unions bought Labour election win

The full extent of trade union backing for the Labour Party in the run-up to the last general election has been revealed. The unions, in addition to paying £10 million into Labour's general election war chest, pumped carefully targeted resources into specific marginal seats for the first time.

The Daily Telegraph can disclose that the unions paid for six million direct mail shots, organised a postal vote recruitment campaign, provided teams of drivers, set up a nationwide website and sent almost 200 campaign officials to the marginal seats.

The logistical support, which was worth millions of pounds, helped galvanise trade unionists to go out and vote in May 2005. The unions boasted that the strategy made such an impact it "helped Labour win a third term".

The disclosure provoked charges of hypocrisy against the Prime Minister, who only last week signalled that he would introduce legislation to limit the Tories' spending in marginal constituencies.

The move by Gordon Brown was designed to crush the influence of Lord Ashcroft, the Tory party deputy chairman, who is in charge of a £2 million marginal seat fighting fund raised by Conservative donors.

But the Tories will now step up their attacks on Mr Brown, who ran Labour's election campaign, because the trade unions were running an identical strategy.

A document produced by the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation, said: "The key seat co-ordinators between them generated several hundred volunteers which translates into many thousands of hours of reported work that would not have occurred."

Chris Grayling, a shadow cabinet minister, said: "This is breathtaking hypocrisy on the part of the Labour Party and undermines Gordon Brown's claim to try to introduce a new style of politics into Britain."


Showtime for Sarkozy

Few serious observers would dispute the need to reform France’s “special” pension regimes. They currently allow a select number of state employees to retire at the age of 50 or 55 with a full pension. At a time when French life expectancy is increasing into the low 80s, this program will not be sustainable over future decades.

In fact, the system is already unsustainable. Just 500,000 active workers finance the pensions of 1.1 million retired workers covered under the “special regimes.” In some sectors, the imbalance is far more severe: for example, a mere 14,000 or so active miners finance the pensions of more than 150,000 retired miners.The special pension system’s annual deficit, about 7 billion euros, is financed by French taxpayers through the general slush fund of government revenues.

Most French workers have to make 40 years of pension contributions—not 37.5, as in the case of “special regime” workers—before being allowed to retire with a full pension.

So why is there so much resistance to altering the special retirement privileges of a select few? For one thing, the special entitlements are old and ingrained. French sailors have enjoyed the right to early retirement since the time of Louis XIV in the 17th century. For staff at the Paris Opera, similar privileges trace back to the 18th century. Still others—such as bus and train drivers and miners at certain state companies—have enjoyed the privilege since the mid-1900s or earlier.

Such retirement policies have now become symbolic of the modern French welfare state. Powerful special interests, especially labor unions, have ferociously guarded them in the past. The last French government leader to seek abolition of the special regimes was Prime Minister Alain Juppé in 1995. The result was paralyzing strikes and, in a nation normally unfazed by tumultuous union activism, troubling social tensions.

In the end, the center-right government bore the brunt of public dissatisfaction. Prime Minister Juppé was forced to withdraw his reforms and his government essentially became a lame duck until the Socialists swept into power in 1997. Surprisingly, the Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, then embarked on an extraordinary campaign of privatization, but he did not alter the special regimes, nor did his successors. Jacques Chirac, who served as French president from May 1995 to May 2007, was sufficiently disillusioned with the ill-fated 1995 reforms that he resisted any similar efforts for the rest of his tenure.

By contrast, Chirac’s successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, stormed into office this year with aggressive plans to make the French economy more globally competitive, to renew the national work ethic, and to reinvigorate the overall vitality of society. By electing Sarkozy over his Socialist opponent, Ségolène Royal, the French public voted in favor of bold change, by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent.

Despite widespread skepticism of free-market economics and 'Anglo-Saxon liberalism,' French public opinion has begun to lean in favor of pension reform.

But now France’s labor unions are seeking to achieve through coercion what they could not achieve democratically: a stop to structural reforms. Through recent general strikes, the unions demonstrated their power to disable France’s public transportation system. The striking workers are pressuring Sarkozy to reverse course and leave the special regimes untouched, just as they forced Prime Minister Juppé to do so in 1995.

The beneficiaries of the special regimes are not alone in their campaign. Sarkozy has pledged to replace only two out of every three retiring government workers in order to shrink the French bureaucracy, which has swollen tremendously since the 1970s. In retaliation, government employee unions have announced a major day of protest on November 20th. The beneficiaries of special pension regimes may even coordinate their own protests with those of the civil servants.

Unfortunately for the special pensioners, public opinion is slowly turning against them, despite the widespread French skepticism of free-market economics and “Anglo-Saxon liberalism.” Prime Minister François Fillon wants all workers to put in 40 years on the job before retiring, instead of the 37.5 years currently asked of special pension beneficiaries. Fillon calls this reform “non-negotiable.” More and more Frenchmen are coming around to his view. According to a recent poll, 57 percent think the proposed reforms of special pensions are a step in the right direction, while just 32 percent feel they are a step in the wrong direction. In the same poll, a majority (55 percent) of respondents said the anti-reform strike was not justified. Astonishingly, even 45 percent of French Socialists said they support the current efforts to revamp special pensions.

Thus far, apart from some significant tax cuts, Sarkozy has been fairly restrained in his reform drive. This has disappointed some of his center-right supporters. (They were especially miffed when Sarkozy softened his approach to trimming the government bureaucracy.) At times, Sarkozy has even publicly corrected cabinet ministers who spoke too grandiosely of pushing through structural reforms.

This may be smart politics. Sarkozy knows that if he pushes too hard, he will quickly lose support for further reforms. His tempered reform drive will make it harder for the unions to win public sympathy. Some trade unionists are aware of this. François Chérèque, leader of the more moderate CFDT union, had this to say about the recent strike: “We are now pissing off everybody for not very much. We are making life unpleasant for tens of thousands of people going to work.”

So is Sarkozy assured of victory? Hardly. But the climate for reforming the special pensions regime is much more favorable today than it was in 1995. It is stunning to see just how much French opinion has shifted. For Sarkozy, the fate of this reform is not merely symbolic. It will also set the tone for further structural reforms over the coming years.


NoVa unions moving to take over Legislature

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