10/24/07

French unions call more strikes

The French capital endured new commuter disruption Tuesday as civil servants and teachers said they would join train drivers fighting government plans to cut pension benefits and other cost-cutting measures.

There were 200 kilometers (125 miles) of morning rush hour traffic jams around Paris and the rail service between Charles de Gaulle airport and central Paris was again disrupted, with only half of trains running, the SNCF state rail company said.

Commuters have suffered since the industrial action started last Thursday against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to scrap pension benefits enjoyed by rail workers and some other public employees.

Seven unions representing civil servants said they would strike on November 20, saying in a statement that "the government was not considering their two priority demands -- purchasing power and public sector jobs."

Five teachers' unions said they would strike the same day in protest at the 11,000 job cuts planned in the education sector.

Sarkozy has announced plans to scrap 22,900 civil service jobs in 2008 by not replacing retiring employees.

Eight unions representing rail workers are to meet again on October 31 to decide whether to stage an unlimited strike from mid-November to protest the pension reforms.

Sarkozy has vowed he will not compromise on plans to end special benefits that allow half a million public transport and utility employees to retire as early as 50.

The head of the CGT rail union Didier Le Reste said the government should not underestimate the protest movement.

"When 73.5 percent of railway workers go on strike, the government should listen," Le Reste told Le Parisien newspaper. "It should be seriously concerned. It must go back to the drawing board."

Rail traffic outside Paris was normal on Tuesday as was service on the Paris metro and bus system.

The strikes are seen as the first real test of Sarkozy's resolve to push through reforms that were the centerpiece of the election campaign that won him the French presidency five months ago.

Strikes and mass protests forced a previous government to back down on the reform of the so-called "special regimes" in 1995.

The five unions representing energy workers from state-controlled EDF and GDF were to meet later in the day to decide whether to join in the November strike wave.

Employment Minister Xavier Bertrand was to begin a fresh round of negotiations on pension reform after one of the unions, the more moderate CFDT, offered to compromise.

CFDT leader Francois Chereque said members could agree to make pension contributions for a longer period of time: but only if the changes were implemented in phases and new criteria were used for calculating the pension benefits.

But a leader of the hardline Sud-Rail union, Christian Mahieux, told RTL radio that government demands to extend employee contributions from 37.5 working years to 40 were a non-starter.

"There is nothing to negotiate," Mahieux said, adding that if the government refused to back down, "we are effectively headed toward a conflict that could last ten days."

Chereque ruled out joining the civil servants' strike on November 20, saying there should be no attempt to "mix up" the issues, but the CGT union said the two groups could possibly unite their forces.

Polls show the government enjoys public backing for scrapping the pension benefits that are increasingly seen as unfair.

But plans to streamline the public service -- which employs one in five people in the French labour force -- do not enjoy the same level of public support.

(news.brisbanetimes.com.au)

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