The government of French president Emmanuel Macron has announced a reform of the national railways company SNCF in reaction to which the railway unions are considering strike action of up to a month starting in March.
The unions at former state-run companies, such as SNCF, power group EDF or Air France KLM airways form the last bastions of a kind of communist resistance in France that believes that the state has to pay to keep the staff happy and employed for life irrespective of operational results or any individual or group performance issues.
With the decline of the Communist Party over the past decades and the rout of the Socialist Party in the recent presidential and parliamentary elections, several of the main unions – such as CGT and Sud – make up the last fronts of resistance to any reforms and they are more than happy to paralyze the country with strikes in order to obtain a general pay rise (as with Air France) or hold on to specific advantages, such as at the railways.
Cynics might say that these unions apply “mob rule” by taking passengers and the economy hostage in negotiations that could just as well be settled in talks. For the unions, already facing diminishing memberships and a bigger role of the more conciliatory CFDT union, the battle for SNCF will be decisive for the future role of labor unions in France. Others say that the unions are the last resort for working people versus the power of the capitalist society.
For Macron and the government headed by Edouard Philippe, the reforms are a key plank of their drive to modernize and liberalize the French economy in order to make it more competitive and reduce unemployment.
The French railways may be famous for its TGV high-speed trains, it is also infamous for deteriorating services on regional lines, problems with maintenance and punctuality and mountains of debt – to the tune of some 47 billion euros.
These debts are not just the result of any mismanagement by the railways, nor the high structural costs of the “cheminots” rail workers, but also due to decades of political pressure and U-turns about where to create and maintain regional lines or, in a recent example, about when and where SNCF would need to buy new train sets.
This meant that while train companies in the rest of Europe were preparing for liberalization and more competition, the SNCF was fighting to keep any rivals out of France.
More than 90 percent of the staff at SNCF has a special status that entails some better pay, better pension arrangements and holidays than average workers in other sectors in France.
The unions want to fight hard to keep these relative advantages and rallied against a report drawn up by a former head of Air France that recommended the government t to close uneconomical “smaller” train routes.
However, when Prime Minister Philippe officially announced the start of the reforms, he said that the status quoi for current SNCF staff was guaranteed – but it would not apply to any new staff – and that it was not up to the government to decide on the future of regional routes, as these were co-financed by the regions and provided a public service.
Normally, that would have addressed the two main worries of the unions but they do not seem to have heard that.
Philippe also said the government might use a short-track procedure to get some laws signed off by parliament, instead of using a longer period of consultation with unions and parliamentarians which would have put the reforms or a slow lane.
With the current pro-government majority in parliament, the executive can risk this procedure but it is playing with fire. The main center-right opposition cannot really object to the reforms but the two extremist parties of Les Insoumis at the left and Front National on the right – both in the midst of internal strife – might use the train reforms as a life raft for their own survival. They are likely to argue that “Europe” is imposing the liberalization on the “jewel of France” for political reasons, and they will say that the mountain of debt at the SNCF is not the responsibility of the rail workers but of their bosses and the government.
This would take the matter to a usual French level – the fight will be about symbols and not about facts and passion can take the upper hand over reason.
For now, an opinion poll by Harris Interactive for RMC and Atlantico shows that a large majority of French people are in favor of ending the special status of rail workers and 43 percent would support strike action.
Macron and Philippe have some margin for maneuver but they have to act swiftly and decisively, at their risk and peril, to push through reforms that other political leaders either failed or did not dare to do.