Sarko, Union Get Ready to Rumble

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 10/15/2007 12:24:00 AM
The turning points against union strength in the US and UK are well-known: In the US, the air traffic controller's strike of 1981 where Ronald Reagan stood his ground and the UK coal miner's strike of 1984 where Margaret Thatcher did the same are epochal events that marked the diminution of labor bargaining power in both countries. Now, the year is 2007 and the country in question is France as public sector workers in the CGT union led by Bernard Thibault plan a walkout on Thursday. There is no guaranteeing that the outcome of the impending labor action in France will have the same epoch-making ramifications. Indeed, French President Nicolas Sarkozy may find himself on the losing end. Nevertheless, he will have to make a start sometime, and sometime is approaching fast. From Reuters:
French President Nicolas Sarkozy will not back down from a reform of generous pension perks for some public workers, aides said on Sunday, ahead of a strike seen as the first test of his resolve against powerful unions.

Railway, bus, power, gas and some other state workers are expected to strike on Thursday in protest of plans to eliminate privileges in certain sectors that let labourers retire earlier than their peers in other industries.

The strike, which is expected to disrupt transport and other services, is also seen as yardstick for public support of unions following Sarkozy's election on a promise to reform privileges enjoyed by only 6 percent of pensioners.

"The government will be very firm in its position," Budget Minister Eric Woerth said on Radio J.

Sarkozy's chief of staff Claude Gueant told Sunday's edition of Le Monde newspaper: "There is no chance of a climbdown."

Only around 8 percent of French workers belong to a union, and public support for union protests appears to be falling.

But they have a strong grip on public services and strikes have forced many previous governments to back down from painful changes that critics say are essential for France to modernise its economy and boost growth.

The SNCF railway operator has said only one train in four will be running on Thursday and Eurostar is also expecting a disruption. Airports and Air France flights may also be affected.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on Saturday he did not expect a repeat of the paralysis seen in 1995, when a government last tried to reform the special pensions regime.

"You never swim twice in the same river," Fillon said.

But Bernard Thibault, head of the largest CGT union, told Reuters last week he expected a strong turnout and many more strikes before the end of the year.

The government has passed a law to ensure minimum transport during strikes, but it will not take effect until next year.

The special pensions were introduced after the Second World War for jobs considered particularly arduous and allows those workers to retire after 37.5 years rather than 40 for others.

The reform also aims to make pension rises index-linked, ending a system in which the special regimes see retirement payouts linked to wage deals enjoyed by those still working in the sector. The reform aims to bring the two systems into line...

He [Sarkozy] is under pressure from the European Union to move faster on reforms to spur the economy and reduce the budget deficit.

While there is public support for this pension reform, there are also concerns that more measures are needed to address low economic growth, rising healthcare costs, and further inefficiencies in the pension system and job contracts.

Meanwhile, the London Times' Charles Bremner offers a portrait of the CGT labor union's charismatic protagonist, Bernard Thibault:

I have just spent an interesting hour with Bernard Thibault, boss of the CGT, the biggest and most militant of the French unions, ahead of the one-day national strike by rail workers and the Paris transport system. Thibault is the man who, as a young rail union leader, brought down Alain Juppé, Jacques Chirac's first Prime Minister, with strikes that paralysed the country for weeks. That was in 1995 and much has changed since then but the issue remains the same: the privileged retirement system enjoyed by public sector workers.

Thibault, 48, a likeable communist with ideas in tune with his early Beatles haircut [the Beatles were Commies?], stands for everything about France that sends Sarko into despair: intransigent, bloody-minded resistance to reform. He is predicting a mass walk-out to make Thursday's one-day stoppage a clear warning to Sarko to back off.

Thibault, who chatted to me in his office atop the vast CGT headquarters in Montreuil, on the east of Paris, acknowledges that Sarko was elected to reform, but les salariés (wage-earners) are beginning to realise that they were swindled, he said. Workers will be impoverished by reforms to retirement rules, pensions, working hours, labour contracts and unemployment benefit and all the rest of Sarko's recipe for putting France back to work, he says...

Thibault signals with twinkling blue eyes that he knows that public support is no longer there for a show-down over the privileges of the rail, power and other public sector workers. He also acknowledges that France has a huge problem financing its welfare system when it has about the lowest employment level in Europe -- with the young entering work late, high unemployment and firms encouraging early retirement.

But he will not budge because concession here would mean letting the enemy within the gates. He also has to keep up the hard line because he is being jostled by radicals in his own movement who believe he is too soft on the bosses already.

Thibault has been struggling to maintain his image as the hard man among the leaders of the five big unions. The other four, led by François Chérèque of the CFDT, are more open to reform. Unlike Thibault, they have accepted invitations from Sarko to talk with him not just at the Elysée palace but over meals at Paris restaurants...

It's difficult to get through to the human being behind the class war discourse, but it's obvious that Thibault, a motor-cycle fanatic and bon vivant off duty, is not quite such a Marxist dinosaur as he makes out. He concedes that globalisation is changing the nature of industrial relations and that France has to find a way of stimulating employment and paying for an ever-growing army of pensioners. He would also like the CGT, a Soviet-style apparatus with hundreds of different branches, to accept internal change more quickly. But, he says, his job is to stick up for les salariés while les patrons (the bosses) take care of their interests.

In the meantime, he says that he wants to put Sarkozy on notice not to make the mistake of Dominique de Villepin, President Chirac's last Prime Minister. His political future died when he surrendered in 2005 to protests and strikes over a youth