On Wednesday 11 May the Hollande-Valls Socialist Party government in France forced the anti-worker Labour Law through without a parliamentary vote, using a piece of the constitution which allows laws to be adopted without a vote unless the government loses a vote of no confidence.
Trade unions and left activists have been fighting the law for months, and college and university students have been staging protests and sit-ins against the law. The government has also been trying to change conditions for railworkers in the state-run SNCF. The fight against the Labour Law is closely linked to this as railworkers′ are one of the strongest sections of the labour movement. Luca, a rail worker, spoke to Solidarity.
The union leaderships have done everything they can to put off the start of an open-ended strike; but the leaderships of the [more left-wing, minority] SUDRail and FO federations have called for an open-ended strike to begin from 17 May. The CGT is only calling for a two-day strike.
Revolutionary militants in the SNCF are calling for people not to content themselves with a two-day action, but to get stuck in for the long haul. Since the start, very large numbers of CGT activists have been wanting to go on an open-ended strike. For example, in my local union, on 9 March, we sent a motion to our national leadership, calling for an open-ended strike. But it is becoming clear that the CGT leadership is absolutely against such an action and are trying to get round that. For example, the CGT union at the Austerlitz station in Paris has called for open-ended action alongside the minority unions, without waiting for the nod from the national union. I think this will bring the whole CGT federation into the strike, if people move without waiting for the leadership.
The management plan to get rid of the current railway working regulations, and to replace them with a decree from the government, and with a collective agreement. According to what we’ve heard, this would mean getting rid of 10 out of 27 days holiday in a year; having a 48-hour working week with only one rest day in the week; and lots more flexible working. In France the situation is very different from the UK. The SNCF has 150,000 rail workers. There are private companies within the network which may employ around 5,000 workers.
About ten years ago the network was opened to competition, mainly in goods freight. Conditions for private company workers are much worse than in the still-public sector, much fewer rest days, much more work. The motivation for the current reforms is to “equalise” the conditions of public sector rail workers with those of private sector. There is a plan to open up competition for regional passenger transport by 2017, but currently there are virtually no private passenger carriers on the network. When rail workers became aware of management’s plans, the immediate reaction was a very strong mobilisation. The first strike day was 9 March, and on that day in some places the strike was observed by 80-90% of workers.
From early March there was a support for an open-ended strike. But the action of the union leaderships put a powerful brake on things, and all we have been able to pull together since then has been additional one-off strike days in April.