French rail unions vow all out war against government over reforms

French rail unions vow all out war against government over reforms
French rail unions say they are ready to lead a month-long strike in protest against plans by the French government to reform the country's ageing and indebted rail system.

Rail passengers in France hold your breath, there may be trouble ahead.

Furious rail unions in France are planning all out war against the government's plans to modernise the country's creaking and heavily indebted rail system.

After Prime Minister Edouard Phillippe announced plans on Monday, including an end to the special rail worker's status that includes a job for life, seven-hour days and generous pensions, unions fired a warning shot to the government.

Unions have already called a strike for March 22 after a government-commissioned report recommended the changes.

And further industrial action could be on the horizon after Philippe said the reforms would be controversially pushed through by decree, which would allow the government to bypass parliament.

On Monday, Laurent Brun, head of the CGT Cheminots union, the largest among rail workers, warned he was ready to lead “a month of strikes” in order to force the government to back down.

“We are surely on our way to one of the biggest union actions in the SNCF's history,” he told Le Parisien newspaper.

Union officials are to meet Tuesday to discuss their response to the government's plans, with the CFDT urging an indefinite strike starting March 1.

But it already appears unions are united in the eagerness to take on the government.

Laurent Berger, the head of the more moderate CFDT union said: “I won't let anyone spit in the face of rail workers.”

The CGT union promised to “bring the government to its knees” while Sud Rail, another hardline union promised a “hard movement”.

For is part the government was at pains to stress it was not trying to pick a fight.

The PM Philippe said that consultations would be carried out from next month before the reforms are pushed through mid-year.

“We want to move quickly without sidestepping consultations or parliamentary debate,” he said, adding that fears of closures on provincial lines were unfounded.

State rail operator SNCF is struggling under debts of 46.6 billion euros ($57.5 billion), not least due to a huge pension burden from drivers who can
retire in their early 50s.

“The situation is alarming,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said.

“Whether or not they take the train, the French are paying more and more for a public service that works less and less well.”

New recruits will no longer benefit from a special rail worker's status that includes a job for life, seven-hour days and generous pensions.

And the government will consider turning the huge state operator into an autonomous company backed by public funds, though Philippe insisted it would never be privatised.

Successive governments have failed to reform the heavily unionised rail sector.

In 1995, the national train network ground to a virtual halt for weeks over then prime minister Alain Juppe's attempts to reform the rail workers'

France's train network is considered among the best in Europe, ranked seventh in the 2017 European Railway Performance Index by consultants BCG.

But commuters in the provinces complain of patchy service and frequent cancellations, and Philippe claimed that running a French train is 30 percent
more expensive than elsewhere in Europe.

The reforms follow a government-commissioned report by former Air France boss Jean-Cyril Spinetta which criticised the quality of service offered by
the SNCF.

Unions blasted the report — which also suggested voluntary redundancies — and lashed out in particular at proposals to cut back on benefits.

More than 90 percent of SNCF staff — some 140,000 people — enjoy the special rail worker status.

Train drivers can retire at 52, while other benefits include access to tens of thousands of homes, sometimes at reduced rent.

Rail workers will join civil servants striking on March 22 over redundancy proposals and higher use of short-term contracts as Macron seeks to slash
120,000 public-sector jobs over five years.

Unions have staged several major protests since the business-friendly centrist came to power in May, but Macron has so far avoided the mass strikes and demonstrations under his predecessor Francois Hollande.