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Striking French rail unions to hold vote over reform plans

Unions at French rail operator SNCF will hold a companywide vote next week on the government's contested overhaul for the heavily indebted group, aimed at proving that support for a long-running strike remains strong despite signs it is tapering off.

Striking French rail unions to hold vote over reform plans
Empty platforms at Gare du Nord railway station in Paris in April. Photo: AFP

Laurent Brun, head of the rail branch at the hard-line CGT union, said late Wednesday that the weeklong consultation would kick off on Monday, when unions have vowed to step up their protest with a “day without trains”.

“It's important to stamp out this idea that 80 percent of rail workers support this reform,” Brun said at the CGT headquarters in Montreuil, just east of Paris, adding that many workers cannot strike for “financial reasons”.

Just 14.5 percent of SNCF workers took part in Wednesday's strike, the lowest level since the rolling action began in early April, though 53 percent of train drivers walked off the job.

The vote echoes a similar move last week by striking unions at Air France, in which the government holds a minority stake, which stunned many analysts by showing widespread support for a pay protest — and prompted the head of the airline's parent company Air France-KLM to quit.

But union leaders said the goal was not to push out SNCF chief Guillaume Pepy but to show that opposition to the rail overhaul, a key move in President Emmanuel Macron's wide-ranging reform drive, remains strong.

“The idea is not to have Pepy's head, it's to give workers a chance to express themselves” without going on strike, said Bruno Poncet of the SUD-Rail union.

French Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud said Thursday that regardless of the vote's outcome, talks with unions would continue.

If workers vote against the project, “it will mean that we still have plenty of work to do in explaining it, and that many SNCF workers still don't understand that it's going to save the SNCF,” Penicaud told RTL radio.

The planned vote was also denounced by Pepy, who said Wednesday that the SNCF overhaul “is a matter for the French people, because it concerns measures adopted by parliament, and no one, not even rail workers… can deprive the National Assembly and Senate of their powers to legislate.”

Unions have vowed to make the government back down on plans to deny job-for-life and early retirement privileges for new recruits on the railways.

They also reject turning the SNCF into a joint-stock company whose shares would be held by the state — a move they see as a first step towards privatisation ahead of the opening up of France's rail passenger market to competition starting in 2020.

Union leaders met Monday with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who said further talks would be held on May 24th or 25th, ahead of the Senate debate on the reform.

Yet the CGT's Brun said unions want new talks as soon as next week, saying “the government should not try to run out the clock” ahead of a vote by lawmakers.

The rolling strikes, being carried out every two days out of five, are scheduled to continue until June 28th.

The stoppages have recently led to cancellations of one in two high-speed TGV trains as well as regional trains, causing headaches for the network's 4.5 million daily passengers, though disruptions have eased since the strike began on April 3rd.

But Macron has warned he will not budge on the main elements of the overhaul, saying the SNCF's operating costs are well above those of other train companies in Europe, even while service delays have increased on many lines.

READ ALSO: Calendar: When to avoid train and plane travel in France this spring

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STRIKES

French customs officers strike over job cuts

Customs officers across France will walk out on Thursday in protest at job cuts that unions say will “weaken the customs network”.

French customs officers strike over job cuts

The national strike on Thursday, March 10th is expected to lead to delays at ports, airports and on the Eurostar.

The strike, which will include a rally outside the National Assembly building in Paris, was called by the CFDT-Douane and has the support of other unions. 

A work-to-rule protest over pay and conditions by customs officers in 2019, under the shadow of Brexit, led to delays and disruption at airports, as well as ports including Calais and Dunkirk, and on Eurostar trains.

Unions are calling on the government to axe plans to switch responsibility for import duty collection to the Direction Générale des Finances Publiques by 2024, at the cost of 700 customs’ officer jobs – and, according to strikers, tens of billions of euros to State coffers.

“We are asking for the reforms to be stopped, mainly that of the transfer of taxation, which is disorganising the network with the elimination of nearly a thousand jobs,” CFDT-Douane’s secretary general David-Olivier Caron said.

The planned job cuts come after years of restructuring and streamlining that has seen thousands of positions disappear, the unions say, when customs fraud and smuggling is rising because of a lack of resources.

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