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French Parliament Approves ‘Reforms’ to Railways Amid Union Protests

The new laws stipulate a contract with few protections for new recruits, and may speed up the path to privatization of the service.

Disregarding the protests of railway workers, the French parliament approved the controversial reform to the national railway, SNFC, disenfranchising new employees of job security, and changing the public firm’s legal status to that of a joint-stock company. The latter move, workers fear, will open the door to privatization.  

On June 13, as the controversial bill was passed in the National Assembly – which is the lower house of the parliament – one in two rail drivers, 41.5% of the controllers and almost 20% of the signalers were on strike in protest against the reforms. The following day, the senate backed the bill, with 245 votes in favour and 82 against. Since April, the railway workers have been striking for two consecutive days in every five, in order to pressurize the government and the parliament to not pass the bill.

One of the demands of the rail union has been met by the government, which has agreed to bear 35 billion euro of the total of 55 billion euro debt of the SNFC. But there has been widespread anger over the the change to the firm’s legal status from a public company to a private joint-stock company, in which the French government will be the single shareholder. The government has been claiming the railways will not be privatized but the suspicions of those who believe otherwise were further fuelled by the leaked minutes of a meeting on May 4 between the company’s officials and transport ministry. These revealed the former requesting the government to limit the  “non-transferability” of the shares to main holding company.

This request, if heeded, will imply that while SNFC’s shares cannot be sold to private entities, there will be no such restriction on the company’s subsidiaries, such as SNCF Mobilités, which manages the trains, and SNCF Réseau which manages the infrastructure.

“In concrete terms, this request paves the way for a privatization of the public company, whereas for weeks, the government and the management have been telling us that this railway reform is not the privatization of the SNCF,” Fabien Villedieu, a spokesperson of SUD Rail union, warned. The Transport Minister, however, continues to claim that the subsidiaries’ shares will also remain public and non-transferable.  

The reform bill also changes the contract under which new recruits will be hired from 2020. Currently, 90% of the SNFC staff are employed under a contract called “Statut de Cheminot”, which accords them a high degree of job security. This system prevents the employer from firing the workers for the purpose of improving the company’s profit margin. A worker’s service can end only through resignation, retirement or health issues. The contract also allows a railway worker to retire between the age of 50 and 55. The bill scraps these hard-won rights of the railway workers.

“The law has been passed definitively, and it will be applied,” Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne said, adding that the government will be holding talks to decide the new labour agreement under which the workers will be hired.

This meeting is scheduled for June 15. It “must be the beginning of real negotiations to meet the demands of the railway workers and must therefore have consequences,” CGT Cheminots, the largest of the railway unions, has demanded.  CGT Cheminots has given a call to extend the rolling strikes for two more months, beyond June 28, when the three-month long industrial action was supposed to end.

However, not all unions are for this extension. While CGT Cheminots and SUD-rail have decided to continue with the strikes, UNSA, which is known to avoid taking radical positions, has called for an end to the strikes on June 28. The CFDT will decide its course after a vote on June 28.

Having a significant representation among the drivers – who have been the major participants in the strike – the  CFDT’s decision will be a crucial element in determining the strength of further mobilizations.

In France, the rail union has historically been at the forefront of defending workers rights, and has successfully thwarted attempts by multiple governments to weaken the public sector and social security. If President Macron can pursue his reform programme despite the union’s protests, the implications will not be limited to the railway workers. Having already passed a slew of reforms – which has adversely affected pensioners, public and private sector employees, civil servants and students – Macron is likely to go an overdrive in further assaulting workers’ rights across sectors.    

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