France Disrupted by Unions Striking Over Pension Reforms

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By Abayomi Azikiwe

President Emmanuel Macron has been further exposed for his neo-liberal policies by proposing a series of pension reforms which have prompted a general strike among French workers. For over a month, hundreds of thousands of union members have held mass demonstrations and work stoppages in protest against the economic policies of the government.

France has been long known for its work-related benefits granted to public employees which guaranteed vacation time, health care and pensions. Nonetheless, in recent years under pressure from the bank-directed administration appointed by Macron and other previous governments, efforts to curtail these amenities and to raise the age level for retirement of employees have been implemented.

On Saturday, December 28, thousands of workers clashed with police after the gendarmes fired tear gas in an attempt to break up crowds near the most concentrated shopping and tourist areas of Paris. The union members were joined by the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movement which has been holding weekly protests in Paris and other cities over the last year against the escalating costs of tolls for highway travel by motorists, among other issues.

One of the activists designated as a leader of the yellow vest movement, Jerome Rodrigues, reportedly sustained another eye injury during the unrest on December 28. Earlier in the year, Rodrigues was hit in the same eye by a tear gas canister fired by the police.

Through the efforts of transport workers, rail lines have been closed making it extremely difficult to travel throughout the country. Commercial activity during the year-end holiday season was severely disrupted due to the strike, said to be the longest industrial action in France since the 1980s.

The transport workers reiterated their commitment to staying off the job until Macron relents and abandons the pension reforms. “We’re ready to hold for quite a while,” Laurent Djebali, a representative of the metro branch of the Unsa union, told told the Guardian newspaper.

General Secretary of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), Phillipe Martinez, gave no indication as to when the strike would end despite what appeared to be conciliatory language from Macron leading up to the holiday season. Macron appealed to the unions to halt the strike temporarily so the work stoppages would not hamper shopping and tourism during December. The workers refused the offer and have escalated their actions demanding an end to the proposals issued by the French government.

The capacity of commuters to reach their destinations has been severely curtailed with limited service on the rail lines around Paris and from the central city to the airports. Approximately 44 percent of the employees operating the national railway lines are on strike.

CGT leader Martinez said in response to the request for a pause in the strike that: “Obviously, a transport strike is inconvenient, but when we face such a reform, which will completely upset our social system, which will make everyone retire later, I think it’s worth investing in the movement. It’s a strong movement and still supported by public opinion. The government shows how agitated it is with this kind of conception of social dialogue.”

Opposition to Pension Reforms Widespread Among Workers and Opposition Parties

The proposed new requirements for retirement and the collection of full benefits have attracted broad criticism within France. Several left-wing and right-wing political parties are condemning the plan to lift the age for retirement with maximum benefits from 62 to 64. Under the guise of developing a “universal system” of regulating benefits for all retirees in France, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has introduced the reform proposals. Nonetheless, unions are skeptical about the overall objectives of the government due to the failure of Philippe to lay out the entire package proposals for public scrutiny.

There are “special regimes” for certain sectors of the working class which allows for retirement as early as 55. This is true among transport employees which is a factor in the anger sparked by the proposals.

This notion of a “universal system” with no exceptions is largely viewed by many unions as a mechanism to implement cuts throughout the entire working class. At present there are some 42 different pension plans determined by the sector in which workers are employed.

According to an article published by France Local on December 11: “[T]he reforms will be introduced in phases, with anyone born before 1975 not affected at all. The government previously planned to include everyone born in 1963 or later, but chose to push back the age-limit in response to the strikes. Those entering the labor market for the first time in 2022 will be put straight on to the universal system, with changes phased in gradually for those in between.”

Phasing in by age ranks the adoption of the new purported “universal system” is clearly designed to break down solidarity among different generations of workers. A similar project has been adopted in the automotive industry and other sectors of the labor market in the United States with two and three tiered pay and benefit scales. This approach means that younger workers will inevitably face lower benefits and later retirement age requirements than their older counterparts.

These proposals which are scheduled to be introduced before the French parliament in January, represent a continuation of already existing changes in the pension system enacted since 2010. The Conservative government under President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010 was able to extend the retirement age from 60 to 62. Four years later, the Socialist government of President Francois Hollande, signed measures which required workers to be employed for 43 years in order to receive full benefits.

Prospects for passage of these reforms in parliament remains highly probable considering that the party of Macron, La Republique En Marche, constitutes a majority within the legislative body. Consequently, the only real hope for pressuring the finance capital oriented administration to abandon the proposals is through pressure by the working class utilizing the withdrawal of their labor power.

Implications for Pension Reforms within the Capitalist System

The struggle over pension rights and retirement benefits is not limited to France. This is a major issue for workers across the entire capitalist world. French workers contribute over 11% of their salaries towards pension funds. In several European countries such as Italy and Greece the percentage is even higher.

In the U.S., there have been concerted attacks under both Republican and Democratic politicians against defined pensions, in both the private and public sectors. In the automotive industry along with the adoption of tiered wage structures, it is quite common for newer workers to receive far less in terms of pension benefits than employees with longer tenure.

Public sector pension systems are also a target of the banks which view worker benefits as sources of profitability. In Detroit, during the contrived imposition of emergency management and bankruptcy during 2013-2014, some $5.5 billion in pension funds were stolen from municipal employees and their retired colleagues.

These cuts translated into a 4.5% reduction in monthly benefits for general retirees along with an 18% “claw back” of their annuities savings. A year-end bonus for retirees, known as “the 13th check”, was eliminated arbitrarily by the federal courts during the bankruptcy in Detroit despite the strong pension guarantees embedded in the Michigan State Constitution.

Of course further reductions may be in the offing in another five years as the bankruptcy court accepted a faulty “Plan of Adjustment” presented by a law firm, Jones Day, which took over the emergency management and bankruptcy implementation from the City of Detroit at the aegis of the-then Republican Governor Rick Snyder. Even though Michigan now has a Democratic Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, there has been no suggestion from the State government to reinstate pensions and healthcare benefits for retirees in Detroit.

The workers in France are taking up a key element in the struggle against capitalist austerity. As the gap between the ruling class and working people expands, there will be further efforts to seize control of larger amounts of the salaries, pensions and healthcare benefits of employees.

In the U.S. as well, the administration of President Donald Trump has suggested a proposal to reduce Social Security benefits. These plans on the part of capitalist governments must be opposed through general strikes, mass protests and campaigns to elect genuine socialists to public office.

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