Striking railway workers suspended close to half of French trains on Wednesday in a dispute over working conditions as other services faced disruption amid an escalating stand-off between unions and the government over labour reforms.
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Members of the powerful CGT union voted to restart strikes at 16 of the country’s 19 nuclear power plants starting Wednesday evening to push for changes to the labour reform bill while airline pilots announced a walkout late next week in a separate dispute over pay curbs.
The pilot strike would coincide with the first days of the Euro 2016 soccer championships in France, adding new urgency to the search for a compromise.
CGT leader Philippe Martinez told LCP television his union had no intention of disrupting the soccer championship and urged the government to negotiate. But he also insisted it scrap a key article of the bill that would give individual deals made by the companies precedence over sector-wide agreements on pay and conditions.
Tensions also mounted between the CGT and the Medef employers’ federation, with the union urging energy workers to cut power supplies to Medef's Paris headquarters.
The SNCF state railway said six out of 10 high-speed TGV trains were running, along with one-third of other intercity services and half of regional trains. Eurostar trains to Britain were not affected, while 75 percent of services to Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland were running and about 40 percent of those to Spain and Germany.
Three of the four rail unions called their members out on an open-ended strike over a planned reorganisation even though the government has intervened to press SNCF management to protect conductors' weekends off. Managers say that concession could make the heavily indebted company uncompetitive when it has to open up to private competition in 2020 under EU rules.
A letter sent by Transport Minister Alain Vidalies to the UNSA trade union said the government was determined to find a solution to ease the €50 billion debt burden of the SNCF state railway and will present possible solutions to parliament in August.
SNCF said 17 percent of its staff were on strike, up slightly from a previous strike last week, and forecast similar traffic disruptions for Thursday. The CGT is also on strike at oil refineries and one-fifth of petrol stations are short of fuel.
One piece of good news for French authorities was a decision by the main SNCTA air traffic controllers union on Wednesday evening to lift its notice of a strike from June 3-5 over working conditions.
The nuclear plant stoppages will reduce output and force the EDF power company to import electricity from EU neighbours.
The Socialist government played down the disruption and stuck to its refusal to withdraw the planned labour reform, which is designed to make hiring and firing easier and to encourage negotiations on flexibility at company level.
“France loves to give this image of itself as a sort of permanent drama, but that’s not the reality. France is not at a standstill,” Jean-Marie Le Guen, secretary of state for relations with parliament, told Radio Classique.
The government has pulled out its chequebook to settle a series of sectoral disputes this week in an effort to prevent them coalescing into a nationwide protest movement ahead of next week’s start of the soccer tournament.
The conservative opposition vowed to amend the labour bill in the Senate, where it has a majority, to make it even tougher. The government can overrule the upper house when the legislation returns to the lower house for a final reading in July.
Opposition leaders said they would try to restore provisions dropped from the government’s initial draft that would have capped the compensation labour courts can award for unfair dismissal.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)
Date created : 2016-06-01