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Do French unions have the money to win rail strike battle?

Jeff Pachoud, AFP | Rail workers on strike at Lyon-Perrache train station, April 3 2018.

Amid the latest round of French rail strikes on Saturday and Sunday, the unions are replenishing their financial resources to try and make the industrial action last as long as possible.

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Users of SNCF, France’s publicly owned railway monopoly, saw their weekends disrupted on April 28 and 29 in this year’s sixth wave of strikes. The industrial action has been going on since April 3, with strikes taking place two out of every five days – leading to nearly 100 million euros of losses for SNCF by mid-April.

The company’s striking workers have also lost out, since each day off work takes away a thirtieth of their gross monthly salary. The first of these deductions come in late April, but May’s losses will be the most difficult. With President Emmanuel Macron’s government vowing to stay the course, will the unions be able to hold out?

>> Read more: French strikes 'lack vital ingredients' of '68 and '95

Well-publicised kitty not big enough

A kitty on the French crowdfunding site Leetchi was set up on March 23 by a group of public intellectuals led by sociologist Jean-Marc Salmon. Within a month, it racked up 927,000 euros of donations for railway workers, and it is still growing. “We’re very sympathetic towards the striking railway workers," the group told French TV news network Mediapart.  "They’re defending one of our common goods and it’s important to ensure that their movement can last – so we’ll support them financially."

Salmon and the unions have agreed on the best way to hand out the money: a collective of four unions will form an association to share the proceeds. “This way, no union will have a stranglehold on the pot of money,” said Fabien Dumas, a member of the board of the SUD union, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

The association has already filed its statutes, “but we’re still waiting for it to be made official,” Salmon told FRANCE 24, adding that he hopes this can happen “during the first week of May”.

Fundraising will close on May 6, with the kitty potentially accumulating more than one million euros. Should the strike last longer then the funds will run out, says  Anasse Kazib, the SUD rail delegate for the Paris-Nord region, north of the French capital. He added that with around 20% of rail workers on strike – compared to over 33% on the first day – nearly 30,000 of SNCF’s 148,000 employees are engaged in industrial action. So a million euros whittles down to a mere 33 euros per person.

Thus, the pot of money will only compensate the equivalent of half a day of strike action for the lowest paid SNCF workers. As set out in March, the unions’ plan is for 36 days of strikes.

“I’ve been striking for a month and luckily I’ve got money set aside,” said Dumas. “But low paid workers don’t have savings and they’re already in trouble.”

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‘I don’t care if I have to eat tiles’

“My partner’s on strike too, so we’re doubly affected,” Kazib added. “All non-essential spending will go out the window. If we’ve got to cancel our summer holidays, so be it.”

Fortunately for the unions, they did not wait for the crowdfunding exercise before getting organised financially. “We’ve got local funds, like those for people striking in Paris-Nord,” said Kazib. “We give priority to people who are really in trouble, so the strikes can continue. We don't expect people who are given funds to then pay back the money at the end – it’s there to keep the fight going.”

For its part, the CFDT union has a strike fund for its members, financed by a small proportion of members’ union fees, that amounts to nearly 126 million euros.

“As soon as any given strike goes on for more than a week, members can access compensation of 7.30 euros for every hour they spend striking, provided they’ve been in the union for more than six months,” explained Sébastien Mariani, deputy general secretary of the CFDT rail branch, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “It would be quite logical for CFDT members not to ask for extra money if they’re already being compensated by the Leetchi crowdfunding pot,” he added.

Meanwhile SUD rail has managed to raise almost 72,000 euros; the UNSA union’s fund has nearly 13,000 euros.

“Money isn’t a problem,” said Kazib. “The railway workers are ready to strike: nine out of ten workers have registered for industrial action at least once. I don’t care if I have to sell my car. I don’t care if I have to eat the tiles in my house in order to win. I'll do it.”

Pot of money or no pot of money, some railway workers are determined to fight to the end.

This article is an adaptation of the original, published in French.

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