Rail unions at a crossroads in France as rolling strikes conclude

Anne-Christine Poujoulat, AFP | A man crosses the tracks at the Gare Saint-Charles in Marseille on April 9, 2018, as French railworkers launched a new two-day strike over plans to overhaul the national state-owned railway company SNCF.
Text by: Tracy MCNICOLL
4 min

French railworker unions on Wednesday began the last of 18 scheduled two-day work stoppages as a united front, concluding unprecedented rolling strikes that began on April 3. But French commuters have yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel.


As a heatwave took hold in France, travellers could expect to find four of five scheduled high-speed TGV trains running on Wednesday. Regionally, three of five Intercité and TER trains and two of three Transilien trains were due to operate, the national SNCF rail service had announced.

In the greater Paris area, the SNCF said only half of the RER C and D commuter trains were set to run with further disruptions to the RER B. Europe’s busiest commuter train line, the RER A, was expecting normal service.

During the most recent two-day stoppage on Friday and Saturday, only 10 percent of SNCF workers downed tools, a low-water mark, including fewer than 40 percent of train conductors, as participation waned in the wake of the disputed reform’s passage in parliament.

The bill that sparked three months of disruptive labour unrest -- opening the door progressively to passenger rail competition and putting an end to new hires under a coveted “cheminot” status that grants railworkers exceptional privileges -- overcame its final legislative hurdle on June 14, with French President Emmanuel Macron signing the bill into law on Wednesday.

For Wednesday’s 35th strike day, only 8.4 percent of overall railworkers were off the job, representing another dip from the 33.9 percent on strike when the movement began back in April.

More strikes ahead

But two leftist unions powerful in the rail sector have vowed to press on with the stoppages regardless, as a mark of contempt for Macron’s reform but also to set the tone for talks to come on matters that include how the reform will ultimately be applied and a pending new collective bargaining agreement.

The CGT Cheminots and SUD-Rail have both announced new strike action for July 6 and 7, a critical Friday and Saturday on the French travel calendar marking the start of school holidays across the country. CGT union chief Philippe Martinez further pledged that there would be more strike days during the summer and “even in September”.

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Meanwhile, the CFDT and UNSA unions, have signaled that Thursday would be their last strike day -- at least for now -- illustrating a tactical difference of opinion between the typically more radical and more reform-minded union forces.

“Our strategy is to carry weight in the negotiations” sector-wide and at the company level, not to weigh on the “mass holiday departures”, UNSA railway chief Roger Dillenseger explained.

CFDT Cheminots, for its part, said it was “suspending” its strike action “for the entire summer period”.

Long haul

“The idea is to be able to maintain resources for mobilising at the rentrée [when France returns to work and school en masse in September] because the upcoming negotiations will be long and complex”, CFDT Cheminot’s Sébastien Mariani told Agence France-Presse. “For us, that is the most pragmatic and efficient solution. We aren’t going to have a preventative strike.”

SNCF management, meanwhile, suggested the summer stoppage plans were out of sync. Mathias Vicherat, the rail firm’s deputy director general, questioned the appropriateness of summer holiday strike action noting that the next step, company- and sector-level negotiations, are long-haul talks.

“Of course there are still things to be discussed. But the legislative phase [of the reform] is over. During the summer no decisions will be taken, so it is a bit misplaced to strike during the summertime,” Vicherat told Franceinfo radio on Wednesday. “We have six to 18 months of talks ahead of us. So let’s talk,” he said.

In a survey commissioned by the SNCF and released Monday by the Ifop polling firm, 75 percent of French people surveyed disapproved of the move to pursue strike action through the summer months.

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