Crowdfunding and solidarity: How French rail workers sustain a record-long strike
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Now in their 25th day, France’s nationwide strikes against the government’s pension reform plans are the longest in more than 30 years. But how are strikers coping after nearly four weeks without pay?
On the eve of the New Year, the strikes led by French rail and transport workers are poised to become the longest of their kind in the country’s history. The last time workers at the national rail company SNCF went on strike for this long was in December 1986. That walkout, too, spanned the winter holidays: Employees returned to work only on January 15, 1987, after a full 28 days off the job.
With no retreat in sight from either the government or the unions, today’s strikes could soon beat that record, forcing strikers to find creative ways to cope.
“They’re losing money. The most committed make arrangements and set money aside in advance, but it’s hard, especially for those with low salaries,” said Fabien Dumas, secretary general of the SUD-Rail union. SUD-Rail is one of the leading railworkers’ unions along with the left-wing CGT, and insists that it will pursue the strike until the government withdraws its pension reform plans.
Protesters returned to the streets of Paris as part of a nationwide multi-sector strike against the government's pension overhauls. pic.twitter.com/kTMdmtnQQD— AFP news agency (@AFP) December 28, 2019
To make that possible, it’s relying on everyday solidarity. Collection jars are a regular sight at strike marches. But the bulk of fundraising today is done online. A crowdfunding campaign launched by SUD-Rail has raised more than €43,000 to date. Other unions, including the CFDT and UNSA, have also launched independent crowdfunding campaigns.
By far the most successful of the crowdsourced strike funds, though, is the one launched by members of the CGT’s Info’Com (information and communications) branch, which has so far raised upwards of €1.5 million.
This “solidarity fund” was originally created in 2016, during major strikes against labour law reforms passed by President François Hollande’s government. It is now serving as a de facto centralised fundraiser for those striking against pension reforms: Of the nearly €1.9 million raised since the fund was created, more than €1.2 million has been for the current pension reform strikes.
Most of that money has in turn been redistributed to those on the picket lines. Romain Altmann, secretary general of Info’Com CGT, says the funds have been disbursed according to “criteria defined by strikers and unions”. Altogether, the branch’s crowdfunding page says it has disbursed just over €1 million to striking workers since 2016. Info’Com CGT published a report in 2017 tallying all the funds raised and distributed to that date.
On Tuesday, the branch disbursed €250,000 to striking employees of Paris’s transit authority, the RATP. (All but two Paris metro lines – the driverless 1 and 14 lines – have been shut down or operating on a very limited schedule since the start of the strike on December 5.)
Blank paychecks and few formal strike funds
Such crowdfunding efforts are all the more crucial for strikers because most French unions do not maintain a formal strike fund. The CFDT, France’s largest union (and fourth-largest among railworkers), boasts that it is the only union in the country to have one. Financed by members’ dues, the fund allows striking members to collect just over €7 per hour while they’re on the picket lines.
While lower than France’s current minimum wage of €10 per hour, this hourly compensation is a unique boost to striking workers, and demands significant resources from the union. The CFDT fund, which also supports workers litigating labour law cases against their employers, holds more than €100 million, according to a union official who asked to remain anonymous.
Still, the CFDT official told FRANCE 24 that this has been a trying holiday season for those on strike.
“They know full well that this will have an impact on their wages,” he told FRANCE 24 on Christmas Eve, worrying that some workers would be “eating cans of cassoulet” (a bean dish) in place of a traditional holiday meal.
Other union leaders echo his concerns. SNCF employees who have stayed off the job since December 5 have by now lost an entire month’s paycheck, a SUD-Rail official told Franceinfo. RATP workers will see the cut in their pay at the end of January.
The losses are partially compensated by the “13th month” of pay that some French workers receive under collective bargaining agreements negotiated between unions and employers. RATP employees, for example, received this additional month’s worth of pay at the end of November, just ahead of the strike. SNCF workers, for their part, received their year-end bonus in mid-December.
Some returning to work
Indeed, despite widespread pledges of solidarity, most of those out on strike are forced to make do on their own.
“The strikers are doing what all French people do when they have a difficult end of the month,” says Thierry Babec, general secretary of Unsa-RATP. “Some of them have considered taking out loans or cutting into their overdraft” to finance their strike, he says.
Some are also returning to work. At the SNCF, the share of employees on strike has declined from more than 55 percent on December 5 to just 8.5 percent. Among conductors, fewer than 39 percent are still on strike, compared to 87 percent at the start of the movement.
Speaking to FRANCE 24 at a strike march in Paris on Saturday, one railworker conceded, “We have a few colleagues who are going back to work, but they say they will resume the strike later. They're just pausing for a few days.” A fresh day of national protests has been called for January 9.
In the meantime, it’s not hard to understand why many have returned to work, despite the apparent success of some crowdfunding efforts. Even the sums raised by the most successful campaign, if paid out in full to striking workers, would represent a tiny fraction of their losses in pay – losses that can range from roughly €60 to €100 per day, according to a CGT spokesperson.
Moreover, the sums actually paid out to workers by the crowdfunding campaigns often remain opaque, fuelling contention between union members and leadership. Laurent Brun, secretary general of the national railworkers’ branch of the CGT, has derided the crowdfunding efforts as opportunistic.
“This is how you instrumentalise the strike to collect money,” he wrote on Twitter of the Info’Com CGT campaign. “This fund does not represent CGT railworkers.”
“You distribute the money as you please and give the impression that you are collecting it [on behalf of the union], which is not the case,” Brun added.
‘Remarkable national solidarity’
Altmann, of Info’Com CGT, stands by “solidarity funds” like the one launched by his branch. He emphasises that “this money does not come from the CGT, it comes from donors”, and says those donors include many people “who couldn’t go on strike for financial reasons – women working part time, for example, or pensioners”.
Altmann says that even if the sums raised by crowdfunding are “a drop in the ocean” compared to workers’ losses in pay, they show “remarkable national solidarity” with the strikes. Still, he admits that the benefit is largely “symbolic” when those on strike face “tens of millions of euros” in lost pay.
This article was adapted by Colin Kinniburgh from the original French article by Tiffany Fillon.