By Layli Foroudi and Leigh Thomas
PARIS – French railway worker Franck Viger-Brunet says he and his comrades have to count carefully the costs of going on strike to force President Emmanuel Macron to back down on plans to hike the retirement age by two years to 64.
“We pay for the days we strike. I have budgeted for the last month to be able to strike for a month (against this reform)… We’ve got to keep going,” the 58-year-old CGT union member said at a march in Paris on Tuesday during a second nationwide strike against the reform.
In what could prove a prolonged standoff, unions and their members are seeking to minimise the impact on personal finances already strained by the worst cost of living crisis in decades.
For 55-year-old nursery worker Said Bellahecene that meant working on Tuesday morning in order to be able to go on strike in the afternoon to avoid losing a full day of wages.
“I’ve got two kids and rent to pay, but I’m ready to lose a few weeks (of pay) and bring the country to a halt rather than lose two years later (under the reform),” he said at the demo.
More than 1.2 million people took part in Tuesday’s action, slightly more than in a first show of force on Jan. 19, though firms including state rail operator SNCF and state-controlled electricity group EDF reported fewer workers going on strike.
That means keeping up the pressure will be a challenge as the reform rumbles through parliament over the next two months.
While unions have so far displayed rare unity, hardline CGT leader Philippe Martinez raised the spectre of rolling strikes despite the financial sacrifice that means for many workers.
“The government wants to downplay the outrage, we’ve got to shift up a gear,” Martinez said on France Inter radio on Wednesday.
So far unions have tried to space strikes out to minimise wage losses. The next strike is due only on Feb. 7 and unions have also called for nationwide demos on Saturday Feb. 11, which would allow more workers to protest without having pay docked.
French unions generally do not have permanent strike funds to help members cope, though some will set up occasional kitties financed by donations for a specific cause.
One notable exception is the CFDT, France’s biggest union, whose members’ dues help maintain a “union action” fund that BFM TV reported recently had swollen over the decades to 140 million euros ($152 million).
While it is generally used to cover legal fees and compensate workers in local strikes, members are now clamouring for it to help cover lost pay during the pension strikes.
“We’re getting a tonne of questions about whether there will be some help,” CFDT head for the public service Mylene Jacquot told Reuters.
The government says the pension overhaul, which includes plans to increase how long workers must pay into the system, is needed to keep it out of the red in the coming years.
But unions say the plans represent a brutal rolling back of cherished social rights and their opposition is widely supported by the broader public, opinion polls show.
However, even before the cost of living crisis, French unions have struggled to resist government reform plans in the decades since massive strikes in 1995 successfully forced a conservative government to drop a pension overhaul.
Nonetheless, strikes can still yield results as the energy sector saw at the end of last year when unions won wage increases with a series of work stoppages.
That sector is now leading calls for more strikes with the head of the CGT‘s energy branch, Fabrice Coudour, saying a new round was set for Feb. 6 to 8.
“We’re motivated to go all the way until (the reform) is dropped,” Coudour said.
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