Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Special Regime for Railway Workers

Five railway unions, including the CGT and FO, are now calling for a strike on October 17 to protest the reform of the railway workers' special retirement regime. Three unions, including the CFDT, have not committed themselves.

Here are some facts relevant to the claims of a special status for railway workers. In 2005, the SNCF employed 168,000 workers, of whom 17 percent were women. The average age was 40. The frequency of workplace accidents of all levels of severity was just under 33 per thousand workers.

By contrast, in the private sector, for workers of all types covered by the general regime, the frequency of workplace accidents was just under 27 per thousand workers. For workers in construction and public works, however, the rate was more than twice as high, at 56 per thousand, considerably higher than the injury rate for railway workers as well.

The SNCF employs workers in more than 150 different trade specialties. Many are in clerical positions, work indoors, and have no contact with heavy equipment or rolling stock. The railroads have changed a good deal since Zola wrote La Bête humaine (and since Renoir filmed it).


Bernard Kouchner says that now that he's foreign minister, a "diplomacy of truth" has replaced a "diplomacy of hypocrisy." This by way of defending his remark, which he says was misinterpreted, that it's time to prepare for war with Iran. He's in Washington today, after visiting Moscow yesterday, where he paid a call on the offices of the Novaïa Gazeta and paused before the shrine in memory of Anna Politkovskaïa, the anti-Putin journalist who was murdered last year. The diplomacy of truth apparently does not exclude theatrical touches from the amply stocked repertoire of the founder of Médecins sans Frontières. I trust that his commitment to the truth will continue to be as forthright in Washington as it was in Moscow.

The Reactions

The reactions to Sarkozy's speech yesterday to the AJIS have been predictable. Le Monde says that the Sarkozyan "method" has left the unions "disoriented," yet it also says, correctly, that the goals he enunciated were the ones he had set forth in the campaign. The CFDT, which declares its readiness to engage on all the issues raised by Sarkozy, isn't disoriented; it merely insists on more time for negotiations. The CGT isn't disoriented: it has called for a "day of mobilization" against the reforms on Oct. 13, and who would have expected anything else? The CGT-Cheminots aren't disoriented: they say that Sarkozy has their federation "in his sights." And they're right, if you take "harmonization" of the special retirement regime that is so much more indulgent toward railway workers than the general regime is to other workers to be a punitive measure, as the workers do, rather than a measure to restore "equality" and substitute "justice for injustice," as the president describes it.

The unions are defending their acquis sociaux, which some would describe as hard-won benefits and others as unjustified privileges or "situational rents." It is perfectly understandable that they would react defensively, but since the "attack" was heralded by trumpets long in advance, one might have expected a more comprehensive response. Sarkozy does offer a coherent argument for his package of reforms. Fabius sees an "alignment" with the position of the MEDEF, but it would be equally possible to describe the package as an alignment with any number of respectable if debatable analyses of France's economic difficulties. The problem with the union response is that it ignores those analyses. If the unions refuted the arguments rather than simply wishing them away, there might be room for debate. In public, however, they prefer to repeat, "This shall not pass." And yet it might. I would venture to say it probably will. Sarko has attempted to soften the blow by offering the unions various institutional roles in the implementation of the new regime. Le Monde goes so far as to call his proposal a move toward a model more like the German, in which the unions are a central structural element in what political scientists like to call a "coordinated market economy."

But coordination implies willing acceptance by the unions of their role, and the French unions are not there yet, not by a long shot. Their rhetoric, at least in public, suggests that they are not ready to move very far in that direction (except for the CFDT, whose leadership may be ahead of its rank-and-file on this score). Sarkozy has shown signs of flexibility, however. He no longer speaks of a "single labor contract" but rather of "several avenues" of modification of the current system. He says that various reforms will be "articulated on a firm-by-firm" basis, allowing for special circumstances (pénibilité, for example) to be taken into account. The question is whether the unions' distrust of him will prevent these negotiations from being constructive. If the CGT spends the next month trying to line up support for its railway federation instead of trying to work out concrete modifications of the retirement plan for specific categories of railway workers (not all of whom are still subject to the same harsh and dangerous working conditions that led to the creation of their special regime in the first place), a full month of the available three months will have been wasted. I do not think they can win this fight, so they ought to take what they can get. My guess is that the government would be prepared to be fairly generous in order to head off escalation; a slow transition, easy on current employees, gradually phasing in changes for new hires, could be worked out. Why not seize the opportunity?