Workers Fight Pension Scheme

France Facing Social Confrontation

Léon Crémieux

Ayear ago, in November 2018, it was the Yellow Jacket movement that broke out on roundabouts and city streets.

A few months later, in the spring of 2018, it was the status of the SNCF (French National Railway Company) and that of the railway workers that was broken by the National Assembly. Meanwhile, SNCF was split into several public limited companies, the rail network opened to competition with the planned elimination of thousands of kilometres of lines. The status of railway workers dating back more than a century was abolished. This status gave guarantee of employment, and a recognition of hard and difficult nature of railway work by a retirement age of 52 for mobile workers and 57 for sedentary workers. The periodic strikes organised by the unions—18 strikes of 2 consecutive days over 3 months—wore out a strong combativity without creating a balance of power against Macron. On the strength of its successes, it was unemployment insurance that was attacked in autumn 2019, making it more difficult to obtain the right to access unemployment benefits. In addition, there has been a major attack on the national education system, reforming the last two years of secondary education and increasing social selection at the entrance to higher education.

Moreover, the French trade union movement essentially refused to recognise the yellow vest movement in autumn 2018 as an important step for the working classes and was therefore unable to seek, from the outset, to make a joint effort to organise a powerful movement against social injustice and austerity. This separation, even if it was then corrected by the most combative parts of the trade union movement, lead the government to believe that social oppositions would not be able to unite to block its offensives any more than political oppositions.

The recipe is simple: keep the share of pensions in public spending at the current level, at less than 14% of GDP, while the number of pensioners will increase by 1.5% by 2050. Mathematically, this would result, at constant euro, in the distribution of the same money supply among a growing number of pensioners, thus reducing pensions and impoverishing pensioners.

To achieve this goal, the government has put forward a project that destroys all current pension systems, denounced as unfair, unequal, with "special schemes" mat cost billions.

Today, more than 84% of the working population belongs roughly to two pension schemes:
The private sector employees (19 million employees) who today receive 50% of their average refence salary as a pension from a public pay-as-you-go pension fund, calculated in annual instalments, and around 20% from a national supplementary pension system (ARRCO-AGIRC) in a points system.

The civil servants of the State and local authorities (4 million employees) paid directly by the State and by a local authorities' pension fund.

To justify the urgency of its project, the government had to dramatise the situation.

The Macron government launched a major propaganda battle with the support of all the major media to denounce "the profiteers of a retirement system on the brink".

This meant wiping out what Macron himself had said on his campaign site in 2017:
"After more than twenty years of successive reforms, the pension problem is no longer a financial problem... For the first time in decades, the financial perspectives allow us to look to the future with reasonable serenity".

To create a climate; of tension and urgency, the government therefore expressly commissioned a new report from the official joint pension structure, the Pension Orientation Council (COR). This organisation had issued a report last June that was not alarmist and recorded (like candidate Macron) that, unfortunately, by 2017, the level of pensions paid would fall as a result of the attacks already made since 1993 on pensions, and that the system was in no way in danger.

Eager not to suffer yet another defeat and learning from the failure of 2018, as early as September 2019 SUD Rail and UNSA Rail launched a call for a renewable strike from 5 December in against the Delevoye project, followed by FO and the CGT. Even the CFDT railway workers called for a strike on 5 December. In parallel with the calls in the energy sector, in all sectors of the civil service, lawyers' unions and youth organisations launched calls for strikes and demonstrations. Even police unions announced "a symbolic closure of police stations". A national inter-professional call for 5 December was launched by all trade union confederations (except CFDT and CFTC).

The government, on the strength of its previous successes, hoped that 5 December would be a kind of "stormy passage", inevitable, but without a follow up, a day of strikes by the "special regimes", SNCF and RATP.

He was quickly disappointed. With 800,000 demonstrators according to the police and 1.5 million according to the CGT, the strength of the demonstrators and strikes reminded people the strongest days of strikes and demonstrations in all sectors.

In all sectors, militant activists have understood that it is necessary to build a real balance of power now, not to let go of what it has for promises, and to extend the strike beyond the transport sectors. The objective in the coming days is of course a convergence of sectors around the same demand, the withdrawal of the Macron project against pensions. The pressure organised by the grassroots forced the confederal leadership of CGT and FO to call together, with Solidaires and the FSU, for a new day of strike and demonstrations on Tuesday 10 December. The rate at which RATP and SNCF workers have voted to continue the strike, the cross-sectoral dates, should encourage the continuation of the strike in the civil service sectors and the extension to the private sector, which was very present in the streets on 5 December.

Whatever the extension in the coming days, this movement benefits from the gains in fighting spirit achieved in recent months. Over the past year, yellow jackets have boosted the entire social movement with dozens of dynamic, combative demonstrations, breaking with the routine nature of many previous marches. Moreover, this movement has been the only one in recent times to quickly obtain concessions from the government. By announcing, barely a month after the start of the movement, 10 billion following spontaneous demonstrations and the offensive demonstrations of 1 December 2018, a breath of fresh air has blown through the social movement. A social movement that does not feel that it has reached the end of its demands. All categories of hospital workers, particularly in emergency services, have also mobilised massively and over the past year, without the government being able to extinguish a movement that is still in Vogue.

To the left of the SP, forces have gathered several times in recent months in calls against security policies to denounce Islamophobia and support the movement against pension reform. The NPA has been at the heart of all these unitary initiatives.

But workers still far from a common anti-capitalist response that is forged in the heat of social movements and is not the reconstruction of an electoral mechanic. There may be an opportunity to move forward in this direction in many local initiatives within the current social movement, which is at the heart of the mobilisation. The pension movement directly raises the question of the society in which people want to live, free from exploitation and oppression, democratically organised to meet social needs. Advancing this perspective will depend in the coming days on the strength of the social movement.

[Leon Cremiéux is an activist of the Solidaires trade-union federation and of the New Anti-Capitalist Party, France.]

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Vol. 52, No. 29, Jan 19 - 25, 2020