Unionists in France march for wage hikes
120,000 public sector workers oppose gov't proposal
BY DEREK JEFFERS
PARIS--Five days after 300,000 workers demonstrated throughout France in defense of the right to retire at age 60, another 120,000 workers hit the streets January 30 in dozens of cities as part of their fight for a wage increase from the government of Socialist Party prime minister Lionel Jospin.
Responding to a call by all the union federations, hundreds of thousands of workers walked off their jobs January 28. Some 5.2 million public sector workers, including teachers, hospital workers, municipal workers, postal and telephone employees, among others, are covered by these negotiations. The actions rebuffed the 0.5 percent wage increase proposed by the government for 2000.The unions are demanding that the increase keep pace with the official 1.6 percent inflation rate for last year. Almost half of public workers earn less than 9,650 francs per month and an erosion of their wages would have a severe impact on their standard of living (1 franc=US 14 cents).
Two days after the public workers' actions, transportation workers--in their broadest strike since 1995--virtually shut down public transportation February 1 in Paris, demanding more jobs and wage increases to keep up with inflation, which rose more quickly in 2000 than forecast by the government.
Especially numerous in the 25,000-strong Paris demonstration were contingents of municipal employees and hospital workers. "It's not the pensions that should be lowered, it's wages that should be increased," chanted many demonstrators, referring to the January 25 actions. Other slogans called for hiring temporary workers, who make up a growing percent of the workforce, on a permanent basis. At one point the march passed in front of a Pizza Hut restaurant where 80 workers have been on strike since early January demanding an increase in their pay over the minimum wage. They set up a table to reach out to the marchers, with petitions and a bucket that netted contributions of 20,000 francs.
In addition to fighting for a wage increase, hospital workers are involved in a struggle to make the government restore 10 billion francs in hospital budget cuts and to create 12,000 new jobs.
They organized several months of strikes and demonstrations at the beginning of 2000 that forced the government to agree to these demands. But the unions have had to call another national day of strikes and demonstrations, slated for February 6, as part of a fight to get implementation of the agreement obtained last year.
The support for the wage fight and the January 28 demonstrations has wide backing within the working class. "These strikes and demonstrations are a good thing," said Patrick Grenier in Marseille, who had joined the demonstrations in defense of the retirement age. Grenier is an electrician at the state-owned SNCM (National Corse Mediterranean Company), the main ferry company between Corsica and the mainland.
Unions at the SNCM, which is not formally covered by the public workers' wage agreement, didn't call out workers for the January 25 actions, which Grenier regretted. "We have to defend ourselves," he said, "and fight for our wages, which are miserable." According to another SNCM worker, the average wage there is 8,000 francs a month. "I hope actions will continue in the weeks to come."
Meanwhile, the employers' federation, the Movement of French Enterprises, which has been demanding that unions agree to the requirement that retirees in the private sector must work 45 years instead of the current 40 in order to receive a full pension, is scheduled to meet February 9 with the unions.
However, after the massive show of strength January 25, all five union federations are adamant in refusing, for now, to agree to an increase in the retirement age.
Derek Jeffers is a worker and member of the General Confederation of Labor at the Peugeot plant in Poissy. Claude Bleton, a primary school teacher in Soisy and Marc Kinzel, a maritime worker in the port of Marseille, contributed to this article.