Currently, private sector workers may retire at age 60 if they have worked or received unemployment benefits for 40 years. The Movement of French Enterprises (MEDEF) is seeking to raise this requirement to 45 years and to abolish retirement at age 60.
The massive January 25 actions, organized jointly by all five major union federations, demonstrated the determination of workers to push back the employers' attack. "We don't want to die on the assembly line!" said Lahcen Berdam, a 33-year-old Peugeot auto worker at the Paris demonstration. Bertrand Mann, 33, who also works at Peugeot, added, "The bosses are exaggerating a little. Already it's the workers who benefit the least from retirement. If they want to make us work 45 years before retiring, forget it."
However, MEDEF scored a point in the agreement reached February 10 after a marathon 21-hour negotiating session with the union federations. The agreement calls on parliament to "reform" the retirement system before 2003, notably by "using the factor of the length of time worked in order to enjoy a full pension." This was understood as a watered-down version of the employers' demand to push back the retirement age. The new agreement to continue financing supplementary pensions expires at the end of 2002. "The ground France has lost" in reforming retirement "handicaps its competitively," declared MEDEF vice-president Denis Kessler. He pointed to Germany, which recently put through a reform of its system, as an example of the way forward.
Only two federations, the Democratic Confederation of French Workers, and the smallest federation, the Christian Confederation of French Workers, ended up signing the agreement. The other three federations, including the largest union force among industrial workers, the General Confederation of Labor, Workers Force, and the General Confederation of Administrative and Technical Employees (CGC), while saluting the bosses' concession in resuming payments into the current retirement system for another two years, refused to sign the call for "retirement reform."
This was the first time ever the white-collar workers' union, the CGC, has refused to sign an agreement on supplementary retirements with the employers. CGC president Jean-Luc Cazettes publicly called some of the MEDEF proposals "idiotic." White-collar workers had formed significant contingents in the January 25 actions, a fact widely noted in the bourgeois media.
The Socialist Party, the main political force in the current governmental coalition, as well as the main right-wing parties, supported the agreement, while the Communist Party of France and the Green Party--both government coalition members--criticized it. MEDEF promptly announced plans to begin negotiations with the unions in March on reform of the national health-care system.
Derek Jeffers is a member of the CGT and an assembly line worker at the Peugeot auto plant in Poissy.
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