French Pension Revolt

15th of January 2020

Macron has pushed his neo-liberal agenda for years, ignoring unions, and workers and shattering the French concept of "social dialogue". Now unions, and the working class, are fighting back.

FRANCE - Hundred of thousands of French workers have been on strike for more than 40 days to protect the French pension system. But what exactly is president Macron trying to do with his pension reform?

The current pension system consists of a "general" classification, as well as 52 "special" classifications. Special classifications cover specific industries and trades that have negotiated special benefits, such as miners, railroad workers or airline pilots.... These industry based pensions have existed prior to the general classification and inspired the rest of the working class to obtain universal retirement rights. The "general" pension classification, created much later, attempted to create a universal system that covered all workers and operated on the principle of redistribution. The unique characteristic of the general system is that pensions are calculated based on the 25 best years of work, and not the career average, valuing the most productive years of a workers. Additionaly, salaries up to 30,000 Euros per month contribute generously to the fund, although they don’t get as much benefit from it, hence the redistributive characteristic of the system. The current reform project, called the "point-based reform", attempts to individualize the pension system. Firs,t it would destroy the long-fought for special classifications by absorbing them into the general one. Second, it would calculate pension benefits based on the whole career of the individual at the place of the best years as it currently functions, penalizing workers with unstable career or young people and women hit by unemployment an precarious work. Third, salaries above 10,000 euros a month would slowly be pushed out of the public system by having their contributions, and benefits, lowered. Finally, but not least, the government is trying to push back the effective retirement age to 64 years, at the place of the current 62 years, implementing punitive measures for workers retiring earlier. Pushing back the retirement age is the preferred method of anti-social governments to solve the deficit of the pension fund accounts.

Since the beginning of the current struggle over the pension system, the French "militant" unions have called for strikes in all the industries able to, demanding the repeal of the reform project in its entirety. The first workers to take up the struggle were those in special classifications, not only because they have the most to lose, but also because they are some of the most organized industries. Railroad workers at the SNCF and Parisian transit workers at the RATP have been the most active, leading marches, occupying bus yards and subway lines, and manning picket lines for more than a month. Teachers and other educational workers, inspired by the strike wave in the United States, have been striking at significantly high levels, especially during national action days. Unfortunately, they have not been able to maintain those participation rates in the long-term and shcools have mostly stayed open during the week. Healtchare workers have been extremely present in the movement. Many nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers have been on strike for months over public funding issue leaving hospitals and ER's understaffed, overcrowed and lacking material. Recently, French public lawyers have fully joined the movement voting for week-long strike actions followed by the quasi-totality of workers in the profession. Artists, including at the Paris Opera, have also been public and militant in their resistance to the pension reform. The refineries have joined the strike movement strongly by voting work stoppages in 7 out of 8 national refineries. These strikes are not unanimous and oil production is still active but capacity is drastically limited. Some airport workers such as pilots and stewards have taken part in national action days, but this is a sector that remains less organized than other transportation industries. There are many other professions and workplaces on strike that I cannot voer here such as longshoremen, public finance, tourism agents, steel workers...

The French government originally tried to oppose "privileged" special classification workers to the rest of the French working class, even daring to present its reform as a social justice issue. The French people never bought this argument. Since the first day of strike, on December 5th 2019, the population has shown majority support, between 50 and 60%, towards the strike and the social movement despite the heavy costs incurred. The marches and protests during weekly national action days (every Thursdays) have attracted hundreds of thousands of workers, students and yellow vests regularly filling up the streets of hundreds of small towns and cities. Never, under the 5th Republic, has a social movement lasted for so long without losing its momentum or popular approval. The reform itself remains deeply unwanted by the French population by a 60% + margin in every poll that is made public.

Each French union is a confederation with branches in a variety of industries and workplaces, there are not jurisdictional lines based on employment sector but the unions compete for support and membership within industries. In consequence union membership is primarily dependent on the strategy and ideology workers endorse. Every 3 years, every worker in France is invited to vote for the union that represents them the most, although they might not be a member. Here is a quick review of the unions, their ideology and their representation results. The "militant" unions have historically been the CGT (ex-communist, 24.85%), FO (split from CGT in 1947, politicaly independent & militant, 15.60%), Solidaires (rank-and-file and militant union, minority < 8%), FSU (Dominant union in the education sector, 34.91% in education) and the CFE-CGC (supervisors and managers union turned surprisingly militant, 10.69%). The reformist unions tend to be the CFDT (ex-socialist, 26.39%) and UNSA (confederation of “independent” industrial unions, minority < 8%). The latter reformist unions explicitly support the reform and the transformation of the pension system to the universal point system. However, they joined the movement when the government announced its aim of pushing back the retirement age to 64 years.

The government decided to divide this recent, and extremely rare, trade-union unity, by walking back on this later proposal. It offered a trap concession to the CFDT and UNSA: they now have 3 months to negotiate directly with employers to find a way to fund the pension deficit without changing pension levels or increasing pension taxes. If no solution is found the government will exercise its right to push its own solution of changing the retirement age. The unions that originally called for the strike movement, CGT, FO, FSU, Solidaires and CFE-CGC are still calling for protests and actions throughout the industries, boldly demanding a total repeal of the whole project and nothing less. The strike has become financially and mentally exhcausting for workers that have been participating since December 5th. But every day, workers in new professions and industries are stepping up. The deal broke by the CFDT and UNSA does not seem to change the power dynamics, and their collaboration with the government has little effect on the base of the strike. After all, the social movement started without them, it will probably not end because of them. Unions, as “social partners” have been ignored and step over by Macron consistently over the past few years, from the destruction of unemployment benefits, to the roll-back of fundamental labor law. Now unions, and the members and workers that compose them, are responding to the full extent of their capacity through strikes and occupations, marches and blockades, creating power on the ground. Winning this struggle will b crucial to revamp the confidence and power of the French working-class over neo-liberalism and a deeply undemocratic government.
While in France, I participated in 3 protests in Paris, Grenoble and Lyon.

Enjoy the pictures below!