Monday, March 29, 2010

Thousands of French workers march to defend pensions

Lisbeth Latham

Thousands of public sector workers mobilised against the Sarkozy governments push to reduce workers’ access to pensions. On March 23, more than 180 protests across France as part of the unions’ campaign against the assault on pensions. The protest has been seen as a reawakening of the movement against the Sarkozy government’s neo-liberal austerity drive, a movement that had collapsed over the latter half of 2009.

The Sarkozy government has proposed to lift the retirement age above its present level of 60 and to increase the minimum number of years which workers work in order to receive a full pension from 40 to 41 years. The full pension is 50% of salary over the best 25 years, this figure is capped by the social security ceiling. Below this pension there is a guaranteed minimum old age pension, which is 678 Euros a month. The government argues that the changes are necessary in order to offset the impact of France’s aging population. The push to increase the pension years was first made in 1985. The attempts to attack France’s pensions have been slowed through successive waves of worker mobilisations, the most spectacular being the massive public sector strikes in 1995. In 1993 the minimum number of years of work required to qualify was increased from 25 to 40. In order to add impetus to the attack, Sarkozy has moved Eric Woerth from the Budget Ministry to the Labour Ministry, as Budget Minister Woerth pushed through the sacking 100, 000 public servants between 2007 and 2010.

In a statement issued on March 23, the New Anti-Capitalist Party highlighted the impact that the proposed changes on those sections of the workforce who already struggle to achieve full pensions. Women in particular are expected to find it difficult to achieve a full pension due to the socially assigned role of women as carers. At present three quarters of retired women receive the minimum pension which is 40% of the average male pension. Opponents have also argued that in the context of rising unemployment, with 5 million unemployed, an increase in the pension age is criminal.

The mobilisations were supported by a coalition of five union confederations the General Confederation of Labour (CGT); French Democratic Confederation of Labour; United Union Federation; National Union of Autonomous Unions and the Trade Union Solidaires. The 2009 movement drew together eight confederations. The mobilisation size, unions estimate between 600-800 thousand, was also substantially down on the height of last year’s movement, which at its height drew more than 3 million people into the streets. However the protest is substantially larger than the last inter-union mobilisation of last year. The decline of last year’s movement has been seen as reflecting a contradiction between the widespread anger at Sarkozy’s response to the financial crisis, even as the movement decline opinion polls showed a large majority of French people supported the movement, there was also growing disillusionment with polls also indicating that people did not believe the movement would be successful. The renewal of the movement is seen as reflecting anger at the Sarkozy government’s determination to push on with their austerity measure despite being rejected at the regional elections. Bernard Thibault, CGT general secretary, told Reuter on March 23 “Ever since Sunday we have heard (the centre-right) say 'we are going to maintain course'. They aren't listening and that poses a real problem”.

In response to the attack, the union confederations will meet March 30 plan further actions. The CGT is calling for further coordinated mobilisations in April and on May 1. The radical trade union Solidaires in a statement issued on March 23, called for an amplification of the mobilisations. The statement argued that for the movement to win will require dynamic mobilisations and that the mobilisations of 2009 (during which no national strikes were called in support of the mobilisations) imposes a responsibility on the unions to propose a united plan of worker mobilisations aimed at achieving an inter union general strike. This perspective would guide Solidaires’ proposals at the inter-union meeting.


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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