Strikes resume as unions test Macron

2018-04-10 11:02:35
Summary:Rail workers pledge to continue action against economic reformsPARIS - Travellers grappled with another crippling w
Rail workers pledge to continue action against economic reforms

PARIS - Travellers grappled with another crippling wave of transport strikes in France on Sunday, as train workers protested President Emmanuel Macron's economic reforms and a standoff between the government and rail unions hardened.

Train staff last week began three months of nationwide rolling strikes in a dispute over the government's planned overhaul of state-run railway SNCF, in the biggest challenge yet to Macron's attempts to modernize the French economy.

The head of SNCF said on Monday that the rolling strikes have cost the company around 100 million euros ($123 million). Monday marked the fourth day of the strikes, which unions have vowed to continue until at least June 28 unless the government backs down on its reform plan for the debt-laden operator.

Talks between workers and ministers have so far hit a wall. Some unions are stiffening their resistance, while the government has dug in its heels on the main aspects of its reform, which include the end of job-for-life guarantees for rail staff.

"The status quo is not viable," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said in an interview published in the newspaper Le Parisien on Sunday. "It's urgent, we need to advance, and everyone should know we are determined to see this through to the end."

Officials at the CGT union said on Friday strikes could drag on well beyond June if nothing shifted, adding train workers were ready for a "marathon".

Strikes have been called for two days out of every five until the end of June, and the shutdown is already causing havoc for commuters and holidaymakers at the start of midterm school vacations.

"This endangers me professionally," said Olivier Coldefy, a court psychologist who works in French Guiana, whose travel plans fell through because of the chaos.

"I have work days that I've committed to that I can't honor," Coldefy added on Sunday morning at Montparnasse train station in Paris, where groups of tourists were scrambling to rebook trains after realizing theirs had been canceled.

The showdown is one of the toughest challenges yet of Macron's presidency, as well as a test for unions seeking to show they still have clout.

Macron came to power in May on a promise to shake up Europe's second-biggest economy, in a bid to modernize creaking institutions and spur jobs growth. He has so far faced down unions to liberalize labor regulations.

The government argues the overhaul will help transform the heavily indebted company into a profitable public service, but workers have hit back with complaints the SNCF was being dismantled to pave the way for privatization.

The SNCF reform has drawn public support so far, and 56 percent of French people thought the stoppages were unjustified, according to an Ifop poll published on Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche. But discontent is also brewing in other sectors.

Students have disrupted universities in protest at a planned new selection system in higher education. Garbage collectors and other public workers have also held rallies.

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