Strange bedfellows: French unions funded by strike victims

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Travelers waiting to to board a train at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019. Strikes, which began Dec. 5, have disrupted transport across France and beyond, hobbling Paris Metros and trains across the country and businesses. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

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PARIS (AP) — Labor unions’ outsized power and plentiful funds are driving the strikes crippling France to protest the government’s planned revamping of the retirement system. Unions represent less than 10% of salaried workers but have a cozy, if paradoxical, relationship with officialdom that empowers them to block change.

The state, local governments, employers and every salaried worker help fill union coffers — in part to buy peace from what the government calls its “social partners.”

But after a month of strikes no peace is in sight as President Emmanuel Macron tries to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 and do away with plans that provide special benefits to 42 categories of workers.

Past presidents have chipped away at France’s retirement system and salaries have not stayed abreast of the rising cost of living, said Franck Queru, a 52-year-old train driver and local official for the hard-left CGT union at Paris’ Austerlitz train station. But no leader has succeeded in making the kind of structural changes Macron is attempting.

Queru plans to retire at 54 with 75% of his salary, but he is on strike to ensure such benefits remain for his successors at the SNCF train authority.

He pays 1% of his monthly salary in union dues, and he scoffed at talk of retirement privileges or the reportedly hidden riches of the big unions. A 2011 parliamentary report on the circuitous finances of labor unions was buried, too taboo to be published.

“I don’t consider I’m favored,” Queru said. ”I think all salaried workers should have the same conditions that we do.”

The strikes, which began Dec. 5, have hit French landmarks, hurt small businesses over the Christmas season and hobbled trains and public transport. So packed was one Paris bus one evening that an elderly man with a cane fell out when the doors opened at a stop.

But France’s increasingly put-upon population has yet to rebel — an act that would demolish union cries of public support and weaken their negotiating position.

“The mobilization is still there. That’s a real message for the government,” CGT leader Philippe Martinez said after a Paris march that drew thousands on Saturday.

Public support is hard to measure. A Jan. 9 “day of action” protest may serve as a gauge. The strikes already have broken the 1995 record of a 22-day action over pension reform before the government backed down.

Clues might be found in online crowdfunding efforts to help needy strikers. The largest, started by the CGT union’s information and communication branch, tweeted that it had collected more than 1 million euros by Dec. 26.

“I think … people feel protected by the union organization,” said Olivier Lefebvre, a maintenance worker at a Peugeot automobile plant and top official of the Workers’ Force union at PSA Peugeot. “It’s stable. It’s always there, just in case.”

First legalized in 1884, two decades after Napoleon III accorded workers the right to strike, France’s unions have built up muscle and money over the years. Large unions have a considerable patrimony, including chateaux, some of them requisitioned at the end of World War II, according to Dominique Andolfatto, an expert on unions at the University of Bourgogne Franche-Comte. The chateaux are used in some cases as vacation or training centers.

But in recent years unions have been losing members — about a 30% decline since 1970, Andolfatto said. France now has one of the lowest rates of unionized workers in the 36-nation OECD, he said.

The loss in membership could mean a loss in funds from union dues, but a new category of public funding came into force in 2015 with a law obliging workers to contribute 0.016% of their paychecks to unions. The small sum adds up and is part of the cozy relationship between unions and the state.

Unions in some cases also benefit from direct subsidies from companies or cities and towns, Andolfatto said. Companies and the state also pay for employees “detached” from their job, some full time, to concentrate on union work, including arranging strike actions, he said, estimating that at least 20,000 civil servants are affected.

Officially, France “considers … that unionism is positive for the economy … It contributes to democracy, to development,” Andolfatto said. The unstated reason is that officials and employers consider they “are buying social peace.”

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