Customs officers take industrial action

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During March-April 2002, uniformed customs officers in France took various forms of industrial action to support demands for an increase in their danger bonus and enhanced pension conditions. It appears that proposals tabled by the Minister of the Economy and Finance on 22 April satisfied the demands of the officers' inter-union committee, and striking workers returned to work in most regions, with the notable exception of Orly airport.

In recent months, uniformed customs officers - 9,000 out of a total of 19,500 customs officers - have been demanding an increase in their 'danger bonus' and enhanced pension conditions. From March 2002, they stepped up industrial action in an attempt to promote their demands. Their tactics included blocking ferries and access to airports and border crossings, and closing down motorway toll booths. Uniformed customs officers operate on the roads, at sea and at ports and tunnels. They are responsible for monitoring these areas and for fighting fraud, smuggling activities and the trafficking of illegal substances, such as drugs.

The industrial action began in Perpignan on 13 March 2002, when officers handed the key to the side-arms locker to their head of department. The dispute rapidly spread to all 43 regional customs departments throughout France. This action took various forms, including surrendering keys, as in Perpignan, refusing to wear uniforms, blockading trains, shutting down motorway toll booths and working to rule, as well as more spectacular tactics, such as an incident in Dunkirk on 22 March, where officers walled up the customs department with concrete blocks.

This largely grassroot-driven dispute and its local strike activities were overseen by an inter-union committee, made up of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), the French Christian Workers' Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC), the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT), the General Confederation of Labour-Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail-Force ouvrière, CGT-FO), the French Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff-General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (Confédération française de l'encadrement-Confédération générale des cadres, CFE-CGC), the National Unitary Customs Union (Syndicat national unitaire des douanes et droits indirects, SNUDDI), Solidarity, Unity, Democracy (Solidaire, Unitaire, Démocratique, SUD) and the National Federation of Independent Unions (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes, UNSA).

The dispute had been brewing for a long time. The creation of the EU single market and progress in European integration have significantly altered customs officers' jobs. Frustration among customs officers boiled over in late 2001, when industrial action by police and gendarmes resulted in their gaining benefits that customs officers have long been demanding (FR0201144N).

Customs officers consider their jobs to be just as dangerous, if not more so, as those of police officers and gendarmes. They are therefore demanding that their danger bonus – currently standing at 9% of pay - be brought into line with the 23% paid to police officers and gendarmes. Customs officers are also demanding an increase in pension funding of one year's contributions for every five years of service as 'compensation for hardship' experienced in carrying out their duties, which would also bring them into line with gendarmes and police officers.

Initial talks in early April with officials from the Ministry of Economy and Finance, which is responsible for customs services in France, did nothing to reduce the striking customs officers' combativeness. On 22 April, against the backdrop of the outcome of the first round of elections for the French Presidency, the Minister of the Economy and Finance, Laurent Fabius, proposed increasing the danger bonus from 1 July 2002 by between 4% of gross pay for class A officers (the most senior positions) and 7% for class C officers (the most junior positions and the majority of officers), at an overall cost of EUR 10.2 million.

On the issue of enhanced pension conditions, a specific task force is to be set up to look into the issue. This process will be handed over to the new government, with a recommendation to accede to customs officers' demands.

The majority of regional customs departments went back to work following the 22 April meeting. Customs officers at Orly airport voted to continue action until at least 30 April, but to carry out their duties and bear their side arms.

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