Industrial conflict breaks out at SNCF

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Late March and early April 2001 saw the organisation of a week of industrial action by France's six main rail trade unions, culminating in two day-long national strikes. The action sought to defend wages and pensions and oppose a restructuring of the SNCF railway company around its passenger and freight activities. The general industrial action was accompanied by a strike of train drivers, supported by the independent drivers' union, FGAAC, and the SUD rail union. The backdrop to the discontent is the plan to restructure the company and the overall liberalisation of the European Union rail sector.

In a troubled industrial relations climate and only a day after a nationwide urban public transport strike to enforce calls for negotiations on early retirement at the age of 55 (FR0104141N), railway workers, on the instruction of the six major rail trade unions - CFDT, CFTC, CGT, CGT-FO, Solidarity, Unity, Democracy (Solidaire, Unitaire, Démocratique, SUD) and the independent train drivers' union (Fédération générale autonome des agents de conduite, FGAAC) - began a week of industrial action culminating in two day-long national strikes on 29 March and 5 April 2001. The rail section of the National Federation of Independent Unions (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes cheminots, UNSA), which is the largest managerial and professional staff union on the railways, did not call for strike action. On the day after the 29 March nationwide strike, in which a third of all rail workers took part, CFDT, CGT-FO, SUD and FGAAC - but not CGT- decided to support a number of general assemblies of workers that voted to extend the strike action. The general industrial action was flanked by a strike of train drivers, supported by FGAAC and SUD.

The direct root of the industrial action were pay proposals put forward by the management of the French national railways (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français, SNCF) on 27 March, providing for a 2.41% rise in average wages in the rail sector. In light of the current renewed economic growth in France, the trade unions considered this increase to be insufficient. They also sought to defend pension entitlements. However, this industrial action also reveals discontent linked to the planned restructuring of SNCF, in the wake of the general move to liberalise the European Union rail sector, and to the relative loss of influence suffered by CGT in the most recent workplace elections of employee representatives at SNCF.

The Cap Clients plan

In an attempt to increase the percentage of goods transported by rail from 8% to 10%, the 15 EU Member States have agreed to open the rail industry to competition (TN0003402S). Three competition-oriented EU Directives have been adopted. However, for the time being, they cover only trans-European freight, with the major routes to be opened to competition in 2003. This will usher in competition in national rail networks as a whole by 2008.

It is against this background that nearly nine months of talks have occurred at SNCF on a planned restructuring around its various activities. Under the plan, known as "Cap Clients" ("Focus on the customer"), the various services provided to customers are to be separated. Management believes that this new structure will more effectively address the requirements of each individual group of clients. Therefore, instead of various facilities dealing with both passengers and freight, under the new structure, specific divisions for each would provide a comprehensive service package, from sales to delivery.

Some trade unions see this plan as potentially moving the company towards a purely business-oriented approach, and failing to consider the overall cohesion of the company. The head of SUD's rail section, Dominique Malvaud, believes that "much more than the issue of wages or sector-specific demands are at stake. We are demanding the withdrawal of the reform." CGT, which was not initially opposed to the plan, has changed its position in the wake of the major concerns it has raised among rail workers. The CGT general secretary (and former rail worker), Bernard Thibault, maintains that "the pressing need now is not another shake-up of SNCF's structure, which might also fuel fears of potential privatisation."

At a more general level, the trade unions are taking issue with what they see as the increasingly rapid shift from a public service-oriented rationale to one based on purely commercial interests. Rail workers fear that a move towards a purely commercial-based organisation would jeopardise safety, career management and good inter-division relations. Partitioning the company on an operations-oriented basis - separating freight transportation from passenger services - comes at a time when increased business is creating human resource and rolling stock headaches for SNCF. Passenger and freight traffic have risen by 19% and 16% respectively. Recruitment planned under the current move to the 35-hour working week falls short of the company's needs (FR9905182F).

In the face of union demands and industrial action, SNCF management initially announced that it would step up the pace of recruitment. It then that said it was prepared to look at all the contentious issues, including additional wage adjustments, stepping up annual recruitment and a "pause" in the "Cap Clients" restructuring plan. It also tabled proposals on train drivers' wages. In the wake of the negotiations, CGT, CFDT and CFTC called for a return to work, while CGT-FO, FGAAC and SUD came out in favour of continued strike action.

SUD and FGAAC emerge as major players

The current action by drivers is supported by two unions, FGAAC and SUD - with very different natures and histories - which saw increased support in the latest workplace elections in March 2000. SUD was created in 1995 following a split in CFDT, whereas FGAAC is the successor of the General Union of Mechanics and Drivers (Fédération générale des mécaniciens et chauffeurs), which was created at the beginning of the 20th century and was committed to defending the trade-specific interests and independence of the driving crew or "gueules noires" (literally the "soot-smeared faces") (see "Les cheminots" [Railway workers], Georges Ribeill, La Découverte, Paris, 1984). SUD and FGAAC have found common ground on the "identity-related" demands of drivers. The train drivers' industrial action has focused essentially on category-specific demands over wages and staffing levels. "We were once referred to as the kings of the railways. Today, we are more like the underdogs of the railways." This is how the federal secretary of the Atlantic region of FGAAC, Serge Bonnaud, sums up the issue, calling for a major improvement in the status of drivers.

The strike has served as a framework for a new power struggle between the unions at SNCF. The latest workplace elections held in March 2000 were marked by a significant fall in support for CGT, down from 48.5% in 1998 to 41.9%, and by a net gain for SUD-Rail, up from 6.5% to 10.6%. The vote also resulted in a slight drop in support for CFDT and improved scores for CGT-FO and UNSA. The two losers in the election – CGT and CFDT - were also the only unions to have signed the June 1999 agreement on the 35-hour working week (FR9906193N).


The strike dividing French railway workers and their rejection of the proposed restructuring of SNCF must be seen in the context of the competitive rail sector project advocated by the European Union. For the Community of European Railways (a European umbrella organisation for national rail operators), public service refers only to inter-city and regional passenger operations. The French trade unions view things differently. They see the identity of SNCF as a whole as revolving around the notion of public service and they are championing a continued public freight service, even if these principles mask varying stances by some unions (see "Les solidarités corporatives à l'épreuve. Les fédérations syndicales françaises face aux transformations des secteurs ferroviaire, postal et gazier en Europe" [Sector-based solidarity tested: French trade unions face changes in the rail, gas and postal sectors in Europe], Renaud Damesin, GIPMIS report for DARES, January 2001) Some trade unions see the restructuring of the company around its various activities as ushering in privatisation.

The rail strikes should also be seen as being linked to economic recovery in France and renewed wage demands. However, this industrial action also seems to represent an identity crisis. In a sector with a strong industrial identity, where government and management reform proposals are always closely scrutinised (see Georges Ribeill, cited above), "customer-oriented" culture is now taking precedence over a "public service-oriented culture". For this type of company, for which the main orientation has long been a technological challenge in the shape of the French high speed train (Train à grande vitesse, TGV), it is undoubtedly difficult to shift employee motivation towards an economic or commercial challenge. The latest strike action has essentially highlighted a long-standing identity crisis, which continues to bubble away under the surface irrespective of action over the various demands of railway workers. (Odile Join-Lambert – IRES).

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