Strikes focus on earlier retirement

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After lorry drivers won the right to retire at the age of 55 following a strike in December 1996, public transport drivers have been voicing the same demand in disputes which have hit towns throughout France since January 1997. The press has played up this particular demand of the strikers, to the embarrassment of the Government and the opposition Socialist Party, both of which view lowering the retirement age as completely unfeasible. The demand may reflect a wider unrest in a context of high unemployment and fears among many employees that their working conditions are deteriorating.

In January and February 1997, many French towns were hit by public transport strikes, affecting bus, tram and underground rail services. The strikers' demands differed somewhat from town to town but certain themes have been common. such as: improvements in working conditions; better protection from crime and delinquency, two consecutive days off in a week; and less taxing route schedules. Strikers have also been demanding pay rises and a reduction in the working week to 35 hours or less, with the recruitment of new personnel to take up the slack. Demands for the right to retire with full pensions at the age of 55, along with systematic replacement of retiring employees by new recruitment, have also been frequently voiced.

The last of these demands initially came as something of a surprise to trade unions and political parties. Lowering the retirement age has not been on the agendas of any of the national union organisations. The CGT (Confédération générale du travail) embraced the demand wholeheartedly in mid-January, when Louis Viannet, its general secretary, called for national legislation encouraging a reduction in the retirement age to 55. The CFE-CGC (Confédération française de l'encadrement - Confédération générale des cadres) has expressed firm opposition to the idea. The CGT-FO (Confédération générale des travailleurs - Force Ouvrière) and the CFTC (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens) have neither espoused nor endorsed the demand, but see it is a sign of French workers' general discontent. The CFDT (Confédération française démocratique du travail) opposes earlier retirement while adamantly supporting reductions in weekly work hours, although the organisation's members have supported the demand for a lower retirement age alongside other trade unionists on a local level.

While support for the lorry drivers and the public transport workers seems to have been quite widespread, opinion polls on retirement age have been widely played up by the press with headlines stating that a majority of French people are in favour of retirement at 55. A closer look at the questions suggests that the press has somewhat exaggerated the positive response. The most widely quoted response was to the statement (in a BVA poll in early January): "Retirement age should be lowered to 55 for all French people in order to create new jobs." Although 61% of respondents answered in the affirmative, their main concern may well have been job creation rather than earlier retirement age as a demand in itself.

Pressures for public financing of strikers' demands

The government is under pressure to provide partial public financing for meeting strikers' demands in the public transport sector.

The state budget will finance a good part of the lorry drivers' new earlier retirement pensions. Drivers can now qualify for a pension at of the age of 55, whereas most private sector employees must wait until the age of 60. They qualify for early retirement on condition that they have worked as lorry drivers for at least 25 years. Their early retirement pensions will be equivalent to 65% of final gross salary. The cost of the measure is shared between employers, employees and the state budget. Employers' payroll contributions in the industry will increase by 0.3 percentage points and employees' contributions by 0.2 points. The cost of pensions paid out between the ages of 55 and 571/2 will be financed by the extra contributions. The extra payroll contributions are supposed to cover only 15% of gross pay from the ages of 571/2 to 59. The rest, that is 50% of gross pay from the ages of 571/2 to 59, is to be financed by the state.

The public transport sector is putting pressure on the government to provide partial public financing for reductions in work hours. In the private sector, a law passed in June 1996 (commonly known as the Robien law, after the member of parliament who sponsored the legislation) granted employers which negotiate working time reductions and hire new employees, exemptions from part of their payroll social security contributions. However, the law applies only to private companies operating in competitive markets and not to public utilities.

In some towns, public transport employers have signed provisional agreements with unions promising to reduce the working week and hire new workers, on condition that the Government allows them to use the Robien law to help finance the measure. The CFDT is calling for extension of the Robien scheme to public utilities. The national public transport employers' association, UTP (Union des transports publics), whose members represent a majority of the public transport systems in the country (140 out of 170), is pressuring the Government to grant companies in the sector recourse to this measure.

The lorry drivers' settlement has set a precedent that the Government is determined not to extend. However, it is difficult to justify refusing similar treatment to other sectors. The Government also seems determined not to extend the Robien law to public transport for fear that other public utilities would seek similar treatment. They have, however, declared that they are willing to consider setting up a similar scheme specifically for public transport.

Retirement age in France

Prior to 1993, in order to qualify for a full retirement pension, most French workers in the private sector had to satisfy two conditions:

  1. they had to be at least 60 years old; and
  2. they had to have worked and paid minimum contributions to the retirement system for at least 150 quarters (371/2 years).

The retirement age had been lowered from 65 to 60 in 1983, under the Socialist Government of the time. A 1993 reform of the retirement system, which was prepared under the Socialist Government but actually passed after Jacques Chirac had been elected to the Presidency, did not change the retirement age, but increased the number of quarters required for a full pension. That number is now scheduled to increase gradually from 150 quarters to 160 over a period of 10 years. Currently, most private sector workers may retire with a full pension at the age of 60 if they have worked a total of 153 quarters, that is 381/4 years.

However, many public utilities employees can qualify for retirement pensions before the age of 60:

  • some public transport workers can retire as early as 50: engineers and repair staff employed by the SNCF national train company ; and metro train drivers, bus drivers and repair staff employed by the RATP Paris area public transport system. Suggestions by the Government that retirement age might be raised for SNCF personnel was one of the elements that triggered a strike movement on the railways at the end of 1995; and
  • personnel of the national electricity company, EDF, can retire at 55 years of age. Personnel other than engineers and repair staff employed by SNCF and RATP may also retire from 55.

The fact that workers performing the same jobs in Paris can retire at 55 or 50 is particularly galling for public transport workers in the rest of the country.

Commentary

The 1993 reform of the retirement system is scheduled gradually to increase the number of years of work required for retirement with a full pension. When the reform was passed, there was a notable absence of reaction on the part of workers and of trade unions, which expressed virtually no opposition to the measure at the time. During the strikes of December 1995, railway employees' defence of their early retirement age met with widespread sympathy, and demands for earlier retirement on the part of lorry drivers and public transport workers have elicited much public support. This support could be a sort of delayed reaction to the 1993 reform and might herald future opposition to the reform as it goes into effect. (Lucy apRoberts, IRES)

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