French unions plan November strikes

PARIS Wed Oct 31, 2007 7:55pm GMT

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PARIS (Reuters) - French rail and energy unions called for rolling strikes next month, stepping up their campaign against government plans to cut back special pension benefits, union officials said on Wednesday.

Six rail unions called for strikes from November 13 and the main energy unions threatened to stop work the following day to intensify opposition to one of President Nicolas Sarkozy's key economic reforms.

A trade union official said the energy unions would go ahead with the strike if the government made no new proposals on its planned pension reforms by November 5. The unions said they would meet the following day to assess the situation.

"The government has not put to good use the time since the strike of October 18 and has failed to come up with the responses that staff were expecting," said Didier Le Reste, leader of the CGT union's rail workers.

Rail operator SNCF said it was prepared to conduct further negotiations over pay and conditions.

The unions' united front has crumbled since the October 18 action which halted rail services nationwide for a day and seriously disrupted transport for several days afterwards.

Workers at the Paris public transport authority RATP have decided not to go on strike for the moment.

The next protest will also go ahead without the main train drivers' union which has cut a separate deal with the government. The CFDT rail union said it would reserve its position until after talks with Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand.

PRIVILEGED STATUS THREATENED

The strikes have provided the first real challenge to Sarkozy's aim of overhauling the French economy and are reminiscent of the weeks of protest that sank a previous effort to reform pensions in 1995.

Sarkozy took his case to an SNCF depot last week and told defiant workers that "street blackmail will not work."

The so-called "special pension regimes" at the heart of the dispute offer workers in a range of sectors a privileged status that allows some to retire as early as 50.

The government has vowed to reform the system, which it says is unaffordable, and says all workers will have to pay pension contributions for 40 years to enjoy full pension rights, up from 37.5 years at present.

Unions say the proposed changes chip away at rights that protect those like railway workers who have physically demanding jobs that cannot be exercised past a certain age.

The government says such jobs are no longer as arduous as they were when the system was put in place after World War Two, and that the pension privileges are unfair to other workers.

Other workers are also unhappy. Cabin crew this week ended a five-day strike over pay and conditions at national airline Air France, and construction workers are set to strike on November 20 over pay and early retirement rights.

(For an analysis of the impact of the pension dispute on Sarkozy's reform plans, please double click on]

(Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey, Emile Picy)

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