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Bernadette Groison: “Government workers are paying an unacceptably high price.”

Translated Sunday 12 September 2010, by Gene Zbikowski and reviewed by Henry Crapo

The general secretary of the largest teachers union in France denounces a harmonization policy that costs public sector workers without private sector workers gaining anything. For her, trade union unity is one of the major positive points of the Sept. 7 strikes and demonstrations.

As the summer holidays end, it seems that civil servants are one of Nicolas Sarkozy’s privileged targets.

Bernadette Groison: The goal of eliminating 100,000 civil service jobs in three years is already an indicator of what the government wants to do with the civil service. It has chosen to have fewer schools and administrative services – in short, fewer public services. And the cutting of 16,000 jobs in the national education service is already having an impact: absent teachers not replaced, a reduction in the number of two-year-olds in school, the end of the system for helping failing pupils, an increase in the number of pupils per class... The public service, of which it was said a few months ago that it served as a social cushion against the economic crisis, is really hurting. And the retirement reform is also particularly unfair to civil servants. Like all employees, they face a delay in the age of retirement – it is hard to imagine still being on the job at 65 or 67 – a measure, to which is added a harmonization of the contribution rates representing, once the measure has been fully implemented, the loss of one day’s wages every month, plus the abolition of early retirement for mothers of three or more children, and a restriction of access to a guaranteed minimum pension... And they’re also announcing a wage freeze. So government workers are paying a high price. It’s unacceptable.

Is the national education system in danger?

Bernadette Groison: We’ve reached the end of the end. When the minister pulls the “most deserving” pupils from the schools in rough areas and sends the “disruptive” pupils to other schools, he admits, de facto, that he has given up on all young people succeeding. There is no longer any ambition with regard to the 700,000 young people who are in the “priority education zones.” When confronted with school violence, I hear Education Minister Luc Chatel say “we’re going to punish them.” But I would like to hear him say as ardently that he will put personnel, in the right numbers and with the right training, in these schools, that he will also do things upstream by making education a priority.

Is the retirement issue going to crystallize all this discontent?

Bernadette Groison: Yes, because it impacts career prospects and each employee’s personal choices. That’s why we can create a real relationship of force that will make the government back down on this project. And we really want to connect it to employment and purchasing power, because it’s all linked. They tell us that we’re going to have to work longer, but young people can’t break into the job market and the seniors are expelled from it! 85% of the financial effort is demanded of the employees, but we’re depriving ourselves of social security contributions by depriving ourselves of jobs. People understand these contradictions. That’s why we have to be able to discuss everything and in particular the financing of retirement pensions.

Aren’t civil servants on the defensive in the face of a campaign that categorizes them as being privileged ?

Bernadette Groison: I think that was true a few years ago, but things are changing. Harmonization doesn’t mean doing the same thing with everybody. Employment structures [in the private and public sectors] are different the harmonization they are proposing costs public sector workers without private sector workers gaining anything!

What are you counting on to make the government back down?

Bernadette Groison: We won’t manage to make it back down without the mobilization of the employees and trade union unity, which is a major positive point. I think that, among the deputies and senators of the governing majority, there are hesitations and splits. Elected officials don’t all have the same relationship with the citizens. The nature of the debate can change.

If the government, as is possible, does not hear you on Tuesday, you’re going to have to move fast...

Bernadette Groison: Yes, that’s why the different trade union confederations will meet the very next day. The fact that the trade union organizations are all determined not to let this reform pass proves how serious matters are. There is a level of determination which must allow us, together, to find the means to widen and amplify the mobilization even more.

The umbrella organization uniting the different trade union confederations has been in existence for two years now. Does this represent a real change in the labor scene in France?

Bernadette Groison: It’s a sign of a certain maturity. We’re entering a new era in trade unionism in which the divergences and the nuances are accepted, so as to work out our common objectives and move things forward. This is essential for the employees, to renew their confidence in collective action. Beyond the consequences of the law on trade union representation, which is certainly going to change the labor scene, all of the trade union organizations are reflecting on the role of trade unions in France today.

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