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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: 35 heures, retraite : ce n’est qu’un début..

by Yves Housson

The 35-hour work week, retirement pensions: This is just the beginning...

Translated Saturday 21 June 2008, by Gene Zbikowski

Mobilization: 500,000 demonstrations and more work stoppages in the private sector than on May 22... Despite disunity among the trade unions, the June 17 day of action has shown that the labor movement is not laying down its arms.

As you read these lines, you’ve doubtless heard this more than once: yesterday’s mobilization against the reform of the length of the work week and for retirement pensions was not as big as the trade unions would have liked. The leaders of the CGT and the CFDT, the main organizations mobilizing for the action, have not sought to deny it: not only was participation in the 124 demonstrations that had been planned across France uneven, it was also smaller than on May 22, the date of the previous day of action.

“Trade union divisions obviously had a negative effect.”

Bernard Thibault and François Chérèque did not fail to point out that “trade union divisions obviously had a negative effect.” Whereas FO, the CFTC and the CGC participated on May 22, this time they chose to remain on the sidelines. The CGT underlined the “weighty responsibility with regard to the workers and their demands” borne by the three union confederations.

Despite this handicap, hundreds of thousands of workers – 500,000 according to the CGT’s count – hit the streets to protest against the government’s plans. While, globally, this estimate does indicate a certain ebb, a detailed look at the day’s results shows greater private-sector participation than last month. “Nationally, we counted roughly twice as many calls for work stoppages, notably in the private sector, » CGT leader Jean-Christophe Le Duigou stated at noon. According to his analysis, other motives than the 35-hour work week and the defense of retirement pensions – in particular purchasing power and the threat of unemployment – led these private-sector workers to join the protests. Similarly, the CFDT leader François Chérèque pointed out that “in all of the demonstrations, including the one in Paris, more CFDT members participated than on May 22, and this was thanks to the private-sector workers.”

The small percentages of strikers among public workers, at the national rail company and on the Paris commuter trains, which the government ministers were quick to broadcast, cannot be a measure of the fighting spirit to the extent that, more often than not, they had been above all conceived to permit the workers to join the marches. In the final analysis, according to Bernard Thibault, “if you consider the fact that some public workers had already mobilized last week, you get a level of mobilization that is not that much different from May 22.”

The trickery of working more

In any case, it would take a lot of bad faith, or at the least, short-sightedness, to think that the June 17 demonstrations have let the government off the hook. Despite the increase in the number of attacks launched by the Sarkozy-Fillon team, the labor movement is not laying down its arms. There is no lack of examples. In the national education system, at the internal revenue service, and in the customs service, among others, the actions launched weeks ago against the massive job cuts and the abandonment of public service are taking root and are not withering away.

As concerns the length of the work week – but this also goes for retirement pensions – a lot remains to be done to make the vast majority of French people realize the radical change that the government deregulation plan represents for labor law and for workers’ living conditions. “It will take time to explain and demonstrate to the workers that they are being tricked,” that the reform of the length of the work week means “the end of working more to earn more,” because companies aren’t going to calculate work time in hours any more, but in days,” and that “it means working more without earning more, it’s trickery,” François Chérèque argued yesterday.

“We’re going to work for a return from summer holidays that makes a bang”

The CFDT and the CGT are planning a long-term action. “I don’t think that it’s a parting shot. We have fertile ground to work. We’re going to work for a return from summer holidays that makes a bang,” warned Bernard Thibault, alluding to the bill on the financing of social security and the finance plan which, in the autumn, “are supposed to ratify the government’s decisions as concerns labor, the length of the work week, and retirement pensions.” There will not even be any letting up over the summer, as the CGT is envisaging working on the job, among the workers, to explain the government bill in detail.

Will the government use the emergency procedure to get its bill passed? That would not be “a sign of strength, but of worry,” and in this case, “we will make our preparations, notably vis-à-vis the National Assembly deputies,” Thibault said yesterday. The same note was struck by the FSU [the main teachers’ union] and Solidaires, whose respective leaders, Gérard Aschiéri and Annick Coupé, both warned: “We can’t allow things to stand if the government does not change course.” Finally, there was another piece of good news produced by the June 17 protests: the left-wing parties and their deputies announced yesterday that they were available to develop a “counter-attack” together with the trade unions. It is obvious that the last word has not been said regarding the 35-hour work week and the defense of retirement pensions.

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