by Jerome a Paris
Thu Jan 15th, 2009 at 05:00:25 PM EST
Sarkozy has had some extremely harsh words today against railway unions:
|SNCF: Sarkozy s'en prend au syndicat Sud-Rail|
"Je ne peux pas accepter qu'une organisation syndicale irresponsable casse le service public et bafoue l'intérêt des usagers du service public en fermant la 2e gare de France sans prévenir personne", a accusé jeudi Nicolas Sarkozy, désignant nommément le syndicat Sud-Rail.
|Railways: Sarkozy attacks the "Sud" union|
"I cannot tolerate that a union breaks public service and tramples riders' rights by closing the second railway station in the country ithout any warning", Sarkozy said, blaming the "Sud" union by name.
|"Une organisation irresponsable essaie de tourner la loi, se moquant de son outil de travail, de la déontologie du service public" et porte "gravement atteinte à l'image d'une entreprises exceptionnelle", a-t-il accusé lors d'un déplacement à Vesoul (Haute-Saône). Il a évoqué des "images hallucinantes" et des usagers "pris en otage dans des conditions d'une violence inacceptable".||"An irresponsible organisation is trying to go around the law, without any respect for its company's assets or public service ethos" and is "gravely damaging the image of an exceptional company," sarkozy said durign a trip to Vesoul. he evoked "unbelievable images" and users "taken hostage in conditions of exceptional violence"|
So, what triggered such a scathing outburst?
A usual, he mixes several things. The Gare St-Lazare, the train station for Western Paris, was closed off yesterday afternoon because of a short-notice strike following an attack on a train driver earlier during the day. Such strikes (under a rule called 'droit de retrait', which is allowed when train workers are in a situation of "grave danger for their health or safety") happen each time a railway worker is so attacked; whether they are right or not is an issue that can be debated, but they are certainly not unusual. What was unusual is that the SNCF, the railways company, decided to close the train station (and all attendant traffic) completely for the afternoon, creating massive headaches for commuters stuck in Paris and other travellers.
The background for that one-day event is a strike in Gare St-Lazare - which is several weeks old, whereby train drivers go on strike for 59 mn in the morning (because strikes of less than 1 hour trigger only a loss of pay of one hour, and not the full day), thereby creating disturbances in service for the rest of the day. That strike is caused by a recent reorganisation of work and was, ironically, made possible by the government's recent decision to impose "minimum service" rules that reduce the right to go on strike (thus the 1-hour strikes).
"Sud" is a more radical union, that was created about 15 years ago when some of the existing railway worker unions were deemed to be too soft, but in this case, all unions are outraged by Sarkozy's comments, which, as usual for him, merrily mixes things that have nothing to do with one another: he's blaming the one-hour strikes for closing down the railway station, when they have little to do with one another; also, he's calling unions' actions illegal, when they are anything but, all in order to take advantage of the media noise around the station closure - and it of course helps that the Gare St-Lazare is mostly linked to well-off suburbs.
His language is unusually blunt (talk of "unacceptable violence" is rather aggressive: there was no damage to travellers beyond the inconvenience of not being able to take trains for a few hours and having to find alternative transportation - admittedly something that can be annoying or even mess up your day, but hardly 'violent') and suggests that he'd like to be seen as entering into a direct conflict with the railway unions, of course with the goal of being seen as the man who "broke the unions."
As I've noted before, railway workers, given their strategic position, and their relatively safe jobs, have become a de facto proxy strike representative for the wider French work force, which is almost not unionised and mostly unable to fight for its rights. Railway workers are those that make global strikes visible, and they are most often on strike for country-wide topics - and thus their actions are generally well tolerated and indeed mostly supported by the population, even as it inconveniences commuters (indeed, French people usually make a clear distinction between strikes with a wider purpose and strikes where they fight for their own working conditions, which are much less tolerated). Recent 'reforms' have tried to chip at their right to strike via changes to their work organisation, an attempt to mix the local and the general (ie the reforms appear to change their work conditions, but really limit their ability to participate to wider striked; protesting against such changes can thus be painted as a less popular categorial strike.
It's not clear yet where Sarkozy is going with this now. He forced the SNCF boss to apologize publicly on national TV, and to reimburse commuters for their monthly passes, and his words quoted above suggest he might want to push on with this fight; on the other hand, he's been trying to avoid anything that could fan the flames of social unrest, given the current context of crisis, so this may be yet another case of shooting from the mouth. But it should be followed closely.