Unions and workers split over more strikes

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Militant French railwaymen voted with shows of hands yesterday to prolong a transport strike that has brought misery to tens of thousands of travellers. Many other rail, Paris Metro and power workers voted with their feet and abandoned the strike.

The future of the dispute – billed as a symbolic confrontation between President Nicolas Sarkozy and the unions – was uncertain last night. Government and most moderate national union leaders appeared content to suspend hostilities and enter a month of detailed negotiations on M. Sarkozy's plan to reform early retirement privileges for 500,000 public-sector workers.

In a series of depot meetings around the country, railwaymen and employees of the Paris Metro voted overwhelmingly to continue the strike into a third day.

Leaders of the railway sections of the main union federations – more militant than the national bosses – demanded further talks about the proposed talks.

Breaking ranks with their national leadership in some cases, they recommended that the strike should continue into a fourth day.

Much will now depend on the response today of other rank-and-file transport workers, two-thirds of whom are not union members. Just over half of all railwaymen – 54 per cent – ignored the strike call and turned up for work yesterday, compared to only 36 per cent on Wednesday.

In the Paris Metro and bus system, just over one in four workers went on strike yesterday, compared to half on Wednesday. Almost all electricity and gas workers have given up the strike but the protest continues in the Paris Opera and the national theatre, the Comédie Française, which cancelled all shows last night.

Enough people stopped work to cause a second day of serious disruption to mainline, suburban and underground rail services yesterday. Severe disruption is also likely today but the drift back to work is also expected to accelerate.

Fears – or hopes – of an extended dispute, merging with other public sector strikes next week, now appear to have faded. The government, which seemed at one point to be spoiling for a symbolic fight, has cooled its rhetoric. Members of M. Sarkozy's centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, have been told to shelve plans for a series of anti-union stunts and counter-demonstrations.

The eight trades union federations – from moderate to extreme left – are divided on what to do next. The more militant unions want to continue the dispute.

The more moderate federations called yesterday for an end to the strike to allow negotiations to resume on the small-print of the pensions reform plan – but railway sections disagreed.

The second largest trades union federation, the Confédération Gé*érale du Travail (CGT) is especially split. Its secretary-general, Bernard Thibault, is pushing for a negotiated solution, based on the government's plan to increase the career of railwaymen and Metro and power workers to 40 years, instead of 37.5 years.

The militant railwaymen's section of the CGT – once headed by M. Thibault – is still rejecting the government plan and demanding further concessions before talks can begin. M. Thibault, who was booed by his members at a meeting on Wednesday, is said to have taken a strategic decision to avoid a head-on collision with government.

A three-week strike by rail workers in 1995 – led by M, Thibault on exactly the same issue – almost brought the country to its knees. The CGT, once Communist affiliated, has most of its members in the public sector.

Under M. Thibault, it is trying to expand to private sector and white collar workers – just the kind of people who were standing in the freezing cold waiting for crowded trains to arrive.

President Sarkozy seems to have taken a strategic decision to avoid a long battle with unions. He had previously refused to allow government representatives to enter talks. He has authorised his Labour Minister, Xavier Bertrand, to propose month-long talks in each industry affected by the dispute, with government ministers, or officials, present.

The government is expected to offer to "compensate" workers for staying longer in the job.