French senate votes to ensure ‘minimum strike service’
The French senate has voted in favour of a law that would force transport companies SNCF and RATP to provide a “minimum service” even in times of strike.
Senators adopted the bill after its first reading on Tuesday, February 4. It was first submitted in early December 2019, just before the start of the general strike against pension reform, which began on December 5 and later became the longest-ever strike taken by transport staff.
The new text would require local transport authorities - for example, Ile-de-France Mobilités in the Paris area - to define what a “minimum service” would look like, and defines it as “covering the essential needs of the population”.
Transport authorities would also be responsible for enforcing the law.
There are already rules in place that say even at times of strike, transport companies should aim to provide a minimum service during morning and evening rush hours.
The existing 2007 "Bertrand law" sets out certain rules to avoid total disruption, including a "social alarm" feature that requires workers to attempt to negotiate before they are allowed to call for a strike. It also requires a strike to be announced at least 48 hours in advance, to avoid sudden stoppage of services.
Yet, the difference with this new bill is that it would give transport authorities legal powers to force striking workers to come to work if an adequate minimum service had not provided for three consecutive days.
The new bill also states that strike calls would become void if no worker takes action within five days.
Transport companies would also be able to force workers to strike during their normal hours, to avoid haphazard or very short work stoppages, which limit the impact on the worker’s pay but can cause severe disruption and organisational challenges for the company as a whole.
The new text also specifies detailed compensation allowances for transport users in case of severe service disruption.
Bruno Retailleau, senator of the Vendée department, who proposed the new bill, said: “This is about acknowledging the exasperation that our fellow citizens experience regularly, during tough social conflict, as they find themselves being taken hostage.”
He argued that a minimum service should always be guaranteed, and said that other European countries had a “much more effective [strike] framework” in place.
Senator Pascale Gruny has said that the existing 2007 law is "ineffective when the reason for the strike goes above and beyond the company itself, and is making demands that the employer [alone] cannot satisfy".
This applies in particular to the ongoing strike against pension reform.
Mr Retailleau said that the 2007 law was "progress, but is not, in any case, a guaranteed minimum service".
The bill has faced fierce opposition from left-leaning senators.
Socialist Laurence Rossignol denounced it as “political posturing”, while Éliane Assassi, president of the majority-Communist group CRCE, challenged the right-wing-dominated Senate to join the original fight against pension reform, rather than addressing the issue of strikes.
She said: “Join with us to ask for the withdrawal of the pension reform bill, and you’ll see, everything will return to normal.”
In response to the bill, junior transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said: “The continuity of transport service is essential to the daily life of the French public, and the country’s economy.”
But he conceded that the bill was at “real risk of being censured by the constitutional court”, and instead said that within the next few weeks he would “launch a legal project [on the issue], with a view to laying out proposals within two months, and holding a parliamentary debate”.
He said: “This project will focus on the condition of a minimum transport service guarantee, but also on [the issues of] unlimited strike calls, and very short strikes”.
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