The protest is in response to demands by the employers' organization to increase over a 20-year period the number of working years necessary to obtain full retirement benefits. This assault is a central part of broader probes by the bosses against the social wage won by working people.
The Movement of French Enterprises, or MEDEF, seeks to increase from 40 to 45 the number of years a worker must work to receive full pension benefits. This would effectively eliminate the right to retire at age 60, which was conquered by workers in 1982.
Given the unions' refusal to kow-tow, MEDEF announced January 12 that companies would immediately cease paying into a special fund that finances supplementary retirement benefits at age 60, a move that could slash benefits by 6 percent to 22 percent. This defiant step, unexpected by the unions, increases the importance and scope of the January 25 union mobilization.
Supplementary retirement benefits make up about one-third of overall pensions for most workers. In their call for a mobilization of workers and retirees, the union confederations demanded the right to a full pension at age 60. Today in France only 16 percent of men, and 14 percent of women between ages 60 and 65 work, compared with 60 percent of men and 30 percent in the mid-1970s.
The government and employers say changes in the pension system are needed because of growth in the number of people over retirement age, and the high levels of unemployment that have lowered the amount of retirement taxes paid by workers and employers to finance pensions.
Over the past decade the bosses have been chipping away at the retirement age. In order to retire at age 60 in 1982 workers needed to have worked 37 and a half years. Otherwise they had to continue until they reached age 65. In 1993 the government of Prime Minister Edouard Balladur began raising over a 10-year period the number of years necessary to work to qualify for a full pension. By 2003 retirees will have had to work 40 years if they are under 65. Some 14.5 million "private sector" workers were affected by this attack. Pensions were also effectively lowered in this reform by changing the number of years on which benefits were determined from the workers' best 10 years to 25 years.
In 1995 Prime Minister Alain Juppé failed in his attempt to extend the 40-year requirement to the 4.5 million "public sector" workers. These include rail, hospital, and postal workers, as well as teachers. Over a four-week period in November and December 1995, rail and local transportation workers effectively shut down mass transit throughout France. Hundreds of thousands repeatedly participated in demonstrations demanding that Juppé withdraw his demand. As a result, public sector workers continue to be able to take retirement at age 60 after having worked 37 and a half years.
A 1999 report, commissioned by Socialist Party prime minister Lionel Jospin, recommended increasing the number of years required for retirement to 42 and a half for all workers--in both public and private sector. But this was contradicted by a report adopted by the Economic and Social Council a year later that rejected raising the number of years a future retiree must work "for the moment," estimating that economic growth and the lowering of unemployment could provide the necessary resources to pay retirement pensions. The Economic and Social Council consists primarily of representatives of the unions' and bosses' organizations. MEDEF vice president Denis Kessler denounced the report as "irresponsible."
Meanwhile, an agreement was signed last year allowing tens of thousands of industrial workers to benefit from pre-retirement, generally at age 57, but in some cases at age 55 over the next five years, provided an agreement is signed by the employer and the unions. This is mainly being used by the auto bosses to get rid of older workers deemed less productive by the bosses.
In this context the government is still hesitating on a position to adopt on retirement reform, which it says is necessary. The harsh stance of MEDEF is widely seen as an attempt to force it to act.
The MEDEF's radical position on the age for retirement is the latest part of a campaign it launched a year ago that it calls "social refoundation." French bosses are trying to regain their competitive edge against their international rivals by attacking workers' rights.
In January 2000 MEDEF's general assembly, hoping to scare and impress the unions, voted to withdraw its representatives by the end of the year from the organizations that manage public health insurance, unemployment insurance, and retirement pensions if the unions refused to renegotiate workers' social benefits. These organizations are managed jointly in France by the unions and the employers.
A year ago MEDEF summoned the unions to a meeting where MEDEF president Ernest-Antoine Seillière declared, "The current situation relative to work relations and social protection cannot continue" and that "time is limited." He cited four priority questions that he wanted negotiated: unemployment insurance, retirement pensions, health care in the workplace, and collective bargaining.
A year later, MEDEF has made only modest progress on its agenda. After months of negotiations, renegotiations, and union resistance, an agreement on unemployment insurance was signed in December 2000 by three of the five union confederations and the bosses organizations, and was agreed to by the government. Both the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and Workers Force (LO) labor organizations opposed it. The new agreement requires an unemployed worker to sign a plan outlining his or her obligation to find a new job. However, the final version of the agreement no longer sanctions a worker who does not carry out steps outlined in this plan. The agreement also provides for lowering unemployment taxes paid by employers and workers. Another agreement modifies in certain cases the requirement for an annual health checkup for workers. Negotiations on collective bargaining procedures are continuing. MEDEF did not, as previously threatened, withdraw from managing the social protection organizations at the end of 2000.
Union leaders have announced that the January 25 action to defend the retirement system is only "a first step" and according to official statements they do not exclude the possibility of later organizing a national demonstration.
Derek Jeffers is an auto assembly worker and member of the CGT at the Peugeot auto plant in Poissy.
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