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French strike for the right to retire at 52

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Some 4.5 million French have been immobilized by a national rail strike over what might be termed the most thoroughly French of all labor demands: the right to retire with full benefits at age 52.

How extensive is the strike?

On Tuesday the nationalized railway, SNCF, kicked off the first of a nearly three-month-long strike. With 86 percent of all trains canceled nationwide, 230 miles of traffic jams congested French roads on “Black Tuesday.” Video surfaced purporting to show desperate passengers climbing through the window of one of the few operational train cars.

The rails gradually returned to normal on Thursday. But the union leading the strike, CGT – which was long-aligned with the French Communist Party – plans to strike for 36 days: two out of every five days until June 28. The next two-day strike begins on Sunday.

Why is the SNCF striking?

The biggest issue that SNCF’s drivers can retire at age 52 – 10 years before other French citizens begin drawing a lifelong, taxpayer-funded pension. President Emmanuel Macron is demanding its pension system be brought into closer alignment with that of the average French worker before the government will agree to pay off SNCF’s €46.6 billion ($57 billion U.S.) debt. Macron’s reform would only apply to new employees and exempts the 200,000 existing drivers.

Further, the company’s efficiency, quality, and fiscal solvency have all been called into question. Although SNCF gets €14 billion ($17.2 billion) of public funding annually, the railway loses €3 billion ($3.7 billion) a year. President Emmanuel Macron wants to sure up its operations before EU rules require France to open its state-owned transportation market to foreign competition, a process that will take place between late 2019 and 2023.

Some in the government have also advocated greater free-market competition, which transport minister Elisabeth Borne said would mean “more trains, new services, cheaper tickets.” A union employee replied, “This type of competition is savage and it’s unacceptable.”

SNCF employees also receive automatic pay increases, protection from being fired, 28 vacation days a year, and free rail tickets for close relatives. But Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has called pension reform “not negotiable.”

SNCF workers responded by calling the largest strikes in modern French history – larger than the three-week-long strike the union called after then-Prime Minister Alain Juppe considered trimming pensions in 1995. Two years later, voters drove Juppe from office in favor of a socialist.

What is the outlook?

The number of striking SNCF drivers has grown, and 44 percent of the French public supports their efforts – up six percent from two weeks ago. The less militant CFDT union said that it will join Sunday’s strike, because “what the government has proposed is not acceptable.”

Why should Americans care?

France already faces fiscal strain for allowing its citizens to retire at age 62. According to the French free-market think tank Fondation iFRAP, that retirement age “has increased the burden on the state, hospitals, businesses and individuals. It has largely contributed to the increase in deficits and unemployment, and the loss of French competitiveness.” Subtracting an additional decade of work creates an even less sustainable system – something Americans, who face $6 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities, should understand.

Why should Christians care?

My most immediate concern is quite literally parochial: This Sunday is the day that my fellow Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter, or “Pascha,” as we call it. (For a detailed explanation of why the date differs from the Western Easter, see here.) I once had a parishioner in a major metropolitan U.S. city who rode more than two hours on public transportation, each way, to get to church every Sunday. Each stage was minutely scheduled – and dependent on each leg of the trip working without a hitch. Missing one step meant he would not arrive until just after service had ended. It’s not inconceivable in a nation far more reliant on public transport that the train stoppage may prevent some of France’s estimated 300,000-plus Orthodox Christians from reaching church on the holiest day of the year.

Rerum Novarum addresses this concern in a roundabout way, saying that labor conditions would be unjust “if religion were found to suffer” because people lack the “time and opportunity … to practice its duties.” Pope Leo XIII thought the actions of the employer, rather than those of a union, would necessitate public intervention – but the principle remains.

Christians should seek to “live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). This includes cultivating harmonious, rather than adversarial, labor relations. To this end, Catholic social teaching circumscribes the conditions in which a labor strike would be considered morally licit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church holds that a strike can be “morally legitimate when it cannot be avoided, or at least when it is necessary to obtain a proportionate benefit. It becomes morally unacceptable when accompanied by violence, or when objectives are included that are not directly linked to working conditions or are contrary to the common good.”

It is difficult to defend a strike intended to preserve a uniquely generous pension system enjoyed by only one class of employees, and which threatens the nation’s long-term fiscal solvency, on the grounds of the “common good.”

(Photo credit: vespar5 / Shutterstock.com.)

Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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