Unions recommend end to strike that disrupted French rail network | VailDaily.com

Unions recommend end to strike that disrupted French rail network

PARIS – Union leaders decided Tuesday to recommend an end to a strike that disrupted French train service, saying they were satisfied with concessions offered by the national rail operator SNCF.”Rail workers have been heard,” Eric Falempin, representing the Workers Force union, said after five hours of talks between labor leaders and SNCF management.Union leaders were prepared to recommend a halt to the strike when their members meet Wednesday, said Didier Le Reste, head of the rail workers’ division of the powerful Communist-backed CGT union.The SNCF said disruptions were still expected Wednesday, although traffic would be “markedly improved.” Most international trains, including Eurostar service to London and Thalys trains to Brussels, were to operate as normal, and two out of three high-speed TGV trains would be running. Delays were expected on domestic and commuter lines.Four unions called the walkout to protest restructuring, job cuts, pay and what they see as creeping privatization of the train operator – despite repeated government assurances that rail privatization is not planned.About 3 million people use French trains each day.President Jacques Chirac also stepped in to guarantee that the SNCF would remain a state-run company “whatever happens.” The SNCF, he said, was a “brilliant French enterprise, essential to France.”France earlier this year agreed to open its rail market to more European competition before the end of 2006, in exchange for a $1.8 billion state-sponsored bailout of the money-losing freight division of SNCF. Unions believe this will open the way for future privatizations.But Chirac said the SNCF’s statute as a state company would not “be put into question by anyone. I naturally guarantee this.”The SNCF said it would double performance-related bonuses for 2005 – meaning at least $140 per worker – to put a quick end to the strike. Unions also received guarantees for more jobs in certain sectors and the reopening of salary negotiations next year.”We obtained concrete measures thanks to the mobilization of rail workers,” said Le Reste, of the CGT union.The strike started Monday evening and caused widespread problems Tuesday for rail users. About one in three trains operated as normal on the suburban Paris network, while two in five high-speed TGV trains ran nationwide, the SNCF said. About 80 percent of international trains were running.The strike kicked off a week of planned demonstrations that added to problems facing Chirac’s center-right government, weakened by several weeks of rioting in poor suburbs.Transport woes were to be compounded Wednesday by a planned one-day strike on the Paris Metro over pay and benefits.Two unions representing secondary school teachers are due to stop work Thursday to protest budget restrictions, job cuts and a new substitute-teacher system announced by the government.—Associated Press Writer Christine Ollivier contributed to this report.Vail, Colorado

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