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Marseilles Transportation Workers Keep Strike Going

The disruptive strikes that pitted the French government’s calls for austerity against popular support for the welfare state ended nearly two weeks ago - everywhere but here.

The city bus and subway system in this sprawling and anarchic Mediterranean port has been shut down since Dec. 7 and could remain closed into the new year unless the authorities try to force parts of it open under police protection.

It is a struggle that has come to be viewed as a test of whether French workers can ever be brought to accept the idea that sacrificing a high standard of living may be necessary to preserve jobs.

The immediate issue is a two-year-old policy of paying new public transport workers less and requiring them to work longer and more flexible hours than older workers with seniority.

Such a double-tier contract is like those that many German, British and U.S. enterprises have used to cut wages and benefits that they say they cannot continue to pay in an increasingly competitive global market.

“If we don’t wreck the plan here, it will be tried in every other city in France with a public transport system,” said Jean-Louis Donniacuo, a leader of the Communist-affiliated General Confederation of Labor. “We say that a city like Marseilles ought to be able to pay for urban transport.”

But Henri Loisel, a city official leading negotiations with the five striking unions, said, “The city pays more than 500 million francs a year to make up the deficit in the public transportation system, and it simply cannot go on doing so indefinitely.”

The deficit, the equivalent of about $100 million a year, had to be brought down by improving labor productivity, he said.

Otherwise, service would have to be cut back, he said. Fares are $1.20 to $1.60, depending on the length of a trip, and he said they could hardly be raised further without becoming prohibitive.

The unions rejected a city offer of more than a million dollars to bolster workers’ benefits last weekend. Loisel said that he could offer more money to reduce the wage gap between the two categories of transport workers, but that the city would not give up its insistence on more flexible work schedules.

So Marseilles, a city of 800,000, goes on playing out a drama that ended nationally earlier this month.

The transport strike here had its own causes, but it was set off, everybody agrees, when Prime Minister Alain Juppe tried to reduce the $59.3 billion French budget deficit by whittling down some of the benefits regarded as rights by civil servants.

A result was a three-week shutdown of the national railroad system and work stoppages in schools and post offices that ended in most places the week before Christmas.

If Juppe thought that most people would support his proposals to make locomotive engineers retire as everyone else does at 60, instead of 10 years earlier as they were allowed to do when they sweltered in steam locomotives instead of electronic consoles, public opinion polls proved that he was wrong.

The national strikes ended when Juppe promised to leave things as they were, allowing locomotive engineers to retire at 50 and civil servants to collect pensions after working for 37.5 years, instead of 40 years as in private industry.

Trains started rolling again in Marseilles, too, but by then the bus and subway strike had focused on rolling back the two-tier wage plan that had been introduced over union objections in 1993.

“The plan is not as unfair as the unions say it is,” Loisel said of the two-tier system. “New workers start with base salaries below senior workers, but they can finish higher, with bonuses. But salaries are not so important to the city as flexibility in working hours, and the mayor has said we cannot go back on that.”

The flexibility the city wants is the ability to ask a bus driver like Laurent Kalfon, 26, to work 39 hours a week when it needs him - from 4:30 a.m. to noon, for instance, but maybe also from 4 to 5:30 the same afternoon, instead of just the straight 6 hours and 40 minutes a day that drivers with more seniority work.

And it would not allow him to take vacation in July or August, when senior workers do; he would have to settle for the off-season.

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