Imagine what would happen in Los Angeles if a bunch of pinheads decided they didn't like their retirement plan at work and protested by blocking all the major highways. A line of people holding a sit-in on the 405. People waving signs and blocking entrances to the 101 and the 110 freeways. Their work worries aren't not your fault, but it's you who has to be put out. That's sort of what's happening in France. AGAIN.
New reforms are being proposed to change the work regulations of unions, notably the SNCF, in France and the reaction they're going with is the old, faithful one: go on strike and stop the trains.
Today was day #1. 10% of the normal metro traffic ran. Only 90 out of some 700 TGV trains did their routes. The RER A and B lines were dead. TV news stations reported something like 200 miles of motionless traffic around the Paris region.
The scene today was bad enough, but what really gets me is that this is not unheard of here. The train drivers just pulled a stunt like this a month ago. Why are they so mad? Because the government wants to make some changes, the big issue being that of retirement. TGV drivers retire at the ripe, old age of 50 and anyone insisting they push that age back is asking for chaos. A few strikes ago, someone sent me an email explaining all the perks of driving for the SNCF and I list that message here (translated from French):
-Starting salary: 2,200 to 3,200 euros net monthly (1 Euro is about $1.46 as of today)
-Free healthcare: Covered 100 percent at 15,900 medical centers
-Retirement at age 50
-End of year bonus
-All kinds of bonuses, including one that translates to charcoal bonus. (This dates way back to the day when transit workers were exposed to health hazards from the coal powered trains. The coal powered trains are long gone, but the bonus remains. Go figure.)
-Free transportation for employees and their families
-A 25 HOUR WORK WEEK
The SNCF represents 1 percent of employees in France, yet their workers account for 20 percent of days on strike among all strikes in France. And, like playing pétanque and drinking apératifs, strikes are a tradition here.
And what a month for strikes it is. Not only is the transport sector in the mood for being a pain in the @$$ but the feeling is shared by the energy sectors and the universities. Students have blocked off several campuses protesting in favor of autonomy for universities. Last week, they took it off campus and had a sit in on the train tracks at Gare du Nord, you guessed it, blocking the path of commuter trains. We watched on tv as a smiling twenty-something girl among a crowd of commuters yelled, "This is the only way for us to be heard!" The six-foot tall black guy in her face bellowed, "I WANT TO GO HOME!" Then everyone started yelling at everyone.
Back to the transit strike, the word on the street says the majority of people are against the unions and with the government on this one. A relief from last month's strike when a reporter interviewed a stranded commuter who shrugged and said, "It's for a good cause." There's still a mark on my TV screen from where I threw my camembert-spreaded baguette after hearing that one. But today on tv, people were frustrated and pissed off. Except, I suppose for the few that only depend on metro line 14 for transportation. It ran as usual since it's automatic and therefore has no driver to walk off the job. I know what you're thinking: Well, if the drivers are so uncontent with their jobs, fire them all and make all the lines driverless! Sigh.. we can dream...
This morning, I heard the honking of commuters who took to driving starting at 6 o'clock. Lots of people took the day off. Some went to work in rollerblades. Friends in the center of Paris saw people storing Velib bikes (from the city's new public bicycle system) in their stairwells last night instead of risking going out to an empty Velib stand in the morning.
As for myself, I had no way of getting to work. I can't drive anymore and waiting on the train platform for three hours to see if a train might come was a little hopeless if someone were waiting for me to arrive at work at a certain time. In addition to the fact that squeezing myself into an overcrowded train when I've got precious cargo on my belly would be just plain wreckless. My boss said don't worry about coming in for the rest of the week. Nice, but I don't get paid if I'm not there. Of course, the obvious solution is just to jump the metro gates from now on so I can recompensate myself for my salary lost.
Perhaps the worst thing about all this is the image it gives of the French work mentality. That's what a French co-worker mentioned to me. There's that stereotype of the French saying they're lazy and can't handle working more than 35 hours a week and are always on vacation and blah, blah, blah... Personally, I don't know anyone who doesn't work more than 35 hours a week. Everyone I know here puts in long hours. But nevertheless my colleague lamented, "They're giving France a bad reputation." Hopefully, change is on the way and workers will be back at work by next week. If not, I'm investing in a commuter helicopter business.