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June 2003 • Vol 3, No. 6 •

West Europe Hard Hit by Strikes Over Pensions

By Mark Landler

Strikes, including a general strike by state employees have been sweeping across France since early May. The New York Times and most other U.S. newspapers have not run a single article on these events including on the day this introduction was being written (June 4). The Times article below appeared on the Internet. But it appears only in its International edition where everyone cannot help but be aware of the strikes that have also been sweeping across Western Europe.


A wave of strikes from France to Austria left much of Western Europe snarled today, as protesting workers shut down subway systems, ports, trains, toll roads and airlines.

In France, where leaders of the seven major industrial countries and Russia ended a summit meeting in the spa town of Évian-les-Bains, a strike by air-traffic controllers grounded 80 percent of the flights into and out of the country.

In Austria, the strikes were the biggest since World War II, leaving the capital, Vienna, without any public transportation or postal service. Protesters even blockaded the entrance to the airport.

Workers in both countries share the same grievance: government proposals to change the national pension systems, either by cutting retirement benefits or by making people work longer to qualify for them.

Smaller strikes also erupted in Italy and Germany. Flight attendants at Alitalia, the Italian airline, called in sick to protest job cuts, forcing it to cancel 285 flights. In eastern Germany, steelworkers picketed factories to demand the same 35-hour workweek that their counterparts in western Germany have.

The strikes in France were less paralyzing than those on May 13, which had been dubbed Black Tuesday by the French news media. But they rippled through the country, forming an awkward backdrop for President Jacques Chirac as the host for the Group of Eight meeting.

Mr. Chirac and the other leaders were able to depart from nearby Geneva without a hitch. Journalists and representatives of nongovernmental organizations were less lucky, finding themselves stranded in Évian, a tranquil lakeside town that had already been sealed off for security reasons.

Mr. Chirac did not address the strikes during his news conference at the end of the summit meeting. As is customary in France, the labor dispute is the bailiwick of the prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who showed no sign of backing down on his plan to overhaul the pension system. “This is about the survival of the republic,” Mr. Raffarin told the French Parliament.

The unions are rebelling against the government’s proposal to require workers to pay into the state pension fund for 40 years, up from 37.5 years now, before they qualify for retirement benefits.

“The current proposals will weaken the system and increase inequalities,” said Bernard Thibault, the head of the powerful union, C.G.T., in an interview with the online edition of the French daily Libération.

Labor leaders in Austria voiced similar complaints about the government’s plan to reduce pensions by 11 percent. Officials there also showed no willingness to compromise, saying that with shaky public finances and an aging population, they had no choice but to make drastic cuts.

“We are all living longer; there are fewer children,” said the education and science minister, Elisabeth Gehrer, on Austrian state radio. “You can’t strike against demographic developments like that.”

As members of the 12-nation European monetary union, Austria and France must keep their budget deficits below 3 percent of their gross domestic product. France, which has breached that rule, was told today to get its deficit under the cap by 2004.

In Paris, where crowds jostled to get on the few available buses or trains, patience was wearing thin.

“It’s simply very annoying because it is far from the first one,” said Mohamed Layad, 22, an accountant, as he waited on a platform at the Gare St.-Lazare. “And it’s just tough on those who have to get to work and their family life.”

New York Times (International edition), June 4, 2003





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