SNCF and government management of the rail system is criminal : Railway workers are right to fight back !

Lutte Ouvrière workplace newsletter
October 21, 2019

The media have launched a nauseating campaign against the railway workers who exercised their “right to withdraw” their labor in large numbers last Friday and over the weekend.1 According to the media, the railway staff who decided to walk off the job had no valid reason, took travelers hostage at the start of the school holidays, and are completely irresponsible.

However, railway workers’ sense of responsibility and their safety concerns are precisely what made them take action after a severe train collision occurred on Wednesday in Northeastern France. The movement started in the Champagne-Ardenne region and quickly spread across the whole country. The spontaneous individual reactions of thousands of railway workers turned into a collective response to what they rightly felt was one accident too many.

Management of the French railway operator SNCF has largely implemented their “single operator on board” strategy to cut staff by reducing the number of ticket inspectors on regional lines. That’s why the driver of the train involved in the accident on October 16 was the only employee on board, and this is the case in thousands of trains across the country.

The driver was able to prevent any further accidents thanks to his calm and determination. When the train he was driving slammed into an oversize load stuck on the rails at a level crossing, he struggled to ensure the safety of the 70 passengers on board despite his own injuries and state of shock. Since the safety systems weren’t working, he walked about a mile to place emergency torches in front of and behind the train to signal the accident and prevent other trains from causing another accident on top of the existing one. He then went back into the train to reassure and take care of injured passengers.

In both the public and private sectors, the dedication of workers is what helps us get through dangerous situations. When the Lubrizol plant exploded in Rouen, for example, the company’s workers wisely strove to keep dangerous products away from the fire, while the bosses denied any danger or responsibility.

But there were no laurel wreaths, no admiration or applause on behalf of the media for the courageous and responsible acts of such workers.

Instead, railway workers were targeted with loads of insults. Shamelessly lying, Guillaume Pepy, SNCF’s CEO, said “there is no serious or imminent danger on any of our SNCF trains”. In unison with Prime Minister Philippe, he spoke of legal sanctions against workers for participating in “wildcat strikes”.

But it’s the other way around! SNCF management and the government are the real criminals. Their policies which only ever consist in saving money have resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs. Fewer workers for train and track repair and fewer workers on board trains and in stations means more risks for both staff and passengers. So railway workers are absolutely right not to allow the situation to continue.

And, the only thing government leaders ever take responsibility for is defending the capitalists’ profit. The government continues to slash essential services to the population through budget and job cuts so that capitalists can continue to reap billions of dollars. In schools, principals are forced to deal with everything on their own, while in hospitals staff have been mobilizing for months to have the means to be able to do their jobs so that patients get proper care and staff don’t risk getting them killed rather than treated.

Things are getting worse. The working class is not only suffering from low wages and deteriorating working conditions but also from this unbearable society in which it is becoming more and more difficult, even dangerous to educate children, take care of one’s health and get from one place to another.

Together, workers must fight back against these attacks. On December 5, there will be a day of cross-sector strike action against pension reform, the latest attack in the war waged against us by the government and big business. It can be the first step in expressing collectively our right to a decent life.

Beyond that, workers will have to question the existence and domination of the capitalist class which is slowly killing the whole of society.

1 The “right to withdraw” (le droit de retrait) is a clause in French law which allows workers to walk off the job if they feel there is a “serious and imminent danger to their life or health.