MONTREUIL: Unions at French rail operator SNCF will hold a companywide vote next week on the government's contested overhaul for the heavily indebted group, aimed at proving that support for a long-running strike remains strong despite signs it is tapering off.
Laurent Brun, head of the rail branch at the hard-line CGT union, said late Wednesday that the weeklong consultation would kick off on Monday, when unions have vowed to step up their protest with a "day without trains".
"It's important to stamp out this idea that 80 percent of rail workers support this reform," Brun said at the CGT headquarters in Montreuil, just east of Paris, adding that many workers cannot strike for "financial reasons".
Just 14.5 percent of SNCF workers took part in Wednesday's strike, the lowest level since the rolling action began in early April, though 53 percent of train drivers walked off the job.
The vote echoes a similar move last week by striking unions at Air France, in which the government holds a minority stake, which stunned many analysts by showing widespread support for a pay protest -- and prompted the head of the airline's parent company Air France-KLM to quit.
But union leaders said the goal was not to push out SNCF chief Guillaume Pepy but to show that opposition to the rail overhaul, a key move in President Emmanuel Macron's wide-ranging reform drive, remains strong.
"The idea is not to have Pepy's head, it's to give workers a chance to express themselves" without going on strike, said Bruno Poncet of the SUD-Rail union.
French Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud said Thursday that regardless of the vote's outcome, talks with unions would continue.
If workers vote against the project, "it will mean that we still have plenty of work to do in explaining it, and that many SNCF workers still don't understand that it's going to save the SNCF," Penicaud told RTL radio.
'Matter for the French people' -
The planned vote was also denounced by Pepy, who said Wednesday that the SNCF overhaul "is a matter for the French people, because it concerns measures adopted by parliament, and no one, not even rail workers... can deprive the National Assembly and Senate of their powers to legislate."
Unions have vowed to make the government back down on plans to deny job-for-life and early retirement privileges for new recruits on the railways.
They also reject turning the SNCF into a joint-stock company whose shares would be held by the state -- a move they see as a first step towards privatisation ahead of the opening up of France's rail passenger market to competition starting in 2020.
Union leaders met Monday with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who said further talks would be held on May 24 or 25, ahead of the Senate debate on the reform.
Yet the CGT's Brun said unions want new talks as soon as next week, saying "the government should not try to run out the clock" ahead of a vote by lawmakers.
The rolling strikes, being carried out every two days out of five, are scheduled to continue until June 28.
The stoppages have recently led to cancellations of one in two high-speed TGV trains as well as regional trains, causing headaches for the network's 4.5 million daily passengers, though disruptions have eased since the strike began on April 3.
But Macron has warned he will not budge on the main elements of the overhaul, saying the SNCF's operating costs are well above those of other train companies in Europe, even while service delays have increased on many lines.