French ports were at a standstill for the fourth successive day Jan. 31 as dock unions and port employers prepared for negotiations Tuesday to end a dispute over pensions that threatens to escalate into an unlimited strike.
The Union of French Ports, which represents the major ports including Marseille and Le Havre, in which the government is the sole shareholder, called for talks between the Communist-led CGT union and private employers following the third successive four-day nationwide strike, which is due to end at midnight.
They will be the first substantive talks between the two sides since mid-November, when the CGT warned of widespread industrial action to protest the withdrawal of an agreement in principle on early retirement for up to 6,000 dockworkers with arduous jobs.
The union is demanding four years early retirement, but the government, which raised the minimum retirement age for all French workers in November by two years to 62, is insisting dockworkers can only retire two years early.
The government says two years early retirement, instead of four years, will save nearly $200 million in pension payments at the seven state-owned ports of Le Havre, Marseille, Dunkirk, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, Nantes-St Nazaire and Rouen.
The government is under intense pressure to broker an agreement as strike-bound French ports are losing increasing volumes of traffic to foreign ports, particularly Rotterdam and Antwerp, and there are fears some of the cargoes may not return.
"We have not seen such a situation since the reform of dock labor in 1992," said Christian Leroux, chairman of the Maritime and Port Union which represents around 600 waterfront companies.
Le Havre, France's biggest container port, lost 50 of around 120 container ship calls scheduled for January.
The government, which pushed through its 2008 port reform program in the face of prolonged strikes and overtime and weekend work bans is, however, taking a tough line in the latest dispute.
The government "is firm on the question of two years (early retirement). It's a question of fairness vis a vis the French people," said Transport Secretary Thierry Mariani.
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