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Ferry Unfair

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Ferry Unfair

Thoughts on a recently settled French strike July 22, 2014
Photo by marcovdz

I happened to be in Corsica for two weeks during the bitter strike by the workers of the SNCM, la Societé national Corse Méditeranée, the parastatal ferry company with a monopoly on traffic between Marseille and certain ports on the island. Since the island lives by the tourism industry and imports much that is needed to accommodate its tourists in comfort, the strike was a serious economic blow, especially as it came at the beginning of the busy season. Exasperated Corsican merchants smashed windows of the offices of the SNCM and indulged in a little wrecking.

The SNCM is deeply indebted, its debts (like those of most Western nations) being as large as its revenues. Under European rules, the state cannot subsidize the company, which therefore had to cancel the purchase of four new hi-tech vessels. The strike came in response to the cancellation.

Not only is the SNCM highly indebted, but its annual losses amount to nearly half its revenues. This percentage far surpasses the budgetary deficits of any country, including Greece. One reason the SNCM loses so much money is the exorbitant rates of pay and other benefits enjoyed by its workers, members of the left-wing union, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT). Not only does the SNCM employ more workers proportionately than its rival, the privately owned Corsica Ferries, an Italian company that operates on other routes from France to Corsica, and whose services I am informed are much better; but its workers are also paid more per hour, work fewer hours, and enjoy longer holidays than those of Corsica Ferries workers. I don’t know for certain, but I would be prepared to bet quite a lot of money that the sickness rate of SNCM workers was higher than that of Corsica Ferries workers as well.

The SNCM’s revenues have declined from 12 years ago, and the firm’s share of the market between the countries it operates in (including in North Africa) has declined by two-thirds in only ten years. Corsica Ferries started from nothing in 1999. Though the writing has been on the wall for the company for a long time, neither its management nor the French government has done anything to reform its operations, for fear, presumably, of provoking precisely the kind of strike that caused such damage to the island’s commerce, and that has recently ended without any resolution of the underlying problems.

The granting of a monopoly to a company like the SNCM was a terrible mistake, but the preferred solution of the CGT to the company’s problems would undoubtedly be the extension of that monopoly and the exclusion of Corsica Ferries from the market. Then the company could charge what it liked, and the privileges of its workers could be protected or even increased. All this, of course, would be in the name of social justice, even if it meant the impoverishment of untold others who were not similarly protected by monopoly conditions. But then what the CGT, with its long history of association with the French Communist Party, really wants is a monopoly of monopolies.

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