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Robot scab! How automation is threatening striking French workers

PARIS — A national strike has brought most public transport in the French capital to a halt for 42 days and counting, but two Metro lines have been operating as if nothing is amiss.

The secret? They run without drivers.

Unions have long been worried that automating public transport could cost jobs, but the ongoing standoff between workers and the government over pension reform is highlighting the potential advantages of replacing humans with machines.

During the Christmas break, strike action saw hundreds of dazed tourists and exasperated Parisians hoping to travel across the city jammed into a hallway at the Saint-Lazare station — a hub where trains, suburban rail and Metro lines intersect. But only one of the four Metro lines usually servicing the second-busiest station on the Paris Metro system was operating.

“The No. 14 is the only one running,” an employee of the Paris public transport operator told the seething crowd.

Commuters queue at the entrance to the line 14 automatic line at Saint-Lazare metro station in Paris, during the strikes | Jacques Demarthon/AFP via Getty Images

Paris has two automated lines: The No. 14 connecting Saint-Lazare with stops across the Seine River was the first to be opened in 1998. The No. 1, the capitals busiest link from East to West, went driverless in 2012 to allow trains to run at a higher frequency than would be possible with human operators. Work to upgrade a third Metro connection — a key link crossing the city north to south — is due to be completed in 2022, and Paris public transport operator RATP is mulling a fourth automated line.

Redundant humans

The strikes have made driverless trains a political issue, and its being seized on by candidates for the Paris mayoral election in March.

Benjamin Griveaux, a candidate to replace Anne Hidalgo in the town hall, pledged in December to work with regional authorities to speed up the automation of the Metro network to “make the lives of Parisians easier — even during strikes.”

His competitor, a rebel candidate from Griveauxs own La République En Marche party, echoed the plan. “An automated Metro is a more punctual Metro — [a Metro] that can continue to operate in times of strikes,” he said in an LCI interview.

Paris mayorals dissident candidate from LREM (La Republique en Marche) Cedric Villani | Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty Images

Thats dismaying unions.

Frédéric Delebarre, a representative of the CGT union at the RATP, complained that advocating the automation of public transport to soften the blow of the strikes “is cutting corners left and right.”

Delebarre said automation would take years and would be very expensive, so it makes sense for the government to negotiate an end to the strikes instead.

“To prevent conflicts … its easier for the government to abandon its reform program than to automate the [Metro] lines. Thats less costly,” he said.

But so far the government isnt backing down on reforming the pension system, although it is showing signs of movement on the actual retirement age. It wants to introduce a universal points system to save up a pension, and do away with Frances more than 42 industry-specific systems. Among the unions concerns are an increase of the retirement age, exceptions for taxing jobs and a decrease of pension payments.

As the strikes drag on, public opinion is shifting against workers while enthusiasm grows for driverless trains. Some fed-up Parisians have launched an online petition calling for a full automation of the Metro network, which has gathered over 10,000 signatures.

Any acceleration of the current robot plans would be a bitter outcome for transport worker unions, which argue that theyve got the best interests of passengers at heart by sticking with people. “Its not about [opposition to] automation in itself, or modernization,” Delebarre said. “It simply has an impact on employment.” Having a human on board trainsRead More – Source