For one week, the workers at a bus depot owned by Keolis, a private company and subsidiary of SNCF (“the French National Railway Company,” France’s state-owned rail system), have been on strike. 95% of 80 employees stopped working and intend to hold out for as long as necessary. Simply put, they are saying “enough is enough.” The strikers aren’t asking for the moon! Their struggle is centered on basic demands: the reestablishment of profit-sharing bonuses (especially in the context of high inflation which is quickly eroding their purchasing power) and a fight against increasingly untenable working conditions. Amidst this situation, management has been playing hardball and refuses to meet with the strikers.
This strike is happening in the context of the opening of transport to private competition in the Ile-de-France region. This opening-up, masterminded by the region’s President, Valérie Pécresse (Les Républicains), is predictably creating a race to the bottom. As a result, workers have been hit hard with so-called social dumping, and the widespread neglect of maintenance and investment has lowered the quality of services provided to users (who have become customers). All involved are subject to the abuses of neoliberal precepts under Keolis management.
Facing fierce opposition from management, workers are firmly committed to the struggle. The strikers are determined, but their need support and solidarity—especially financial support—is greater than ever. Gestures of concrete solidarity have already multiplied, but support needs to be better structured to help striking comrades stand firm and stand up against a contemptuous management and their tendencies, which are harmful to everyone except the handful of billionaires and shareholders who continue to gobble up almost all the wealth produced in the transport sector and elsewhere.
We interviewed four Keolis Montesson strikers, all militant activists with Solidares: Amine (South Solidaires union delegate), Demba, Oumi, and Sacko. Below in a transcript of our conversation where they explain the ins and outs of their struggle.
By Michael Lenoir, September 20, 2023
A balance of the current struggle
The number one cause of the strike is the abolition of the employee incentive program and profit sharing bonuses.
Sacko : Since Keolis stepped in in 2022, we’ve lost a lot… There’s no more employee incentive program or profit-sharing bonuses. So, we’re just asking for what we had before. No more, no less.
ML: Before, that’s when you worked for Transdev?
Sacko: Yes. For 17 years working under Veolia and later Transdev, I always had employee rewards and profit-sharing bonuses. And since Keolis arrived in 2022 that disappeared. During the first year we got nothing. They said the bonuses were coming, that a new partnership had been created so we had to start over from zero. Now it’s been a year, and they are telling us the figures don’t look good, that they’re in the red and lost almost 3 million euros. So, there’s no employee incentive program, no profit-sharing bonuses. And the plan for next year will be the same. As a result, we’re saying: we’re taking action, we aren’t going to wait…
ML : But their numbers are good? They’re lying?
Sacko: The figures are good. They’re winning the markets. They’re known globally. The fact that we’re all here today, the fact that there’s been two weeks of this, the manager came before us to tell us why there’s no bonus. And he told all of us: I‘ll only give bonuses to people in the top tier, that is, everyone who’s executive and in management. And below that, I’m sorry, but there won’t be anything! And that’s how it’s going to be next year, just for the top tier. And for us, next year’s the same: we get zero.
Sacko: I forgot to tell you – they put us through a forced merger with the Argenteuil depot; the 300 drivers there aren’t joining us for the strike. They’re 300 and we’re 80. We asked Argenteuil to join us, but they aren’t. So, we’re the only depot that’s closed today. They forced us to merge. We had to accept.
ML : That’s also a Keolis depot ?
Sacko: Yes. They regrouped us to hurt us. But that depot, they don’t want to join us in the strike.
ML: To clarify : it’s Keolis who bought this business from Transdev?
Sacko: They made a call for bids. Ile-de-France Mobilités (Valérie Pécresse) created that system. So, they called for bids. Transdev lost the bid and Keolis won because they offered 50% off… It’s typical. They won, and so here we are.
ML : So they won the bid by crushing working conditions and pay?
Sacko: Exactly. They crushed our profit-sharing and incentive bonuses, which again, aren’t much! We just want to win what we had before. No more, no less. How much do the profit-sharing and incentive bonuses amount to on average? 1,000 euros over an entire year. That’s 1,000 euros multiplied by 400 people.
ML: And plus, they really make a difference now with inflation so high.
Sacko: And plus, they say they will give us a 4% raise. And they say that should be enough for us. But with today’s inflation, what difference does 4% make?
ML : Of course, that’s well below inflation…
Sacko: Whereas the bonus is something we’ve always received. During COVID, the most critical time: there were no buses, no money was coming in, nothing. But we still got our profit-sharing and incentive bonuses. Now they step in and say they’re operating at a loss. They can show us all the figures they want, but we’re not accountants. We can’t really know what they’ve got. After all, Keolis is an SNCF subsidiary! It’s not a small business!
ML : They’re lying…
Sacko: To us, yes. We’re ready to go back to work tomorrow. We’re losing wages and what we’re asking for is next to nothing. Financially, it’s been hard on all of us. Without solidarity, we’re dead. That’s why we set up a solidarity fund, to help our coworkers who are really struggling. To help them fight. For… again, just for crumbs.
ML : And so… They’re taking away your crumbs.
Demba: If they’re capable of taking away even our crumbs, this can’t go on!
Deterioration of working conditions, another point of dissatisfaction
ML: So, among your demands are the profit-sharing and incentive bonuses. But you are also demanding changes to working conditions too. Can you say a little more about that?
Demba: Working conditions have deteriorated. Already, in terms of vehicles.
Sacko: When Keolis took over, they were supposed to come in with new vehicles. But no, this didn’t happen. We’ve still got the old vehicles, which are in a state of disrepair.
Demba: 700,000 km !
Sacko: Since Keolis came, zero new vehicles. Whereas with Transdev, every year we had new vehicles come in (and got rid of old ones). And look, we’ve got no new ones for two years.
Demba: Conclusion : for two years they’ve worked on getting drivers to reduce travel time. That means more stress for workers.
ML: You mean, you have to make the same trips in less time ?
Sacko: Exactly. To satisfy our clients…
ML : But how do you do it, then?
Sacko: We don’t. We drive at 30kph. Lots of city speed limits have dropped from 50 to 30kph. We tell each other: Take it easy! Don’t get into accidents.
Sacko: They took things. They cut things out ! They took the controllers we had and put them in another company.
ML : Keolis subsidiaries ?
Demba: They created a number of positions. To some extent to police us.
ML : Positions, how ?
Demba: Security positions, on the central level. Supervisory. With cameras. They watch everything we do.
ML : Got it. When you drive your bus, are you being surveilled?
Oumi: They know exactly where you are, at which stop…
Sacko: They send us messages…
Oumi: If we’re a second early, they harass us with “please be regular” messages. But you have to realize that we have a network with stops where we can’t be regular. Downtown in Montesson, Chatou, in other places, we can’t be regular.
ML : What does regular mean?
Oumi: Be regular, that means be at the stop and wait… This causes traffic jams, accidents. So, they’re putting pressure on us too, on that front.
ML: To travel the same routes in less time ?
Sacko: Yes. It wasn’t like this before.
Oumi: They have been putting an impossible amount of pressure on us! On travel times, too. They’ve shaved impossible minutes off our times…And then we’re also under pressure from our clients who want to catch their trains on time. We’ve got pressure on both sides.
Sacko: There’s one thing Keolis won’t give you figures about. It’s the number of work-related accidents, which have increased. Work-related accidents have increased enormously.
ML: What kind of accidents?
Sacko: Back injuries.
Oumi: A lot of back injuries.
ML: From passengers ?
Oumi: Yes, unsatisfied customers, who lash out because we’re late…
Sacko: Stress. And we have lots of accidents.
Oumi: And management doesn’t want to hear anything about it, they don’t want to face the problems employees are having.
Sacko: There’s no social dialogue with them.
Oumi: The only dialogue we have, the only means of communication with our operations manager, is a pitiful little notebook she gave us where we write down what’s going wrong. They pass the little notebook on to the manager who reads it, sitting peacefully in her office. But she’ll never see us in person, no way! Her office is completely closed off.
ML: And how long has it been like this?
Oumi: Since Keolis. Since the first of January 2022. We gave them a month and thought maybe there was a reason to still believe in them. But as time went by, we realized that they were doing it all backwards.
Historical context of the company and relations between its associated trade unions
ML: What is the relationship between Keolis and Transdev etc., and between the depots?
Amine: For two years we’ve been mixed and matched with a business that used to belong to the Transdev group. To explain the history a bit, we were Transdev before we were Keolis before the bids on the public service delegations held by Ile-de-France Mobilités. So, for the past two years, we’ve had this merger. So now we’re called DSP33, KABS network (Keolis Argenteuil Boucle de Seine). In other words, there are two depots: one in Montesson and one in Argenteuil. Two different depots joined together, and which function very poorly today. When we were Transdev, we were involved in urban, intercity, and tourism services. We had all three businesses in the passenger transport sector. And it worked more or less.
Since the Paris regional transport companies were privatized, we’ve lost a lot. Since then, we’ve been shuffled left and right. We held new union elections to represent our workforce, which now numbers 400. And today we have different labels. Without naming them, there are five or six. Today at South Solidaires, we’re real militants because we’re fighting against wage losses. We’re also fighting for better working conditions, which are very poor. And above all, we’re fighting for our bonuses, which haven’t been paid for two years. I mean the profit-sharing and incentive bonuses. These bonuses are an important added value for all employees, who we know are struggling to make ends meet given the precarious nature of their work.
ML: Please tell us more about the relationship between Solidaires and other unions, and between the Montesson and Argenteuil dépôts.
Amine: Our Argenteuil coworkers haven’t joined us, and neither have other unions and trade union organizations who don’t think it’s a good idea to fight beside us. So today, there’s one depot out of two that’s closed. This depot has 95% of the strikers. We’ve been on strike in the Montesson depot for over six days. Management has left us to fend for ourselves, while they are providing the minimum school services on the other side in Argenteuil.
ML: In fact, unions other than Solidaires are concentrated in Argenteuil, where there are just over 300 employees.
Amine: They are about 300 people, but you have to realize that there are a lot of temporary workers today, somewhere between 60 and 80. The employees there aren’t aware of everything that’s going on, because on a democratic level, the other trade unions don’t share information and facts. This is because they know that the Argenteuil depot had bigger profit-sharing bonuses than we did. Theirs is worth 2000 euro or more, while ours was only a 500 euro bonus. And so today the employees are calling me left and right to learn what’s going on. They’re afraid to take action because they’re under pressure from both management and the unions. That’s where we are at today.
ML: Who are the other trade union organizations ?
Amine: CGT, FO, UNSA, and the executive union. They are telling the drivers that going on strike is pointless because there’s no way management will bring back bonuses while the numbers are bad – even though that’s blatantly false. And today, we’re asking for a gesture from the company. A financial gesture, of course.
ML: And these other trade union organizations at Argenteuil, they lost their bonuses of over 2000 euros?
Amine: They had bigger profit-sharing and incentive bonuses which were over 2000 euros, and there have been no demands from the unions, and the drivers are being held hostage because they’re not giving them this information. They have also been holding secret meetings with management. We leave these meetings because we disagree with management. They stay and don’t tell the employees what they need to know, so the employees are left in the dark. We’re the ones who give them information. And today, they’re cornered, because they voted for trade unions that play into management’s hands, and they’re paying a colossal price for it.
ML: Despite everything, having spoken to several people here, I sense there is a real determination to win.
Amine: Yes, because we’ve started to get organized. It’s the contempt of management and the support of other colleagues that drives us on and gives us hope. Because, as I said before, they’re trying to suffocate us. And on the contrary, we’re all together – maybe there’s a lot of us, maybe there isn’t. But we’re standing in solidarity together, hand in hand. And I hope that we’ll hold out for a long time. Come help us. Everyone who can help us, come and support us. Come and eat with us. We share the little we have. Come help, we need you today. The alarm’s going off, it’s an SOS call, please do your part to help.
How to fight company management during the strike
ML: Since the strike began, management hasn’t told you anything? They’re holed up in Argenteuil…
Oumi: As you can see for yourself, everything’s been shut down.
ML: And they’re the ones who shut it down?
Sacko: They’re the ones.
Oumi: The depot is being guarded day and night. The depot is completely empty. No management. No member of management is present right now. So, we’re on our own.
Demba: And the dialogue between us and management has been shut down.
Oumi: The dialogue has been completely shut down.
Demba: And the worst thing is that they’re pitting coworkers against each other. Right now, workers who aren’t on strike are being sent to the Argenteuil depot to do school transportation.
Oumi: As drivers, we’re ready to go back to work tomorrow. But right now, we’re dealing with…
ML: What are your conditions for going back to work?
Sacko: Our bonuses.
Oumi: Negotiations with management. But look, you can clearly see there’s nobody there.
Sacko: And even upper management at Keolis, they have gone on TV to tell us we won’t get our bonuses, and that they’re sorry. There’s one woman, whose name I don’t know, who said on channel France 3 that they’re sorry but there won’t be any bonuses.
ML: So they’re waiting for everything to blow over?
Oumi: Exactly. They want to push us to the edge, but they don’t know how determined we are. We’re ready to strike for a month, and if necessary, even longer. That doesn’t scare us.
Sacko: And we need support. Passengers, associations… a bit of everything. Today, we need everyone, and we’re just fighting for our rights. Nothing more.
Oumi: We’re not asking for anything more. Not a new bonus, not a raise…
ML: Just what you had before?
Sacko: That’s it.
ML: Management’s strategy is to wait it out, to leave you isolated here. What are your calls to action? There is a need for money I imagine. And what can we do, regarding management, concerning passenger dissatisfaction in particular? What can we come up with?
Amine: That’s it, they’re waiting for us to rot like you said.
It’s been a little over a week since we went on strike. It’s true, when it comes to money, we don’t have a lot. We opened a Leetchi fundraising site that has less than 300 euros in it. We don’t have a lot of support right now. We’ve got the press coming in, the media. But apart from them, we’re waiting for more support from people on the outside – trade unions, lawyers, jurists, anything, anyone. Besides that, we also need to go to the Argenteuil site to fight and advocate for ourselves. Because we can’t just leave here. Because if we leave here, we’ll be showing our powerlessness, and passengers will see the strike is useless, and our boss will start choking us. Because one of the bosses told us in an off-the-record meeting, ‘’My goal is to make you guys suffocate.’’ So, I try to be clear and give as much information as possible to employees, and today, management is based in Argenteuil and has been bringing non-striking employees from Montesson and transferring them to Argenteuil to provide school transport services. Because, incidentally, they’re obliged to provide a minimum level of services, including school services. We have non-striking colleagues, very few of them, seven in all. Our managers and fellow employees have joined us on strike, and we have a 95% strike rate. In other words, out of 400 people in the company, there’s around 25% on strike. But for the depot on its own, we’re at around 95%. We’re just waiting for support.
ML: And you haven’t gotten support from Argenteuil employees, independently from the trade union, messages…
Amine: No, we have messages from some drivers who are afraid, who support us – not anonymously, but they don’t want their names to get out, etc. As for the Leetchi fund, we’ve had a few donations from coworkers—we’ll name them – notably from the CGT RATP Malakoff and Nanterre who helped us out. We’ve also had some help from South Solidaires, including Solidaires Paris Nord railway workers who have contributed to the support fund. But it’s always small, it only helps for one day. Today, we’re losing wages. More than a week per employee, and that’s enormous. And there are employees in very precarious situations, single-parent families, single women with under-age children, guys living in hostels. We’re in a really shitty situation, and our workers are going to crack under the pressure after a while, and that’s what management wants to happen.