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Railworkers Across Europe Hold Strike Against End of Monopolies

By John-Thor Dahlburg
Los Angeles Times

Railroad workers, alarmed at plans for deregulation of their industry staged the closest thing yet to a "Eurostrike" on Monday, stopping work or carrying out protests in half a dozen European Union member states.

Traffic jams up to 25 miles long were reported at morning rush hour on the roads around Brussels, Belgium, where all trains ground to a halt. In Paris, where the strike hit regional rail service especially hard, grumbling commuters also were forced to pile into cars or pack into the underground Metro, which was unaffected.

The spark for the coordinated one-day labor action was a proposal from the European Union's executive to allow competition for 25 percent of the rail freight market over the next 10 years.

Union leaders are wary because liberalization has led to big job cuts in many of Western Europe's former state-owned telecommunications or airline companies. They insist on safeguarding the national monopoly status enjoyed by most countries' railroads.

"We have the example of the United Kingdom, where liberalization and privatization resulted in the loss of one-third of the jobs at British Railways," said Sabine Trier, spokeswoman for the Brussels-based European Federation of Transport Workers.

"The other fear is that with competition, with new entrants, the pressures of competition will lead to a deterioration of social standards, that working conditions will be diminished."

In Greece, trains halted at midnight Sunday, and traffic wasn't expected to resume until 24 hours later. In Belgium, the one-day strike began Sunday night.

In France, an average of one train in three was running Monday, the French national railways said. Only eastern lines and the Eurostar, which links Paris and London, were functioning normally.

Spain's conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar insisted minimum service be assured, and some trains ran on regional and national lines. The timetable of the country's only high-speed rail line, between Madrid and Seville, was unaffected.

In Luxembourg and Portugal, rail workers decided on a two-hour job stoppage.