Collective bargaining in 1998 reviewed

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In 1998's rather favourable economic climate, collective bargaining in France was dominated by the reduction of working time, according to the Ministry for Employment and Solidarity's annual bargaining report, published in June 1999. Other trends recorded included: intersectoral bargaining falling off to an extremely low point; a recovery in the amount of sector-level bargaining at the end of the year; and considerable growth in company-level bargaining.

In June 1999, the Ministry for Employment and Solidarity published its annual report on collective bargaining in France, covering 1998 ("La négociation collective en 1998, Tome I: tendances et dossiers, Tome II: chiffres et documents", Ministère de l'Emploi et de la Solidarité,Éditions législatives (1999)). Overall, the Ministry's figures, which should be interpreted in the light of the different contexts of the first and second halves of the year, seem to confirm trends already identified in 1996 (FR9707157F) and 1997 (FR9807122F): a steep rise in company-level bargaining and a downturn in both intersectoral and sectoral bargaining, in a relatively favourable economic climate.

Intersectoral bargaining

The level of intersectoral bargaining fell compared with 1997. The social partners took no special new initiatives at this level and primarily devoted themselves to bringing up to date the provisions of agreements reached in recent years.

The October 1997 national tripartite conference on employment, working time and pay and the announcement of a bill on the reduction of working hours ( FR9710169F) had already set the tone for the conditions in which the intersectoral social dialogue would take place in 1998. It was at sectoral and company level that the subsequent "Aubry law" on the 35-hour week (FR9806113F) sought to encourage negotiations, and it was at these levels that such bargaining logically took place.

In 1998, intersectoral bargaining revolved around: the reform of supplementary pension schemes; the renewal of two measures on employment creation agreed in 1994 ("cooperation agreements") and 1995 (the ARPE "early retirement for jobs" scheme - FR9901150F); and the adjustment of the conditions for the collection and management of the funds levied to finance vocational training for small and medium-sized companies and craft enterprises

Sectoral bargaining

From a strictly quantitative viewpoint, the level of sectoral bargaining fell, but the number of agreements signed in the first half of the year should be looked at separately from those signed in the second half. The annual figures conceal a reversal of the usual timetable for signing agreements, and a noticeable rising trend in the second half of the year, during which the majority of agreements were reached. Usually, the first half of the year is when most agreements are signed. However, in 1998 the peak in agreement-signing activity, usually in the spring, was recorded in October (123 agreements). This reversal of trends is reflected a dynamic end-of-year boom in bargaining.

The most frequent topic of negotiations in 1998 was working time, with 63 amendments to existing agreements indicating the extent of bargaining on this issue. Six new agreements were reached after the June "Aubry law" was enacted.

Company-level bargaining

Company-level bargaining increased, mainly on the issue of working time. In 1998, 13,328 company-level agreements (on all topics) were signed and filed with offices of labour, employment and vocational training at départementlevel, a rise of 13% on the 1997 total. The high number of agreements on working time accounts for most of the growth in negotiating activity at company level.

The number of company-level agreements has doubled over five years. In 1998, the 13,328 agreements were signed in 7,600 companies and cover around 3.5 million employees. The upsurge in bargaining in small businesses which manifested itself in 1997 developed further, and in 1998 more than one in four of the companies signing an agreement had fewer than 50 employees (compared with around one in 10 in 1996).

In 1998, the topics of working time and increasing or maintaining employment levels were at the top of the agenda. The number of agreements on working time, which had risen exceptionally in 1997, again increased (FR9906190F), by 18% (from 6,000 in 1997 to 7,100 in 1998). These agreements constituted 53% of all agreements signed and their rise (of 1,100) accounted for more than two-thirds of the entire increase in agreements (1,500). Agreements dealing with employment levels, which stood at 3,100 in 1998, accounted for 23% of all agreements. Most of them comprised the trade-offs, in terms of recruitment or of redundancies averted, for an agreement on the reduction of working hours. It should be noted that in the first six months of the year, not all the agreements signed under the terms of the "Robien law" - 1996 legislation providing a partial exemption from employers' social security contributions if a collective agreement provides for reduction and reorganisation of working time, enabling jobs to be created or redundancies avoided (FR9705146F) - were systematically categorised as agreements dealing with employment.

Pay bargaining scarcely increased in 1998. As for other bargaining topics, the most notable trend was an increase of over 25% in the number of agreements on trade union rights and employee representative bodies. The number of such agreements rose from 900 in 1997 to almost 1,200 in 1998. This increase should be linked to bargaining in groups of companies on the subject of employee representative bodies, such as group-level works council s and European Works Councils.

Bargaining still on the rise in small businesses

The spread of bargaining in small businesses, most frequently on the theme of the reduction of working time, was one of the most striking characteristics observed in 1997, and this trend continued through 1998. The number of employing establishments with fewer than 50 employees signing company-level agreements grew by 41%, to make up a quarter of the total of signatory establishments. However, in companies with more than 500 employees, a decrease both in the number of agreements and the number of signatory establishments (these data includes group-level agreements) was recorded.

More so than in 1997, the rise in the number of agreements was promoted by the option open to trade unions of "mandating" an employee to sign an agreement if there are no union delegates in a company (see below). In 1997, around 30% of agreements involving establishments with fewer than 50 employees (1,900) were signed by mandated employees. In 1998, this proportion reached more than 50% of the 2,500 agreements signed in establishments with fewer than 50 employees.

However, in terms of employees covered, company-level bargaining is still the domain of large companies: in 1998, as in 1997, 64% of the 3.5 million employees covered by a company- or establishment-level agreement worked in a company with more than 1,000 employees, while scarcely more than 1% of the total were covered by the many agreements signed in companies with fewer than 50 employees.

Agreements signed by mandated employees rise steeply

An intersectoral collective agreement of 31 October 1995, given legal status by the law of 12 November 1996, introduced the procedure of "mandating" (mandatement) (FR9807123F), and the "Aubry law" extended the possibilities for this procedure. This means that in companies with no trade union delegate or workforce delegate fulfilling the duties of a union delegate, an employee can be mandated by a nationally representative trade union to sign collective agreements. Normally, bargaining rights are essentially restricted to union representatives.

In 1998, 1,480 agreements were signed in the absence of a union delegate, of which 73 were signed by an member of staff elected under the provisions of the 1996 law and 1,406 by mandated employees. This figure was more than double that in 1997, and played a big part in the development of bargaining on the reduction of working time in small businesses. More than half the agreements signed by mandated employees were reached during the last quarter of the year. Among the trade union confederations, CFDT and CFTC carried out the vast majority of this mandating, but CGT and CGT-FO, lagging clearly behind in 1997, participated much more actively in 1998.

Commentary

The annual report on collective bargaining is a simple calculation of the number of agreements filed with the services of the Ministry for Employment and Solidarity. Thus, few sophisticated lessons can be drawn from it about the reality of industrial relations in France, and the report lends itself even less reliably to use as a statistical tool for international comparisons. However, the 1998 review does highlight one important trend: 1998 was the year of the reduction of working time, which eclipsed (or more likely absorbed) the other topics of bargaining. This trend became most noticeable after the implementation of the law on the 35-hour working week, and it is likely that the report for 1999 will see this tendency even more firmly accentuated. (Alexandre Bilous, Ires)

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