Trade unions compare notes on the 35-hour working week

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On 7 July 1999, delegations from France's five main trade union confederations (CFE-CGC, CFDT, CFTC, CGT and CGT-FO) met to study the government's recent proposal for a second law on the 35-hour working week and compare points of view.

On 24 June 1999, Martine Aubry, the Minister for Employment and Solidarity, released to the social partners the draft of the second bill on the 35-hour working week, which she had outlined in an interview with the Le Monde newspaper a few days earlier (FR9906190F). The first law, adopted in June 1998 (FR9806113F), provides for the introduction of a statutory 35-hour week from January 2000 (2002 for smaller companies) and encourages the social partners to negotiate on this issue at company and sector level before late 1999, when the second law will set out more detailed legal provisions on the new working time regime (FR9904173F), drawing on the outcomes of the negotiations.

At the initiative of CFE-CGC, the five trade union confederations officially recognised as being representative at national level (CFE-CGC, CFDT, CFTC, CGT and CGT-FO) met on 7 July 1999. The delegations were led by each confederation's national officer responsible for dealing with the issue of the reduction of working time. This kind of meeting is quite rare in France, where differences between unions are often quite stark and joint industrial action between them is quite unusual. However, no joint document was drawn up at the end of the meeting.

During the talks, all the bill's articles were studied. Two of the matters analysed particularly drew the attention of delegates.

Working hours for managerial and professional staff was the sole point to provoke the hostility of all five union confederations. The draft bill suggests setting the maximum number of working days per year for these employees at 222, with a minimum of five extra days' holiday due to the introduction of the 35-hour week legislation. "It is out of the question for managerial and professional staff to have more than 210 working days per year", stated CFE-CGC, while CGT felt that "the draft bill defines the working hours of managerial staff in a brutal fashion, which comes down to infinity minus five days." CFDT deemed that "the limit on the number of hours worked by top managers is far too high, and 222 days per year really should be a maximum." This union would like to see the Minister "lower the bar to 210-215 days". However, there was no "unanimity on the matter of the number of working days", according to Jean-Louis Walter, general secretary of CFE-CGC, whose duty it was, as representative of the host union, to summarise the meeting.

As for the conditions for reaching agreements, the draft bill provides that in order to become eligible for state funding, a company agreement reducing working time must be signed by trade unions representing the majority of employees or be voted on by the entire staff. This issue has divided the unions:

  • CGT is in agreement and states that "the condition stipulated in the bill on the 35-hour working week, of an agreement accepted by the majority of employees in order to make the company eligible for reductions in social security contributions, is seen by CGT as a first step" towards "changing the legislation on collective bargaining so that primacy is given to the majority, union rights are respected and extended, and unions are enabled to reach into small businesses as well as large ones";
  • CFDT strikes a more cautious note. Michel Jalmain, its national secretary, was reported in L'Humanité (2 July 1999) as stating that "this matter cannot be dealt with in a few days, without in-depth consultation, and as part of discussions around the second law on the subject. We ask for nothing more than a process of careful consideration to be launched on the growth and representative nature of trade unionism, but not ... just in the terms of this second law"; and
  • the other three union confederations are against this measure.

Another meeting of the five confederations was set for September 1999.

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