New features emerging in French trade unionism?

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Late 1998 has seen a number of notable developments in France's notoriously fragmented trade union movement. These include: joint debates between the CFDT and the CGT; a public willingness on the part of the CGT to move from a "trade unionism of protest to a trade unionism of proposals"; a partnership contract between the CFDT and the UNSA; and an "overhaul" of the CFE-CGC.

French trade unionism has been characterised over the last few years by a low level of unionisation - a density of 9.1% in 1995, according to the International Labour Organisation's 1997-8 World Labour Report (Industrial relations, democracy and social stability) - and by the fragmentation of unions. The important December 1997 Conseils de prud'hommesor industrial tribunal elections were marked by a drop in turnout among employees (FR9712185F). At the same time, these factors do not seem to hinder in the slightest the unions' capacity for mobilisation and mediation when there are strikes (for example, the widespread actions of December 1995 and the lorry drivers' disputes of 1996 and 1997 - FR9711177F). However, this situation raises questions for the unions, certain of which have been taking initiatives over 1998 to attempt to find, if not forms of joint action, then at least ways in which mutual understanding can be reached. Others, faced with problems, have decided to rethink their operating styles and practices.

Meetings between the CFDT and the CGT

The two most widely supported trade union confederation s, the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT) and the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT) will hold their next conferences in January 1999 and December 1998 respectively. Prior to these two events, delegations from the CGT and the CFDT met formally on 12 November 1998. They "exchanged ideas from conference documents, while respecting the other's identity, in order to deepen their respective approaches to the concept of trade unionism as well as to issues currently at stake", as a joint press release put it. "In the opinion of both unions", continued the press release, "this type of discussion must become part of the normal relationship between all trade union organisations so that the periods of mobilisation and of negotiation which mark our country's industrial relations can be better prepared."

What is taken for granted in most European countries was covered by the French press as an "event". This was not the first meeting between the two confederations since they broke off their unity of action at the end of the 1970s, two previous meetings having taken place recently - in October 1997, on the eve of the 10 October tripartite conference on employment (FR9710169F), and in June 1998, to debate the implementation of the law on the 35-hour working week (FR9806113F). However, this is the first time that a meeting has taken place to study jointly the two unions' conference documents. There is, however, no question of moving towards the drafting of joint programmes of demands. This is all the clearer as both unions reject the idea that they are contemplating the establishment of a privileged relationship between the two of them, and have expressed their regret that the General Confederation of Labour-Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail-Force ouvrière, CGT-FO) has refused to debate, even bilaterally, ways in which "normal relationships" could be achieved in the union movement.

Reactions to the CGT-CFDT meeting have been varied and numerous. The French Christian Workers' Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC) stated that it was waiting "to see what was behind the meeting" and whether it implied "some real changes", before asking itself "what strategy was behind it all". The National Federation of Autonomous Unions (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes, UNSA), of which the Federation of National Education (Fédération de l'Education Nationale, FEN) is the largest member, "welcomed" the discussion between the CGT and the CFDT: "it is excellent news that these two unions can establish a normal relationship." The French Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff-General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (Confédération française de l'encadrement-Confédération générale des cadres, CFE-CGC) felt that this meeting was a "precursor of new inter-union relations".

Other unions are more confused or hostile. "Solidaires, unitaires et démocratiques (SUD"), an independent union, most of whose leaders left CFDT on the grounds of its "reformism", wondered whether the CFDT-CGT dialogue was "aimed at excluding or marginalising a certain number of unions". The CGT-FO, through its general secretary, Marc Blondel, refused to "fall into the political maelstrom of which the CGT and the CFDT are part", taking the view that "their closer relationship will last no longer than the time it takes to dance a tango." Mr Blondel added: "On your own against everyone else, that's the best position to be in." The CGT-FO will be organising a demonstration in Paris on 21 November 1998, under the slogan: "a trade union that is still a trade union".

Changes in the CGT

The discussions underway between the CFDT and the CGT have occurred at a time when the latter has stated that it wants to speed up its own process of change. In the opinion of Louis Viannet, its general secretary, the recent law on the 35-hour working week has pushed the union to develop its thinking: "By triggering off a huge process of negotiation, it has encouraged us to implement a union strategy aimed at making positive advances for employees" ... "We are rediscovering the position that a union should be in: creating the conditions to obtain practical advances favourable to employees." Having made it clear that practices would have to be changed, and that draft agreements should not be evaluated only according to the criteria of the CGT's own in-house interpretations, he added: "We now feel that signing an agreement does not mark the end of the action. It is a stage in the debate, in the mobilisation, of which negotiations are just a part. This is what the expression 'moving from a trade unionism of protest to a trade unionism of proposals' means."

Another factor has been influential in bringing about change within the CGT: for several years now, the CGT has become more open to the European Union and has sought to join the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). Jean-François Troglic, national secretary of the CFDT feels that: "the CGT, which is insistently seeking to join the ETUC, is increasing its requests for contact with the CFDT ... Could the European Union therefore be an opportunity for pushing ahead with changes to inter-union relationships in France? The CFDT, never happy with the fragmented and competitive situation in which French unions find themselves, wants this to be the case."

Partnership contract between the CFDT and the UNSA

The UNSA has had a working relationship with the CFDT since it was set up in 1993. A step forward was made in this programme of cooperation in mid-October 1998, when a "partnership contract on Europe" was signed. According to the terms of this agreement, the two unions have decided to "speak with one voice on European issues". The CFDT has thus committed itself to supporting the UNSA's application to join the ETUC. If that occurs, the contract "means that in the ETUC, the UNSA and the CFDT will comprise a single delegation with a mandate to represent the memberships of the two unions together and adopt positions in their names."

Overhaul of the CFE-CGC

After the December 1997 Conseils de prud'hommes(industrial tribunals) elections, the CFE-CGC, which draws its membership primarily from managerial and professional staff (cadres), decided to begin a strategic rethink of its future. In this election, for the first time, it was beaten into second place in the managerial and professional staff electoral college by the CFDT (winning 22% of the vote, as against 31.5%). A major debate was thus opened up, which reached its climax on 15 October 1998, during a special "conference on modernity" (Assises de la modernité), then on 16-17 October, during the CFE-CGC's general assembly. It was decided during the latter that the confederation would:

  • adapt its recruitment activities to new categories of employees, especially those managerial and professional staff, often freelancers, who work for several employers;
  • broaden its membership to include staff who are not cadres - "professionals in business and in the civil service";
  • develop its services and advisory capability in response to the needs of these new professionals; and
  • change the "still highly centralised and hierarchical" way in which the union is run, to one based "on networks, to promote horizontal rather than vertical links".

Commentary

The changes observed in recent months in the French union movement are perhaps not on a large scale. However, they mark a clear break with the past. Three main factors might explain these changes:

  1. the unions' awareness of the "French anomaly" (the fragmentation of the union movement, and low levels of membership), relative to other European trade union movements;
  2. the project of European Union itself, which is no longer taboo for one of the largest French unions, the CGT; and
  3. the law on the 35-hour week, whose implementation requires a great deal of union involvement in companies where unions often have no members (FR9807123F).

It should be noted that trade unions are not alone in attempting an overhaul, as the CNPF employers' confederation has also recently decided to change its structures, operating methods and name, now calling itself MEDEF (FR9811140F). (Alexandre Bilous, IRES)

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