Mass strike action in retail sector leads to sectoral pay agreement

In February 2008, in the context of the sectoral bargaining round, workers in the large-scale retail sector took strike action in response to a call issued by all three majority trade unions in the sector. The main issue was the workers’ reduced purchasing power due to low salaries in the sector along with increasing consumer prices. A key element of the collective bargaining round concerned the payment for breaks and under the new agreement breaks will now be paid at the rate of 5% of the pay for hours actually worked, in addition to wages.

Background

The retail sector is characterised by a high proportion of low-paid workers and involuntary part-time work – corresponding to 37% of those working in the sector and as many as 56% of workers in discount supermarkets. At the same time, cashiers face ever-changing working time schedules, thus preventing them from having a second job. Some 636,000 people work in large-scale retailing in France and 61% of them are women.

In addition to these structural features of the sector, two other issues currently increase retail workers’ discontent. First, workers are extremely hostile to Sunday opening, which was recently put back on the agenda by the Attali commission’s proposals for economic growth (Commission pour la libération de la croissance) (FR0803039I)Secondly, the expansion of self-checkouts in supermarkets is considered to be a threat to jobs in the sector (FR0707019I).

In light of the governmental discussion on increasing the purchasing power, the retail workers took industrial action demanding higher wages to offset rising consumer prices. Besides the issue of the workers’ purchasing power, the trade unions also emphasised the precariousness of jobs and respect for rest on Sundays (FR0706039I). All of these different reasons explain the extent of the mobilisation for the strike action.

Strike action

The industrial action taken by workers in the large-scale retail sector on 1 February 2008 consisted of a one-day strike, including work stoppages of several hours, protest marches in shopping malls and the distribution of leaflets. The strike action disrupted the normal activity of the large retail stores and smaller shops, although the level of workers’ participation in the action varied greatly across the country.

The trade union officer covering the retail sector for the General Confederation of Labour – Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail – Force ouvrière, CGT-FO) announced that 80% of staff went on strike in hypermarkets and 65% in supermarkets. On the other hand, the Federation of Commerce and Distribution Employers (Fédération des enterprises du commerce et de la distribution, FCD), which is affiliated to the Movement of French Enterprises (Mouvement des entreprises de France, MEDEF), indicated that a mere 4.5% of staff in the retail sector and its subsectors were involved in the action.

The trade unions agreed on the importance of the action. The national officer of the CGT-FO affiliated Food and Agriculture Federation (Fédération Générale des Travailleurs de l’Agriculture, de l’Alimentation, des Tabacs et des Services, FGTA-FO), Dejan Terglav, stated that the strike was ‘a historic success’. He also emphasised that ‘it is the first time that our three unions organise a joint action’. The General Secretary of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), François Chérèque, highlighted that it was a ‘very rare’ movement and welcomed the fact that the initiative provided an opportunity to discuss the labour market situation of these workers, who he insisted ‘are subjected to all of the disadvantages of today’s labour market’.

Sectoral bargaining round

A key issue of the collective bargaining round concerned the payment for breaks, a provision which the employers agreed to during the negotiations on 31 January 2008. Up until then, some supermarket and hypermarket chains included the lump-sum payment for breaks in workers’ salaries, which constituted an infringement of the law. Therefore, the trade unions have presented a trump card when stating that it is a matter of ‘rectifying a situation that is prohibited by law’, as highlighted by the National Officer of the retail section of the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT), Charles Dassonville.

In terms of pay, the trade unions considered FCD’s proposal of an average increase of 6.54% as insufficient. In a sector where a pay agreement has not been signed since 2005, these proposals were not well received. This is mainly due to the fact that ‘part of this increase simply reflects bringing the lowest pay levels up to the level of the national minimum wage (Salaire minimum interprofessionnel de croissance, SMIC) and thus in line with legislation’, according to the General Secretary of the CFDT affiliated Services Federation (Fédération des Services), Gilles Desbordes.

For his part, the President of FCD, Jérôme Bédier, believes that ‘the sector is not a sector with insecure employment: 90% of our employees have permanent employment contracts [...] 37% of our staff are part-time [but] no one earns less than the SMIC relative to the number of hours they work’. He claims that retail workers have ‘the best collective agreement in France’.

Sectoral agreement reached

On 13 February 2008, the sectoral collective bargaining round finally reached an agreement on pay scales. The agreement was signed by FCD and the federations affiliated to the three trade unions present in the sector – namely, CGT-FO, 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) and the French Christian Workers’ Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC).

According to the agreement’s provisions, breaks will now be ‘paid at the rate of 5% of the pay for hours actually worked, in addition to the wage’. This means that the gross monthly wage at entrance level now stands at €1,344 for full-time employees working 35 hours a week and receiving a 13-months’ salary a year.

In addition, the social partners agreed to discuss the following two other recurrent issues that workers in the retail sector face:

  • forward-looking employment and skills management (Gestion prévisionnelle des emplois et des compétences, GPEC), notably the development of occupations in retail, in particular the work of cashiers, will be the subject of future discussions;
  • bargaining will restart in April focusing on part-time work, ‘in order to meet the wishes of workers who want to work longer hours’.

Along with gender equality, both of these issues remain of major importance for the large-scale retail sector.

Yves Lochard, Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES)

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