Representing the unemployed: trade unions versus associations of jobless people?

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The July 1997 agreement between employers and unions concerning the management of the UNEDIC unemployment insurance funds has been strongly criticised by some associations of unemployed people. The question of the representation of unemployed people, especially within bodies which are jointly managed by unions and employers, has thus been raised again.

The recent concertation process within the UNEDIC (Union nationale pour l'emploi dans l'industrie et le commerce) unemployment insurance funds involving employers and trade unions concluded, on 2 July 1997, with a rise in unemployment benefits and reform of the management of contingency funds for those claimants most in need (FR9707158N). The agreement was signed by the CFDT (Confédération française démocratique du travail), the CFTC (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens), the CFE-CGC (Confédération française de l'encadrement-Confédération générale des cadres) the FO (Force ouvrière) and employers. However, the deal provoked outcry among organisations representing unemployed people, as well as the CGT (Confédération générale du travail), which criticised both the tightening of conditions governing eligibility for receipt of emergency payments (300,000 of which were made last year) and the contracting out of some of the contingency funds to outside organisations.

At the initiative of associations such as AC! (Agir ensemble contre le chômage!) APEIS (Association pour l'emploi et la solidarité), MNCP (Mouvement national des chômeurs et des précaires) and the CGT's "unemployed committees" (comités de chômeurs), occupations of local UNEDIC premises took place in various French towns. For the last two years, this has been a characteristic form of action by groups attempting to organise unemployed people and workers in insecure employment so that they can effectively demand their rights. Although unions appear distanced from these protest activities, they were the first to answer "yes" to the question: "Should the unemployed be entitled to representation?"

A history of activity originally based within the unions

The coordination of action by unemployed people within organisations or unions is actually nothing new, and from the mid-1970s, trade unions were taking the initiative. Unemployed sections were created at local level in the CFDT in 1974, but the experiment was discontinued in 1982. The CGT has been setting up its own structures to defend unemployed people since 1978, and they have been doing so more actively in the 1990s. Within FO, the committees for unemployed and short-term contract workers, established in 1982, were aborted by the following year. Also in the early 1980s, a union for the unemployed launched by Maurice Pagat did not have the desired knock-on effect.

Currently there are a host of often small organisations defending the rights of unemployed people. Some have a high media profile. The MNCP and local initiatives like unemployed centres are still inspired by the work of Maurice Pagat. In 1987, Communist-run local councils supported the foundation of APEIS. In 1993, AC! (an umbrella group of local organisations) was created by a diverse coalition of union activists - members of the FSU (Fédération Solidaire et unitaire) the SNUI (Syndicat national unifié des impôts) and SUD-PTT (Solidaires, unitaires et démocratiques) with some sections of the CFDT and the CGT - intellectuals, and directors of local associations.

Differing union strategies

There has been a variety of union strategy responses to these developments. Only the CGT has a nationwide structure which includes "workers deprived of a job", while other unions leave it to their local sections to deal with the problem. However, unions consider themselves the only bodies capable of representing workers, unemployed people and pensioners. Moreover, when the present Minister for Employment and Solidarity, Martine Aubry, then in opposition, announced her support for "the presence at the bargaining table of organisations representing the unemployed, particularly when the funding of UNEDIC is being discussed", she was confronted with a barrage of protest from unions. As far as they were concerned, it was not the Government's job to institutionalise the representation of unemployed people, by including them in the running of jointly-managed bodies for example, which would risk splitting up collective representation, thus fixing the divide between those in work and those out of work in an institutionalised form.

The CGT is neither for nor against the existence of unemployed associations, and even wishes to organise local joint action, whether it is with AC!, the APEIS, or whoever. It has suggested, without provoking much enthusiasm, the establishment of a consultative council enabling concertation between this kind of organisation, employers and workers. It is opposed however, to unemployed organisations being allowed into jointly-managed bodies, whose running is the prerogative of unions and employers. The CGT-FO feels that its work on behalf of workers directly benefits the unemployed, but undertakes aid projects on a local basis.

The CFE-CGC, which considers itself "the legitimate expression of those in work, the unemployed, and pensioners" has set up "regional job creation committees" to help unemployed people. The CFTC wants unemployed people to be fully represented within its organisational structure, and some organisations with recognised expertise in the field have become direct affiliates. The CFDT and the CFTC hold frequent talks with some unemployed organisations to find out their opinion before taking an official line. Some unions, like the Group of 10, which supports AC!, offer direct financial backing to action undertaken by unemployed groups. They endorsed the recently held "marches against unemployment", as did other organisations, such as regional branches of UNSA (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes)

Commentary

Do unions and unemployed groups have a difference of interests? Is defending the rights of unemployed people incompatible with defending those of employees? In response to mounting unemployment and job insecurity, the union movement, disunited and weakened by the fall in its membership, has not succeeded in ensuring the representation of unemployed people as such. The supporters of the development of the network of organisations for unemployed people often maintain that first and foremost, unions defend workers with a job, whose interests are different from those of the jobless. Many groups have emerged in the space vacated, to provide not only the unemployed but also workers in insecure jobs, with training and help with job hunting and finding a place in society again.

Through their dramatic stunts, "vocal minorities" like AC!, APEIS or MNCP, have acquired a degree of notoriety in the media. However, unemployed groups cannot claim to represent all unemployed people. Their action is generally limited to local initiatives, with no national coordination, and they are often short-lived organisations. Above all, the unemployed are a heterogeneous and often isolated group of people, and consequently difficult to mobilise. The associations are now confronted with the same challenges which hindered union attempts to organise unemployed people in the early 1980s.

So how should the representation of the unemployed best be ensured? Martine Aubry, now a Minister, has not repeated her statements of support. The participation of unemployed groups in jointly-run fundholding bodies whose work affects the unemployed, still seems unacceptable to the unions. Yet even if their position changed, the problem of appointing truly representative associations would remain. Which ones would be appropriate? (Renaud Damesin, IRES, and Johan Priou, SET-METIS)

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