Agreement on social dialogue in craft industry extended

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In late April 2002, the French Minister of Employment and Solidarity controversially opted to extend to the whole craft industry an agreement on the development of social dialogue signed in December 2001 by the Craftwork Employers' Association (UPA) and the five representative trade unions. The other main employers' associations, MEDEF and CGPME, had criticised the agreement - which introduces a new levy on employers - and opposed its extension to companies outside UPA's membership.

An agreement on 'fostering a social dialogue in the craft industry' was signed on 12 December 2001 (FR0201143N) by the Craftwork Employers' Association (Union professionnelle artisanale, UPA) and five trade union confederations - the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT), the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), the General Confederation of Labour-Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail-Force ouvrière, CGT-FO), the French Christian Workers' Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC) and 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). The craft industry (artisanat) refers to small-scale artisanal production and services.

On 25 April 2002 - between the two rounds of voting in the election for the new President of the Republic (held on 21 April and 5 May) - the Minister of Employment and Solidarity in the outgoing Socialist-led Jospin government, Elisabeth Guigou, extended the agreement on social dialogue in the craft industry to the whole sector. All 500,000 craft industry companies, be they members of UPA or not, are thus now required to pay a levy set at 0.15% of their paybill. A total of 2 million people work in the craft industry, mainly in companies with a workforce of under 10. The levy should raise between EUR 12 million and EUR 15 million per year, which will be distributed equally between employers' associations and trade unions. The money is to be used by trade unions to enhance the training and participation of craft industry workers in delegations negotiating sector-level agreements, and by employers' associations to educate companies on industrial relations. The agreement also provides for a clause protecting employees carrying out trade union duties within a company from dismissal.

The agreement led to a disagreement among employers' associations. The Movement of French Enterprises (Mouvement des entreprises de France, MEDEF) and the General Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (Confédération générale des petites et moyennes entreprises, CGPME) argued that the agreement should not be extended to the whole craft industry and rejected the notion of new levies on small businesses. In the view of MEDEF, the agreement 'flies in the face of social dialogue, which must be based on the principles of freedom of association and contribution'.

MEDEF and its affiliate, the French Building Federation (Fédération française du bâtiment, FFB) have taken their quest to overturn the agreement to the Paris lower court (Tribunal de grande instance), and FFB has gathered tens of thousands of signatures on a petition demanding that the agreement be rendered null and void. While the whole extension issue has led to a new political disagreement, in particular between MEDEF and UPA, it has also indirectly fueled the debate over the representativeness of the various parties. UPA is highlighting its representative status in the craft industry and is challenging the representativeness of MEDEF and that of the MEDEF-affiliated FFB in relation to construction-related craft companies. This debate comes against the backdrop of upheaval within CGPME, where the chair is facing opposition from within the organisation.

Minister Guigou referred to the importance of the issue in justifying her decision to extend the agreement – taken only a couple of days before the demise of the Jospin government. She stressed that she shared the social partners' resolve to develop social dialogue and considered that 'this initiative should translate into tangible results'. The trade unions immediately expressed their satisfaction at her decision, which MEDEF and CGPME called a 'precipitous and damaging' move. In the view of the employers' associations, the decision to extend this agreement is not consistent with a 'republican tradition', whereby governments abstain from major political decisions in the period immediately preceding their departure from office. FFB, which intends to take its demand for the agreement to be overturned to the appropriate jurisdictions and the Council of State (Conseil d'Etat), claimed that 'craft employers will now be entirely bound by UPA diktats'.

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