Disputes mount over precarious employment and low wages in high-street retail and services

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From autumn 2001 to early summer 2002, several French high-street retailers, fast-food restaurants and other service sector companies have been hit by strike action, notably in Paris. The employees, often young people, have been protesting against the precarious status of their employment and their low wages. Although these areas of employment often have no trade union tradition, the strikes have frequently used existing union structures.

Since autumn 2001, a number of industrial disputes have broken out in the Parisian catering and retail industries. Most of these have affected companies that had hitherto not experienced collective action. The most serious actions have occurred in the Champs Elysées. This prestigious shopping street in Paris is defined as a 'tourist area' which, from the labour law perspective, means that businesses there can stay open until midnight, seven days a week. According to some observers, the mainly young workforce employed there experiences a combination of the worst employment conditions: fixed-term or part-time contracts, or even both; low pay; and close to zero prospects either in terms of career development or even just for pay rises.

Snowballing industrial action

The series of actions began in McDonald's restaurants. From October 2001 and throughout the entire winter, after the dismissal of five employees from the boulevard Saint-Denis restaurant in Paris who had intended to stand in workforce delegate elections, work stoppages hit several other McDonald's restaurants (FR0202104F). From their origin in the issue of alleged anti-union discrimination, staff demands extended to include pay, flexibility and working conditions. A wage agreement was ultimately signed by the management of McDonald's France and FGTA, the sectoral affiliate of the General Confederation of Labour-Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail-Force ouvrière, CGT-FO).

In mid-February 2002, employees at FNAC music and book shops followed the McDonald's lead. A long dispute, which affected most of the FNAC shops in the Ile-de-France area, began in the Champs Elysées branch (FR0204102N). FNAC, which has been a subsidiary of the Pinault-Printemps-Redoute group since 1994, employs a total of 10,000 people in its outlets, which have a variety of very different legal statuses and specific company-level collective agreements. Although the employees of the 'historic' FNAC shops are seen as enjoying decent terms and conditions, this does not apply to staff in the more recently opened branches. The 220 sales and checkout staff at the Champs Elysées shop, the latest addition to the group of Paris outlets in 1997, are thought to have the worst employment conditions, including: a high level of flexibility in schedules justified by the fact that the company is located in a 'tourist area'; fixed-term and part-time contracts; and inferior pay scales. After a dispute lasting more than a month, an agreement was struck by the management and trade unions.

Since the 'hamburgrève' (the 'burger strike'), as the McDonald's strikers nicknamed it, many of the businesses in the Champs Elysées (described as 'Precariousness Avenue') - such as Virgin, Go Sport, Pizza Hut and Morgan- have experienced stoppages over issues of pay, alleged anti-union discrimination and working conditions. In response to the victories achieved by some strikers, the action has affected various types of high-street retailer. The Pizza Hut restaurant in the shopping centre at Drancy, in the outer suburbs of Paris, experienced a 13-day strike and witnessed the creation of a General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT) union branch. The employees finally obtained an improvement in their working conditions and the reimbursement of taxi fares for those who have to leave work after 22.00.

A group of around 30 cleaners employed by Arcade, to which the Paris region hotels owned by the Accor group subcontract rooms cleaning, went on strike on 7 March 2002 (and were still on strike at the time of writing in June 2002). The strikers have been demanding a general pay rise, an end-of-year bonus and the conversion of 'imposed' part-time jobs into employment contracts for at least 151 hours' work per month.

'Atypical' employment conditions common factor

All the companies concerned consider themselves job creators. Indeed, McDonald's France claims to have created 2,500 jobs in 2000 due to the opening of 70 restaurants. But what type of jobs are they? According to critics, they are usually 'endured' part-time jobs and fixed-term contracts with difficult working conditions. The new recruits are principally young people, the majority of whom are engaged in these 'atypical' forms of work. Those, often graduates, who take steady but low-paid jobs do so only in the hope of uncertain promotion prospects.

The demands put forward during the various disputes are similar: general pay rises to replace individualised ones; bonuses; permanent contracts for all; and the end of 'endured' part-time employment. The egalitarian nature of the demands is equally striking. At FNAC, the main slogan has been 'equal status for equal work'. The staff of the Champs Elysées shop marked their opposition to individual and 'on merit' pay rises as practised by the management, with a demand for an equal pay rise for all the group's employees. The same question of homogeneity of pay statuses has arisen in the Arcade dispute, in which the cleaners have demanded the same conditions of employment as the Accor group's own room-cleaning staff. Moreover, the Arcade strikers joined in a demonstration organised by the group's employees in front of the shareholders' annual general meeting.

Innovative and hard-fought disputes

The various disputes listed above demonstrate the mobilisation of young workers in precarious employment in fast food and high-street retailing. It appears that this generation is finding out that struggle can be waged collectively in the workplace and that concessions can be won. Alongside the more traditional forms of action such as picket lines, demonstrations and leafleting, the protest movement has assumed original and festive forms, with Go Sport sales staff distributing peanuts, symbolising their wages, to employees at the firm's corporate headquarters in Sassenage (Isère département), and the Arcade strikers throwing confetti in front of two Accor group hotels.

The collective mobilisation of workers in these companies however, has been difficult. They have firstly had to cope with numerous types of pressure reportedly being put on them by their management. Above all, the way in which the companies or groups concerned are structured has hampered the spread of this mobilisation process and made contact between employees problematic. Ownership of the FNAC outlets, as mentioned above, is spread over several subsidiaries of the parent company. Certain McDonald's restaurants are owned directly by McDonald's France, while the majority are franchised and thus constitute individual small and medium-sized enterprises.

Frequent trade union support

These new forms of action usually depend on an existing union structure. In a context such as that of young workers in the tertiary sector, where there is no union tradition, trade unions have emerged as the natural tool for collective mobilisation. Yet the relationships between the new activists and the unions are not so simple. At McDonald's, for example, the delegates, and even entire sections, have on several occasions left one union to join another. Day-to-day union activities have also reportedly been hindered by opposition from the management, sometimes in the form of anti-union practices.

The use of unions has often assumed an original form. A CGT 'inter-company' organising committee has been set up in the Champs Elysées. Supported by a CGT Paris retail branch organiser, the employees mobilised in various shops have attempted to arrange a series of solidarity activities. One of the first actions by this committee occurred on 15 May 2002, when members leafleted in front of the shops where unionists were experiencing difficulties. CGT has also established a 'fast food' organising committee. It has not been the only union requested to help, as the young workers have also turned to CGT-FO, the French Christian Workers' Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC) and the National Federation of Independent Unions (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes, UNSA).

Commentary

These high-profile disputes are for the time being reliant upon the perseverance of a few, often unionised, young employees. Some trade unions have interpreted the protests as the sign of a new union presence in sectors and companies where they were previously non-existent. Once the disputes are over, the maintenance and development of union activities on a daily basis might bear out this prediction. (Catherine Vincent, IRES)

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