Banking sector in conflict over statutory working week

After the breakdown of negotiations in the banking sector, the French Government's adoption of a draft decree in March 1997, making the structure of the statutory working week more flexible, provoked strike action from all trade unions. This is one more illustration of the problems surrounding collective bargaining at sector level in France. The decree was passed on 9 April.

Complex regulations and ensuing deadlock

In France, regulation of the working week is based on a piece of legislation passed in 1936, which laid down a work schedule spread over five days. Decrees on the application of this law made special provision, in each sector, for the way in which these hours would be organised. The one concerning banking dates from 1937.

Since then, many laws have introduced flexibility into the regulations, especially a 1982 ordinance and laws passed in 1987 and 1993, but when it comes to the collective work schedule, such flexibility measures are only possible if a derogation is introduced by collective agreement, either across the whole sector, or in the workplace itself. Negotiations on this issue took place in the banking sector in 1994 and 1996, but proved unsuccessful.

The employers' organisation, the French Banking Association (Association française des banques, AFB), then filed a complaint with the Conseil d'Etat (the highest administrative court) to ask for the abolition of the 1937 decree. The main argument used was that it violates free competition, since other organisations with financial activities (especially the Crédit Agricole, savings banks, and the Post Office) are not subject to this decree.

An attempt at negotiation

Reacting to the AFB's offensive, the unions demanded the reopening of negotiations. The Minister for Employment convened a joint management-union committee on 7 March 1997, to study the possibility of an overhaul of the 1937 decree.

First among the AFB's demands is the chance to lengthen daily branch opening hours, and to open on Saturdays. This would necessitate successive or overlapping shifts, forbidden by the 1937 decree. The AFB is also asking for the legal loopholes distinguishing its member companies from other financial competitors to be eliminated.

The five union federations - CFDT ( Confédération française démocratique du travail), CFE-CGC (Confédération française de l'encadrement - confédération générale des cadres), CFTC (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens), CGT (Confédération générale du travail) and CGT-FO (Confédération générale du travail - Force ouvrière) - have adopted a common platform. They agree on the need for regulations common to all types of banking institutions. They also agree to more flexibility in the way work schedules are structured, provided that they obtain compensatory measures such as more jobs and shorter working hours. These flexibility measures must be subject to a collective agreement.

On 21 March, after the breakdown of negotiations, the Minister for Employment made public a new draft decree allowing the possibility of resorting to successive or overlapping shifts (where there is no agreement between management and unions, the works council must be consulted), and of spreading the hours worked in weekly shifts over four days (if there is no agreement, an absence of opposition from the works council would suffice to make this legal). This draft document thus allows a great deal of flexibility in branch opening times without imposing the obligation of reaching a collective agreement, and will apply to all financial sector institutions. The AFB is happy with these plans.

Strike on 4 April

The draft decree was unanimously criticised by the unions, which see it as a tool for deregulating the statutory working week, and they called a one-day strike for 4 April. As usual, estimates of the numbers of people taking part differ widely according to the source. The AFB says that there was an 11% turnout, while unions put it at between 30% and 40%. The rate of support varied heavily from region to region, and from branch to branch.

The unions asked the Government to postpone the decree's adoption to allow further talks to take place. However, it was passed on 9 April with minor modifications. The unions announced their intention to "step up their action".

Commentary

These conflicts around the modification of 60-year-old laws illustrate the difficulties involved in sector-wide collective negotiations in France. Both sides agree on the need for flexibility over the statutory working week, so that firms can respond better to customer demand and, it is hoped, increase the range of a firm's activities, thus creating jobs in a sector which forecasts 30,000 job losses over the next five years. However, the unions have not received the guarantees they have been asking for, such as an obligatory collective agreement detailing the compensatory measures in terms of job creation and shorter working hours. The banks only agree to a three-year transitional unilateral commitment to modification of the work schedule.

However, several banks have, in recent years, come to partial agreements in this field. The adoption of the new decree will enable them to continue down this path, even in the absence of collective agreements. (Jacques Freyssinet, IRES)

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