Agreement on working time at EDF and GDF

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On 21 January 1997, the two French electricity and gas public utility companies signed an agreement with three trade unions ( the CFDT, the CFTC and the CFE-CGC). This agreement is designed to improve their competitiveness and productivity while at the same time maintaining their workforce at current levels. This is to be achieved mainly through the introduction of part-time working. Both the CGT and the CGT-FO unions are strongly critical of this agreement.

Electricité de France (EDF) and Gaz de France (GDF), which have a monopoly in many sectors in which they operate, have spent years attempting to improve their competitiveness. These two companies have had to adjust to the downward trend in electricity consumption and also to prepare for the opening up of France to free competition as a result of the European Directive concerning electricity and gas. They favour two means: firstly to increase their growth both in France and abroad, which is to be achieved by improving services to customers; and secondly, to reduce costs by enhancing productivity (FRF 12 billion over the next three years of which FRF 1.3 billion will result from cuts in total staff costs). In these two companies, where all jobs are for life, this is to be achieved through a reduction in the number of positions: certain vacancies due to retirement will not be filled. Between 1987 and 1996 the workforce has decreased from 151,800 to 141,800. It is required to fall by a further 6,000 over the coming three years.

Trade unions have been protesting over this reduction in personnel for years. They consider it appalling that in a country where unemployment is running at around 13%, profitable nationalised industries should place more importance on competitiveness than on employee numbers.

Talks which began on 18 January have led to a three-year agreement concluded on 21 January which the signatories consider as reconciling the two matters.

The contents of the agreement

Certain measures contained in the agreement - entitiled Développement, service public, temps de travail, emploi des jeunes. 15,000 embauches : un projet pour tous- are to be applied forthwith. Others are conditional subject to the adoption of an agreement at local level in the various plants of each company.

Main national-level measures

  • Part-time working. This is an important instrument for the signatories, who wish to see it develop. The percentage of part-time employees is currently well below the national average (2.5% compared to 16%). Employees will be able to choose this option on a voluntary basis for a period of at least three years and will at the same time receive assistance from the company which will partially compensate for the reduction in salary. In this way employees who work a 32-hour week will be paid for 35 hours for those on average and high salaries, and for 36 hours for those on the lowest salaries. The latter will in fact see a 16% reduction in working time but only a 5.2% reduction in salary. The agreement also provides that employees who are promoted will be entitled to a reduction in working hours while retaining their previous salaries.
  • The recruitment of 15,000 employees. Over the next three years 11,100 employees will reach the legal age of retirement and a further 3,300 could (according to management forecasts) be offered early retirement. It is envisaged that they will be replaced by the recruitment of at least 11,000 workers (with a target of 15,000 depending on the number of employees opting for part-time work). Of this number, an average of 80% will be contracted for 32 hours a week and paid for 35 or 36 according to the level of qualification. After a period of three years, they will be able to opt for full-time work if there are vacant positions. In this way, a new employee with the lowest qualifications will receive a monthly salary based on a 32-hour week of FRF 1,500 more than a young person in the private sector, working a 39 hour-week and paid the minimum wage (SMIC, salaire interprofessionel minimum de croissance).

Provisions subject to local agreement

  • Flexi-time. This could be implemented locally (with flexibility from 06.00 to 07.00, during lunch-breaks, after 18.00 or on Saturdays). Those employees concerned will be able to take advantage of a reduction in working time while at the same time retaining their salary based on a 38-hour week. Working time will remain based on a standard week. As is the case today, if the number of hours worked exceeds this ceiling, overtime will be paid. (It must be noted that the agreement envisages a reduction by at least a third in the amount of overtime paid, which amounted to FRF 5.2 million in 1995. This could lead to the employment of an extra 1,000 people).
  • Reduction in working hours across the board. Experiments are being undertaken on this issue in certain plants. They are on a voluntary basis and will be submitted for approval to a national monitoring committee (composed of the agreement's signatories) and to the companies' general management. Employees choosing a 32-hour working week will be paid for 35 hours and those opting for 35 hours will be compensated for 36.5 hours. Local negotiations should deal with matters relating to work organisation.

Unions divided

The agreement was signed by three trade unions, the CFDT (Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail), the CFTC (Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens) and the CFE-CGC (Confédération Générale des Cadres).

For these organisations, the agreement is positive in so far as it checks the reduction of the workforce and at the same time helps in the battle against unemployment. The CFDT also sees in this agreement a first step towards the reduction of the working week to 32 hours, which is a demand adopted at its last conference.

The CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail), which won 54% of the votes cast at the last personnel representation elections at EDF and GDF, and the CGT-FO (Confédération Générale du Travail-Force Ouvrière) are both firmly opposed to this agreement. For the CGT in particular, it would confirm a reduction in the number of jobs. It states that the 11,000 new jobs that the two companies have undertaken to create correspond to 9,350 full-time jobs. This is equivalent to a reduction of several thousand jobs when the 13,000 retirements, including early retirements, are taken into account.

The CGT and the CGT-FO have each begun legal proceedings to annul this agreement, through the "right of objection" set out in the Labour Code. This allows organisations which have obtained votes amounting to more than 50% of the electoral roll in an enterprise, to annul an agreement that would go against labour law.

Commentary

The evolution of industrial relations within these companies is yet another illustration of the shortcomings of the "EDF model" which was built up after nationalisation in 1946 as "the model of personnel management where relations between the protagonists, mainly management, civil servants and the CGT, were linked by strongly shared convictions such as: belief in science and progress, identification with the nation, with common interest and belief in public service". With the passing of time and the different phases of modernisation undergone by EDF and GDF this model has begun to show cracks.As far as industrial relations are concerned this model was characterised by the existence of a "marriage between management and the CGT" ("Le modèle EDF. Essai de sociologie des organisations" , Michel Wieviorka and Sylvaine Trinh, Paris, La Découverte, (1986)) which did not at all eliminate opposition and conflict - just the opposite in fact. The implementation of negotiated plans aiming at making the status of employees less rigid and at introducing a greater degree of flexibility into the organisation of work, constitutes a further break with the past. In 1993 an "agreement for employment" had met with opposition from the CGT.

By choosing working hours (which is the major demand of the CFDT) and the contribution to be made by employees to company growth as the subjects for negotiation, and then by signing an agreement with the minority unions, the two companies are demonstrating their wish to break with the status quo of the past. They want to change the climate of labour relations and prepare for the introduction of free competition, and are banking on the development of negotiations at local level. They are taking responsibility for the risk that they are running of clashing head on with the partisans of the "old model", freezing positions for a long time and giving rise to tensions. (Alexandre Bilous, IRES)

References

"Les sciences sociales et l'entreprise . Cinquante ans de recherche sociale à EDF", Hélène-Yvonne Meynaud ed, Paris, La Découverte (1996).

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