SNCF agreement on 35-hour week backed by referendum

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On 4 June 1999, CGT and CFDT, the majority trade unions at France's SNCF rail network, signed an agreement with the management on the reduction of working time. This agreement, rejected by the other unions, had been the subject of a referendum among the company's staff organised by management and the two largest unions.

On 1 June 1999, the 175,000 employees of the SNCF rail network were called upon to give their opinion on an agreement which introduces the 35-hour working week, following the June 1998 legislation on the issue (FR9806113F). The deal had been negotiated over for more than four months by the main trade unions at the company. A week-long strike by some train drivers, from 28 April to 7 May, had drawn attention to the particular situation of this category of staff, who had been neglected in the negotiations, according to the minority unions (FR9905182F). After more negotiating sessions over amendments to the agreement, the two majority unions at SNCF, CGT and CFDT- with 68% of the votes in the workplace elections between them - put the final text to a referendum, for which SNCF management provided logistic support. The other unions called for the vote to be boycotted.

There was a 47% turnout, with 53,000 voting "yes" (61% of those voting), and 34,000 voting "no" (39%). Each side found reason for satisfaction in the result, with opponents emphasising what they saw as the unconvincing nature of the support of the railway workers, and the unions advocating a "yes" vote claiming that the turnout was satisfactory for a postal ballot. Following the vote of approval, CGT and CFDT signed the agreement with management on 4 June 1999

Apart from the details of this particular episode, the issue of referenda in general raises the question of the degree to which the unions are really representative. Referenda are a source of profound ambiguity in French industrial relations.

Referenda are not new and the decision to hold one encompasses a variety of meanings. In 1955, CGT used one at Renault to bolster one of the first large-scale company agreements in France, which was rejected by its rank-and-file members. In the early 1960s, by contrast, CGT used referenda in some nationalised companies, such as the EDF electricity utility, to hinder the newly-established policy of company collective bargaining and thwart the signing of agreements with minority unions. Today, one or more majority unions may occasionally use more or less formal consultation procedures to prevent the possibility open to employers of imposing agreements approved only by unions representing a minority of employees. At Renault Véhicules Industriels in early April 1999, an agreement signed by CGT-FO, CFTC and CFE-CGC was turned down by 83% of those voting in a ballot organised by CGT and CFDT, thus preventing its implementation.

The use of the referendum poses many legal, strategic and tactical problems for unions. The legal right to represent workers granted to certain union organisations, even where they have few members and scant support among staff in a particular company or sector, has created problems of legitimacy over some agreements. Referenda seem to be a way to overcome this drawback. In other circumstances however, they may lead to the rejection of the position of the majority unions, outflanked by populist arguments.

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