Prud'hommes industrial tribunal elections: no upsets, just a confirmation of trends

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The results of the December 1997 elections to France's Prud'hommes industrial tribunals have confirmed the trends observed for more than a decade. The only new development is the CFDT union confederation's victory in the management staff electoral college.

Wednesday 10 December 1997 saw the five-yearly elections of representatives of employers on employees on France's unique joint Conseils de prud'hommes, or industrial tribunal s (FR9710171F). In the poll, 14,646 prud'hommecouncillors, whose responsibility is to judge individual employment disputes, were elected under proportional representation by the 14.6 million employees and 921,000 employers of the private sector. The prud'hommetribunals are structured around three main areas of employment - an "industry" section, a "trade" section, and one called "miscellaneous activities" - and one for a specific category of employees, the "managerial employees" section.

An increasingly low employee turnout

Since the election of prud'hommescouncillors by all employees and employers was established in 1979, the turnout has been steadily falling, and reached its lowest level in 1997 at 34.05%, as revealed by Table 1.

Table 1. The abstention rate in prud'hommes elections, by section 1979-97 (mainland France)
Year 1979* 1982 1987 1992 1997
Employees' electoral college . . . . .
Total registered electorate (in millions) 12.3 13.5 12.2 13.9 14.6
Total rate of abstention (%) 36.7 41.39 54.05 59.63 65.95
Industry section 28.4 32.09 43.02 48.25 52.33
Trade section 44.1 48.91 61.8 67.05 72.39
Miscellaneous activities section 49.2 52.91 62.09 67.52 71.65
Managerial employees section 36.1 41.16 58.55 60.76 66.37
Employers' electoral college . . . . .
Total rate of abstention (%) 51.6 52.06 65.93 74.31 79.0

*The Alsace and Moselle départements did not take part in the 1979 elections, so the results are not strictly comparable with those of other years.

Sources : Bref social, Liaisons sociales quotidien

This lack of interest is partly due to logistical problems in the way voting is organised. The vote takes place during working hours, in offices usually situated outside the workplace and sometimes a long distance from it. Other reasons may also be mentioned, such as the distribution of the electorate between the different sections, which has changed radically since 1992. The "industry" section has witnessed a 14.4% drop in the size of its workforce, while the "miscellaneous activities" section has grown by 34.6%. The composition of this section has also been drastically altered by its extension to include domestic workers and workers who are also students in higher education.

Whatever the reasons may be, maintaining the turnout at its past levels was one of the principal issues of the campaign for all the unions involved, as the elections constituted a test of their popularity in the workforce. All union leaders regretted the low turnout, with Marc Blondel, general secretary of Force Ouvrière (FO) calling it "a real catastrophe".

Confirmation of earlier patterns, except in the managerial employees section

In 1997, the French union landscape did not see any upsets and the number of switched votes was very small, confirming earlier patterns (FR9711175F). Yet, due to the rise in the rate of abstention, all unions saw a drop in their vote. Table 2 outlines the results.

Table 2. Results of the employees' electoral college (mainland France) , trade unions' share of the vote in %, 1979-97
CGT CFDT CGT-FO CFTC CGC CSL Misc*
. 1979** 42.4 23.1 17.4 6.9 5.2 2.5 2.0
. 1982 36.8 23.5 17.8 8.5 9.6 1.71 1.83
Total 1987 36.34 23.05 20.49 8.3 7.4 2.29 2.1
. 1992 33.34 23.81 20.46 8.58 6.95 4.4 2.43
. 1997 33.11 25.34 20.55 7.52 5.92 4.22 2.67
. 1982 45 23.5 16.7 6.8 5.4 1.9 0.5
Industry 1987 45.16 22.11 19.35 6.52 4 2.6 0.22
section 1992 41.31 22.58 19.84 7.02 4.56 4.13 0.52
. 1997 40.67 22.3 21.27 6.27 3.66 4.23 2.4
. 1982 36.7 23.4 20.5 9.5 5.8 1.5 2.6
Trade 1987 36.08 22.51 23.09 8.65 4.38 2.75 2.52
section 1992 32.51 23.04 23.14 8.92 4.2 5.85 2.29
. 1997 32.78 24.16 23.31 7.39 7.97 4.94 3.1
Miscellaneous 1982 30.2 26.9 21.4 11.9 4.9 1.9 2.9
activities 1987 29.97 26.77 23.22 11.24 4.08 1.49 3.19
section 1992 26.28 26.8 22.4 11.35 3.82 4.11 3.19
. 1997 30.3 27.74 21.56 8.67 3.47 4.36 3.8
Management 1982 13 17.5 11.7 9.1 41.5 1.7 .
employees' 1987 14.6 21.31 16.31 10.8 29.47 1.81 5.68
section 1992 13.96 23.54 13.55 10 27.2 3.58 8.13
. 1997 16.22 31.52 10.36 9.94 21.88 3.42 6.65

* Misc in 1997: UFT , CFNT , Groupe des 10 , UNSA , miscellaneous. Misc in 1992: Groupe des 10, FGSOA , UFT. Misc in 1987, 1982 and 1979: CAT , FGSOA, UFT, miscellaneous.

* The Alsace and Moselle départements did not take part in the 1979 elections, so the results are not strictly comparable with those of other years.

The CGT (Confédération générale du Travail) remains the most popular union, with 33.2% of the votes. Although the changes in employment have been unfavourable for it - the CGT's historical base was the industrial sector - it achieved virtually the same results as in 1992 (33.3%), thus checking the regular erosion of its vote since 1979. The increase in the vote for the CFDT (Confédération française démocratique du travail) continued, reaching 25.3%. FO has retained its position after more than a decade's continuous growth in support. The CFTC (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens) did not manage to stabilise its falling vote, and lost a further point, winning just 7.5%. The only noteworthy change of position took place in the managerial employees' section, where the CGC (Confédération générale des cadres) lost the first place that it had hitherto occupied to the CFDT, which gained 8 points on its 1992 vote, easily overtaking the CGC.

None of the unions not affiliated to one of the confederations, even the new organisations, were able to make any significant breakthrough. The CFNT (Confédération française nationale du travail) especially, an organisation with close links to the National Front, received a low vote nationally. However, in the 150 sections in which it ran candidates, and especially those towns where the National Front has relatively high electoral support, it achieved an average of 6.5%, according to early estimates. After the elections, the Cour de Cassation, the highest court in the French judicial system, will make a judgment on the validity of these candidates' election (FR9711181N). As for the employers, the Entreprise plus slate, in which the main employers' organisations are represented, won a decisive victory, with 88% of the votes. However this is lower than the 1992 result, of 91%.

Commentary

All the research shows that the efficiency of the prud'hommecourts is much appreciated by employers and employees alike. The low turnout in the elections in no way challenges the legitimacy of the prud'hommecouncillors or of this type of industrial tribunal. However, the high abstention rate observed raises questions over the lack of significant impact made on the private sector workforce by the unions. The unions are increasingly fragmented and campaign on similar themes, the enforcement of employment law, for example. They are unable to appear sufficiently different from one another, and have trouble reaping the benefits of the work of their elected officials on the prud'hommetribunals. (Catherine Vincent, IRES)

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