Collective bargaining in 1996

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In June 1997, the tripartite National Collective Bargaining Commission examined the Ministry of Labour's 1996 annual report on collective bargaining in France. The study indicates progress in bargaining in a context marked by low growth in GDP, control of inflation and relative lethargy in domestic consumption. Wage bargaining has slowed considerably and, for the first time, more company agreements were signed on the issue of working hours than on that of wages.

On 23 June 1997 the National Collective Bargaining Commission, which brings together employers' organisations and trade union confederations with the Minister for Employment and National Solidarity, examined the results of collective bargaining in France during 1996. The main points of the Ministry of Labour's report ("La négociation collective en 1996 (Volume 1: la tendance, les dossiers. Volume II chiffres et documents)", Paris, La Documentation Française, 1997) are outlined below.

Various levels of collective bargaining

Intersectoral bargaining has been maintained at a similar level to that of previous years with three national agreements (compared to five in 1995) and 54 amendments to existing agreements (37 in 1995 and 61 in 1994). Most often, these agreements have renewed existing mechanisms (such as the renegotiation of the long-term agreement on unemployment insurance) or have been aimed at safeguarding supplementary pension schemes.

Sectoral bargaining has continued to progress, with a total of 1,030 signed agreements, compared with 968 in 1995. The overall increase in the number of agreements reflects a large rise in negotiations at national level (717 agreements in 1996 compared with 576 in 1995) and a decrease in negotiations at regional, departmental or local levels.

Bargaining at company level has also experienced an increase in the number of agreements reached (up 6%- 8%, according to the criteria used in the calculations). However, with 9,274 agreements signed, the increase did not reach the record 15% growth registered during the previous two years. Bargaining at company level only affects one worker in five. As far as wages are concerned, only one worker in 10 is covered by a company agreement on actual pay rates .

Bargaining issues

Based on the data gathered, the report indicates that for the first time wage bargaining at company level has been pushed into second place (42% of agreements) behind working time (43% of agreements).

The number of pay agreements reached at sector level (essentially dealing with minimum wages) decreased noticeably in 1996 (487 compared to 528 in 1995). This trend can also be seen at company level, where a 5% decrease in the number of agreements was recorded. Wage increases went up slightly in 1996 as a continuation of the trend initiated in 1995. At sector level this tendency meant increases for the most part between 2% and 3%. At company level, average wage rises have remained stable compared with 1995, at around 2.2%.

1996 was characterised by intense collective bargaining on working time following the "Robien law" (loi Robien) (FR9705146F) and the intersectoral agreement reached on 31 October 1996, which was signed by the CNPF employers' organisation and four union confederations (CFDT, CFTC, CGT-FO and CGC) and which allowed for both reduction and annualisation of working time and encouraged employers and unions to adopt its provisions at sector level. Of the 128 sectors with more than 10,000 workers, 25 came to an agreement in 1996 on one or several of the five issues proposed in the intersectoral agreement: the reorganisation of working time on an annual basis and a reduction in working hours; overtime working; part-time working; the consequences for working conditions; and "time savings accounts". The agreements cover over four million workers. If the number of agreements concluded appears to be a success, the results of negotiation are disappointing in relation to the initial ambitions of the 31 October 1996 intersectoral agreement in terms of employment, and consideration given to the effects of reorganisation on working conditions.

At company level around 4,000 agreements have been signed on the issue of reductions in working time (up 12% compared with 1995). The implementation of the loi Robienincreased the number of negotiations at the end of the year, and affected 75,000 workers.

Other areas dealt with by collective bargaining were as follows :

  • At intersectoral level: employment- renegotiation of the agreement on unemployment insurance; vocational training- especially the creation of a fund for the financing of organisations in charge of vocational training; and pensions- particularly supplementary pension schemes and their financing, including agreements directed at improving the system, making pension schemes for management and non-management staff more complementary, and making it possible to retire at 60 under certain conditions.
  • At sector level: apart from eight new general collective agreements reached and eight others updated, specific agreements dealt with vocational training (12 agreements), employment and the reorganisation of working time (six agreements) and miscellaneous issues.
  • At company level: after working time and wages, issues covered were, in descending order of importance: savings and contingency systems (950 agreements); employment- agreements directed at the maintenance of employment levels, at skill acquisition (vocational training) and at the improvement of competitiveness (900 agreements); and trade union rights (870 agreements, an increase of 25% compared with 1995).

Overall, the report concludes that: "the tone of negotiation and the shift to non-wage-related subjects such as the reorganisation of working time, employment and welfare illustrate the will of employers and unions, in spite of difficulties encountered in creating dialogue and obstacles that remain to be overcome, to forge new compromises which take into account both economic constraints and all aspects of workers' interests."

Commentary

The annual report is the only source of information on agreements reached by collective bargaining at company, sector and intersectoral levels throughout the country. It allows the measurement of a few important trends and developments from one year to the next. Nevertheless, its conception - based on recording the number of agreements as they are reported to the Ministry of Labour- is of very relative use in understanding the reality of industrial relations and the real questions which are dealt with by unions and employers. For example, the two issues of employment and working time are sometimes dealt with together and sometimes separately in agreements. A further example is the relation between working time and pay: if it is a matter of the implementation of part-time working, the stress can be placed either on a reduction in the working week or on the decrease or stability of the paybill.

In terms of bargaining coverage, the report indicates that since 1981 many sectors suffering from a lack of agreement have been dealt with, and that only 500,000 private sector workers are still not covered by a collective agreement. The report itself points out the difficulties in understanding the nature of this cover: certain categories of workers are not included (security guards or cleaners for example), while some sectors have not had negotiations for several years. A large number of agreements have not been extended and given legal force across the entire sector. and are applied only in companies which are affiliated to organisations which signed the agreement. Above all, we cannot be sure of the actual implementation of agreements which are nonetheless on the statute books.

All these reasons mean that it is necessary, above all for a non-French reader, to consider the report as a mere inventory of agreements reached during a year and not to draw comparisons with other industrial relations systems. (Alexandre Bilous, IRES)

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