The 22nd Congress of Force Ouvrière

At the 22nd Congress of Force Ouvrière (FO), held between 14–18 February 2011, Secretary General Jean-Claude Mailly called on members during the closing session to ‘fight, resist, negotiate, act!’. FO is France’s third largest trade union, and it does not seem downcast about losing the fight with the government over pension reform. A reinvigorated FO declared that it would overcome difficulties placed in its way by approaching changes to trade union representativeness.

Background

Force Ouvrière (FO) is the third largest French trade union and is a member of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The 22nd Congress (in French) of FO took place from 14 to 18 February in Montpellier and FO appears more united now than ever. Only three of the 150 speakers let it be known that they would either abstain or vote against the Congress report. Unsurprisingly, Jean-Claude Mailly was re-elected Secretary General by the national committee. Observers noted that the Congress was mainly marked by the position of FO as being comparable to that of the General Confederation of Labour-French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CGT-CFDT) axis.

Opening speech by Jean-Claude Mailly

Jean-Claude Mailly explained the position of FO as a free, independent union, determined and faithful to its origins. He said:

Within a context of profound and widespread crisis of capitalism, as governments struggle to regain control of markets, and while inequality increases, revolts are born – while some governments dispute that public confidence has been eroded, it is essential that unionism remains on course for its freedom, its independence ... [and]... responsibilities.

This declaration of independence acted as a backdrop to the entire Congress. FO even decided to annex the final resolutions of the Charter of Amiens, which was adopted at the ninth Congress of the CGT in 1906. FO was created in 1947 from the split in the CGT. This text embodies the revolutionary character of the union and respect for the individual freedom of its members as its own freedom.

The Secretary General spoke of the ‘deep crisis of capitalism’ that has shaken the world. He sees the roots of this crisis in what he described as ‘runaway inequality’. More specifically, he said that the fall in overall economic demand was due to the erosion of wages in low-income households. He also denounced the shift in distribution between salaries and profits to the detriment of wages over the past 30 years.

As for Europe, whose original set-up was based only on market economics, competition and monetary management, Jean-Claude Mailly condemned the European Union’s short-sightedness.

It would have been necessary, it is still necessary, to raise consumption by a concerted increase of wages in both private and public sectors. (...) The politicians have abdicated [their responsibilities].

He echoed the International Labour Organization (ILO) analysis of the general response to the global financial crisis, stating:

A narrow focus on reducing deficits without raising the challenge of job creation would further weaken employment prospects and threaten recovery. Unfortunately, this model of liberal capitalism is still in place in the G8 and G20. In Europe, it has even worsened with the strengthening of the Stability and Growth Pact. While Europe was pleased to have developed social systems, we see everywhere that attacks converge on what constitutes the foundation of democracy, social rights and trade union freedom.

Three lessons from the fight over pension reform

Jean-Claude Mailly draws three lessons from the fight over pensions.

  • Lesson 1: The law has, in Mr Mailly’s opinion, nothing to do with pensions and everything to do with the political and economic situation and the Government’s decision to reduce public sector spending.
  • Lesson 2: This was the so-called failure of the unions to unite and oppose the proposals, due to the reluctance of the CGT to take strike action, thereby weakening trade union resistance to the Government’s proposals. Mr Mailly also concluded that ‘… the interests of the union took precedence over the interests of the employees’ and that the decision by general union opposition not to take strike action was taken merely to ‘… protect the alliance between the CGT and the CFDT’. He also suggested that this decision had nothing to do with the pension reforms and had everything to do with the battle between unions over the law on trade union representation. Legislation enacted in 2008 on trade union representation (FR0808039I) requires that by 2012/13, a trade union must obtain at least 10% of the votes in workplace elections to qualify as ‘representative’ and to participate in company-level bargaining. This threshold will be set at 8% for bargaining at sectoral and national levels.
  • Lesson 3: FO insists that the problem of funding pensions ‘… will reappear in the short term and more prominently than ever’. It requires that the law (FR1007021I) is repealed.

The issue of representativeness was put forward as a key challenge. Jean-Claude Mailly proposed a specific resolution on the need for FO to gain new activist members to ensure that it can meet the new minimum levels of support from workers that will be required by law. He cited good results for FO in workplace elections in the following organisations:

  • the Paris Public Transit Authority (RATP);
  • Gaz de France–Suez (GDF Suez);
  • the Paris Airport Authority (ADP);
  • Airbus;
  • the Douai Renault factory (Douai-RSAS).

He also listed a number of unions that have joined the confederation. These include the former National Federation of Independent Unions (UNSA, in French), the National Union of Cabin Crew (SNPNC) and the Union of French Clerks. However, and as ever, he declared that the law altering representation rules should be repealed, arguing that it makes employees’ election rights too ‘unpredictable’.

‘The purpose of the law is clear,’ he said – ‘To get rid of the unions.’ The freedom of employees to nominate their own representatives is threatened. The new law transforms the unions into political organisations. Mr Mailly summarised his view of the effect of the legislation, saying:

It puts us into a permanent electoral process and, during this time, we can do nothing else. This legislation undermines the republican model in favour of an Anglo-Saxon model in which an equality of rights is neither a reference nor a goal.

FO has filed a complaint with the ILO on certain provisions of the law that appear to be in violation of international conventions and of the laws of the Committee of Trade Union Freedom. A ruling will be made on this complaint in the spring.

Five resolutions

Five resolutions were arrived at.

  • The general resolution: The general resolution stresses the independence of the organisation, illustrates its hostility to the law on representativeness and deplores the impact of ‘global social regression’ and ‘austerity’ on the rights of workers, and the surrender of Europe to ‘liberalism’. At the same time, it states that FO’s priority is procuring a general increase in wages for workers. It demands genuine contracts of employment, genuine statutes for employees, and aims to defend public services and the welfare state.
  • The resolution on collective social protection: FO reaffirms its commitment to the founding principles of social security. Payroll tax should remain the basis for funding social security. Therefore, the resolution calls for an end to the exemptions on low wages, particularly those included in the ‘Fillon’ Law of 2005 and those contained in the ‘Tepa’ Law (in French) of 21 August 2007, in particular tax exemptions on extra hours. FO opposes the transfer of health insurance charges to additional organisations as it would result in increased costs for the insured. With regard to pensions, FO advocates a return of the right to retire at age 60 with a full pension, with 37.5 years of contributions. It refuses to be drawn into the opposition between private and public sectors and reiterates its commitment to the general statute of the civil service.
  • The ‘overseas’ (‘outre-mer’) resolution: For mainland France to outsource social inequality, wages and economic policy to its overseas territories is unacceptable. FO calls for a ‘real policy of territorial consistency’. It demands the harmonisation of local minimum wages, pension benefits and family policies in all French overseas territories with those of the mainland.
  • The social resolution: ‘Real jobs, real wages and a real contract of employment!’ FO is concerned about the development of instability. It wants to improve the rights of job applicants and strengthen vocational training. It also aims to defend working conditions and to fight against harassment, workplace violence and all forms of discrimination. To achieve this, it calls for a strengthening of the role of the trade unions and of the other representatives.
  • The ‘development’ resolution: The Congress also voted for an FO development plan that is, according to Jean-Claude Mailly, ‘a toolkit for the next three years’. This plan is based on a ‘presence at grass-roots level’ and aims to facilitate ‘access to union office for women and young members’. The development of FO becomes a top priority for all activists and leaders, without exception. Union structures are needed to make available all necessary tools and the union is empowered to implement all arrangements. In other words, it is placed at the heart of the project, with the legal means to launch major initiatives on the subject. It is a culture change for an organisation strongly committed to freedom of association.

Hélène Tissandier, Université Paris-Dauphine, HERA

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