Strong support for small-scale strike at Citroën Peugeot

In the spring of 2007, a six-week strike involving a minority of workers took place at the PSA Peugeot Citroën factory in Aulnay-sous-Bois in the suburbs of Paris. The workers on strike subsequently voted to return to work. Despite the few concessions made by the management, the strikers were gratified by the great support they received during the strike. Many French workers identified with the pay issues raised by the strikers.

From 28 February to 10 April 2007, a strike took place at the PSA Peugeot Citroën car manufacturing plant in Aulnay-sous-Bois in the northeastern suburbs of Paris.

The nature of the strike and the context made this industrial action noteworthy. Regarding workers’ involvement, only a minority went on strike – between 400 and 500 workers out of the 5,000 personnel at the site. Their claims were far-reaching: a monthly pay increase of €300, retirement at 55 years and permanent recruitment of temporary agency staff.

After six weeks of strike action, a general assembly unanimously voted for a return to work.

Background

The context of the strike was rather sensitive in terms of location, subject and timing. This factory, located in the Seine-Saint Denis department in the Paris region, was the scene of a major dispute in 1982, reflecting the poor industrial relations at PSA in that period; the company was often singled out because of its use of company militia to track down trade union activists from the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT). Changes at senior level in PSA in the 1990s led to new human resource management techniques and the introduction of social dialogue. The situation was still not perfect, but in line with what existed in other companies in the industry. The recent strike was, in fact, the first major dispute since the beginning of this new era of staff management.

From a wider political perspective, the strike took place during the run-up to the French presidential elections in May 2007. All of the left-wing and far-left political candidates visited the strikers, who symbolically represented the issue of pay. Workers at the heart of the dispute were not only young employees who had experienced job insecurity but also employees with a stable situation and relatively long service at PSA. In support of their pay demand, they referred to a national minimum wage (Salaire minimum interprofessionnel de croissance, SMIC) of €1,500, which was among the pre-electoral proposals of several left-wing parties.

Increasing support but management stands firm

The strike started soon after the signing of a pay agreement between five of the six trade unions concerned and the management of the PSA Group in February 2007. The five trade unions included: the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), the General Confederation of Labour – Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail – Force ouvrière, CGT-FO), the French Christian Workers’ Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC), the French Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff – General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (Confédération française de l’encadrement – confédération générale des cadres, CFE-CGC) and the Group of European Automobile Unions (Groupement des syndicats européens de l’automobile, GSEA). The agreement provided for a 1.6% pay rise, corresponding to €26 a month for those on the lowest pay scale.

PSA workers contrasted the outcomes achieved in the Group agreement with those obtained by the workers of a subcontractor of PSA at the Aulnay factory. A strike at the car components company Magneto led to a pay increase of €100, five extra days of annual leave and the recruitment of several temporary agency staff on open-ended employment contracts.

At the beginning of the dispute, PSA workers were supported by CGT, which had not signed the pay agreement, and by the Independent Union – Solidarity, Unity, Democracy (Union syndicale – Solidaire, Unitaire, Démocratique, SUD). However, the five trade unions listed above which had signed the agreement condemned the strike. Nevertheless, those present at the Aulnay factory – including CFDT – supported the strikers after a few days.

In the end, management did not give in to the demands, but accepted some measures that reduce workers’ expenses: a bigger refund of travelling costs and a reduction in canteen prices. Two strike days were paid and reimbursement of the other days was spread out over time. Furthermore, all of the factory workers received a bonus of €125. Overall, the strikers’ disappointment at the modest practical outcome was counteracted by the great support they received during the strike.

Commentary

The strikers received considerable support, which was reflected in financial help including from many PSA workers who were not on strike but supported the dispute; the conflict became a symbol of the pay conditions of manual workers.

The dispute was further fuelled by the golden handshake given to the CEO of Airbus, Noël Forgeard, when he left the Franco-German aircraft manufacturer. His departure, which was accompanied by substantial compensation, was poorly viewed by the public at large, who immediately compared it with the low pay of PSA workers. The dispute also echoed themes that led to the candidate Nicolas Sarkozy’s success in the presidential elections; as noted, the election campaign was taking place at the same time.

The strike was not a success in terms of its immediate results and also its lack of extension both within the Aulnay site, where it remained a minority movement, and even less so at the level of the PSA Group. Nonetheless, it was not considered as a failure, because it led to much interest and solidarity among the many French workers who have the same problems regarding their pay levels as those cited by the strikers.

Jean-Marie Pernot, Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES)

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