Industrial disputes rose in 1999

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According to data published by the French Ministry of Employment and Solidarity in November 2000, there was a marked rise in the number of working days lost due to strikes in 1999, compared with 1998. Almost half of all disputes in 1999 were mainly related to either pay or employment. However, the reduction and reorganisation of working time formed the basis for a quarter of the disputes.

In November 2000, the Ministry of Employment and Solidarity published a series of statistics on industrial disputes in 1999 ("Les conflits en 1999: Une reprise sensible", Premières informations et premières synthèses No. 48.1, November 2000). The data collected deal with disputes giving rise to work stoppages (essentially strikes), while other forms of action (such as demonstrations) are not included.

Clear rise in disputes

The 1999 figures show a clear rise in the level of industrial disputes compared with 1998 and the two previous years (FR9902159N and FR9801190N). Excluding the civil service, in 1999 there were 573,561 working days lost through industrial action (journées individuelles non travaillées, JINT) - a 60% increase on the 353,180 recorded the previous year.

The level of industrial action in the civil service also rose, but less sharply - with working days lost up 10% to 751,900 in 1999 from 683,600 in 1998). The civil service's share of total days lost thus fell from 66% in 1998 to 57% in 1999. Overall, the rise in working days lost, all sectors included, was 28%, with a total of 1,325,400 in 1999.

The number of days lost, however, remained well below the levels of the 1975-80 period, at most returning to those witnessed in the early 1990s, since when France has generally seen low levels of industrial conflict, apart from in 1995- see graph 1 below.

Source: MES-DARES.

Few general disputes

The number of "general" disputes has been falling noticeably. In 1999, excluding the civil service, the number of strike days related to a general dispute - ie one in which the strike call came from outside the company, and was directed at several firms - decreased to 5,426, compared with 7,600 in 1998, accounting for less than 1% of all days lost, as opposed to 2% in 1998 and 14% in 1997. While the trend in 1999 was generally towards higher levels of adherence to strike calls by workers, general disputes involved barely more than a quarter of the employees in workplaces where such action was taken, which is low compared with previous years (the participation rate in general disputes has varied between 41% in 1993 and 85% in 1996).

Conversely, between 1998 and 1999, the number of workplace disputes increased by 57%, excluding the civil service, and they also lasted longer. The pattern of ebb and flow of workplace disputes in 1999 matched that of previous years, apart from the last quarter of 1999, which stood out because of its high level of disputes. This can be placed in the context of negotiations on the reduction of working time, particularly numerous at that time, on the eve of the coming into force of the statutory reduction of working time (FR0001137F).

The extent of this workplace-scale conflict increased especially in companies with 100 employees and over, while it was very low in businesses with fewer than 50 staff.

Rise in working time disputes

The Ministry's analysis of the grounds for 1,120 disputes in the private sector - see graph 2 below - reveals that the proportion of disputes linked to the reorganisation and reduction of working time doubled from 1998 to stand at 25% in 1999. Of these working time disputes, a quarter were in support of the reduction of working time initiated by the recent 35-hour week "Aubry" legislation. The rest of the disputes were in protest at the arrangements planned by employers for the transition to the 35-hour week. The protests were thus over issues such as lowering or freezing pay, challenges to acquired rights, a perception that too few jobs were being created, or the inclusion of rest breaks in actual working time.

However, the topics of pay and employment were still among the most common reasons for disputes. In the majority of cases, disputes on employment stemmed from anxieties over jobs and a refusal to accept redundancies. This accounted for 20% of disputes in 1999 (25% in 1998). Pay claims, not including those linked to the reduction of working time, accounted for 27% of disputes in 1999 (30% in 1998).

* This theme was not separated from the others in 1996, which distorts comparison with previous years.

Field: Sample of around 1,000 disputes (1,120 in 1999) in private sector companies only.

Source: MES-DRT.

Union involvement

According to the Ministry of Employment's statistics - see graphic 3 below - the proportion of disputes called by each of the various trade unions has varied little in recent times. What is new is the increasing number of "multi-union" disputes called by more than one union. This category accounted for over 40% of all disputes in 1999 (as opposed to 30% in 1998), mainly at the expense of "wildcat" strikes organised without the support of any union.

Source: MES-DRT.


A slight increase in the level of industrial conflict was witnessed in France in 1999. However, the level could still not be compared to that of the 1970s. Looking back on the 1990s, 1995 is still an exception due to its high level of disputes (a level, however, still far below that of the 1970s). It is thus erroneous to talk of a resurgence in disputes in France from that year onwards.

The clear increase in the level of industrial disputes in 1999 cannot be attributed exclusively to the difficulty of negotiating the implementation of the statutory reduction of working time. Traditional demands, especially on the questions of pay (FR0009191F) or the defence of jobs, are still the most widespread causes of disputes.

Among the new tendencies whose trajectory should be monitored in the coming years are the relatively low proportion of civil service disputes in the overall figure, and the fall in the number of "wildcat" strikes in the private sector accompanied by a rise in the number of "multi-union" disputes. (Maurice Braud, IRES)

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