2003 works council election results and new worker representation rules for SMEs

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Legislation passed in France in August 2005 makes several amendments to labour law, including the rule on worker representation in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Meanwhile, official statistics on the outcome of the 2003 works council elections were published in September.

August-September 2005 saw the adoption of new legislation affecting employee representation in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) - as well as a number of other matters - and the publication of statistics on the outcome of the 2003 works council elections.

Works council elections 2003

Official statistics on the results of the elections of employee representative on works councils held in 2003 were revealed in September 2005. Works councils (comités d'entreprise) should be set up in companies with over 50 employees (FR0309102T) and until now (see below) elections have in all cases been held every two years (FR0502110F).

Turn-out in the 2003 elections stood at 63.8%, down from 64.4% in 2001 (the last year that elections were held in the same enterprises). There has been a continual decline in turn-out since the 1960s, when it topped 72%. A slight rebound in the early 1990s failed to stabilise. The decline has even begun to affect companies with a workforce of under 200, where turn-out had, until now, held up well. However, these companies still post the highest election turn-out rates.

The three trade union confederations whose candidates win the largest share of the vote - the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT), the General Confederation of Labour-Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail-Force ouvrière, CGT-FO) - all experienced a drop in their support in 2003 compared with 2001. CFDT saw its share drop from 23% in 2001 to 22.6% in 2003, while those of CGT and CGT-FO fell from 22.6% to 22.1% and from 13.1% to 12.7% respectively. This benefited both 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), which increased its score from 6.1% to 6.6%, and the French Christian Workers' Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC), which improved on its previous result of 6.0% by 0.7 percentage points.

Non-union slates of candidates saw an end to the slump in support they have been experiencing over the past 10 years; increasing their score from 23.0% to 23.2%. Symbolically, they have once again moved ahead of CFDT, with which they tied in 2001. They also registered improved support in companies of all sizes. Non-union slates garnered over 50% of votes in companies with 100 or fewer employees. This score fell to 37.4% in firms with a workforce of between 100 and 199.

These results require careful interpretation. The number of employees registered to vote in the works councils covered by the survey grew by 2.4% from 2001 to 2003, but it remains unclear whether this is due to an improvement in the quality of the data-collection process or a genuine shift in the number of existing works councils. There was also a change in the distribution of voters, turn-out and votes among the electoral colleges for various categories of staff:

  • the first college (blue- and white-collar workers) posted an increase of 4% in the number of registered voters but saw its turn-out fall by 0.8%. CFDT and especially CGT garnered stronger support in this college than they did from the workforce as a whole;
  • the third college (senior management) also reported a 4% rise in the number of registered voters but only saw its turn-out increase from 61.1% to 61.5%. CFE-CGC and CFTC have made significant progress in this college; and
  • the second college (technicians and lower management) lost 1.8% of its registered voters, while its turn-out (68%), although falling slightly, remained well above the overall average. CFDT and CGT-FO have experienced a sharp decline in support, which shifted to CGT and non-union slates.

New rules on representation in SMEs

New legislation designed to promote the development of SMEs - Act no 2005-882 of 2 August 2005 - contains a number of initiatives with significant implications for industrial relations. Notably, the terms of office for elected employee representatives - both employee representatives on works councils and the workforce delegates (délégués du personnel) - have been increased from two to four years. Consequently, workforce elections will henceforth be held every four years. However, sector and company-level agreements may alter the term of office of elected representatives to between two and four years. This change is justified by the government with references to a need for stable elected representatives and to the high costs involved in holding elections.

An executive order (2005-892) adopted by the government on 2 August provides, among other issues, that employees under the age of 26 will no longer be counted for the purposes of calculating the thresholds triggering mandatory elections of employee representatives - these thresholds are 11 employees for workforce delegates and 50 employees for works councils. However, these younger workers will continue to be entitled to vote and to run for office in such elections. This provision is part of a series of tax-related initiatives designed, among other aims, to lower corporate tax. They are geared to boosting the recruitment of young people by employers that would otherwise be deterred by the prospect of crossing these election-triggering thresholds. These measures are temporary and will be evaluated in late 2007.

Other legal changes

Employee representation has not been the only focus of recent legislative activity. As part of the government’s attempt to build more flexibility into the labour market - alongside the flagship measure of the special new 'recruitment contract' (contrat nouvelle embauche) for companies employing up to 20 workers (FR0507103F) - a number of changes have been made to working time regulations:

  • until now, only managers with freedom to organise their work themselves have been entitled to have their working time calculated in annualised days rather than in hours. New legislation extends this opportunity to non-management employees, provided that they also have a free hand in organising the way they work. This initiative is subject to the existence of a collective agreement (at sector or company level). It may particularly have an impact on employees who travel a lot for their work; and
  • new legislation also stipulates that apprentices under the age of majority may work on Sundays and statutory holidays in specific occupations where these days are particularly busy. The list of the particular industries concerned will be set out in decrees.

Reaction

The various legislative initiatives outlined above were launched without any consultation with trade unions. The unions are unhappy about both the process and the substance of these initiatives, which they view as socially regressive. A joint trade union day of action held on 4 October 20005 was designed, among other aims, to demonstrate union dissatisfaction at this type of measure.

Commentary

Works council election results are one of the few measures of trade union appeal in France. Approximately 2.6 to 3 million workers are given the opportunity to cast their vote each year. If the new four-year election cycle were to be implemented across the board, this figure would be halved. This would make any interpretation of election results more problematic. While the annual results may demonstrate only minor changes, they provide valuable data for practitioners and observers. Aggregating the results for two years in a row would produce data covering the same workforce size as before but would also distance results from important events at both professional and social level.

The changes to the workforce delegate and works council election cycle will undoubtedly prove to be an acid test for many of them. Elected representatives in larger companies will have greater visibility. Candidates from smaller entities might be more reluctant to make a commitment for such a long period. (Christian Dufour, IRES)

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