Social partners tackle labour market reforms together

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In October 2006, the leaders of three employer organisations and five trade union confederations in France met for the first time since 2000. Their objective was to define, by the end of the first quarter of 2007, a follow-up plan for the three working groups that have been created in relation to the unemployment insurance system, employment contracts and ensuring better security over the career path.

In September 2006, the President of the Movement of French Enterprises (Mouvement des entreprises de France, MEDEF), Laurence Parisot, sent an invitation to the five trade union confederations, as well as to the General Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (Confédération générale des petites et moyennes entreprises, CGPME) and the Craftwork Employers’ Association (Union professionnelle artisanale, UPA), for ‘an exchange of views on the labour market as a whole’ in the framework of ‘deliberations between the social partners’. This invitation came more than six years after launching negotiations on the ‘overhaul of industrial relations system’ (refondation sociale) in France (FR0002143F, FR0001134F) and more than a year after Ms Parisot’s election as the head of the leading employer organisation in France (FR0508102N).

Context

On 10 October 2006, just six months before the presidential elections in April 2007, the President of France, Jacques Chirac, presented to the Economic and Social Council (Conseil économique et social, CES) an ‘essential reform for the future of our country: the modernisation of social dialogue (in French)’. President Chirac’s reform proposal followed on from the Hadas-Lebel report on the representativeness of the social partners (FR0606039I) and the Chertier report on modernising social dialogue (FR0606049I).

The reform has the following aims:

  • to place the social partners at the heart of the process of drawing up social standards and reforms;
  • to review the division between what comes within the remit of legislation and that of employment contracts, by changing the way in which laws are drawn up.

President Chirac emphasised the fact that ‘the social partners should also speed up internal organisational changes’.

Meeting agenda and outcome

After the successful outcome of negotiations between employers and most of the trade unions on diversity in companies on 11 October 2006 (FR0611039I), three other topics remained under discussion: accidents at work and occupational diseases, arduous work and occupational pensions. However, a few days before the meeting with MEDEF, some employers suggested including the following two items on the agenda: abrogation of the 35-hour working week law (FR9806113F, FR0407101N, FR0502109F) and extension of the ‘new recruitment contract’ (Contrat nouvelles embauches, CNE) to all companies (FR0605059I). So far, the latter only applies to companies with fewer than 20 employees.

The leaders of the five trade union confederations met before the meeting and agreed to participate in the talks with MEDEF, but informed the latter that they refused to have an agenda imposed on them. The five union organisations comprised: the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT); 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); the French Christian Workers’ Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC); the General Confederation of Labour – Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail – Force ouvrière, CGT-FO); and the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT).

During the meeting, which took place on 23 October 2006, Ms Parisot asserted that the social agenda should not depend on political debates and articles from journalists specialised in industrial information. The discussions focused on all forms of job insecurity, improving access to employment for young people and combating unemployment.

At the end of the talks, the concluding statement recommended:

  • the creation of three working groups to prepare a review highlighting job insecurity and obstacles to recruitment in each of the following areas: unemployment insurance, employment contracts and ensuring better security over the career path;
  • a consolidated presentation of this work by the end of the first quarter of 2007.

At the end of the meeting, four out of the five trade union confederations announced that they would participate in the working groups.

Reactions of the social partners

Employers

The employer organisations expressed mixed feelings regarding the outcome of the meeting. According to Ms Parisot, this meeting represented a first step in the reform process since there cannot ‘fundamentally be good treatment if there is no prior assessment’; she considers that ‘it may be possible to aim towards some solutions, and even ideas for collective bargaining’.

However, the other two employer organisations were less enthusiastic. In September 2006, the CGPME President, Jean-François Roubaud (FR0211101N), and the UPA President, Pierre Perrin, had criticised the unilateral decision of MEDEF’s president to call – without prior consultation – a meeting of employer organisations and trade unions at the MEDEF headquarters.

After the meeting, CGPME and UPA stated that they subscribe to the MEDEF project, although they wonder whether it is the appropriate channel to foster collective bargaining, as other issues are currently being negotiated in other common working groups between employer organisations and the five trade union confederations. Mr Roubaud considered that ‘one cannot review everything from scratch at the same time’, while Mr Perrin feared that ‘the social partners cannot really make progress’.

Trade unions

The trade unions gave a positive reaction overall. The General Secretary of CFDT, François Chérèque, welcomed the opening of discussions on these topics and the opportunity created for the social partners to be ‘able to negotiate before things happen through legislation’, as President Chirac had intimated. The President of CFE-CGC, Bernard Van Craeynest, considered the October meeting to be an ‘important founding stage’.

Given employees’ high expectations, the President of CFTC, Jacques Voisin, considered that it was important to follow the discussions ‘through to the end’ to show the dynamism of the social dialogue. According to the General Secretary of CGT-FO, Jean-Claude Mailly, this meeting ‘should be considered as being part of the normal course of traditional industrial relations regarding collective bargaining policy’. He deemed it important for ‘unions to have the right to submit’ topics of negotiation and emphasised ‘expectations regarding negotiations on sub-contracting’.

However, the General Secretary of CGT, Bernard Thibault, refused to approve the concluding statement at the end of the meeting. In a press statement, CGT indicated that ‘it has postponed its decision to participate in these working groups, as it is waiting to consult its decision-making bodies’, since ‘they are very distant from the social urgency generated by insecurity’. Nevertheless, on 27 October 2006, CGT announced that the confederation would participate in the three working groups according to the detailed programme of discussions envisaged.

Commentary

While President Chirac declared that he continues to be attentive to organisational changes, the employer organisations and five trade union confederations have expressed their willingness to negotiate on the basis of the conclusions of the three working groups.

The meeting in October 2006 between the employer and trade union leaders was highly significant in that it took place six years after the top-level meeting which had given fresh impetus to collective bargaining at the beginning of the new millennium. It also served to highlight aspects of the complex and specific nature of French industrial relations, characterised by one of the lowest union density rates and one of the highest bargaining coverage rates in Europe.

The regulations pertaining to collective bargaining contribute to segregating the traditional functions and roles among numerous employer and trade union organisations (FR0507104F). Thus, the Directorate of Labour (Direction Générale du Travail, DGT) of the Ministry of Employment, Labour and Social Cohesion (Ministère de l’emploi, de la cohésion sociale et du logement) has sole responsibility for extending agreements to other areas of economic activity.

The three working groups on the unemployment insurance system, employment contracts and ensuring more secure career paths are important in relation to the joint management and revision of the Labour Code, which will be completed in the coming months.

Benoît Robin, Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES)

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