Record abstention of employees in industrial tribunal elections

In early December 2008, private sector employees and employers elected members of the bipartite industrial tribunal s. The results reflect the support each confederation has and thus their ranking in terms of this support. However, employees’ abstention rate increased once again compared with the previous elections, while it declined once more among employers. Debate has thus arisen on the usefulness of maintaining these elections in their current form.

On 3 December 2008, private sector employees and employers elected the bipartite industrial tribunal (Conseil de prud’hommes) members. Employees’ abstention rate increased once again compared with the last elections (74.5% compared with 67.3% in 2002), whereas it declined again on the employers’ side (68.7% compared with 73.6%). In spite of improvements for certain lists of candidates, the balance of forces between the various organisations did not change fundamentally.

Outcome of elections

Industrial tribunal elections usually take place every five years (FR0301107F), but because of the large number of elections in 2007, the government postponed them for a year. In total, 4.8 million employees and 161,600 employers in the private sector participated in the ballot to elect 14,512 members of France’s 271 industrial tribunals. Each tribunal is composed of specialised sections and is voted for by separate electoral colleges in the following areas:

  • managerial and professional staff;
  • industry;
  • commerce;
  • agriculture;
  • miscellaneous activities.

Votes received by trade unions

On the employee side, five trade union confederations are considered to be representative at national level, including: the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), the French Christian Workers’ Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC), 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) and 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). All of these trade union confederations presented lists of candidates throughout the country.

CGT confirmed its leading position with 34% of the votes, up from 32.2% in 2002. The ranking of the trade unions did not change, but three confederations received a lower percentage of votes: CFDT’s vote dropped from 25.1% in 2002 to 21.8% in 2008, CGT-FO’s from 18.2% to 15.8% and CFTC’s from 9.6% to 8.7%. CFE-CGC, which mainly represents managerial and professional staff, increased its vote from 7% to 8.2%.

Both of the main independent trade unions increased their share of the votes: the National Federation of Independent Unions (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes, UNSA) from 5% to 6.2% and the Independent Union – Solidarity, Unity, Democracy (Union syndicale – Solidaire, Unitaire, Démocratique, SUD) from 1.5% to 3.8%. These increases primarily result from the fact that both trade unions presented more lists of candidates.

CFDT lost votes in all electoral colleges. This may be the result of a general division of part of its supporters, which had already been reflected in a loss of members and also less support during works council elections. The loss of members is especially significant in the managerial and professional staff college, in which CFDT was ranked first in the 2002 election, with 28.6% of the votes, thereby receiving more votes than CFE-CGC, which was traditionally the leading organisation. CFDT is now back in second position with 23% of the votes, far behind CFE-CGC, whose vote increased from 22.8% to 27.9%.

Employee participation declines

Traditionally, the industrial tribunal elections are considered to be a test of the real representativeness of French trade unions. However, the law adopted on 20 August 2008 on industrial democracy did not choose them to measure representativeness, which will henceforth be established in line with the results of elections for works council (comité d’entreprise, CE) members and workforce delegate s (délégués du personnel, DP) (FR0808039I). These elections take place at work and participation rates are usually much better (FR0510103F) than for industrial tribunal elections, which actually take place outside the workplace. Without being officially obliged, the trade unions had declared the industrial tribunal elections to be a test of representativeness and had strongly mobilised their activists in public campaigns. The government had also wanted to encourage participation in the elections by authorising postal votes without voters being obliged to justify the reasons for using this method. In spite of these efforts, employees’ participation dropped again and was interpreted by the media as yet more evidence of the increasing gap between unions and employees. A debate was also initiated on the usefulness of maintaining these elections in their current form. The former Minister of Labour, Social Affairs, Family and Solidarity, Xavier Bertrand, said he was in favour of simplifying procedures and generalising voting in the workplace.

Votes received by employer organisations

On the employer side, the industrial tribunal elections are the only test of national electoral representativeness. As in the past (FR0301107F), the main organisations – the Movement of French Enterprises (Mouvement des entreprises de France, MEDEF), the General Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (Confédération générale des petites et moyennes entreprises, CGPME), the Craftwork Employers’ Association (Union professionnelle artisanale, UPA), the National Federation of Farmers’ Unions (Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles, FNSEA) and the National Union of the Liberal Professions, (Union Nationale des Professions Libérales, UNAPL) – presented joint lists, but this time under the name of Union for Employers’ Rights (Union pour le droit des employeurs, UDE). Their joint list of candidates always receives by far the most votes, but it lost support again in percentage terms – 72.1% in 2008, compared with 80.1% in 2002 and 88% in 1997. The group’s main opponent was the candidate list of the Association of Social Economy Employers (Association des employeurs de l’économie sociale, AEES), previously called the Social Economy Employers (Employeurs de l’économie sociale, EES), which demands – although so far unsuccessfully – to be recognised as a representative organisation. AEES increased its vote significantly from 11.3% in 2002 to 19% in 2008. This success goes way beyond the boundaries of the employers concerned and reflects the emergence of a protest vote against joint employer lists.

Udo Rehfeldt, Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES)

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