Unions jostle for position in representativeness race

The rules about what makes a trade union representative in France were changed in 2008. As a result, for the first time the popularity of private sector trade unions at the national, inter-professional, and sector levels has now been measured by their share of votes cast in workplace elections. The five main unions recognised as being representative since 1966 have maintained their status as being representative. However, the majority of votes went to the three unions dubbed ‘reformist’ (due to their willingness to sign agreements and negotiate labour market or social security system reforms): CFDT, CFE-CGC and CFTC.


Since 1966, five French trade union confederations have been considered as representative at the national level: the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), the French Democratic Federation of Labour (CFDT), the General Confederation of Labour – Force Ouvrière (CGT-FO), the French Christian Workers’ Confederation (CFTC) and the French Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff – General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (CFE-CGC).

Up to the recent legislative changes, all unions affiliated to these confederations, whether at a local or a sectoral level, were also considered to be representative (‘presumption of representativeness’). Other, unaffiliated unions were required to provide evidence of their representativeness to the courts, using the criteria of representativeness established by statute and case law.

Reform of representativeness

In August 2008, the French parliament adopted a law on social democracy and working time reform (FR0808039I). Regardless of affiliation, the representativeness of trade unions will now depend primarily on their electoral audience.

To be representative in the workplace and to have the power to negotiate at the company level, a trade union must win at least 10% of the votes in workplace elections. To be considered representative at the sectoral and national levels and have the power to negotiate with employers at sectoral and national levels, it must win 8% of votes.

Trade unions must also provide evidence of meeting seven criteria to be regarded as representative, and these are:

  • respect for republican values;
  • independence;
  • having been legally established for at least two years;
  • having a sufficient audience (8% or 10% in workplace elections as described above);
  • financial transparency;
  • proof that they provide a real influence;
  • sufficient members and a sufficient level of income from subscriptions.

Workplace election results

On 29 March 2013, The Ministry of Labour published data in a report, Introducing the extent of the union audience at national and inter-professional level (in French) (32 Kb PDF), based on the results of various elections.

  • Workplace elections held within companies employing more than 11 people between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2012, with the purpose of electing worker representatives to sit on information and consultation bodies.
  • Workplace elections held in November and December 2012, for the employees of companies with at least 11 employees (FR1301021I).
  • Elections within the agricultural sector held in January 2013. According to the results, a total of 5,456,000 employees expressed their preference for a union that ‘increases the legitimacy of unions as actors of social dialogue’, said the Ministry of Labour in a press release (in French) (51.1Kb PDF).

The participation rate for these elections was only 42.78%, although the turnout increases to 66% if the results of elections held in small and medium enterprises are excluded.

The data show that the five main trade union confederations, with membership across the entire economy, had maintained their representativeness.

The two leading organisations were the CGT, with 26.77% of the votes, slightly ahead of the CFDT with 26%. The CGT-FO came third with 15.94% of the votes, followed by CFE-CGC at 9.43% and the CFTC at 9.30%. A number of experts had predicted the CFTC would fail to achieve the threshold of 8%. Two recently created trade unions, the radical Solidarity, Unity, Democracy (SUD) and the Union of Autonomous Trade Unions (UNSA), both failed to reach the 8% threshold at the national level, with scores of 4.26% and 3.47% respectively.

New representative unions

The High Council of Social Dialogue will verify the extent to which these unions meet the other criteria of representativeness (as listed above) in order to formally finalise their status of representativeness at the national and sectoral levels for the next four years. The Ministry of Labour will then publish a governmental decree to officially recognise those unions granted representativeness until the next workplace elections due to be held in 2017.

The five main unions have maintained their representativeness at the national level. However, at the sectoral level a number of unions may well disappear from the landscape of social dialogue, according to figures (128Kb PDF) published by the Ministry of Labour showing their share of the vote at sectoral level.

For instance, the General Federation of Mines and Metallurgy (FGMM-CFDT), announced in a press release (in French, 271Kb PDF) that the CFTC will lose its representativeness within the metal industry, having failed to reach the 8% threshold. Article 11.1 of the 2008 law on social democracy and working time reform, however, allows unions at the sectoral level who are affiliated to a confederation that obtained 8% at the national level to maintain their representativeness until 2017. This means that the CFTC may continue to participate in sectoral social dialogue up until then, even within the sector where it failed to reach the 8% threshold. This is the case within the chemical industry (7.44%), the horeca industry (7.28%) and the electricity and gas industries (2.71%).

This outcome is the same for the CFE-CGC, which failed to reach the threshold in one-third of sectors.

In comparison, UNSA, which failed to achieve 8% of votes at the national level, said in a press release that it will be recognised as representative in 82 sectors where its share of the vote did reach the threshold. These include 15 sectors of the insurance industry (a 10.66% share of votes), ground staff in the air transport industry (15.24%) and private security (13.62%). This is also the case for SUD in a number of sectors (care for disabled people: 11.70%, journalists: 38.56%) and some banks considered a sector in their own right such as the Caisse d’épargne (20.10%) and Crédit agricole (13.72%).

‘Reformist’ unions come up tops

The Minister of Labour, Michel Sapin, published a bar chart (65Kb PDF) showing the relative weight of unions that will be taken into account in order to assess the relative strength of the signatories of collective agreements in relation to the thresholds of 30% and 50%.

This procedure only assesses the relative weight of those unions which attained the threshold of 8%. Based on these criteria, the weights given to these unions are as follows: CGT (30.62%), CFDT (29.74%), CGT-FO (18.23%), CFE-CGC (10.78%) and CFTC (10.63%).

These results mean, first, that only the CGT has the power to sign a valid collective agreement and does not require the support of other representative unions. Second, the three ‘reformist’ unions – CFDT, CFE-CGC and CFTC – all unions more likely to sign collective agreements and to agree to structural reforms, obtained a score of over 50% (29.74 + 10.78% + 10.63% = 51.15%), which means that the CGT and the CGT-FO cannot oppose an agreement that the ‘reformist’ unions have signed at the national level. This gives greater legitimacy to the recent agreement on reform of the labour market, signed by the three reformist unions and opposed by the CGT and the CGT-FO (FR1302011I).

Reactions of the social partners

The CFDT stressed in a press release (in French) that there should be ‘no upheaval’. The CFDT obtained a result very similar to the CGT, and said that ‘the first results of the measurement of union representation have not fundamentally transformed the French unions’. The CGT is satisfied, it said in a press release (in French, 77Kb PDF), to confirm its position as the primary union. It is the first organisation in the private sector ‘and the first organisation to represent five million public servants’ (FR1110021I), it said.

The CGT-FO consistently opposed representativeness reform. It said in a press release (in French) that supporters of reform ‘were hoping for a total reconstruction of the trade union landscape by enhancing the role of trade unions in the negotiations and the legitimacy of agreements with employers at all levels (business, sector and cross-sector). This is not the result’.

In a press release (in French), the CFE-CGC said it was proud to have won 10.78% of the vote and to have become the fourth largest representative union. However, the union obtained only 18.14% of the votes in its traditional electoral college, composed of managers, engineers and technicians, and came well behind the CGT and the CFDT.

The CFTC declared itself satisfied that it kept its status of representativeness and took part in social dialogue, in a press release (in French).

UNSA said in a press release (in French) that it is also satisfied to be considered representative in 82 sectors and that the reformist unions (including UNSA) achieved a majority.

The main employers’ organisation, Medef, welcomes the fact that the reformist unions achieved a majority and that the labour market reform agreement is supported by a majority of unions.


While the social landscape appears to remain untouched at the national level, the majority obtained by the ‘reformist’ unions represents an important change because it gives these unions enough power to pursue reforms.

The main changes will be seen at the sectoral level, but not until 2017 because unions at this level all obtained the right to continue to participate in sectoral social dialogue for the next four years due to their affiliation to confederations that are judged representative at the national level. When this rule changes in 2017, unions may lose their status of representativeness at sectoral level if their share of the vote again falls below the threshold of 8%.

If the CFTC and the CFE-CGC are unable to increase their share of votes in workplace elections, this will considerably reduce their role in social dialogue. If this happens, then the reform will have achieved one of its goals, to reduce the number of representative unions.

Frédéric TURLAN, IR Share

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