Workplace elections test new system of representation

In March 2009, workplace elections were held at the French National Railway Company (SNCF). These elections are always eagerly awaited and were even more so this year, as they promised to create a new trade union landscape following the adoption of new rules on trade union representativeness at national level. The results of the elections met these expectations, with more alliances being formed and four trade unions departing from the scene.

Impact of new rules on representativeness

The workplace elections of 26 March 2009 at the French National Railway Company (Société nationale des chemins de fer français, SNCF) have significantly changed the company’s system of social relations due to the nationwide application of new rules on trade union representativeness (FR0808039I). These regulations had an impact prior to the elections by encouraging joint lists and afterwards by causing four of the eight trade unions previously represented to disappear from the scene. A trade union must now reach a threshold of 10% of the votes cast in order to be representative in a company.

Another provision of the new system concerns collective agreements. These will only be valid if the trade unions concluding them have obtained at least 30% of the votes at the previous workplace elections. The election results will therefore have a major influence on collective bargaining in a company.

Election results

At the two workplace elections held, SNCF employees elected employee representatives onto the company’s 27 works councils (Table 1) and renewed staff delegates (Table 2), as in 2006 (FR0605029I).

Table 1: Works council elections (%)
2009 73.5 39.3 18.05 17.67 11.59 7.98 5.40
2006 77.1 40.13 14.49 14.97 11.58 3.04 6.63 1.02 8.14

Note: See text below for full names of the trade unions.

Table 2: Staff delegate elections (%)
2009 74.4 41.74 17.21 17.08 11.17 7.68 4.76
2006 77.6 43.24 14.65 14.47 10.03 2.89 6.54 0.62 7.28

Emerging trends

Apart from the impact of the new rules, three trends emerged. Firstly, lower turnouts are being recorded: they remain high but have decreased significantly over the past decade. In 1998, 80% of the workers at SNCF voted in the elections.

Secondly, the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT) experienced a decline in its poll, which fell below the 40% mark in the works council elections while remaining the largest trade union on 25 of the 27 works councils. A major renewal of the workforce at SNCF – with 20,000 employees retiring and 15,000 new staff since the last elections – does not seem to have favoured CGT.

Finally, two trade unions with diametrically opposed stances made gains in the elections and are disputing second place: the National Federation of Independent Unions (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes, UNSA) and the independent Solidarity, Unity, Democracy (Solidaire, Unitaire, Démocratique, SUD). UNSA is the former Federation of Managers and Professionals (Fédération maîtrise et cadres, FMC), a reformist union with a long tradition in the company. SUD is an independent trade union defending rather radical views; it is in existence since 1996 and has grown in influence since then.

Trade unions fighting for survival

As noted, works council elections now indicate trade union representativeness in the company. The new system encourages alliances between trade unions in order to reach the decisive 10% threshold. The sector federations affiliated to the General Confederation of Labour – Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail – Force ouvrière, CGT-FO), 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) and the French Christian Workers’ Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC) were all some distance from reaching the 10% threshold. The first two of these confederations decided to join together in all of the committees and in some cases widened their list to include CFTC. However, CFTC – which has lost a third of its national representativeness – fell into the lower reaches of the table. As a joint ticket, CGT-FO and CFE-CGC did not achieve 10% of the votes at national level, albeit gaining 0.3 percentage points more than in 2006.

The French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT) announced several months ago that close structural links would be forged with the General Independent Federation of Locomotive Engineers (Fédération générale autonome des agents de conduite, FGAAC). This strategy led to an ambiguous election result, with a three percentage point drop being registered compared with their previous results in 2006. The decline may be due to FGAAC voters being scared away by the loss of independence and to CFDT voters being surprised by the alliance, which contrasts sharply with several decades of relatively hostile relations between the two trade unions.


SNCF now has to obtain the agreement of an organisation that polled at least 30% of the votes in order to sign agreements with the trade unions. A combination of UNSA and CFDT-FGAAC, which are more accustomed to signing agreements, will not be enough to meet this proportion. SUD’s lack of inclination to sign agreements gives CGT the sovereign power to sign or not sign agreements, as agreement approval now hinges on this trade union.

A new feature in collective bargaining in France, this principle of representativeness gives the most powerful trade union the prerogatives and responsibilities entrusted to it by the employees when a majority of them vote for it. The trade unions that have disappeared from the list of representative organisations will find it hard to survive and restructuring will undoubtedly soon become an issue for them. It will then be possible to see whether the new system leads to trade unions joining forces or whether the disappearance of the small trade unions only leads to the number of union members being quantitatively reduced once again.

Jean-Marie Pernot, Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES)

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