All-out attack on French workers

Submitted by cathy n on 12 September, 2017 - 10:44 Author: Olivier Delbeke

Olivier Delbeke, a CGT activist, and a contributor to the socialist newsletter Arguments pour la lutte sociale, on the new draconian labour laws

After dragging out a sham consultation which had nothing in common with real negotiations (because many aspects of the proposed laws were not revealed to the trade union delegates), Labour Minister Mireille Pénicaud finally unveiled 150 pages of legislation, on 30 August.

Once adopted by the Council of Ministers on 22 September, they will have the power of law without any need for a vote in parliament, because parliament allowed the government to rule in this way in a vote last July.

In terms of labour market deregulations that we have seen across Europe over the last 20 years, there is nothing new here. What’s remarkable is the scale of the attack. Were it imposed on workers, it would represent a defeat in France equivalent to the one inflicted by Thatcher in 1984-85.

For now, the government’s strength only derives from its absence of opposition. Workers suffered a defeat when all left candidates were eliminated in the first round of the Presidential elections — a situation for which Mélenchon and Hamon must bear responsibility, for having refused to negotiate a single left candidacy. Also relevant is the defeat of the movement of spring 2016 when there were repeated marches of hundreds of thousands, and many scattered calls for strikes.

The essential features of Macron’s plan to undo the Labour Code are:

• make it easier to fire workers by reducing the necessary criteria for an economic justification for mass sackings. The argument will no longer rest on the global health of a multinational, but only on the health of its French branch (NB: before this change, these restrictions had played a role in helping workers’ struggles win at Molex and Continental).

• Capping redundancy payments allocated by prud’hommes [industrial tribunals] in the cases of sackings “without real or serious cause”. This is an incitement to crimes against workers, to sack workers on any pretext.

• Permitting the use of a CDD [fixed-term contract] over the course of seven consecutive contracts, and the introduction of a “mission” or project-limited CDI [permanent contract], which means the end of real CDI permanent contracts.

• Allowing company-level exceptions to the law and to sectoral agreements on various points: wages, working hours, bonuses, seniority, holidays etc. The government is claiming that it won’t touch sectoral agreements, but that’s a lie!

The Macron decrees will be giving life to the articles of the El Khomri law imposed by Hollande in 2016. That mean a permanent state of social dumping, where every small or medium business would have to race its competitors to the bottom, all of them being at the mercy of their big clients, the major groups which organise large-scale sub-contracting.

• The elimination of trade unions by various means. Previously, in a company with 11 workers or more, workplace elections [to works committees and other legally-mandated company worker-representation bodies] had to involve candidates presented by unions in the first round. Now it will be possible for bosses of businesses of between 20 and 50 workers to get non-union delegates elected, who would represent no-one but themselves, and would have no protection and therefore would have to go with whatever the boss wanted.

• In workplaces with 20 to 50 workers, the Macron project would aim to fuse different workplace representative bodies into a single conseil économique et social d’entreprise”, with a reduction in the amount of money provided for worker representatives. In this way, staff delegates (DPs), who negotiate for workers’ immediate demands, works councils which have rights to study the workings of the business, with access to economic information and bodies of experts [cabinets d’expertise], paid by bosses but mandated by unions, and finally the biggest scandal, the Health, Safety and Conditions Committees (CHSCTs) would all be eliminated.

The CHSTCs play an essential role in protecting workers against accidents and unhealthy or dangerous conditions. From now on, the “delegates” will have much fewer resources, and less time in particular, to defend their colleagues.

• Finally, among the anti-trade union measures offered to bosses, there is the workplace referendum. No need to put up with negotiations with union delegates: bosses can now put an ultimatum on the table: I want this or that, and I’ll organise a vote on my demands. We have already seen this move played out at Smart, a car factory, where the boss tried several times to mobilise workers against unions who refused to budge on the management’s demand for a longer working week for no extra pay!

Since July, the role of the traitor in the labour movement is being played, not by the CFDT [union federation] (as has been the case for the last 25 years), but by the FO union federation. FO’s federal leadership and its secretary Jean-Claude Mailly has accepted separate negotiations with the Labour Minister and has refused to consider a joint call to the streets with the CGT.

But this will evoke a reaction in the different Departmental-level unions and the different sectoral organisations which have a more combative perspective. The CGT and FO transport unions [subordinate parts of the cross-sector, national union federations] are calling for a strike on 12 September.

For now, the CGT will be in the street on 12 September with the FSU (central teaching union with a large membership of public service workers), Solidaires and UNEF. The next few days will decide whether a majority of the FO structures will come out in favour of action to stop Macron’s plans.

The CGT’s call, as per the federation’s habits, is for “action”, with “strikes and demonstrations”. It is not posed as a call for strikes per se. Nonetheless, even if it will be difficult to mobilise and and regroup people around this call, what is at stake here, aside from defeating the government, is changing the political climate in the country.

Will it be victory to Macron or an increase in the power of a social movement which consistently opposes Macron’s policies? Macron is staking his Presidential mandate on this project.