Background: unions in France

Submitted by martin on 2 November, 2010 - 7:15 Author: Colin Foster

Trade union structure, and labour law, is very different in France from in Britain.

The French unions have responded much more vigorously to the cuts than British unions. Yet union membership rates in France are much lower than in Britain - about 8% on average, 15% in the public sector and 5% in the private sector, compared to about 28% in Britain.

And, despite first impressions, overall rates of strike action in France are not hugely higher than in Britain. In 2006 and 2007, the most recent years for which strike figures are available for France, striker-days in France totalled 1,421,000 and 1,553,000 in the two years; in Britain, 755,000 and 1,041,000.

In the difficult decades for trade-unionism since the 1980s, Britain and many other countries have seen their unions consolidate, through mergers, into relatively few, relatively large organisations.

France has seen the opposite trend. From 1895 until the mid-1960s the French trade union movement was dominated by one big confederation, the CGT (at first revolutionary syndicalist in its policy; then reformist-syndicalist; then Stalinist-dominated). Now, although the CGT is still the biggest confederation, there are seven or eight other national trade-union centres of some clout.

Why? Under French labour law, workers have the right to vote for and be represented by the equivalent of shop stewards (délégués du personnel) whether they are union members or not. In practice the elections for délégués du personnel are between lists put up by the different union confederations.

The délégués du personnel are more numerous than shop stewards; and they have rights guaranteed by law, which shop stewards don't. The employer is legally bound to organise elections for, and recognise, délégués du personnel in every workplace with more than ten workers.

This means that a French worker can reckon herself or himself a keen supporter of a particular union confederation, vote for it, follow its calls to action, and so on, and yet not bother to join unless she or he wishes to attend union meetings or become a union rep. Compare the 8% of French workers who are union members with the proportion of British workers who are union reps, or attend union meetings, and the French movement does not look weaker than the British.

In France, the right to strike is a constitutional right of the individual worker. In Britain, there has never been any positive legal right to strike. Until the Thatcher years, laws existed which gave unions calling strikes a fair degree of protection from legal reprisals.

Thatcher changed the laws so that now unions have to jump through many hoops to call official strikes without running a threat of being fined heavily or having their funds seized, and are legally obliged to disavow and oppose unofficial strikes.

It is possible to get sacked for striking in France, but there is much more protection than in Britain. Thus, in many industries anyway, minority strikes, where sometimes quite small proportions of the workforce strike as a demonstration rather than to shut down the workplace, are common.

It is routine for the union confederations to call national "days of action" on workdays, with strikes and demonstrations, on big issues. There have been eight "days of action" since the start of September.

French union organisations have a smaller income from members' dues than British unions do. It is pretty much unknown for them to give strike pay. The union organisations rely for their functioning and their funding heavily on what is established by law: the facilities which employers are obliged to give to délégués du personnel and comités d'entreprise (workplace committees), and the union organisations' guaranteed posts in the administration of the social security and industrial-tribunal systems.

In France, the "union" ("syndicat") is strictly speaking the workplace organisation. An organisation like the CGT is a "confederation" of workplace "unions", grouped into industrial "federations".

Large workplaces will usually have a presence from several confederations, with workers choosing to vote for one or another on grounds of policy, either national (the anarchist CNT, the Trotskisant SUD, and the CGT, still led by the now-decrepit Communist Party, are more militant than other confederations) or local (the "syndicat" in a particular workplace affiliated to Force Ouvrière (FO) or the CFDT may, for example, be led by activists expelled from CGT for their left-wing ideas).

The FSU (Fédération Syndicale Unitaire) dominates in education, and a confederation called the CGE-CGC seeks specifically to represent managerial and technical staff. Generally, however, it makes no sense in France to ask "what is the union in that workplace?" as you might do in Britain.

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