French Unions: Myths and Realities

French Unions: Myths and Realities

This past spring, French president Nicolas Sarkozy published a “point of view” article in the French newspaper Le Monde entitled “For Strong Unions.” After writing of his desire to enhance the “social dialogue,” he expressed his support for measures that would promote the organizational strength and legitimacy of the trade union movement. Indeed, just a week before, on April 11, five union confederations, together with the three most important employer groups in the country, announced a “common position on representivity, social dialogue and the financing of the trade union movement.” The agreement, by requiring a minimum threshold of electoral support in certain “social elections” (for shop stewards and plant committees, for example), would give legal standing to only the largest confederations; it would also require that collective agreements on wages and working conditions be signed by these same unions in order to be valid.

The agreement was remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the ability of the union organizations to reach any agreement at all on issues that call into question their very existence. It was also important because it would make it difficult for unions, employers, and the state to engage in the kind of irresponsible actions that have become typical in collective negotiations in France. It would be difficult for employers and the state to sign agreements with minority unions that are hardly representative of the larger workforce, as they have often done in the past. It would also be difficult for unions like the General Confederation of Labor (the CGT)—the confederation that has always been close to the Communist Party—to refuse to sign agreements with which they might generally be in agreement, in order to remain free to criticize from the outside.

At the same time that the rules of union recognition were being renegotiated, there was a continuing struggle, which included bitter strikes in November 2007, between the public service unions and the government about two issues: the maintenance of minimum service during public service strikes and the so-called “special regimes,” or special pension schemes for various public service workers. The struggle over these issues has been going on since at least 1993 and was at the heart of the massive monthlong strikes in December 1995.

Although, on balance, the large union confederations appeared to gain from the provisional agreement on rules of representation, by January 2008, it appeared that they had lost the battle of the pensions, and the government had gained ground on minimum service. In fact, governments have been chipping away at the privileged “special” pension regimes since Jacques Chirac lost the strikes in 1995. After more than a week of strikes in November 2007, the government issued decrees that would finally bring the pension requirements of transport workers into line with those...