With its social history punctuated by crippling national strikes, ‘bossnapping’ incidents, and more recently by the gilets jaunes protests, France is renowned for its population’s propensity to protest. As such, it has been recognised as a country whose unions hold a great amount of power in regulating the country’s employment system.
Yet it has been argued that France’s reputation as a country with high levels of union influence, high labour costs, and strict employment protection is no longer sustainable due to increased international competition. Faced with employers who have the power to relocate their operations elsewhere, some suggest that France’s trade unions have become more compliant to ensure that businesses remain in the country. This dynamic is supported by the fact that incidences of strike action in the country have significantly declined in the last decade. Indeed, it has been argued that French unions no longer have the power to effectively represent their members as they must succumb to employers’ demands in order to guarantee firms’ continued presence in France. However, others argue that the French population’s receptivity to protest is unlikely to change for some time. They point towards recent incidents such as the gilets jaunes movement and the trade unions’ major national protests seen in recent years in response to proposed reforms as evidence of the country’s receptivity to radicalism.
This debate raises issues for the country’s militant unions in particular, such as the Confédération générale du travail (General Confederation of Labour, CGT), which has a reported membership of 710,000 nationally. Emerging from the workers’ movement in 1895, the CGT has typically been described as an anti-capitalist union due to its refusal to engage with employers, preferring instead to lobby politicians through national protest. Denouncing and refusing to sign agreements have been its hallmark, condemning rival unions that do sign such agreements as engaging in ‘class compromise’. However, recent observations have indicated that reduced influence of its political ally, France’s Communist Party, within the union, combined with declining membership, have led to a potential shift within the militant union towards a more cooperative approach. Indeed, the union was overtaken in national support by the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT) in 2017, inducing further internal reassessment within the CGT.
My research on trade union response to the threat of employer relocation within the automobile manufacturing industry refutes these recent observations of a more cooperative CGT approach. Instead, the union engaged in repeated protest and refused to cooperate with employers. This militant approach appears to be a consequence of a combination of its traditional anti-capitalist ideology and competition between different trade unions, as well as the structure of employee representation in the country.
Because France’s system of representation does not require all unions to sign a collective agreement for it to apply to the entire workforce, there is little pressure on the CGT to sign agreements that it deems unpalatable. Thus, the presence of other, less militant unions in the workplace affords the CGT freedom to pursue a more radical course of action.
Furthermore, the presence of more than one trade union in the same workplace appears to incentivise the CGT to engage in more militant behaviour to win employee support. These dynamics appear to be reinforced by the fact that French unions represent workers in all industries and occupations rather than being limited to members in a specific trade as in some other European countries. Thus, the CGT uses militant action in order to differentiate itself from other, less militant unions.
However, given that other unions tend to cooperate with employers and sign agreements, the research shows that the CGT’s militant action has little effect on outcomes for employees. Indeed, there appears to be declining support for this type of militant action amongst the workforce, as strike numbers proved inconsistent and difficult to sustain over time. Furthermore, support levels for less militant unions are growing within the automobile industry.
So, what does this tell us about trade union power in modern-day France? The threat of employer relocation may not necessarily dampen radicalism amongst trade unions. This is particularly relevant for workplaces in which multiple unions operate, as this allows radical unions more freedom to protest. The presence of numerous, non-occupational trade unions in firms also appears to incentivise differentiation through militancy. However, the terrain for protest-oriented unionism in the workplace appears to be receding.
Thus, as the country’s unions come under greater pressure, we may see a less conflictual dynamic between French trade unions and employers.
- This post gives the views of its author, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by CC BY-SA 3.0 licence
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Ruth Reaney is an LSE fellow in the department of management with research interests in work and employment. Her current research concerns trade union response to decreasing institutional security, with specific focus on the French labour movement.