speri.comment: the political economy blog

Macron’s labour reforms are a major test for France’s trade unions

President Macron’s extensive labour reforms are part of a programme of state-led liberalization which will shift the balance of power towards employers and test trade union strength and unity

Heather Connolly, Associate Professor of Employment Relations, School of Business, University of Leicester

Heather ConnollyIt is difficult to overestimate the significance of the current labour reforms in France, for employers, workers and their representatives. The Government seems fully aware of the significance and the potential for extensive opposition and has chosen to push legislation through by decree, avoiding parliamentary debates and votes.

The proposed reforms are wide-ranging and include broader social reforms (in the area of unemployment insurance, pensions and training) to come in the following 12 months. The labour reforms have been a priority for the new President, Emmanuel Macron and go much further than the El Khomri law of 2016, that I discussed in an earlier blog. The most significant reforms for trade union practice are: the merging of representation structures from three statutory bodies representing workers to a single body; expanding the number of issues that can be agreed at company level and that supersede sectoral level agreements; and the ability of small companies to by-pass negotiating with trade unions or nominated representatives in favour of conducting a ballot of employees directly on a number of significant issues.

In terms of work, the reforms include changing  the nature of permanent contracts to introduce the non-permanent permanent contract, the CDI ‘de chantier’ or ‘de projet’, which allows employers to employ workers on permanent contracts (CDI) but only for the time needed to complete a particular project. The reforms also include changes to make it easier for employers to make workers redundant in the case of poor company performance at a national level (as it stands, companies find it difficult to make workers redundant if a multinational company is in profit at the multinational level), less constraints on employers wishing to make collective redundancies, and upper limits for pay outs from industrial tribunals.

All of this (and there is more), of course, works in the interest of employers (and the state), allowing them to budget more effectively for pay outs from industrial tribunals, for example, and use labour more flexibly by employing workers on ‘bogus’ permanent contracts and sacking workers with less constraint. There are measures which arguably work in favour of employees, such as the possibility to work more flexibly, from home for example (le télétravail) and having individual training accounts. However, much of the discourse around flexibility tends to blur the fact that overall there will be a fundamental shift in the balance of power from labour to capital and the measures will undoubtedly lead to increased economic insecurity for many employees.

France is often accused of failing to adapt to the realities of globalisation and to hampering job creation and growth by having such ‘rigid’ labour protections. The reforms of the labour code are intended to continue a process that has been taking place over the last few years of loosening up the labour market and reducing employee protection, with the intended outcome being the creation of new jobs. Job creation is held up as the answer for achieving economic growth, but with little attention paid to the types of jobs that will be created as a result of loosening up the labour market and the ((un)intended) social costs that creating more precarious jobs and with it greater economic insecurity has on society more widely. Flexible employment policies are often balanced in favour of employers and encourage a ‘disposable labour model’ which is heralded as the answer to solving productivity problems and economic growth.

As I argued in an earlier blog, French governments of various colours hold up the UK as an example of a flexible labour market model that France should seek to emulate. It is worth repeating that the UK is hardly a model that France would want to follow, considering the high levels of income inequality and the proliferation of precarious work in the form of zero-hours contracts, for example. Some argue that the reforms are designed to bring the French system closer to a Scandinavian-style ‘flexi-security’ model but from a close look at the reforms the changes are heavily weighted towards the flexibilisation of work, but without any additional securities for workers. The reforms increase the discretion of employers and are evidence of state-led liberalization of industrial relations in France.

There are of course social costs attached to high levels of unemployment and particularly for young workers who find it difficult to enter the core of permanent, protected workers. This is a problem in France, with a 9.6 per cent unemployment rate almost double that of the UK and Germany, and nearly 22 per cent youth unemployment. The question remains whether the answer is to increase economic insecurity and make everyone more precarious in the process of trying to solve the unemployment problem.

This blog draws on my British Academy funded research examining the possible futures of trade unions in Europe in the context of growing numbers joining the precarious workforce. Trade unions often struggle to access and represent precarious workers, and in countries where there are low levels of employment protection these workers are even more exposed and more likely to be outside regulated spaces.

So how have the French trade unions responded to the reforms? For a start the major confederations have not taken a unified stance in response, with the more radical trade unions (Confédération générale du travail – CGT and Solidaires) staging a number of strikes and demonstrations against the reforms. The more ‘reformist’, and largest trade union confederation in France, the Confédération française démocratique du travail (CFDT) hasn’t joined the strikes to date, which has made the trade unions look weaker and perhaps encouraged the Government to push through the reforms by decree. In fact, the CFDT has put in place training sessions for their activists on how to apply the reforms in the workplace, which sets out clearly its pragmatic response.

There have been three days of strike action since September and the number of strikers and demonstrators has dwindled with each action. Recently, however, the third largest confederation, Force Ouvrière (FO), joined the action alongside education trade unions and students that is planned for 16 November 2017. It remains to be seen whether a stronger and more unified response will emerge as the reforms become reality (some of which already have) and touch wider forms of social protection. Trade unions in France have traditionally been able to halt or amend reforms through mass mobilisation and protest including the watering down of the El Khomri laws in 2016.

The financial resources from union membership fees is low (membership levels are less than 10 per cent of the French workforce) and the changes being made to the workplace representation structure will impact the institutional resources of trade unions (in terms of the time paid for by employers to carry out representational duties). It is through representational structures that much of the class consciousness raising and identity work of trade unions is carried out.

If the trade unions are unable to amend or halt these reforms they will need to find renewed ways of demonstrating their relevance and maintaining a multi-level power base in French society.

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