Regulating Labor: The State and Industrial Relations Reform in Postwar France

Regulating Labor: The State and Industrial Relations Reform in Postwar France

Regulating Labor: The State and Industrial Relations Reform in Postwar France

Regulating Labor: The State and Industrial Relations Reform in Postwar France

Synopsis

In May and June of 1968 a dramatic wave of strikes paralyzed France, making industrial relations reform a key item on the government agenda. French trade unions seemed due for a golden age of growth and importance. Today, however, trade unions are weaker in France than in any other advanced capitalist country. How did such exceptional militancy give way to equally remarkable quiescence? To answer this question, Chris Howell examines the reform projects of successive French governments toward trade unions and industrial relations during the postwar era, focusing in particular on the efforts of post-1968 conservative and socialist governments. Howell explains the genesis and fate of these reform efforts by analyzing constraints imposed on the French state by changing economic circumstances and by the organizational weakness of labor. His approach, which links economic, political, and institutional analysis, is broadly that of Regulation Theory. His explicitly comparative goal is to develop a framework for understanding the challenges facing labor movements throughout the advanced capitalist world in light of the exhaustion of the postwar pattern of economic growth, the weakening of the nation-state as an economic actor, and accelerating economic integration, particularly in Europe.

Excerpt

Debates concerning France have often used the notion of exceptionalism to describe the peculiarity of French political and social life. the term has enjoyed a renaissance in the late 1980s as commentators argue about the facts and merits of “normalization.” Many see the enduring achievement of François Mitterrand's first decade in the Élysée Palace as bringing about a fundamental modernization, deradicalization, and general “catching up” with the rest of the advanced capitalist world. Whatever the merits of this case (and I will have more to say about it in later chapters), it assumes postwar exceptionalism. This judgment is essentially accurate. the specificity of France lies in its lack of an historical compromise between capital and labor, either in the 1930s or 1940s. While the terms of the historical compromise varied in West Germany, Austria, Britain, and the Scandinavian countries, that some form of class compromise was reached is not in doubt. in contrast, France did not develop an institutionalized collective-bargaining system, its trade unions were weak and legally insecure in the workplace, wage determination occurred primarily through the labor market, and leftist parties played little or no role in the political life of the country. in short, the political and industrial representatives of the working class were essentially excluded from the political and economic structures that emerged from World War II. This situation did not begin to change until 1968.

This chapter describes and explains that exclusionary settlement. It has two main purposes. the first is largely descriptive: to describe the system of French industrial relations and the structural and organizational weakness of the French working class, both in an effort to understand why France did not develop the corporatist or collective-bargaining mechanisms that were common elsewhere, and because it was this system of industrial relations that became the object of the state's attention after 1968. the chapters that follow tell the detailed story of attempts to intervene and change the industrial relations system. This chapter, therefore, sets the scene for the rest of the study.

Second, this chapter argues that at least until 1968 France had a mode of labor regulation that accorded primacy to labor market wage determination. Labor market regulation was possible because of the structural and organizational weakness of the French working class, but it was also a necessary component of the model of economic growth adopted after World . . .

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