The Future of the French Trade Unions**

By Andolfatto, Dominique; Labbé, Dominique | Management Revue, October 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Future of the French Trade Unions**


Andolfatto, Dominique, Labbé, Dominique, Management Revue


This article investigates the transformations of the French unionism and of the French system of industrial relations over the last years and their probable future. It shows: an evolution from a militant unionism to a professionalized trade unionist system; the decline of collective actions; the increase of negotiation, especially at plant level; the dependence of unionists on their employers for their funding, their resources and their careers. This evolution marks a shift towards a new system which is very different from a "unionist Latin model" depicted in traditional literature on French unionism.

Key words: France, trade unions, de-unionization, strikes, collective bargaining, union budgets (JEL: J50, J51, J52)

1. Introduction

In the late 1990s, H. Slomp classified French trade unionism as being an example of the "Latin model" (Slomp, 1998, pp. 35-36). According to him, similar to Italian unions, French unions valued the initiative and input of their members and activists. Organizations felt that their role was to support the spontaneous actions of their members and to develop this action within the context of larger protests against the State and not only against the employers. Finally, H. Slomp emphasized that French tradeunionism was deeply politicized, but did not have the functional division of powers between parties and unions typical of the social-democratic model predominant in northern Europe (see also: Jefferys, 2003).

It will be seen that, at the time when H. Slomp was writing his book, the "Latin model" of unionism was disappearing in France. In less than thirty years, activists and supporters have been replaced by professional representatives who control cartels of non grass-root unions. In fact, these professionals do not seek to drum up membership or encourage social mobilization. They spend most of their time negotiating with employers. This negotiation has devolved from the national level to that of the plants and the firms. Most of these professional unionists continue to be salaried by their employers with whom they negotiate on behalf of employees. Indeed, these 'institutionalized' unions are not funded by their decreasing membership but are heavily subsidized by the State, local authorities and employers.

This article will examine these new dynamics: how activists have been replaced by professionals; the decline of social mobilization and the advent of social bargaining on the plant level; the potential scope of this negotiation; the funding of unions by employers and the state. This new system is very similar to cartel parties (Katz & Mair, 1995), and has a future which is not fully assured.

2. From militant unionism to professionalized trade unionists

Between 1958 and 1978, more than a quarter of French workers were unionized. Between 1967 and 1977 there was even an increase where nearly three out of ten employees were unionized (Fig. 1). These figures do not come from data provided by these organizations, but were observed in trade union archives or were calculated from the results of work council elections comités d'entreprise) (Labbé, 1996; Andolfatto & Labbé, 2007).

During these years of rapid economic growth, the French workforce increased from 13 to 18 million and was profoundly transformed and rejuvenated. The maintaining of the rate of unionization at the same level indicates that there was a significant increase in membership. In other words, during the trente glorieuses, the French trade unions adapted themselves to changes occurring in the labor market: the arrival of the baby boom generation, feminization of the workforce, the rise of the service sectors and of the white collars.

During this period, the rate of unionization in France was lower than in Germany, in Scandinavian countries and in Belgium, but it was comparable to that of North and Italy, at least until the early 1970s. Consequently, contrary to what is usually said, the present low level of unionization is not a French inevitability. …

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