Friday, 26 April 2013

French unions: influential despite low membership?

France is often mentioned as an example of a country where unions have relatively few members, but are still influential because of their capacity to mobilise workers. Two British researchers, Susan Milner and Andrew Mathers, have published an article on this topic (abstract).
Union density in France is 8%, which is substantially below many other European countries. Still, there are indications that especially CGT and CFDT have strengthened their workplace presence, respectively in manufacturing and small companies in the services sector.
As for influence, Milner and Mathers say French unions have forced governments to ‘adopt incremental strategies for change even where systemic reform was the initial objective’. Despite massive mobilisations, they were unable to stop Sarkozy’s pension reform. In other instances, they were more successful. For example, they were involved in protests of the unemployed, homeless, undocumented residents and seasonal workers, which influenced policy on universal health coverage. And they joined youth who protested successfully against a new type of temporary employment contract paying below the minimum wage.
Milner and Mathers refer to a poll which shows that according to the French, the legitimacy of unions mainly depends on three things: their mobilising capacity; their experience and their independence (not just of employers but also, for example, political parties).
The latter aspect may be the achilles heel of French unions. Over the past decades, French unions have become ‘increasingly dependent on material subsidies from the state’. Their officials ‘remain seconded employees of their original company, usually one of France’s large flagship companies with strong links to the state and organised employers’. It could be argued that French unions need more members to strengthen their economic independence.

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