A march in Lyon against the El-Khomri law in April 2016. Photo: Lyokoï via Wikipedia Commons

Philippe Martinez of the CGT federation speaks to the press

A poster from a demonstration against the El-Khomri law in May 2016. Photo: ActuaLitté via Flickr CC

French unions respond to new labour law

01.09.2017

French President Emmanuel Macron faces a tough fight with unions as he introduces “reforms” to labour law.

 The French government yesterday announced details of a new labour law designed to “liberalize” the employment relationship. The new law makes it easier to fire workers, and allows companies to bypass national collective agreements by making local arrangements.

President Macron, who won a decisive election victory against far right opponent Marine le Pen in May, claims that existing law holds French business back. During his election campaign, he claimed that restrictive labour laws are responsible for an unemployment rate of almost 10 per cent.

Unions disagree, and argue that making it easier to fire workers will not create jobs. The unemployment rate is a result of the financial crisis, and subsequent austerity policies. The new labour law will throw many workers, particularly the young, into precarious work, and inequality will grow.

The new French labour law comes in the context of a global attack on union rights, including in Bangladesh, Brazil, Argentina, India, Peru, Poland and the UK.

The main focus of the new law is to replace sector-wide collective bargaining with local agreements. These can be reached without union representation at smaller firms, watering down labour standards won at national level. These local agreements will have the power to introduce short term and casual contracts.

Crucially, Macron has introduced the new labour law by decree, which must then be ratified by parliament, rather than submitting it to a democratic process that might reduce its impact.

France has five union confederations, four of them with members affiliated to IndustriALL Global Union. All unions see Macron’s labour law as diminishing labour’s power, but they have chosen different ways to confront the challenge. Some unions see positive aspects to the new law.

The Confédération générale du travail (CGT), historically the most influential federation, strongly opposed the new labour law from the outset. The CGT has called a general strike and mobilizations for 12 September. Since the CGT is strong in many key sectors, including transport, energy and manufacturing, the strike is likely to have a significant impact.

Boris Plazzi of IndustriALL affiliate FTM-CGT said:

“The new labour legislation is an unprecedented attack on workers’ rights and our social model. The objective is clear: to destroy collective rights and introduce an individual contract relation between the worker and the employer.

“It is an attack on the unions. Macron is creating a social dumping model that will affect all workers and unions in Europe and all the world. It’s an attack on the 99 per cent.”

The Confédération française démocratique du travail (CFDT) and Force ouvrière (FO) did not oppose all aspects of the new labour code, and hoped that through consultation they could have a constructive influence. They feel they have won some concessions.

The FO said that despite months of intensive consultation, there were major disagreements with the final document. However, there were some successes as well:

“We have succeeded in pushing back a number of government or employer provisions,” the federation said.

The CFDT believes that some labour reform is necessary, because of shifts in production in the economy. Rather than protecting jobs for life, unions can win “flexible security” that allows for retraining and other Just Transition mechanisms.

But the new law is a missed opportunity: the CFDT believes that the unilateral power of employers has increased. In an interview with Le Monde, Laurent Berger of the CFDT said:

“We are disappointed. Few of our proposals were accepted. We feel that there is a minimal recognition of trade union presence without the means to function.
“The government missed the mark. There is a missed opportunity to strengthen social dialogue, with negative provisions for workers.”

This sentiment was echoed by the CFE-CGC:

“The original project, which was to simplify the labour code and promote employment, was lost on the way. Instead, we face an ideological reform which will not create jobs. This is yet another liberal reform that will increase precariousness and social dumping.

“CFE-CGC bitterly regrets that most measures focus on deregulation. Where are the provisions for the security of workers and energizing companies? This document does not facilitate entry into the labour market - but makes it easier to leave!”

Macron’s new labour law is a development of a law introduced by the previous labour minister, Myriam El-Khomri, which was also fiercely resisted by the unions. The CGT and FO lodged a complaint with the International Labour Organization regarding violations of conventions 87, 98 and 158.

Despite Macron’s victory, he has little popular support, and his approval rates have been falling. The new labour law will test public appetite for his policies. The decrees will not become law until they are adopted by parliament, which must happen within six months. Unions will mobilize in the coming weeks to prevent or influence this process.

IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches said:

“Our affiliates have taken different approaches to the labour law, reflecting the mandate they have from their members.

“We believe that this combination of tactics – the strikes and the negotiations – will send a clear message to the French government that undermining workers’ rights is not the way to build an economy.

“History shows that what brings investment and thus employment is a dynamic consumer market. This comes through collective bargaining agreements that result in well-paid workers, and not from legislation that diminishes union power.”