The Economist explains Why French trade unions are so strong
By law, they play a big role in the running of big and medium-sized companies
FRENCH unions are due to take to the streets again on March 18th for a day of action and protest. This time they will be campaigning for better wages and against the government’s plans to reduce corporate payroll taxes. Scarcely a month goes by without some French profession or other holding a demonstration, or manif. On separate days recently, trade unions representing midwives, civil servants and audio-visual technicians have each taken their grievances to the streets. Why are French unions so strong?
Oddly, the answer is not because lots of French workers are paid-up union members. In reality, less than 8% of employees in France belong to a trade union, a figure that has collapsed from a high of about 30% in the 1950s. The figure today is below that in Britain (26%), Germany (18%) and even America (11%). In the French private sector, the rate is lower still: just 5%, next to 14% among civil servants. France’s long tradition of street protest sometimes allows unions to secure policy concessions. Yet in recent times they have failed to draw spectacular numbers on to the streets. The most successful French demos have instead been organised by single-issue groups, such as those against gay marriage or the bonnets rouges against a motorway tax. Union-led manifs have less punch because they are less linked to strikes than before: in 2011 there were 77 days per 1,000 employees lost to strikes, down from 164 days in 2005. (Partly as a result, frustrated hardliners have resorted to radical measures, such as “boss-napping” or holding managers hostage, to make their point.)
Instead, the real source of French union strength today is the statutory powers they enjoy as joint managers, along with business representatives, of the country’s health and social-security system, and as employee representatives in the workplace. Under French law, elected union delegates represent all employees, union members or not, in firms with over 50 staff on both works councils and separate health-and-safety councils. These must be consulted regularly by bosses on a vast range of detailed managerial decisions. This gives trade unions a daily say in the running of companies across the private sector, which accounts for the real strength of their voice.
Some of these consultations are productive, and secure the defence of employees’ reasonable interests. But the works councils’ remit ranges unusually wide. Managers must consult health-and-safety councils over such matters as the reorganisation of office furniture, for example, in order to prevent stress. The lay-off of more than ten employees must be negotiated with works councils under a tightly regulated “social plan”. Unlike in Germany, the relationship in France between managers and union delegates on works councils is often testy. The upshot, as a paper by economists at the London School of Economics pointed out, is that small French firms often choose not to hire more than 49 employees, in order to avoid having to deal with a works council. This brake on growth, as much as strikes or demos, is arguably the main effect of union power in France today.