France: Trade Unions Without Members

June 27th, 2013
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France's socialist government will bring together on June 23 and 324 representatives of the employers and the trade unions - the social partners - and other interested parties to seek to arrive at a consensus of how to deal with a range of major problems confronting France, including reforms of the retirement pension system.

But the process is a charade to all intents and purposes. The trade unions have almost no members (about eight per cent of the labour force is organised and only five per cent in the private sector).

They therefore lack the legitimacy or the coherence to impose, through dialogue with the employers, consensual agreements on the government. This is the way it is done in Germany, the Nordic countries and others where trade union membership is high.

Follow up:

There are good reasons why French trade unions flourish almost without members. As the system has evolved, it suits them and it suits the employers, too.

The real interest for existence of the trade unions lies in providing personnel for the co-management, with the employers, of a vast range of organisations, some very big, many very small, that administer the social security system, the pension system, the unemployment benefit system, professional education organisations, and so on, according to Eric Verhaeghe, who blogs in French at Jusqu'ici, tout va Bien…. See his post on June 18.

There are something like 100,000 positions to be filled by trade unionists in these institutions, which each pays an annual sum to the trade union and employer organisations concerned.

They also supply, though not in an entirely open and transparent manner, manpower assistance for the administrations of the trade unions themselves. In short, the trade unions do not need to scrape around for subscriptions to form a broader membership base.

The system serves the employers' interests. It enables them to avoid the implantation of the trade unions in their businesses: the trade unions are virtually non-existent in companies with fewer than 1,000 employees.

However, the weak membership is a major obstacle to the development in France of social democracy as it exists in Germany and the Nordic countries (among others), where the high level of trade union membership is essential to the process of generating consensual agreements on labour market issues. In those countries the social partners have a decisive role in formulating labour market regulation, with the state having a back-up role.

In the absence of a trade unions dynamic on the shop floor, it is impossible to imagine in France a reduction in the regulatory burden that is stifling economic activity today. It is not in effect possible to reduce the weight of the Code de Travail (labour law) unless the issue is taken up in a social dialogue originating at the level of the enterprises, concludes Eric Verhaeghe.

"Sans dynamisme syndical dans ces entreprises, point n'est possible d'imaginer une diminution du corpus réglementaire qui étouffe aujourd'hui l'activité économique en France. Nous ne pourrons en effet réduire le poids du Code du Travail que si et seulement si un dialogue social constitué dans les entreprises peut en prendre le relais."

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