Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the party he leads, “La France insoumise,” called it a “coup d’état social” when President Macron proposed his recent changes to the labour law. Nevertheless, on September 22, Macron signed the Loi Travail XXL into law. It would be difficult to overstate the sea change this will represent for French unions. Instead of sectoral bargaining, workplace-by-workplace bargaining will become more and more the norm. Canadian unions have been fighting to move the goalposts in the other direction for decades. And that’s just one of the changes.
These changes continue the effort, which started in 2016 with the El Khomri law, to “Americanize” French labour law. The El Khomri law was met with 210 days of debate and at least two mobilizations where over a million people were on the streets protesting. In 2016, rabble.ca’s Duncan Cameron analyzed the El Khomri law and how the mobilizations had forced the government to back down.
The fundamental principle of French labour law is that industry-wide agreements provide a floor for wages, hours and most working conditions. The initial goal of the El Khomri reforms was to allow company based agreements to supersede the industry-wide agreements negotiated by unions. The protests against the El Khomri law meant that this overhaul did not happen in 2016. This month, it did, quietly signed into law with relatively small disruptions.
This time there were protests with approximately 220,000 and 132,000 people on the 12th and 23rd of September, respectively, and unions estimate that 50,000 people came out on September 21st to their union protests. There was no general strike, the union federations were divided, and the protests went unnoticed by many people in Paris and across France.
Maya Bhullar and Jessica Squires are in Paris and decided to dig into how the reforms came to be and what they are. As progressives and labour unionists, we submit this as a cautionary tale on how a movement can be co-opted. There are many similarities between the young, centrist, ‘gender balanced’, Macron and Trudeau governments and so we will let you draw your parallels and build the conversation around how we learn from this.
The 2016 changes were proposed as a law which meant that there was a long process of parliamentary and executive approval. When protests and debate forced the Hollande government to scrap the most controversial parts of the law, a committee charged with reforming the law which governs labour negotiations was struck. This committee included government, social science experts and all the union federations.
In May 2017, right after his election, Macron announced that labour law reform was one of his top priorities and restarted consultation. He circumvented a parliamentary vote on the specific reforms by asking the National Assembly, which En Marche controls, to pass a broad law authorizing the government to publish the rulings which emerged from the consultation. These five government rulings, which list the 36 measures planned to “reinforce the social dialogue”, were signed into law on the 22nd of September.
When he announced the changes, two of the three large union federations in France the Confédération française démocratique du travail (CFDT) and Force ouvrière (FO) said they were disappointed but chose not to support the protests.
There were some CFDT and FO banners and members at the protests on Confédération générale du travail (CGT) dominated demonstrations on Thursday, September 21st, as you can see in this photo album (link to flickr album). However, this quote by Patrice Clos of the FO is telling, “We took part in the protests against the El Khomri law. These decrees are El Khomri plus plus. We can’t accept something that we were against a year ago.” It seems that people did accept El Khomri plus plus.
If the size of recent protests is an indicator, it seems that people did accept El Khomri plus plus. Macron said in New York earlier in September, “Democracy does not happen in the street.” Instead, it seems Macron’s government subverted democracy in the boardrooms through consultations and ‘process’.
What has changed in the loi du travail?
This part of the article draws from an interview published in L’Humanité with the Secretary General of the CGT, Philippe Martinez. Martinez was at the table Macron set up and the first of the union leaders to call for people to protest. To ensure accuracy, Martinez’s assertions were confirmed by reading the rulings and other analyses. To read the interview summarized below please click here.
Building company-based negotiations
This is one of the more important changes because it fundamentally changes the way unions work. Before the changes, industry wide bargaining set the floor for most working standards for the vast majority of French workers (some small companies were excluded). Hence, industry wide agreements were the most important documents governing labour standards. After these were negotiated and the floor was set through industry-wide bargaining, union representatives at the industry and shop level met to discuss particular accommodations that needed to be made based on particular conditions they were facing.
This means that experienced negotiators, on both sides, helped set the floor and then there was a meeting of shop stewards and people experienced in negotiation to discuss and bring about modifications above and beyond this floor. This process mitigated the ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of labour standards because there was a floor—so companies could not compete by increasing hours and pressuring workers more than their competitors. Instead there is pressure for the company to invest in other ways to compete, for instance in capital and automation which increased productivity.
Both El Khomri law and Macron’s changes increase the power of company based agreements. Many elements of wage and hour rulemaking will now be determined largely at the company level. These company level agreements are similar to the those in the United States and Canada, where representatives from the management and the union negotiate across from each other. Fixed term contracts are now largely controlled at the company level.
The law also makes it easier and cheaper for companies to layoff workers during short term slowdowns, even if the company is profitable. It also makes it easier to work from home and also to be fired without cause. There are some improvements in particular benefits available to workers, but that doesn’t mitigate the fact that the foundation upon which the rights of French workers were based has fundamentally shifted. In Canada, the unemployment rate has fallen but mostly because of the growth in temporary and contract jobs. Macron says he wants to reduce unemployment, but what types of jobs will be created thanks to these reforms?
Using ‘democracy’ to undermine unions and workers rights
Votes and ‘representation for all’ sounds good, but what if it is set up to break in favour of the employer?
Previously, the agreements signed at the industry wide level and modifications made by the shop stewards/delegates were not taken to individual members of the federations for a vote. Negotiators fought it out at the bargaining table and signed on behalf of the workers. Now, at the company level, certain employers can circumvent negotiators and ask workers to vote directly on changes to the company based agreement in a referendum.
Previously, if companies were below a certain size they could not negotiate specific changes to the industry wide agreement because they did not have the right to a union delegate. Now all companies can legally have a representative. Companies with under 20 employees can select a worker to represent them to negotiate. It is up to the unions to figure out how to train these new negotiators.
Meanwhile, there are cuts to the funding for bargaining and union training and to the number of people who can be on negotiation committees and released for union training. The joint worker and employer health and safety committee, which helped set industry based safety policies, is being disbanded and fused into the joint committee charged with social and economic policy.
Ninety five percent of the companies in France are small companies with under 50 workers. At these companies, workers will now be able to negotiate with their employers and sometime vote on referendums with less support available and less capacity to coordinate. All this looks like democracy but when you are going head to head with the employer (who generally can pay for people well versed in labour law and negotiations) it helps to have experts and training on your side.
We would like to thank Martine Grador, an RN who was a union representative for 30 years, for her help with this article. She has faced down many a boss, and helped many of her co-workers during her years with the unions, and according to her these changes are the furthest thing from democratic.