Labor Conflicts: the Inflexible “Social Dialogue” between Hollande and the Unions

Members of the FO Union marching in Paris, bearing such slogans as "Social Regression That's Enough." Photo: Eleni Zaras for LJP

Members of the FO Union marching in Paris, bearing such slogans as “Social Regression That’s Enough.” Photo: Marc Goetzmann for LJP

PARIS. – Two major labor unions, Conféderation Générale du Travail (CGT) and Confédération Générale du Travail – Force Ouvrière (FO), along with smaller activist groups including the student union UNEF, marched this Tuesday, March 5 to protest the proposed changes to the labor laws. The bill, to be put forward to the cabinet Wednesday, March 6, threatens to take away workers rights and amend “flexicurity” in favor of employers, many union members believe.

The bill was proposed to address unemployment by giving employers more direct control over employees’ status and more room for negotiation. It would affect their ability to adjust salaries and workers’ hours through direct interaction amongst themselves and their workers.

Designed with the intention of increasing the number of long-term contract jobs, it has instead fueled concerns of workers’ diminishing salaries and hours. This leeway granted to the employers is seen as a slight to the progress made by the labor unions in establishing a stable work environment.

Banners bore messages ranging from “No to social regression” to “Hollande, if you carry on, the working class will kick your ass” during protests this Tuesday as members of various labor unions demonstrated throughout France. Yet, while such images communicate a sense of unity amongst the protesters, the atmosphere was lacking the cohesiveness necessary for a powerful demonstration.

Various groups of labor union members and workers participated, but did not engage together as a single opposing body. Such an impression of the protests reveals the need for increased communication between all parties, not just opposing sides.

Two graduate students of History at Paris IV, Gabriel Vojdani, a member of Parti socialiste, and Grichka Rutkowski a member of Parti de gauche, are also both members of the UNEF student union. They attribute their involvement on Tuesday to their desire for more “political activism” and “social dialogue”.

“I came here as a political activist, student, and citizen. I believe that this agreement is not good at all for employees, and I came to put pressure on the social movement.”

Rutkowski, too, articulates his motivation rising from “political consciousness.”

It is not just a matter of the specific changes in the labor laws, but also a philosophical concern. It requires a change in attitude, which in the eyes of the students means the potentiality of diminishing “social dialogue.”

They are not alone in these views. “This could really change the state of mind,” Nicolas Grivel, an advisor to Labor Minister Michel Sapin said. “There’s a psychological aspect to all of this, in terms of the signal it could give, domestically and internationally…We are emerging from a schema of pure confrontation,” he states in an interview with AP.

At the protest, FO leader Jean-Claude asserted, “If you’re told that to relieve unemployment problems you have to be laid off, and then tomorrow you can be hired again, that’s what I call a trick. The problem in France is not a flexibility problem; we are facing an economic policy problem.” Skepticism is running rampant as many believe the amendements would only fan the fire of rising unemployment.

The MP side, however argues the opposite, claiming that in fact, “This method is based on dialogue, consultation and accountability…the cultural dialogue promotes understanding, it allows each representative trade union or employer to take responsibility and find compromises.”

There is pressure for swift decision-making in light of the current economic situation, but in the eyes of the protestors, it is thus the dialogue itself that seems compromised.

“This agreement is signed by unions, three of which are minority, since three of them weigh only 40% of the vote,” says Rutkowski. Voidani adds, “That’s why I say that MPs should not hesitate to amend the bill…even if we said that it was the dialogue of the unions that should be taken into account, I think that they (the deputies) must work so that the agreement is rightly more in tune with society.” His words underscore the dissatisfaction with the lack of communication and consideration for the greater public.

While protestors may have stood relatively divided in their motivations for protest, the consensus remains that Hollande’s approach is not what was expected from his presidency, and there is still a greater need for dialogue. As Voidani and Rutkowski demonstrate, employees and members of the workforce themselves should increase their political activism to stimilate dialogue and ensure their inclusion in conversations surrounding their own future.

As Voidani stresses, “Today, rather, it is unfortunately the employers who [control] the balance of power.”

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  1. [...] percent, partially due to the hard-hit auto industry. The labor reforms, which were also subject to nation-wide protests, would aim to decrease plant shutdowns such as this one. Amiens has also experienced frequent, [...]

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