Trade unionism in France: the negative impact of « social dialogue »

Social partners or class antagonists? In a recent pedagogical work*, Stéphane Sirot, a historian on trade unionism, questions, in the context of employer-employee relations, the concepts of « social democracy » (1) and « social dialogue », which today are used with the purpose of taming power relations. At a time when French President Emmanuel Macron looks to reduce workers’ rights, it is a healthy warning against all ideological constructions that mean to destroy the perspective of overturning the dominant capitalist order. (Interview by Jacques Kmieciak)

You argue that the concepts of « social democracy » and « social dialogue » are historically two different expressions.


The idea of « social democracy » belongs to the workers’ movement, it goes back to the XIXth century and notably to the Second Republic borne out of the revolutionary days in February 1948. In March 1944, the national council of the French resistance incorporates it in the sense of « a right to access, from the part of the workers, within the context of the workplace, to the functions of leadership and management ».

« Social democracy » thus poses the problem of a counter-power led by the workers. From this point forward, emptied of its original meaning, the idea is associated to the notion of « social dialogue » in the late 50s, early 60s, and embraced by trade unionists such as Edmond Maire, the main architect of the transformation of the CFTC (French Confederation of Christian Workers) into the CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labour), or by senior officials of christian-social leanings (Jacques Delors) who identified with the personalist philosophy of Emmanuel Mounier. This called for a « humanist » path between liberal capitalism and marxism.


What do these self-proclaimed « modernists » defend?


Their goal is to create a shared interest between bosses and workers in the framework of decentralised negotiations where each party makes concessions to the other (a « give and take »). This is contrary to the French tradition, built around class struggle and the confrontational nature of social relations (correlation of forces, strikes, maximisation of demands followed by an armistice in the form of concessions from the bosses).


When did these ideas end up imposing themselves?


In 1981 with François Miterrand becoming President and Jacques Delors being Economy minister. The Auroux law (2) of November 13, 1982 kicked off this regulation meant to pacify social relations for example through a yearly obligation to negotiate salaries, the organisation and and length of work-shifts…

Also in 1982 collective agreements were authorised to deviate from the Constitution. It was a « tsunami that turned French labour law upside down », according to lawyer Jean-Emmanuel Ray. Later, in 1986, the Séguin law opened the door to job saving plans (PSE). In other words a kind of co-management of social plans was established and the worker representatives became more and more stakeholders in painful decisions.

At the same time expressions such as « social partners » or « dialogue » flourished and the unions themselves end up integrating them.


How did the bosses and trade unions react?


In the beginning, neither the bosses (CNPF), reluctant to discuss any sharing of profits, nor the union confederation CGT rushed to the negotiating table. But the « great scare » of 1968 helped shift the positions from the bosses’ side. Later, in the early 1980s, the CFDT (abandoning their project of a « socialist democratic society ») frames trade unionism as a mere regulating actor within the framework of liberal democracy. It is a re-framing that, to a lesser degree, has also gripped the CGT since the turn of the century: debates surrounding alternative projects to break the capitalist order become less frequent, it distances itself from the French Communist Party…

This de-politicisation comes hand-in-hand with institutionalisation and the introduction within daily collective bargaining processes, which are time-consuming and suggested as being a realm of privileges, of impassable boundaries. It marks a break with a trade unionism from the masses, rooted in class.

This reference is ever rarer among the discourse of national leaders, even though Phillipe Martinez, general secretary of the CGT, put it back in the spotlight during the struggle against the new labour laws (so-called El-Khomri) in 2016.


What underlies « social dialogue » as we know today?


The dynamics of collective bargaining, its decentralisation (the 2016 labour laws for example favours agreements within companies) as well as the proliferation of precariously balanced « give and take » agreements, on a backdrop of overriding opportunities for bosses, tend to reduce the rights of workers. This model favours the recognition of sharing power from the bosses and of economic constraints from the part of the unions. Therefore this favours a convergence of points of view and thus the creation of a consensus as a generator of social peace. In practice, through the taming of trade unionism, it is meant to force some to recognise the limits of their rights in order to preserve the eternal accumulation of profits of others.


How has the emergence of Emmanuel Macron affected this issue?


The new president, with his « personal » style, and his parliamentary majority, have amplified the approach brought into place by the El Khomri laws. A reducion of social rights which the unions, the major ones, will have great difficulty in opposing without engaging in an open conflict because company-level agreements reached by referendum, used by minority unions and soon by bosses, will be conceived as a way to circumvent any opposition.

To face this challenge, trade unions should, as they have shown to be capable of in the past, distance themselves from the « social dialogue » practices which are meant to tame them. It is in this context that it is necessary to proceed to a de-institutionalisation and a lasting de-affiliation of trade unionism with regard to the dominant economic, political and social order.


Cover photo: historian Stéphane Sirot (right) will be the guest of the university Ch’ti Guevara (represented here by its secretary Jean-François Dejours) in Luns, on January 20, 2018

*Stéphane Sirot published the book « Démocratie sociale » et « dialogue sociale » en France depuis 1945. Construction idéologique et politique d’une pratique sociale in May 2017


Translator’s notes

(1) Here « social democracy » is meant literally as democracy on a social level, and not as a political current. The French original is « démocratie sociale ».


Source: Investig’Action


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