When it launched its umpteenth reform, the French government was counting on a trade union movement weakened by in-fighting and defeats, on pensions in particular.
In general terms, the bill is not dissimilar to the various versions applied in other Southern European countries: it makes dismissal and mass redundancies easier, whether economically motivated or not, and it weakens collective agreements and employment law in favour of company agreements that damage working hours and in turn salaries. All this against a background of very high unemployment and where the expected growth is primarily due to the fall in the price of oil and in the euro. Other elements are being negotiated at the same time, such as unemployment insurance, for which the government is exploring degressive compensation once more. Again, this is no surprise as similar reforms exist elsewhere.
Although joint responses were initially made, the trade union movement quickly found itself riven in two1 to form the new model that has been in place for a few years now. At least this initial response meant that the discussion among the unions of the complex issues of employment law were heard by employees and young people. The primary root of these divisions is because the more moderate segment of the trade union movement (said to be assisting the reforms) wants to be able to sign company agreements in a context where strong differences often prevent the majorities from forming groups. Faced with the attacks on employment law, new cracks appeared within the CFDT’s teams, which always attend demonstrations.
The petition against the new labour law gathered over a million signatures in a few days. It has lent credibility to those unions which most strongly oppose the new law (CGT, the FSU, FO, Solidaires and others) and which, in turn, have had the sense to view the labour law as an issue that goes beyond the realms of the unions and employees. We have witnessed the creation of a global broad front including unions, internet activists, people on the fringes of the socialist party and community activists. This unusual starting point made it possible to mobilise very significant sectors of young people in particular: university and college students, but also young employees in precarious positions or unemployed young workers, employees of small companies, some of whom first demonstrated 10 years ago during the movement that led to the contrat première embauche [first employment contract], a bill for low-cost contracts for young people, being thrown out. All these young people, generally not affected by unions came to swell the ranks of the demonstrators at the beginning of March. They are also the activists behind the “nuit debout” all-night demonstrations, a combination of the ideas of intermittent artists [French designation of self-employed, financially dependent artists], grassroots activists, non-professional journalists and the film “Merci patron!”, a sort of celebration of class warfare.
The unions that oppose the labour law have maintained their united front in spite of government manoeuvres, mainly targeting opposition from college and university students. Substantial concessions to young people have been made, but the core of the labour law remains unchanged. The trade union movement’s current challenge is whether or not it is able to mobilise its base, its teams of activists and more generally employees once again, even though a few months ago an inter-profession movement was not on the cards. With the notable exception of the commercial sectors opposed to Sunday working, Air France’s symbolic conflict – conflicts which have a clear and direct link with the current challenges – social issues have been dominated by demonstrations organised by farmers or taxi drivers.
Unions are faced with a majority of the public that does not want the labour law and, at the same time, difficulties organising a mass mobilisation of employees to strike and bring about the final blow for the legislation. The unions’ bastions in the public sector are there, but involvement is low as the reform does not affect them directly and the private sector unions are finally making a serious play for it, but they have plenty of ground to make up. A number of companies have joined the demonstrations, but that is not enough.
Rather than a central thread, woven by the inter-union space on its own, or a professional sector that could demonstrate the permanence of the movement by striking, the situation today is a constant resistance which can be seen in a number of movements.
The inter-union space unites them by calling for inter-profession strikes and college and university student demonstration days are an additional tool. Some sectors are debating how better to combine their interests (the collective rail convention debate) and involvement in this movement by an extended strike, and the nuit debout demonstrations ensure the movement attracts attention in Paris and also in some suburbs and a number of towns in the region. These nuit debout demonstrations may address global issues that concern democracy and social change, but they were born from the movement opposing the labour law, making them a place for exchange, for encouragement and a place that unites struggles. These circumstances, when combined with the institutional problems facing a struggling minority government, leave open the possibility of a victory. They also mark the arrival of a new generation on the political and social scene, a promise of future engagement and new life for the trade union movement, if it can harness the power of this new generation and take into consideration its demands and the fact that it thinks and acts independently.
1. The trade union movement consists of the CFDT, the CFTC, the CGC, and the UNSA on the one hand, and the CGT, the FSU, FO and Solidaires on the other.