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Politics

An Interview With 3 Union Leaders: "What Can the Unions Do Now?"

Translated Thursday 21 June 2007, by Emma Paulay

Interview with : Maryse Dumas confederal secretary of the CGT (1), Marcel Grignard, confederal secretary of the CFDT (2) and Gérard Aschieri, general secretary of the FSU(3).

Huma: On several occasions Nicolas Sarkozy has presented the idea of political legitimacy to contrast it with trade union legistimacy. ”The French people decide”, not the unions, he said. In your opinion, what can the unions do in this post-election context? How far can they go in opposing the projects of the political power structure?

Maryse Dumas: Universal suffrage has undisputed legitimacy. However, alone it is insufficient. There must be room for dialogue, negotiation and social democracy, especially in a country where 89% of the working population are employees. Quite a few governments regret having tried to pretend this was not the case. The amount of time set aside in the presidential diary for meetings with the unions is proof that even Nicolas Sarkozy has to recognise the fact. Society’s expectations are high. They have not been erased by the election campaign. Buying power and employment remain at the top of the list of concerns. Popular movements which have continued to protest, especially in the private sector, are proof of this. The unions have a huge responsibility in the fulfilment of these expectations, whatever the political situation.

The CGT has no gullibility faced with political power which the MEDEF says is a source of “enthousiasm” - as Laurence Parisot (4) has said. The role of the CGT is to seize any opportunity of making headway on the aforementioned concerns. The CGT does not group employees according to their political opinions, but to their demands. Employees expect the CGT to contest but also to propose, to ensure a balance of power but also to negotiate, to state its objectives but also to develop these demands together with the other unions and in conjunction with employees. The objective of obtaining social victories, whatever the political situation may be, is the guiding light of our union.

Marcel Grignard: THE CFDT prefers not to see things n terms of two opposing types of legitimacy. Unions are not contesting the government’s political legitimacy. It is more a question of coordinating roles between the political powers and their social partners - that is to say, the unions - each with their own legitimacy. That of the unions resides in the members, the employees’ votes in sectorial elections and their capacity to generate solutions that are in a common interest. President Sarkozy suggested a certain number of objectives during his campaign. The question now is to see how they can be attained while taking into account the carry-over effects and the complexity of the problems. For example, concerning the proposition of making overtime free of income tax, which we contested, what happens with overtime for part-time employees? What happens with the overtime which was included in the recent agreements on the reduction in working hours? Fulfilling these promises will mean a reality-test with all its complexity and recognizing that consultation will be essential in reaching a compromise.

Gérard Aschieri: First of all, there is a political legitimacy and this is undeniable. However, I think that alongside this political legitimacy there is a social legitimacy represented by the trade unions. This social legitimacy resides in the fact that unions represent employees, or categories of employees, proposing ideas, proposals and demands. These two legitimacies should not be confused. That is why I often contest the expression “a social third election round” (involving consultation with represntaives of different constituencies). That is not the real issue.

When Nicolas Sarkozy and his buddies compare the number of union members and the number of votes obtained by the elected president, I say that this comparison makes no sense. Firstly, because the legitimacy of the unions is not only based on membership but on how representative they are. This is all the more clear-cut when employees vote for their union represntation, which is the case, for example, in the civil service. I would like representation based on voting to be more widespread. Secondly, there are not two comparable legitimacies or that stand side by side, even though, to my mind, this does not signify that they are two different areas: I stand up for the right of unions to say “There is no subject that is completely foreign to us”. Quite simply, when I speak as a union representative I do so from a specific viewpoint which is not that of a politician, even though I do sometimes touch on subjects that are of a political nature: taxation for example.

Huma: The prime-minister has shown that he is eager to “change the nature of social relations”. On the basis of majority rule, he says, amongst other things, that he would like to give priority to negotiations within companies. In your opinion, which is way should we go for a revival of social democracy?

Maryse Dumas: He says he wants to change social relations but he intends to choose the subject, the method and the dates. The unions will only be there for show. This is not good enough! Others before him have fallen flat on their faces trying the same thing. As for social democracy, he is strictly following the MEDEF’s objectives by putting the emphasis on non-unionised elected employee representatives while refusing to recognise union representation in employee elections that should be organised in all companies. That way he would kill two birds with one stone: union rights within companies would be wiped out while on a national level the MEDEF would continue pulling all the strings in discussions on social issues with so-called "representatives" that would not really represent employee votes. The CGT’s proposals are well-known. They are the basis of a project developed with the CFDT. The economic and social council returned a majority vote in favour of the project despite fierce opposition from the MEDEF. The CGT will tackle the forthcoming conference on union representation on the basis of these results and with a view to obtaining more rights for employees.

Marcel Grignard: Last January’s law on "social modernisation" allows for coordination between union and government roles. It’s a step in the right direction. But this has to be taken to another level. Although the law recognises the role of unions, it still has to give them the legitimacy that is needed. We propose to do so by changing the rules of union representation. It should be based on employee votes within companies, with a conglomeration of the results at branch level and by occupational category. What we expect of the government is that a new dialogue be opened in order to examine these questions and look for the best possible consensus. The social situation, employment in particular, makes finding solutions critical. We cannot accept to see more and more uncertainty, inequality in employment contracts and in status. The unions must find answers to employees’ questions whatever their expectations and their company. We have to find answers that are adapted to the situation of individuals and are also in a common interest.

Huma: How can social and political democracy be combined?

Gérard Aschieri: First of all, there has to be social democracy. For the moment it doesn’t always exist, mainly because representation is granted rather than based on election. Apart from this, there is permanent coordination between political and social democracy: the law is never an absolute given, it evolves and often does so through demonstrations, negotiations and dialogues. Conversely, in the field of politics, in modern society, nobody can say: “Now then, I’ve been elected for five years, I’m right and I’ll do as I like.” Society evolves, ideas shift all the time and the confrontation between ideas, the political battle does so too. To make sense of social democracy, our first demand is that representation should be measured by a vote, that the vote be free, and recognised as such and that any social organisation be able to stand. Secondly, we want majority agreements. That doesn’t mean that the hierarchy of norms should no longer exist: an agreement can only oppose the law if it is more advantageous.

Huma: The employers, represented by Laurence Parisot (1), have shown their support for Nicolas Sarkozy’s economic and social programme. Does that not change the situation for the unions? Does it not reinforce the necessity to balance the powers and form a common front?

Maryse Dumas: The link between the power of politicians and that of employers is nothing new. It demonstrates how capital, particularly financial capital, dominates political decisions. Seeing through the simplified pretty pictures that the new government is portraying, it is clear that social issues are the crux of the matter and that soon the real interests at stake will be unveiled. Convergences between unions are essential in motivating employees into taking action, essential also in building strength and providing credibility to their proposals. Let’s not underestimate the fact that, in this highly mediatized society, public opinion is an essential component in winning protest battles. That’s why the objective has to be widespread approval from employees on the types of action seen to best address the problems and best adapted to the circumstances.

Gérard Aschieri: From our point of view, it reinforces the need for unions to be united. Differences must be put aside and unions must hold joint meetings, debate together and look for common ground to lead protests. There is common ground between us. Generally speaking, this is the case, but the present situation makes this idea even more applicable today. This goes for the right to strike, for the conception of social dialogue and representation, but also for the defence of the employment contract and the status. of civil servants.

Marcel Grignard: The decision-making process between unions and employers must take stock of the state of the employment market: assistance for employees who have lost their jobs, protection against breaches of contract, rights within contracts, both expected and real. This process will be complete by next week. We then hope for a meeting between the highest level of union leaders that will establish an outline of the overall negotiation objectives and fix the calendar for this. It is the state’s responsibility to consult the unions on employment and job contracts. Respecting this dialogue cannot mean predetermining a date for a unilateral agreement or a hasty conclusion. The amount of time necessary to find long-term solutions should be agreed between the government and the unions.


Translato’s notes:
(1) CGT: Confédération Genérale du Travail;
(2) CFDT: Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail;
(3) FSU: Fédération Syndicale Unitaire.

(4) Laurence Parisot is president of the Mouvement des Entreprises de France (MEDEF), the employer’s association.


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