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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Une belle occasion de monter le son

by Paule Masson

A Good Opportunity to Turn Up the Volume

Translated Friday 20 June 2008, by Gene Zbikowski

The 35-hour work week. Retirement pensions. A day of demonstrations called by the CGT, the CFDT, the FSU and Solidaires. An interview with Maryse Dumas, confederation secretary for the CGT.

Confronted with the proven – and deliberate – deafness of the government, there is only one solution: Turn up the volume! In answer to the call issued by four trade unions (CGT, CFDT, FSU and Solidaires), the workers are set to shout, more loudly and firmly, their opposition to two anti-labor plans from the Nicolas Sarkozy-François Fillon team. On the one hand, there is the destruction of a whole series of protections as concerns the length of the work week. And on the other hand, there is the further lengthening, to 41 years, of the time required to pay into a pension fund in order to obtain a full pension, which will result in smaller pensions. The workers’ desire to fight will be all the stronger because, on these key labor law issues, the government has broken with its repeated statements concerning respect for “management-labor dialogue” and has chosen openly to scorn the trade unions’ opinion. “You can’t trust a government that lies,” the leader of the CFDT, François Chérèque, stated yesterday. While not all the trade unions are involved in today’s actions – FO, the CFTC and the CGC have not joined in the call – they are unanimous in contesting both work week “reform” and retirement “reform.” Fighting alone against all comers, including the length of the work week, against the employers’ association, the MEDEF — will the government, which is to discuss the work week bill when the Council of Ministers meets tomorrow, remain standing tall for long? In any case, the government must know that today’s actions are hardly a last parting shot. “There will be more demonstrations. Laws can be defeated, even after they have been voted. It’s never too late,” CGT leader Maryse Dumas declared to us.

Yves Housson

Didn’t the CGT take a risk when it signed the “common position” on trade union recognition, which contains an article on the work week, an article that allows companies to exceed the legal limit on overtime hours?

Maryse Dumas: We took no risks. Article 17 of the common position closes the door to that with three clauses: the set-up is experimental, it is limited exclusively to the number of overtime hours, and agreements have to be signed by trade unions representing the majority of the workers. It is because this article does not suit the government that they have decided to adopt a law. The government’s plans go much farther than simply calling the 35-hour work week into question. The government is anticipating the “opt-out” contained in the European directive, which allows employers to impose an individual job contract exceeding the length of the work week agreed to in collective bargaining. Up until now, France has opposed this. This is a turn-around on the question. The French bill will allow employers to impose an individual job contract regarding the work week on workers.

What do you say to FO, the CFTC and the CFE-CGC trade unions, which reproach you for having opened the way for the government to reform the length of the work week?

Maryse Dumas: First, I answer that these derogations to the law began over 25 years ago and they have been systematically allowed by agreements signed by trade unions representing a minority of the staff at a company. Moreover the bill on deregulating the length of the work week is practically a carbon copy of the 1998 agreement with the employers’ association in the metal trades, the UIMM, which was signed by FO, the CFE-CGC and the CFTC, although they only represent a minority of metal workers. The CGT won its lawsuit, but despite everything, in 2006 the UIMM obtained from the same minority trade unions an amendment to the agreement; this provided for an unlimited “chosen work week” mechanism, decided on a case-by-case contractual basis between the employer and the worker, plus an extension of the fixed monthly and annual limits to new categories of workers, including factory workers. This government is obeying the UIMM at the very moment when the MEDEF has agreed to sign an agreement with the CGT and the CFDT on the rules validating such agreements and governing trade union recognition and which allow workers to make their voices heard.

Nicolas Sarkozy has promised to be a French President who will respect labor-management dialogue. But the trade unions are invited to sign agreements which can later be used against them. Isn’t this a trap?

Maryse Dumas: This procedure was invented by Dominique de Villepin when, as Prime Minister, he was soundly beaten on the “First Job Contract” (CPE) law. The January 2007 law requires that the government consult labor and management concerning important social reforms. From the start, the CGT pointed out the risk that the government would turn this against the unions. Experience has proven that we were right. Political pressures were applied during the negotiations on modernizing the labor market. The agreement, which the CGT did not sign, corresponded point for point with the Prime Minister’s letter orienting the negotiations. The agreement was voted into law. On trade union recognition, there were no major disagreements and the text was to be enacted. But, as concerns the 35-hour work week, it’s quite the opposite. At the Dec. 19, 2007 labor conference, President Sarkozy asked for total derogation of the standards regarding the length of the work week. All the trade unions rejected this. He is steam-rolling on and imposing a law that corresponds to the objectives of the UMP [Sarkozy’s political party – translator’s note] and the UIMM. Under the pretext of engaging in labor-management dialogue, the trade unions are being commanded to orchestrate the reforms which the government has previously decided upon. This calls our role as representatives of the workers into question, and trade union independence is being seriously undermined. Social democracy cannot be conceived of in this way. The government has to take what the trade unions put forward into account.

You are going to remind him of that, in the streets, together with the CFDT, the FSU and Solidaires. What points does the CGT want to make?

Maryse Dumas: The day of demonstrations has two main points. It continues the May 22 mobilization on retirement pensions, to demand a progressive reform and to reject the lengthening of the period during which workers have to pay into the pension fund. And it kicks off a mobilization around the length of the work week, so that workers will not find themselves in a situation in which their legal rights depend, in the best of cases, on union contracts negotiated on a company-by company basis, and in the worst cases, on case-by-case job contracts. This government’s vision of “reform” establishes a link between these two issues: under the pretext of favoring those French people who work hard, it considerably weakens the recognition of the value of labor through wages and through the labor laws that apply to all. Nicolas Sarkozy has chosen to favor individualization, individual merit, and those who manage to come out on top in competition. This amounts to a fundamental reform of French society. Today’s demonstrations are a first step. There will be more. The CGT is going to do everything it can to develop united actions which no narrow interest should compromise.

In this context, don’t you think that discontent is mainly centered on purchasing power?

Maryse Dumas: The question of purchasing power is omnipresent. It runs like a red thread through all the other subjects of discontent. There is a lot of discontent in France, but it is unfocused. The government has adopted a tactic of deliberately precipitating its measures and reforms in order to prevent people from thinking things through and to prevent the protest movement from building up. But this will only work for so long, because the government is also taking the risk of accumulating the motives for a large-scale counter-offensive.

Is the next step a strike, as FO is demanding?

Maryse Dumas: FO is always in favor of every action except the one that is on the agenda. When we demonstrate, FO wants to strike. When we strike, FO demands something else. I would like to point out that we won against the CPE law with four months of mobilizations, structured around the size of the street demonstrations. Without ruling out work stoppages, we have to reflect on the modes of action which will involve the largest number of workers and which will make a long-term movement possible.

How can the movement last beyond today, June 17, with the summer holidays approaching?

Maryse Dumas : We chose this day because the Council of Ministers will deliberate on the bill on the length of the work week tomorrow. The government is speaking in intransigent tones. It is what one might expect on the eve of a mobilization. But that does not mean that the government is sure of itself. In general, those who are sure of themselves agree to negotiate. This steam-rolling ahead must instead be seen as proof of their weakness when confronted with democratic discussion: They fear that the slightest opening on essentials will force them to concede everything. The government’s intransigence does not impress us in the least. But we realize that it is going to take many steps to make the government give way. There will be other actions after June 17, to pressure companies, National Assembly deputies, etc. Laws can be defeated, even after they have been voted. It’s never too late.

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