The French Rein in Unions with Carrots and Sticks

french-protests-1024x432Amsterdam   Two very different meetings in Paris on my last day of this European organizing stint left me with an uneasy feeling about the power of the state in dealing with independent, autonomous organizations. One meeting was with the leader of a small national labor federation. The other was with a Green Party European Union parliamentarian and a friend and church-based organizing ally of ours in the Paris region. On reflection, the common theme that disturbed me was the role of state financing, but I’ll get to that.

Unions are complex organizational structures in all countries especially when they have the kind of rich history and tradition one finds in France. In meetings, I have had in the past with the larger confederations I have often wrong footed myself by assuming that the big federations wanted to increase their dues-paying membership. Often that was wrong as I later found out, and as I understood better after an early morning meeting with a smaller union federation. In regular elections held every third year, union workers vote on a sectoral and regional level. With an 8% vote tally, a union is in the winner’s circle with full representation rights in a company and a seat at the sectoral bargaining level as well. 8% also qualifies the federation for direct financial support from the national government. A 3% vote means that the union is recognized by the state to the degree it can send its leaders and staff to state-sponsored trainings and the like.

Dues tend to be relatively low for French unions compared to North American unions, often between 100 and 120 euros per year. Direct government funding for many unions, and certainly all of the larger federations, accounts in large part for the modest dues rates, as well as a major source of union financing that also comes from awards for representing their members through the labor courts. The labor court judges have wide discretion on the awards ranging from a couple of hundred euros to several thousand euros, providing a direct incentive to unions for pursuing a large number of individual member grievances to the labor court stage, as opposed to North American unions that are often bound to pay excessive arbitrator’s costs and never receive an award, even when members are reinstated and win back pay. Our friend in the small union handled an average of 65 cases per month on a membership of 2500!

Recent French labor law revisions also seek to eliminate the many smaller unions and federations and centralize institutional labor. Reaching below the 3% threshold now bars a union representative from handling a member’s case. A co-worker would be allowed to represent a grievant, but not someone from the union, unless they prove more support. With the low rate of union membership density in France, even though unions are seen as relatively strong still, low dues and lower enrollment means that many smaller unions will wither, weaken, and likely die, which is clearly the intention of the government. Given the weird “general” election system and the few workers that really vote on issues of such consequence, I’m almost surprised our doors aren’t being broken down to do get-out-the-vote campaigns for these representation elections, but maybe I’m missing something.

Our pastor friend in our meeting over lunch with the Green Party parliamentarian without warning began to lobby him for a 5% set aside of taxes to fund community organizing. I bit my tongue rather than jumping in with stories from Montreal, Kansas City, and Albuquerque where cities had directed to “recognize” certain neighborhood groups and give them small funding in order not to deal with the rude and unwashed membership-based groups like ACORN. When I asked him later in some horror why he thought this was a good idea, the answer was a roundabout one that had to do with the fact that the tax rate in France for workers was twice that of the rate for employees in the United States. That might be an argument for streets being paved with gold and housing for the poor being built rising to the heavens, but it was not an argument for asserting state dominion over independent and autonomous organizations. The carrot might be the money, but the stick is the permanent control at some level over community organizations, and of course banning them from politics. Simple rule: you pay for it, you own it. Can you imagine negotiating with the government for more expenditures for this or that demanded by the members, and being asked if we would trade state support of our organization for the money needed to win an issue?

Furthermore it would likely produce something very similar to the crisis looming over the French labor movement now facing the need to grow and organize, but without the membership base, membership dues structure, and a culture of membership support that could fuel such drives. The point is not just to be proud of a great history, but also to learn from it.

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Please enjoy these songs from KABF.

Wilco’s Someone to Lose

Green Day’s Still Breathing

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