Sorting Out French Labor Law – What a Country!

Plaza in Grenoble

Plaza in Grenoble

Paris   Finishing up my hella-Euro-road trip as the heat hit the 90’s in Grenoble and Paris, I felt like I was catching the last train out of town before the whole country – and in fairness, most of Europe – shut down for the rest of the summer. You notice the small signs when almost every follow-up email is greeted with an auto-return saying, I’ll be back in mid-August or more likely August 29th. Meeting with the Alliance and ReAct staff before leaving Grenoble, my bags were packed, but so, seemingly were many of theirs. Hitting Paris in the attic loft where I stay I had four pages of instructions on how to make sure the house was closed tighter than a drum because they would be out for weeks. Every meeting, ended as we’ll follow up in September. Fascinating! After years of experience with the summer months as primetime for organizing, the notion that I had woken up somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s except it was hotter here! But, hey, viva la difference!

church in Brussels plaza

church in Brussels plaza

I used to write some “notes for my father” on things that he would have found fascinating from my trips abroad, but this time I felt I needed to write a note to myself after the head organizer of ACORN’s French affiliate gave me a short course of French labor law and how it caged organizing and field programs. All staff has a contract. The contracts can be short term for 6 or 12 months, but after several of these short stints, the law requires employees be made permanent or released. Or of course the Holy Grail for workers occurs when you might finally receive an open ended permanent contract. Annually, the head organizer has to do a formal evaluation with the staff members as part of the renegotiation of these contracts. Describing the process, it is definitely a negotiation. Where previously she might have negotiated full time hours from 35 which is the standard work week in France to 39 by paying the premium for those extra hours, staff can propose to go back to 35 and can even make proposals on the content of the work, which for organizers might even mean having to discuss nonnegotiable issues like time on the doors or the number of groups maintained by an organizer. It just takes your breath away! But, as I overheard an organizer in Paris say about the government’s attempts to modify some of these labor laws, “we can’t give away what our grandfathers fought for and won.” Well, you put it like that…

On the other hand, managers may have contracts but in exchange for the discretion and professionalism of their jobs, there is no restriction on their hours, and different than in the United States, this is regardless of the amount they are paid. At the ACORN affiliate everyone is on a minimum contract whether short term or open ended at this point, meaning they are paid a minimum wage as set by French law. The minimum wage in France is set at the after tax rate which is a good thing and is indexed to inflation and/or legislative action so goes up annually, which is also a good thing. Once you sort it all out it was about equivalent to what ACORN’s starting wage was for all staff about a decade ago, so not bad at all really in terms of a living wage.

church in Budapest

Danube in Dusseldorf

This minimum contract is not unusual and sometimes even includes a period where a new employee is paid by social benefits the first year and then in direct wages the second. I happened to meet the head of the ATD-Fourth World in France, which is their largest operation for the social services and organizing operation for the poor. All one-hundred of their fulltime staff, who they call volunteers, are paid on a minimum contract, which is interesting when we think about what it takes to build community organizations and unions of lower income and lower waged workers.

The package, as we call it in collective bargaining, is great in France as the country shuts down for the season over the coming weeks, but once you add it all up, backwards and forwards, it may be a maze to navigate, but there’s still a way to get there from here.

Country roads, take me home!

Danube in Dusseldorf

Church in Budapest

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Grassroots Democracy is Scary, but Essential as Grenoble Paves the Way

Grenoble ACORN Alliance Citoyenne city board convenes outside

Grenoble ACORN Alliance Citoyenne city board convenes outside

Grenoble   The highlight of my last full day in Grenoble before beginning the multi-city trek back home was getting to sit in and observe the city board meeting of ACORN’s affiliate the Alliance Citoyenne Grenoble. The board is still new and in transition from the “old” Alliance governance structure composed of various people in the larger community and the emerging governance structure composed of elected representatives of the membership coming from each of the five existing local groups. In some ways, the leaders have been invested with the responsibility of writing on a blank slate how they will work in the future, and given the fact that Grenoble is the largest of the emerging organizations in France, there will likely be precedents set by almost every single decision these new leaders make. This is grassroots democracy at its best and to build a strong and powerful organization, it is essential, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also scary at times watching leaders navigate the future.

Grenoble is a lovely town in the valley dominated by the Chartreuse Mountains. The evenings are pleasant, but the days heat up considerably and fans and air conditioners are not common. Not embracing the heat, the board was meeting on tables and chairs outside of the cooperative office complex where they share space, mixing the seriousness of the meeting with some of the atmosphere of a picnic, as people sat around drinking juice and eating chips as they held their agendas.

 a leader makes a report on a recent victory

a leader makes a report on a recent victory

The reports from the local groups were a litany of victories in the wave of success the members are having in winning improvements from local housing authorities. This group had gotten a commitment for more than 30 doors and locks to be replaced. Another was winning a timetable for replacing windows, long in disrepair. Everyone had a good story to tell of actions and negotiations. One group was fresh from an exhilarating meeting where the Mayor had attended to formally sign the agreement was, according to her report, credited the Alliance with their work over and over again. Big smiles all around!

There were some thorns on the roses that inspired more debate. Transitions are hard, and one board member had resigned in a bit of passion at the last meeting and then several days later retracted her resignation, so the board had to puzzle out how to deal with that situation at several junctures in the meeting. Should it go back to the local group to sort out? Should there be a “grace” period for reconsideration? Conflict isn’t easy and the leaders searched for common ground to work out relationships that could make hard decisions in the future without much concern for the precedents it might create or experience with principles and practice they could rely on for guidance.

board breaks into 2 groups to brainstorm

board breaks into 2 groups to brainstorm

The most critical decision they faced was on whether or not to continue to expand and organize new groups. There is no issue like the continual tension in a membership organization between maintenance of the existing membership and expanding to add more groups and membership among the unorganized. If an organization doesn’t decide to grow, it dies. Without growth, the organization would be unable to empower the membership sufficiently to achieve their aspirations. At the same time nothing is ever perfect, there are never enough staff and resources, more can always be done, so there’s always a temptation to slow down, wait, and take a more cautious route. I watched nervously, realizing the proposition they were debating was way more serious than they likely reckoned. Without knowing French, I was relying on body language and words here and there and the passion that pushed them along with an occasional aside in English from the organizers, listening just as I was. They decided unanimously to expand, which was exciting – and a relief — and also moved affirmatively on investing responsibility and accountability in the staff for evaluating which areas should be next and how to add the next organizer.

 decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

At the end I couldn’t help feeling, as we all shook hands and expressed good wishes for the work done, that the board had come out of a thick forest and it was in the clearing now. There would be many hard decisions to come, but having made these tough calls tonight, they had a new confidence and solidarity with each other, an emerging trust and confidence in the staff, and were ready to face the future.

Democracy works, but it’s a constant struggle.

 decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

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