1 December 2001
CASE STUDY - FRANCE
In France, all workplaces with more than 50 employees elect représentatives to Works Councils. Those workplaces with less than 50 workers elect staff représentatives, who meet with management once a month, to undertake the same role as Works Councils.
The French unions are small by northern European standards, with less than 10% of the total workforce organised. They now dominate représentation on Works Councils.
The CNT is a sister organisation of Solidarity Federation - it is the International Workers’Association section in France. CNT is also a functioning Anarchosyndicalist union. What follows are views on various aspects of Works Councils, from the CNT’s perspective.
The CNT is opposed to the attempts of reformist unions to make peace with capitalism. Rather, we have argued for the building of revolutionary unions based on anarclio-syndicalist principles. As part of the process of building a revolutionary movement, we have been organising independent, democratically controlled, workplace branches. The CNT is bitterly opposed to participation in Works Councils.
We have long argued that Works Councils have little to do with increased workers’ control. They are the mechanism by which management seek to control and pacify the workforce. Participation in Works Councils creates apathy among workers and cannot but lead to the incorporation of the trade union movement into the capitalist system. Furthermore, the Works Councils system has had a highly corrupting effect on the union movement.
Given the weakness of Works Councils and their- undemocratic nature, it might be questioned why the French social democratic unions are so committed to them. The reality is that the unions have become dependent on them. The basis of union organisation is no longer the workplace branche ; the Works Council has superseded the branch.
There are some 110,000 worker representatives elected onto Works Couincils in France and just over 200,000 staff representatives elected in small firms. Two thirds of Works Council représentatives are union members, and a high percentage of staff représentatives are also union members. If the large number of union members who act as staff representatives in the public sector are added to this, the picture emerges of a grass roots union organisation tliat is geared towards and exists around the Works Council.
Equally important to the unions is the financial support they gain from participating in Works Councils. Only one tenth of union income is generated by membership subs. The rest is derived from Works Council participation and the monies paid to the unions for participation in state funded bodies, such as social security and industriel tribunals.
The pivotal role played by the Works Couiicil in union life cannot but shape the unions general outlook. The prime task for the unions is no longer the recruitment and éducation of members and the building of an organisation able of confronting management, but rather to try and ensure a favourable vote in Works Council élections.
The unions are no longer democratically controlled organisations which workers join to further their interest. The unions do not see workers as members, but as an clectorate they call upon to endorse their candidate come election time. This reduces workers to mere voting fodder, whose only input and participation in union matters to cast their vote occasionally. This lack of worker participation in union affairs breeds apathy among workers.
The reformist unions in France are no longer independent working class organisations. They are funded by the state and management, through the Works Council system. The unions cannot afford to judge Works Councils on their effectiveness in defending workers’ interests. They must unconditionally support the Works Council. The only other option would be withdrawal - and that would mean the collapse of the union.
The unions argue that being elected onto Works Councils ensures union recognition and bestows on elected members basic rights, which protects them from management victimisation. But these claims simply do not match up to reality.
The total number of staff représentatives dismissed by employers has risen from 5% to 10% over the last few years. Increasingly these dismissals take place as part of a management offensive aimed at getting rid of the most effective activists, who stand in the way of management’s right to dictate conditions in the workplace.
The elect représentative is guaranteed organisational rights by management but only as long as they do not stand in the way of management. Should the representative start to organise opposition to management, then the rights, granted by management, are simply withdrawn by management - as an increasing number of militants are finding to their cost.
Nor should militants look to the state for protection. For example, in 1993, the governement inspectorate upheld as lawful the sacking of 14,326 staff representatives out of a total of 17,740 dismissals. To put it another way, the goveniment upheld as lawful 81 % of représentatives being sacked !!
It is not the law that protects trade unions but strong workplace organisation. Instead of organising in the workplace, unions have spent the last 40 years fighting each other, in a continued battle to win places on Works Councils. What have the unions got to show for 40 years of battling over positions on Works Councils ? A union organisation that is little more than a glorified électoral machine, a passive paper membership, and countless "legal" rights increasingly ignored by management and worth little more than the paper they are written on.
The CNT, in rejecting the work council system, has been able to concentrate on the long process of building a workplace organisation. It is true that., in boycotting Works Councils, the CNT activists have none of the legal protection afforded to Works Council représentatives (for what it is worth). The CNT strategy is geared to building, a large workplace presence, where strength comes from the size of the workplace branch and an active conscious membership willing and ready to take action to defend delegates and improve conditions.
In short, the CNT power is based on workers solidarity, net worthless rights granted to workers by management and the state.
It is argued that participating in Works Council élections strengthens union organisation by increasing awareness of their ideas and methods. In the long term, this is supposed to lead to greater collective organisation and an increased willingness for workers to take action.
However, once again, this argument bares little resemblance to reality. Forty years of union activity centred on Works Councils have fossilised the unions. At election time, working people have to witness the edifying sight of unions battling it out, each prepared to go to any lengths in the grubby scramble for votes. We are told by the unions that this unseemly pantomime in some way increases the unions credibility!!
Once elected the Works Council représentatives, being unaccountable, are free to deal with management proposals as they think fit. In the time-honoured tradition of unaccountable trade union officials, it is not long before they are selling out the interest of the workers they supposedly represent, leading to bittemess and demoralisation among the workers.
Even if an individual Works Council representative is determined to stay loyal to the workers they represent, the nature of the system will bring about failure. The individual has no control over other représentatives, who may be not only non union members, but members of right wing or even fascist organisations. Equally, the whole rationale and agenda of Works Councils is determined by management. Faced with these obstacles, individual représentatives, no matter how idealistic, can achieve little for their workers this way.
The failings of Works Councils were not so evident during the long post-war boom, when management were willing to make concessions to the unions. But with economic crisis and the accompanying management offensive, it is becoming increasingly clear to workers that the Works Council cannot protect their interest. This growing disillusionment has led to a growing credibility crisis in the Works Council system - which manifests itself in increasing rates of abstention in Works Councils elections, especially among young and part-time workers.
The crisis of legitimacy faced by Works Councils is creating a crisis in the unions. The unions have become so dependent on Works Councils for survival that they have little choice but to defend them. This is hardly a case of greater union credibility leading to increased action, rather a case of increasing disillusionment, resulting in a downward spiral of trade union démoralisation.
There have been occasions when groups or individuals have stood for Works Councils even though they oppose them in principle. There are a number of problems with this "Negative" approach. Once elected, no matter how, noble the initial intentions, there is always the danger of that représentatives will become integrated into the system. But, by far, the major flaw in this approach is that it fails to offer a workable alternative to the Works Council system. Having no alternative to them, it fails to challenge them, and so guaranteeing their continued existence. Opposing Works Councils and failing to build an alternative to them inevitably creates its own limitations - of radical words but an inability to act.
For much of the post-war period, capitalism experienced conditions of stability and expansion. During periods of economic expansion, capitalism used Works Councils to limit and modify workers demands. The current recession, coupled with the introduction of new technology and the increased globalisation of production, is forcing management to introduce radical changes to the methods of production. These changing economic conditions have caused management to switch their approach to Works Councils. Management is now attempting to use the Works Council system to try to persuade workers that there is no alternative but to accept the "logic" of the market. In other words, workers must accept worsening conditions, falling living standards and more "flexible" working practices to ensure their companies’ long term survival.
The French reformist unions, having long made their peace with capitalism, can offer no altenative. They cannot but accept management arguments. Instead of opposing management attacks, the unions can only hope to mediate their effects through negotiation. The role of the unions is changing to that of helping to mariage economic change on management’s behalf. By doing so, they are pursuing the interest of management against those of the workers they claim to represent.
This changing role of the unions is resulting in growing tension in the workplace. Growing disillusionment with the unions and the Works Councils on which they depend is leading workers to create their own independent structures. Workers are now by-passing the unions and Works Councils to form strike committees and other democratically controlled co-ordinating bodies, to fight off management attacks.
These independent workers’ groups, though often tenuous and short lived, are evidence of the growing crisis in the union movement. Increasingly, there is a separation taking place between those who argue for increased mediation and collaboration through the Works Council system, and those who argue for organising outside existing structures, in order to pursue workers’ interests against those of management. Though the latter is only slowly evolving, it represents a move towards a reconstruction of working class organisation and the birth of a workers’ movement worthy of the name.
For the CNT, our long opposition to participating ni Works Councils is now being justified. The long slow process of building effective workplace organisation is beginning to come to fruition. The CNT is now growing at a faster rate that at any time in its history. We will continue to argue for the ideas and methods of anarcho-syndicalism, which we believe is the best way forward for workers to confront and overcome the monster that is capitalism and replace it with a system run by and for workers on anarcho-syndicalist principles.
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