Changes in trade unionism

From being an activist, trade unionism seems to be transforming into expertise. The study of the evolution of the treatment of union discrimination reveals the strong changes in unionism today, as shown by a collective study.

Having moved from defending trade unionism to defending trade unionists, French legislation seems to have subsequently focused on recognising the content of trade union activity in order to reduce the impact of discrimination within public or private organisations. The 2008 laws on trade union representation and the 2015 laws on social dialogue prohibited “the employer from taking into consideration membership in a trade union or the exercise of trade union activity in making decisions in particular regarding recruitment, conduct and distribution of work, professional training, advancement, remuneration and the granting of social benefits, disciplinary measures and termination of the employment contract”. The work by Vincent-Arnaud Chappe, Jean-Michel Denis, Cécile Guillaume and Sophie Pochic highlights the evolution of this recognition of trade union discrimination which has been transformed into an individual recognition of skills. Trade unionism would then have moved from activism to expertise. This carries the seeds of a unionism which acts as a legal and technical advisor, but which no longer carries a social project.

This book is based on the study of six public or private companies (Peugeot-Citroën, DCNS in Cherbourg, GrDF, the Post Office, the SNCF and Disneyland Paris) through 90 interviews (unionists, HR…) and sociological studies of law making it possible to mobilize the various monographs. Each of these organizations has a very different history and relationship to trade union rights. Numerous tables or annexes make it possible to understand the scope as well as the characteristics of these companies studied by comparing company agreements or litigation.

Expertise recognized on an individual scale

One of the issues analyzed in this research is that of the relationship of trade union organizations with the transformations underway in the world of work. This calls into question the future of union missions in disrupted groups, as in the case of workers with statutory status. SNCF or when we observe the break-up of workers’ groups.

At the Post Office, a company symptomatic of the changes taking place in the management of public services, or at the SNCFthe negotiation on the recognition of discrimination resulted in recognition of union experience for permanentes and not for activistses who continue to work regularly. Beyond this recognition, the problem is that of the very content of the work in the company of the unionist in an articulation between militant commitment and professional activity when an activiste continues to exercise his profession, as well as that of the relationship with the hierarchy. This is the example cited at Peugeot-Citröen where the question of productivity is raised (p. 45), or that of the organization of the assembly line with ae employeeand absente regularly for exercising trade union rights. In the case of executives, we observe that they work more than their working hours to compensate for their union activity.

The example of the Post Office shows that unionists are often harassedes in their desire to move towards executive status, but ultimately positioning themselves as executives in their regular relationship with management, particularly in reformist organizations. Managerial support for discrimination then surprisingly becomes a legitimization of individual skills acquired in negotiation and legal expertise to the detriment of more demanding unionism which finds itself sanctioned.

The transformation of union culture

The four sociologists observe in their work how the transformations underway within large emblematic groups (GrDF, Peugeot-Citroën, La Poste, SNCF) impact employeeses and their expectations. At the same time, they shake up union organizations, their demands and their modes of action as an example of the tension that union organizations can experience when faced with the acceptance of certain changes that could weaken status but giving stronger rights to employeeses precarious. These transformations are particularly notable in a former public company like the Post Office which is seeing the importance of private law grow in a context of failures in legal disputes for more assertive organizations (p. 138). The testimony of a South activistPTT highlights the case of staff representative bodies favorable to employeeses status aligned with private law, but which is difficult to endorse without ratifying the change in status from public to private. However, the union base of the most combative organizations is essentially made up of civil servants who oppose it (p. 145). Trade union organizations are then faced with a dilemma, that of fighting changes at the risk of no longer defending all or to accompany them by sometimes denying themselves, or by having the feeling of doing so. As the authors point out, the individualization of statuses makes recourse to the law more complex and uncertain (p. 93) and in certain cases, union action then oscillates like a “last round” to defend a status doomed to disappear (p. 93) or the acceptance of a “modernization” to better defend new arrivalses. This could explain the sometimes favourable evolution of the scores of reformist organisations during company elections.

Among state workers with status, the recognition of union discrimination through legal combat is seen as an extension of the management of conflicts that could previously exist in the company (p. 92). However, the survey also highlights cultural differences which act upstream of the organizations’ mode of action. At Disneyland, the lack of combative culture of the unions in a company with management imported from across the Atlantic results in a low awareness of the discrimination that could be at work and unions which seem little inclined towards legal disputes. . These examples underline the importance of the previously existing union culture in these companies.

Trade unionism at a time of choice

The study proposed by the four sociologists captures the developments in law and their applications and implications in the different companies studied and allows for a broader reflection on the developments in work and unionism, which seems to have become an intermediary of law. Unionism is observed and even judged through litigation, and when an internal solution is found, unionism is highlighted as an “expert negotiator”. The manipulation of law is then described as skillful when the negotiation is successful, without conflict, legal or not. The profiles of union negotiators are highlighted, and reformist organizations are more often supported and accompanied, especially since they in return accompany structural changes.

Union discrimination seems to be increasingly recognized by the company, but the tools used to combat it have shifted the stakes. Finally, an individualized transformation of demands against discrimination seems to be revealed and perhaps threatens its ability to carry a more general message even today. This highlighted expertise can be seen as a change in union practices, but also in its perceptions. Trade unionism would become acceptable because the “territory” of a “group” would attest to its know-how and would therefore find its justification there. We therefore observe a managerial socialization of the actors and actresses of unionism finding a space in which to meet and dialogue, and a legitimization of a relationship with the union and judicial struggle, through the promotion of dialogue and compromise.

At the end of this stimulating, argued and unique book, questions remain raised in connection with the development and individual management of union skills: can we not then see the shift from the treatment of union discrimination towards individual positive discrimination? Who distinguishes trade unionists? Does the union organization replace a legal firm whose role would be to find a technical solution to conflicts? Is the hypothesis of the “end of class unionism” a fiction constructed as reality from social relations unfavorable to workers, an adaptation to new forms of conflict or even a “necessity” in the face of changes in the work and the evolution of capitalism? Pierre Rosanvallon already underlined the sociological fragmentation of trade unionism, driven by a logic of institutionalization, what Georges Sorel already called copying the political forms of the bourgeoisie. The recognition of a form of trade unionism through its institutionalization acts as a normative form, but can resemble the legal transcription of a dominant ideology. The “yellow vest” movement seemed to mark the sociological distance that could exist or appear between a union representation and the social class it defends. Faced with its institutionalization, unionism is at a time of choice even though the recognition of its expertise has not eliminated union discrimination for who would oppose “modernizations” and “reorganizations.”