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  Issue No 48 Official Organ of LaborNet 31 March 2000  

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Politics

The French Connection

Extracted from 'Sharing the Work, Sparing the Planet' - By Anders Hayden (Pluto Press)

While Victorian building unions are seeking a 36 hour week, Eurpoean nations like France are taking a more communcal approach to working time.

 
 

In Europe, where for some time now the examples of shorter workweeks, lengthy vacations, and other work-time measurers have compared more than favourably to standards in North America, a wide range of WTR options and innovative combinations of policy tools are at work.

In the late 1990s many European countries were posed to widen the gap even further. The 1997 French decision to legislate a 35-hour workweek was not only one of the most important work-time developments in recent history, but also set off a significant new wave of demands for WTR across the continent.

The 1997 announcement of a 35-hour plan was not the first bold WTR initiative in France. In 1936 Leon Blum's Popular Front government cut the basic workweek from 46 or 48 hours to 40 hours with no loss in pay and introduced two weeks' paid holiday. (The concept of paid vacation was so radical at the time that it took a year or so for the idea to sink in and for workers to begin taking full advantage of the new right.)

Years later, in 1982, Francois Mitterand's Socialist government legislated a reduction of the workweek from 40 to 39 hours, as well as adding a fifth week of paid vacation. However, a campaign promise to further reduce the workweek to 35 hours was never implemented. The small reduction in work time had a relatively disappointing effect on employment (estimated at 14,000 to 28,000 new jobs created, or 50,000 to 100,000 jobs including layoffs avoided). Critics also made much of the legislated imposition of a single model on all firms.

WTR largely disappeared from French public policy debates until 1993, when it re-emerged as an option to deal with skyrocketing unemployment. Advocates now emphasized taking the government savings that resulted from the hiring of new workers and using those savings to lower the payroll taxes of companies that reduced hours and hired more people. A small financial incentives package, introduced by the right-of-centre parliament in 1993, was greatly expanded in the 1996 Robien Law, named after the conservative parliamentarian who sponsored it. The legislation provided significant reductions of social security payroll taxes for firms that reduced work hours and increased employment by at least 10 per cent, and even greater incentives for firms that reduced hours and increased employment by 15 per cent.

Within two years 2,000 firms had taken advantage of the Robien incentives to introduce 35-hour or 32-hour weeks (with one in four agreements leading to a 32-hour week). Some 355,000 employees had their work hours reduced, 25,000 jobs were created, and a further 17,000 layoffs were avoided. Like the 35-hour law that followed, the question wage levels was left to negotiations between employers and employees. The payroll incentives, combined with the opportunities created to reorganise production and increase productivity, made it possible for work time to be reduced with little or no loss in pay. Of the first 1,500 Robien accords, 44 per cent led to shorter hours with no loss in pay; 18 per maintained pay levels, but with a temporary salary freeze; and 37 per cent saw a less than proportional loss in pay.

In only one per cent of cases did shorter hours come with a proportional loss in pay. Although the French Democratic Labour Confederation (CFDT) praised the law, the more left-leaning General Confederation of Labour (CGT) criticized it for being too generous to employers. The president of the Employers Group of the Port of Marseilles called the Robien Law "the best law that we have known in recent years".

The Robien Law experience was of great importance in creating a climate of public opinion favourable to a more ambitious work-time initiative. The 2,000 applied cased demonstrated that WTR could indeed create jobs, that neither employers nor employees had to make unacceptable financial sacrifices, and that WTR was possible in different sectors, professions, and firms of all sizes-half the deals were reached in forms with less than 50 employees. The experience also generated valuable learning about how to reorganise work in response to shorter hours in different types of firms.

On June 1, 1997, a Socialist-led government, in coalition with the Communist Party and Greens, came to power in France on a platform highlighting a 35-hour workweek with no loss in Pay. That October Prime Minister Leionel Jospin made good on the commitment with the historic announcement of the plan. The initiative combined legislation and financial incentives, and collective bargaining on the sectoral and workplace levels would adapt WTR to the realities of business and the preferences of workers. The decision had a ripple effect, helping to push WTR towards the top of policy and collective bargaining agendas in other European countries.

The French parliament passed the first of two 35-hour laws, the Aubry Law, in June 1998. Its main points:

- A 35-hour workweek would become the legislated standard on January 1, 2000 (2002 for firms with fewer than 20 employees). Hours above 35 would be considered overtime.

- Companies that reduced hours and hired more workers would be provided with financial incentives in the form of lower employer payroll taxes. The sooner a firm reduced hours, the more generous the aid. For instance, a company that reduced hours before July 1999 by 10 per cent (for example, from 39 to 35 hours) and hired 6 per cent more workers would receive 9,000 francs (C$2,108) per employee in the first year and 8,000 francs, (C$1,874) in the second, declining gradually to 5,000 francs (C$1,171) in the fifth year.

- An additional 4,000 francs (C$937) per worker would be provided to firms that reduced hours by 15 per cent and hired at least 9 per cent more workers.

- Additional aid would be provided to firms that were labour-intensive had a high percentage of low-wage workers, or took on a high percentage of young people, disabled, or long-term unemployed.

- After five years the government would provide a permanent "structural aid" of 5,000 francs (C$1,171) per worker to firms that reduced hours to 35 or less, without any hiring conditions.

- "Defensive" company-union agreements that saved jobs in firms with economic difficulties would also make a firm eligible for the financial incentives.

Despite the Socialist electoral campaign slogan of "35 hours, paid 39," the law did not specify wage levels. Details like wages and linking shorter hours to more flexible work organisation were left to collective bargaining.

Workplaces could implement WTR in a way to best meet their needs. For example, a 35-hour week could be spread over four or five days, with alternating four-day and five-day weeks, or it could mean "annualised" reductions, such as additional days off (roughly 23 per year) and extended vacations.

In autumn 1999, after a review of workplace negotiations up to that point, a second law would determine important remaining details such as the treatment of overtime hours.

The plan's financial incentives were designed to allow WTR to be implemented with little or no loss in pay for workers and without creating excessive costs to business. However, salary moderation, in the form of diminished pay increases or wage freezes, was expected a productivity gains over a number of years were to be used to finance the reduction in hours. Efficiency gains from greater flexibility in work-hour scheduling and the reorganization of work were to be another possible way for business to limit cost increases.

The French National Employers' Confederation (CNPF) bitterly opposed the 35-hour law, claiming that it would create new costs for business, deter investment, and hinder job creation. Despite the apparent flexibility of the 35-hour law, the CNPF made full use of its rhetorical arsenal, calling the legislation "anti-economic," "archaic," and "ideological." The CNPF president, Jean Gandois, resigned after the law was announced, saying he had been "duped" and should be replaced by someone with more of a "killer" instinct. (Interestingly, Belgian steelmaker Cockerille Sambre, whose CEO was the same Jean Gandois, moved from a 37-hour to 34 hour week without loss in pay in 1997). The CNPF later softened its stance somewhat, resigning itself to dealing with the law and leaving its member firms and sectoral employer organisations to negotiate as they saw fit.

In some cases companies followed up with aggressive campaigns, threatening to terminate existing collective agreements to "neutralize" the effects of the law. Other French firms found that they could derive benefits from shorter work time by linking it to company reorganization and modernization. The CNPF's new president, Ernest-Antoine Selliere, admitted in 1998, "There can even be cases, I don't deny it, where, thanks to the 35-hour week, the organization of work, working conditions or productivity will improve."

France's labour unions have generally been supportive of the 35-hour initiative, with some differences of opinion on key issues. The French Democratic Labour Confederation (CFDT), the labour organization most strongly behind the government's plan, has tended to echo the government's position, emphasizing the potential for "win-win-win" solutions benefiting employees, employers, and the unemployed. The CFDT supports 35 hours as a first step towards a 32-hour week and has been open to salary moderation and possibly even some reduction in pay for those with above-average incomes, if WTR could be linked to new hiring. It sees a loss of pay for workers as "neither automatic, nor excluded." The CFDT has been more willing than other unions to put employment creation ahead of wage gains for its members. It has also been relatively open to greater work-time flexibility in return for shorter hours.

The General Confederation of Labour has also supported the 35-hour initiative, which it believes could be a "rejuvenating experience" for the union movement and an opportunity for a major social advance. However, the CGT, with links to France's Communist Party, went into the 35-hour project rejecting wage and flexibility concessions in return for shorter hours. It aimed to "create jobs, raise pay, and transform work" through the implementation of the 35-hour week. In 1998 the CGT stated, "The reduction of work time cannot be done to the detriment of workers. There is no question of the CGT accepting any wage freezes, especially for firms making profits." As implementation of the 35 hour law progressed, however, a convergence between the CFDT and CGT was increasingly evident, including joint action in negotiating with employers. The CGT also began moving from a unionism of "protest" to one of "proposal" and acknowledged that it was prepared to discuss certain forms of flexibility, like the calculation of work hours on an annual basis.

The debate over the 35-hour week in France has been dominated by employment concerns and the related issue of maintaining a cohesive society. Secondary issues have been the linkage of WTR to more flexible hours and increased productivity through work reorganization, and the generation of more free time for workers. Ecological issues have not been at the forefront of the discussion-even though the Green Party and green intellectuals have long been among the most persistent supporters of WTR, keeping the flame alive in the late 1980s and early 1990s when many, including the Socialists, had abandoned the idea. The Greens also played an important role within the Jospin government in pressing for the honouring of the 35-hour election promise, and they have called for a further reduction to 32 hours early in the new millennium. They have also worked with Green parties in other countries to apply WTR across the continent, in parallel to the efforts of trade unions to generate European-wide movement.


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In this issue
Features
*  Interview: The New President
At the end of her first week in the job, new ACTU President Sharan Burrow trades emails with Workers Online.
*
*  Health: Making Sense of Medicare
Nurses lift the lid on the Medicare myths as they shape up for a major national campaign.
*
*  Unions: Bush Bashing
The Finance Sector Union is taking to the road to pressure the government to impose community service obligations on banks.
*
*  Politics: The French Connection
While Victorian building unions are seeking a 36 hour week, Eurpoean nations like France are taking a more communcal approach to working time.
*
*  Economics: Mutual Obligation
New statistics show that an increasing number of people are volunteering to contribute to the community.
*
*  History: Living Library - Part II
More on the rich labour history that is housed within the walls of Sydney's Mitchell Library.
*
*  International: Russian Revolution
Russian trade unions are calling for the revision of a draft Labour Code, against the backdrop of Presidential elections.
*
*  Review: Casino Royale
Laurie Aaron's new book is sparking a lively debate about how a progressive agenda can be adapted to the challenges of globalisation.
*
*  Satire: Chop ‘em Up and Stick ‘em in Acid”
The West Australian Government is poised to pass Pakistani-style sentencing laws.
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Letters to the editor
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»  The Problem With Mandatory Sentencing
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