SUD trade unions: the new organisations trying to conquer the French trade union scene.

Author:Damesin, Renaud
Position:Solidaires, Unitaires, Democratiques

In France, over the last ten years or so, the grand compromises that were supposed to have enabled the building of an efficient system of social redistribution for retirement, healthcare and unemployment benefit have been seriously questioned. Added to this refondation sociale (social remodelling), according to the term used by MEDEF, the main French employers' organisation, is the planned or current privatisation of public network services that were previously nationalised (energy and rail companies), or that were part of the civil service (the Post Office and tele-communications), which had helped in the rebuilding of the country after the end of the Second World War, and which contributed to the economic success and cohesion of the country.

These current changes are often presented as being inevitable, given a European and world economic context that requires budgetary rigour and freedom to do business. The trade union movement is faced with questions from multiple sources on its capacity to produce the compromises that, today, will be the equivalent of those that allowed the consolidation of public services, and of the social redistribution system. These questions are even more important when placed in the current trade union context of deep division. While there are five 'representative' trade union organisations in France that have an official place in the management of welfare organisations--the CFDT, the CFTC, the CGT, the CGT-FO, and the CFE-CGC newcomers are also appearing. They come either from existing organisations the SUB trade unions ('Solidaires, Unitaires, Democratiques'), which are the subject of this article, or the FSU (Federation Syndicale Unitaire), which was created in 1993 following the implosion of the FEN (Federation de l'Education Nationale) one year previously; or they have come about from the joining of non-affiliated forces, and take the form of vocational interprofessional organisations--the Union Nationale Groupe des Dix, which was formally constituted in 1998 but has existed since 1981 (Denis, 2001), and the UNSA (Union Nationale des Syndicats Autonomes), set up in 1993.

The first in a series, the SUD-PTT was founded in 1988 by militants excluded from the CFDT executive (Damesin & Denis, 2001). Their exclusion was a result of their involvement in an internal conflict in their sector against the wishes of their congress; and secondly, of having supported--again, in conflict with their union superiors--the different movements in France at the end of the 1980s, which involved teachers, nurses, train drivers, employees from the SNECMA and Air France, etc. (Denis, 1996).

Contrary to expectations, this new federation succeeded in penetrating the postal and telecommunications sector, growing rapidly, which was rather atypical given the stagnated state of French unions. Its membership grew from 1,843 in 1990 to 5,847 in 1995, reaching 12,317 in 1999 (SUD statistics). At France Telecom, its percentage rose from 5.9 per cent in 1989 to 28 per cent in 2000, and at the Post Office it grew from 4.5 per cent in 1989 to 18.7 per cent in 2000--figures which make it the second-largest trade union organisation in these two companies. Mainly rooted in the Ile-de-France region at the outset (in 1990, its membership from outside the Paris region only made up 21.4 per cent of its total number of members), SUD-PTT has expanded and now has a presence in virtually all of the country's departements, including those which are overseas. SUD-PTT has become a model for the other emerging forces that, especially since the large strikes of November and December 1995, have grouped together under its banner. In 2001, there were nearly fifty SUP trade unions of varying size and importance, the most important being, according to SUD-PTT, SUD Sante Sociaux (8,000 members), SUD-Rail (5,000 members), and SUD-Education (2,500 members).

This new situation poses important questions for the main players in the 'system' of industrial relations, but also for those whose job it is to analyse them. Is the growth of trade union pluralism in France infinite? What values and practices are specifically used by SUD to give it such rapid growth in membership? Could the development of new trade unions, on its own, bring into question the overall functioning of industrial relations in France? In other words, what is the specific nature of SUD trade unionism, and how does it position itself with regard to its members, other trade unions, and to society as a whole?

Three levels of analysis are generally used to categorise trade union activity; three levels of analysis that bring up three opposing points of view. The first of these looks at the positioning of trade unionism, and compares the kind of trade unionism that is limited to the representation of employees with trade unionism oriented towards organisation with a more social vocation.

Taking this analysis further, a complimentary opposition is often noticeable between, on the one hand, corporate trade unionism, based solely on the interests of employees in the same trade and belonging to the same company; and trade unions that are open to interprofessional activity. In these two types of contrasting positions--trade union movement/ social movement and corporatism/interindustrial relations--a closed system is set against an open system, being focused on specificities, singularities and special interests. It is also set against a more open view of society, of the diversity that constitutes it, and of the varied nature of the stakes.

The second level of analysis looks at the role of trade unions, contrasting trade unionism based on negotiation and on accompanying change with trade unionism based on conflict and tests of strength. With this type of opposition, we can see the development of the differences between an action of 'retraining' and a 'revolutionary' action. The 'retraining' action requires participation: it is by proposing and accepting the compromises that represented employees can hope to see part of their demands fulfilled. Revolutionary action is without concession; it does not even take into consideration the possibility of coming to an agreement (even slight) with the opposing side, and looks to radically modify the rules of the game that regulate the relationships between employers and employees.

The last of the three levels of analysis looks at how trade unions work. A bureaucratic and centralised trade unionism would be in opposition to a grassroots trade unionism. The first modus operandi would be in a 'top-bottom' format: it is the rules drawn up by the top or by the centre that flow downwards, and are put into practice by the activists. The second modus operandi would be in a 'bottom-up' format: local action, in the workplace or in a limited area, produces rules that the people at the summit merely have to formalise.

Open versus closed; negotiation versus conflict; centralisation versus grassroots. These different levels of opposition are not just typical ideals produced by research into trade unionism and trade union habits. They are also used by trade union members themselves, who participate in the construction of their own categorisation.

Thus, for example, today the CFDT comes across as a trade union that looks towards negotiation, setting itself apart from trade union practices that are conflictual and sometimes violent. Do certain independent trade unions (like the FGAAC at the SNCF) assert their right to only consider the interests of their members and the specific trade carried out by their members?

How about the SUD trade unions? Can they be put into one of these boxes so easily? The general hypothesis of what follows is that using these classical opposing positions for the analysis of industrial relations and trade union action is not the best method of understanding the emergence of SUD. On first impressions, this trade unionism could be considered as corporatist (it is mainly growing in companies and, more specifically, in those in the public sector), conflictual (it strongly favours tests of strength and prefers policies that split the interests of staff and the interests of employers), and grassroots (they give priority to a modus operandi that is based solely on local actions and decentralised decision-making processes within the trade union organisation).

First, we will carefully analyse the trade union practices of the sup unions inside companies. Second, we will look at their interprofessional commitments. We are aware that limiting our analysis of the phenomenon of the SUD trade unions, in these two strands of our investigation, to the kind of quick categorisation outlined above is not sufficient. However, in a context strongly marked by economic liberalism and the questioning of the founding compromises, it is, indeed, on the heuristic character of these oppositions themselves that we propose to concentrate.

Dealing with transformation in the public sector

The creation of the SUD trade unions happened at a time when the division and organisation of work were being considerably transformed in public companies. Here, we will be looking specifically at the cases of the companies France Telecom, La Poste and the SNCF, where SUD's development was important and precocious: the SUD-PTT federation (La Poste and France Telecom) was the very first to be formed, and the SUD Rail federation was the second.

In the three public companies concerned, the place of public services within overall activity has been redefined. Adapting to the market has become a central theme of management action. Approaching the client from a commercial point of view has superseded taking care of the user (Jeannot, 1998). The outlines of the job definitions for the employees...

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