Trade unions in France have historically commanded a disproportionate level of power and influence over government policy. The percentage of workers in unions in 1960 was only 19.6%, and this already small figure had fallen to 7.7% by 2008. However, even with low levels of membership, French unions have been very successful at marshalling support amongst their members and the wider public, with as many as 3 million people, or 5% of the population, striking to urge President Sarkozy to do more to address the effects of the downturn earlier this year.
A particularly noteworthy example of this kind of mobilisation was the week-long action in 1995 that was staged in response to the long overdue proposed reform of the public sector pension system, by then Prime Minister Alain Juppé. Shortly after the reform plans were introduced the eight major unions staged a series of long and disruptive protests and demonstrations, which caused the reforms to be swiftly withdrawn.
This strike set back pension reform considerably in France and it was eight years before the next attempt to deal with the issue by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin in 2003. Raffarin tried to increase the number of years that workers must pay into their pension in order to claim a full retirement. But in reality the proposed reforms were only minor and did little to address the root problems of the pension system. Nevertheless, the uproar from the unions was sufficient to plunge France into another series of crippling strikes. The immediate effects of the strikes were not as severe as in 1995, but the already limited reforms were watered down further in response.
It appears that President Sarkozy has learned lessons from the past failures in pension reform. When introducing his pension reform plans earlier this year, he consulted with the more moderate unions. They now concede that action has to be taken on the ballooning public sector pension debt. Sarkozy has also chosen to exempt the utility and train workers in his reform plans. This may prove to be a clever strategy – the utility and rail unions are particularly militant and can bring France to a standstill.
Yet in the past few weeks there have again been major strikes, with all twelve refineries in France affected by strike action and thousands of petrol stations facing fuel shortages. While the current pension reform bill has passed in the lower house and the bill is now making its way through the Senate, recent political history suggests union action may well be effective at preventing the bill becoming law or at least ensuring concessions are made. Accordingly, the current strikes provide a strong case for measures that weaken union power in France. The French government should increase the rights of individual workers and employers and in particular remove restrictions on the hiring and firing of employees.