Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Labor Relations: A New Tone?

Bernard Thibault, the head of the CGT, expressed his satisfaction that the various unions had worked together in an "entente intersyndicale" in negotiations with employers over labor contract reform. He nevertheless reiterated the opposition of the CGT to the result of the negotiations, which the CFDT is expected to approve today, becoming the fourth union to do so. Thibault's evocation of an entente certainly mitigates his union's opposition to the settlement and further diminishes the likelihood of major strikes over this issue, although he does threaten further strikes if there is no progress on the special retirement regimes, which, contrary to widespread belief, were not definitively settled after the strikes two months ago.

Much to my surprise, then, it seems that labor contract reform will not become the focal point of major resistance to Sarkozy's program. I had thought that Sarko's strategy was to attack first on the lesser issues--minimum service and special regimes--before the final assault. But it is as if the confrontation over special regimes demonstrated to the unions that there will be no repeat of the general strike of 1995, that a reform of some sort will go through, and that it makes sense therefore to bargain hard over details rather than count on street demonstrations to lead to a total withdrawal on the part of the government. This is a significant development. Sarkozy can't really take credit for it. The change in attitude on the part of the unions is surely the result of a lengthy reassessment of global market conditions. Nevertheless, it took steady nerves to tackle contract reform head-on after the CPE debacle of 2005. Chirac had no stomach for confrontation. Sarkozy, who relishes it, probably did persuade union leaders that, in the parlance of American football, they would not be able to run over him and would have to rely on finesse instead. This is progress of a sort.

LATER: Labor sociologist René Mouriaux sees some progress but not radical change. The important point, he says, is the disarray in the Socialist Party. Without a coherent opposition, the unions have no choice but to make the best of an imperfect bargain.

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