* Peugeot unions ink deal on wage, work-time concessions
* Accord part of broader trend toward dialogue, fewer
* Shift is part policy, part worker desperation -analysts
By Nicholas Vinocur
PARIS, Oct 24 Unions at France's PSA Peugeot
Citroen agreed on Thursday to freeze wages next year
in return for a company pledge to keep plants open, the latest
sign of easier labour relations in a nation famed for strikes.
A view spreading among workers that such collaborative deals
are needed to save French jobs in an increasingly tough global
economy is a factor behind the trend.
The car maker, struggling to reverse years of decline, said
the deal would save it 100 million euros ($138 million) a year
thanks to trade union concessions on wages, holidays and more
flexible working hours at dozens of plants in France.
The accord caps marathon talks launched in June as Peugeot
sought to boost productivity at its French plants without
provoking strikes. It follows similar deals at industrial firms
across France in a trend analysts say heralds fewer walkouts and
more cooperative, German-style industrial relations.
"Bit by bit, we're inching closer to the German system,"
Antoine Solom, an expert on labour relations at pollster Ipsos,
said of a German model of consensual union-employer ties cited
as a factor behind the success of the euro zone's top economy.
"It will never be totally the same - the countries are too
different," he said. "But on the ground there is a real change
toward more consensus-driven unions and bosses too."
French unemployment is stuck at around 11 percent - compared
to 7 percent in Germany - and economic growth is mired below 1
percent, frustrating Socialist President Francois Hollande, who
was elected last year after pledging to foster job creation.
Societe Generale analyst Philippe Barrier said new labour
accords were becoming unavoidable to prevent plant closures:
"What's changed is the economic context that makes it easier
to obtain compromise, as unions have understood they are needed
to maintain employment," Barrier said.
Data shows a sharp drop in strikes, with days of work lost
showing a four-fold decline between 2005 and 2011.
Peugeot is among many firms whose survival is in jeopardy
after a decade which saw the elimination of more than 500,000
French manufacturing jobs. Its labour deal follows months of
confrontation between unions and management at the
Aulnay-sous-Bois plant near Paris, due to close for good on
The new agreement also commits blue-collar workers among a
total of some 200,000 French PSA staff to more flexible shift
arrangements and temporary transfers to other plants.
Though critics see a threat to hard-won improvements in
working conditions, and note that pay freezes hurt consumer
spending power, other firms have struck "competitiveness pacts"
since new legislation came into force in May.
It obliges employers to negotiate before laying off staff
but also lets them make deals with union representatives, ending
an obligation to seek the consent of each employee individually.
Conflicts still erupt but the flexibility has helped deals
at Renault, the French unit of Germany's Robert Bosch
, tyre maker Michelin, plastics supplier
Plastic Omnium and drugs firm Sanofi.
The new law also forces larger firms, with over 1,000
employees, to share more information with unions and give them
representation on boards - a feature that echoes elements of the
management-union relationships seen in German industry.
"Since this law came into came into force we've entered a
new era," Arnaud Montebourg, France's Socialist industry
minister, told Reuters. "This progress of social dialogue,
toward compromise in companies, is for us a major positive point
of the past few months."
Analysts say the trend toward flexibility is underpinned by
a number of policy changes which have, for example, curbed the
impact of strikes and made it easier to lay off employees.
Peugeot's rival Renault started to seek temporary wage and
working-time deals as early as 2008. Warning that it might
otherwise shift production to Spain, where pay is lower and
terms tougher, Renault has since extracted permanent changes.
Automotive suppliers like Walor in northern France, with
some 100 employees, have since struck similar deals.
Often, the concessions are small. In Michelin's case,
workers are being asked to accept less flexibility to choose
their own hours. But even small changes mean overcoming
long-held attachments to workplace practices.
Labour Ministry for figures for 2011, the most recent
available, show the number of days lost to strikes per 1,000
employees hit just 77, down from 318 six years earlier.
The change was stronger in the private than the public
sector, likewise in services versus industry.
Trade unionists have mixed feelings about the deals but many
acknowledge the alternative would be bigger job losses.
"The unions always have reservations about these
competitiveness pacts," said Serge Maffi of the SIA-GSEA trade
union at PSA. "But given what's at stake, we decided to sign."