October 21, 2010 / 2:56 PM / 9 years ago

Q+A: How powerful are France's unions today?

PARIS (Reuters) - One of France’s biggest unions is calling for further “massive” strike action next week against a planned pension reform that has triggered the biggest and most sustained anti-austerity protests in Europe.

Following is a Q+A on the influence of France’s unions:

HOW POWERFUL ARE TRADE UNIONS IN FRANCE?

French trade unions are highly influential despite their feeble numbers. At just 8 percent, the number of workers who are union cardholders is one of Europe’s lowest. That compares with 19 percent in Germany, 27 percent in Britain and is even below the United States at 12 percent, OECD data shows.

Union membership has slid in France from 20 percent in 1960, and what remains is heavily concentrated in the public sector.

That has led to a situation where public employees in high-impact sectors like the railways, education and air traffic control spearhead strikes over causes that affect people in the private sector. Private sector workers are more inclined to limit their protests to weekend demonstrations.

A hard core of determined strikers halting rail or air traffic or picketing oil refineries and fuel depots can cause widespread disruption if they have public support.

French union clout comes partly from a long tradition of public sympathy for their causes and partly because they have a direct influence on electing work councils that have a strong say in conditions and benefits in the workplace.

Unionized and non-Unionized employees alike benefit from the fruit of their negotiation on job conditions through collective agreements.

WHICH UNIONS ARE MOST POWERFUL?

France has five large national union confederations, the two biggest being the communist-led CGT and the more moderate but still left-of-center CFDT. The CFDT claims 833,000 members and the CGT 660,000, although some experts doubt those numbers. Next in line is the more radical Force Ouvriere, or FO.

Within any company, several unions compete via elections to represent staff. The CGT dominates in traditional sectors such as the railways and power generation, while the CFDT dominates in others, such as among truck and van delivery employees and office workers.

The government has close contacts with the mainstream unions and regularly talks to the CGT and CFDT on certain aspects of policy but, beyond the top five, has tended to keep unions with more confrontational political agendas at arm’s length.

President Nicolas Sarkozy remarked in 2006, when he was interior minister, that France’s problem was not that its unions were too powerful, but that they were too small and fragmented.

DO THEY HAVE LESS CLOUT OR INFLUENCE THAN IN THE PAST?

Transport strikes this month have caused less disruption than in the past, particularly in one particularly visible area — the Paris underground Metro train network.

That was primarily because the No. 2 union at the RATP urban transport company declined to call its members out on strike.

Legislation passed under Sarkozy requiring a minimum level of service in public transport, schools and nurseries during strikes has also reduced disruption.

Unions have announced estimates of protest turnout that are three times higher than government figures, and 10 times as high for the city of Marseille — suggesting they feel a need to exaggerate the true scale of their reach.

In theory, workers are not paid for strike days to discourage long-running action. In some cases public sector workers end up getting paid anyway once they call off a strike, but application of the no-work-no-pay rule has become more strict in recent times.

Charismatic union leaders such as CGT boss Bernard Thibault enjoy something near hero status and can whip up significant momentum for street marches in a country with a tradition of popular protest dating back to the 1789 French revolution.

IS PUBLIC OPINION REALLY BEHIND THEM?

Opinion polls throughout weeks of intensifying anti-pension reform protests have shown that about two-thirds of voters support them.

There is often a large gap between the number who express support for strikes in surveys and those who say they themselves will protest. Yet even by the government’s lower estimates, at least 1 million people out of a population of 65 million have taken part in street demonstrations across the country on six action days since June.

Many people interviewed on the street this month have shrugged off the transport disruption as being for a good cause. There were however signs this week that some were losing patience with disruption of fuel supplies.

HOW DID UNIONS WIN PAST BATTLES WITH THE GOVERNMENT?

The biggest union victory of recent memory was in 1995 after 24 days of protests and strikes that mainly crippled transport.

The unions enjoyed strong public backing then too but other factors played in their favor.

Then-Prime Minister Alain Juppe, who ended up ditching his pension reform plans due to the protest, was regarded by many as a cold and calculating technocrat, which did nothing to help him win the battle for people’s hearts.

The unions were united in 1995, which is not always the case. The government succeeded in pushing through a less far-reaching pension law in 2003 despite noisy protests after a split between the CGT and CFDT, which decided along with a smaller union to sign a deal with the government.

In the current showdown, the main unions have so far maintained a united front, above all between the CGT and CFDT. They are demanding that the government negotiate changes to the pensions bill with them. FO and another small union with a more radical agenda are demanding outright withdrawal of the pension reform but they have not sought to hold separate protests.

Reporting by Catherine Bremer, Brian Love and Nick Vinocur, editing by Paul Taylor

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