Strikes and conflicts at work in France (3) – Have unions really become useless? – COUNTERTIMES

Have companies become union deserts and are unionists no longer able to mobilize employees? The recurrent highlighting of the low rate of unionization in France – 8% of unionized employees, including 5% in the private sector – seems to accredit this type of observation. However, do employees totally ignore the trade unions? This article was published in December 2015 on the site Fields of struggle.


Between 2013 and 2018, the site Fields of struggle proposed a space for exchange in order to take the time for concrete examination and historical hindsight, to show both the situation of the working classes and to understand the strategies of the dominant classes. It was intended to provide critical intellectual weapons from an anti-capitalist, rational and empirical perspective.

This site also aimed to build bridges and exchanges between committed researchers, activists and workers in order to feed and unite the different fronts of the struggles. To do this, the site regularly published (first on a daily basis and then weekly) interviews carried out by researchers, activists or journalists; stories and analyzes of events (strikes, demonstrations, etc.) and activities (action by lobbyists, employer repression, etc.), video reports or chronicles.

In a militant landscape where many sites run by committed intellectuals favor theoretical discussions, the objective of this site was to embody, in order to better denounce and combat them, the transformations and effects of capitalism through faces and figures, addresses and places, institutions and organizations, practices and events.

Fields of struggle has disappeared, but its leaders have agreed to entrust setback their archives, which we will publish regularly.


Unlikely because 55% of them work in a company where there is a union delegate (44% in private companies) and for 40% the union is directly present in their workplace (2005 figures)[1]. If the weak unionization has to do with the real difficulty encountered by French unions in demonstrating their usefulness to employees, it also refers to other causes: the weak protection of unionized employees, the fact that union victories are not not reserved for union members alone, unlike in other countries, or the virtual non-existence of services provided to members. In the Scandinavian countries, for example, the unions facilitate their members’ access to unemployment insurance and provide them with a whole range of material goods (insurance, bank accounts, travel, etc.) at preferential rates. French trade unionism, for its part, is based primarily on a logic of militant commitment.

The weakness of the militant presence of the unions in the companies obviously constitutes an objective obstacle to the ability of the unions to trigger more frequent and larger-scale struggles. But does this prevent them from playing a leading role in the emergence of social conflicts and strikes? We often read, in the press or in studies of HR clubs, that companies are facing rampant conflict that unions are struggling to transform into collective action. Too stuck in the tasks of negotiation and representation, too disconnected from employees, union activists would no longer be able to relay the aspirations of employees. As a result, social conflicts would now most often result from spontaneous movements of employees, initiated outside union frameworks. What about the data we have?

No unions, no labor disputes

The intensity of labor disputes, and in particular strikes, is very different depending on the sector of activity. If the media, but also the activists, have greatly valued the strikes that have broken out in shops or in services, it is clear that the conflicts there remain behind compared to other traditional sectors of trade union action, primarily industry. Thus, industry remains the most conflictive sector with 39% of establishments with more than 20 employees and more concerned in 2011, against 31% in services and 23% in trade (see episode 5).

These sectoral differences are largely due to two major structural factors. On the one hand, the relatively larger size of industrial establishments, the frequency of collective disputes going hand in hand with the size of the establishments (episode 1). On the other hand to a better trade union establishment in the industry. The presence of trade unions is in fact always a very powerful determinant in the existence and the form taken by labor disputes.[2]. Rare in establishments where there are no staff representatives or in establishments where the elected representatives are alone, strikes are on the other hand much more frequent when the company, and even more so when the establishment has union delegates in more elected employee representatives. In other words, the militant and organizational know-how of unions remains a key variable in the move to collective action by employees.

Source: REPONSE 2011 surveys. R&D section – DARES. Scope: all establishments. Interpretation: 35% of establishments that have a union representative have experienced a conflict with a strike, this is only the case for 6% of establishments that do not have a staff representative.

By contrast, the difficulty for unions to establish themselves in small establishments largely explains the rarity of collective disputes recorded there. For good reason, in these establishments, professional relations are very little organized by law. In fact, in terms of social relations, the legislation, and mainly the Auroux laws, was designed for large establishments and structured work groups. As a result, it left the issue of employee representation in small establishments in the dark. Employees of SMEs with less than 50 employees are in particular partially deprived of rights in this area, since only the establishment of staff representatives is made compulsory by law, and even then only in establishments with more than 10 employees. Beyond the limits intrinsic to the law, we also know that the application of legal obligations in terms of employee representation remains uneven. It is particularly so in the smallest establishments. Thus, in 2011, 35% of establishments with 20 to 49 employees in the market sector did not have a staff representative institution and 63% of establishments with 11 to 19 employees, compared to only 6% of establishments with 50 or more employees.[3]. As a result, the employee-employer relationship is first organized in an individualized and personalized mode. This obviously does not imply that these small establishments do not experience tensions. But they mainly result in individual conflicts, which can notably take the form of resignations.

Source: RESPONSE 2011 RD database, DARES. Interpretation: 34% of establishments with 11 to 19 employees have a staff representative compared to 88% of establishments with 50 or more employees.

Unions more strikers than others?

Does the union label explain differences in the form of action? The confrontation by the strike is in fact very attached to the image of the CGT or Solidaires, whereas it is less so concerning the CFDT. Statistical data confirms this image at first sight. In establishments where the secretary of the Works Council or of the majority list in the DP elections is at the CGT, the frequency of strikes is indeed higher.

Source: REPONSE 2011 survey, R&D section. Scope: establishments with more than 11 employees. Interpretation: 50% of the establishments where the CGT is the majority union in the DP elections experienced a conflict with strike against 37% of the establishments where the CFDT is the majority.

However, this link should be interpreted with caution. The locations of trade union organizations are not homogeneous. For this reason, the variations measured in the frequency of disputes according to the majority union are not necessarily linked to political differences between competing unions. These discrepancies in practice can just as easily be explained by the different constraints with which union representatives have to deal with depending on the establishments and sectors in which they are involved. From this point of view, the greater frequency of strikes in establishments where the CGT is in the majority can also be understood by the fact that this central body is first of all well established in industry and public companies (SNCF, RATP) where the conditions remain (even if this changes) more favorable to collective action by employees. In the trade sector, on the other hand, the propensity of CGT activists to take up the strike is still very often problematic.[4].

As shown by several field surveys, the practices of trade union activists vary even within each of the trade union organisations. Admittedly, trade union organizations train their militants differently in the use of the strike. However, this does not produce mechanical and homogeneous effects on the practices of their activists. Not only do these activists adapt to the constraints specific to their context of engagement, but they also maintain different and sometimes very distant relationships with their organization to which they belong. More broadly, these field surveys show that the vast majority of union activists are far from sharing the “striking” of which they are often accused. Even seasoned activists, won over to the principles of the class struggle, impose limits on the use of the strike, whether they are prevented by the precarious wages of their colleagues, put under pressure by the risks of relocation of their company, or quite simply forced to find areas of compromise with their management.


Posted on December 10, 2015

Illustration: Photothèque Rouge/ JMB / 9 April 201, national strike by employees of Carrefour stores for wage increases. Here in Saint-Denis the employees hold a picket in front of the store entrance.


[1] Loup Wolff, “The paradox of French trade unionism”, DARES, First Syntheses, April 2008.

[2] Sophie Béroud et al., The struggle continues ? Labor disputes in contemporary France, Editions du Croquant, 2008; Baptiste Giraud, “From labor disputes to the sociology of mobilizations: the contributions of an empirical and theoretical decompartmentalization”, PolitixNo. 68, 2009.

[3] Maria-Teresa Pignoni and Emilie Raynaud, “Professional relations at the start of the 2010s”, DARES, Analyses, April 2013.

[4] Baptiste Giraud, “Apprenticeship under tension: the training of trade union members for the use of the strike in France”, International Critic, No. 64, 2014, p. 47-62.

Leave a Comment