Macron, Uber era threaten role of once-powerful French union

Faced with President Emmanuel Macron’s labour changes and a digital economy it does not quite grasp, the CGT faces its biggest threat: the possibility of becoming an institution of the past.

Philippe Martinez sits in a black leather chair facing a poster of the revolutionary legend Che Guevara in his top-floor, cigarette-smoke-smelling office on the eastern edge of Paris, contending with his trade union’s growing irrelevance to a new generation of workers.

The 56-year-old leader of France’s Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT) – which, at the height of its power, could bring the country to a standstill and send shivers down the spines of presidents – is struggling to reach younger workers, draw them into the union movement and tailor collective action to an era of technology and individualism.

“Things have been changing much more quickly than our capacity to react,” Martinez said in an interview late last year at the CGT’s eight-storey brick headquarters built in 1974.

“It took us quite some time to get to grips with the changes in the world of work, the evolution of companies and of social fragility.”

Created in 1895, the CGT helped shape France’s rules on labour, wages, hours and paid vacation.

With post-World War II links to the Communist Party, which could draw on its record of resistance to the occupying Nazis for political clout, it got a stranglehold on everything from professional training and social security to press distribution.

Now, faced with President Emmanuel Macron’s labour changes and a digital economy it does not quite grasp, the CGT faces its biggest threat: the possibility of becoming an institution of the past.

Playing catch-up

With old-school leaders who continue their fight using outdated tools, the drop in membership is accelerating.

On December 27, Le Canard Enchaine weekly cited internal documents to report that the union lost more than one-third of its members in 2017, leaving it with 427,231, mostly men in their 50s.

The CGT contests the report.

Just after the war, the union counted about 5 million members.

“They are a step behind, playing catch-up,” said Stephane Sirot, a University of Cergy-Pontoise professor who specialises in labour unions.

“The CGT was born during the first industrial revolution. In its mindset, in its organisation, in its understanding of the world and its ability to respond to change, it hasn’t budged much. It is threatened by its lack of ability to evolve.”

That is even more so as Macron is pledging to radically change the labour landscape in 2018.

Macron pushed through a landmark reform of the French labor code in September.

The CGT failed to rally even 100,000 workers to protest against the changes that give companies more power to negotiate hours and pay, slash the number of workers’ committees and limit penalties for wrongful dismissal.

Disruption ahead

On Macron’s agenda for 2018 are the overhaul of professional training and unemployment benefits, as well as a new law on subjects such as profit-sharing and worker representation in small companies.

Down the road, he wants to take on France’s public pension system.

The 40-year-old president, whose favorite word is “disruptive”, has pledged to modernise France’s economy, making its institutions more adaptable to independent workers such as drivers of Uber Technologies as he looks for ways to generate jobs and lower the unemployment rate that has been stuck at near 10%.

“Macron considers this type of work as the future,” Martinez said.

“At the CGT, we have to remember that all of these areas are part of our turf. Small companies, big companies, independent workers, self employed – none are off limits. We are the confederation of labour, after all, and all of these are just different forms of labour.”

Gig economy

On Martinez’s desk are a pile of charts and tables, with colours for industrial sectors, location and age groups.

His teams scan maps of France and spreadsheets to see where the union needs to infiltrate companies and add members.

Martinez cites Amazon’s warehouses and other digital businesses as areas where the CGT would like to increase its presence.

For all that talk, the union has been ill-equipped to deal with the gig economy.

The CGT’s Amazon France Facebook page has a 1970s look and feel, with a banner showing a fist and the words, “CGT Amazon en GREVE”, or “CGT Amazon on STRIKE.”

Last August, the CGT enrolled some smartphone-wielding bike couriers of the British food-delivery start-up Deliveroo to strike and protest in several cities across France.

The 1980s-style demonstrations with smoke bombs and street protests yielded no results.

“What made the CGT strong and appealing is playing against them these days,” Sirot said.

“With the new forms of labour, they’re less and less suited. They are still organised in silos, and they have not made any efforts to use social media, a key tool to access younger generations, to recruit them but also to develop new forms of dialog.”

Wake-up call

While Martinez says a unit within the CGT is working on technological disruptions, their meaning for labour unions and their impact on employment, it may be too little too late.

Workers of the gig economy are finding more help from court rulings than from labour unions. The European Court of Justice ruled December 20 against Uber, saying that connecting people via an app to non-professional drivers makes it a transport service and needs to be regulated as such – opening the door to a discussion on the rights of such workers.

For Martinez – with a thick, droopy mustache and a smoker’s raspy voice – 2017 brought another blow. The union leader, who began his career on an assembly line at state-owned Renault in the 1980s, saw the CGT drop to second place among French unions, falling behind rival Confédération française démocratique du travail for the first time in terms of representation in the private sector.

“Slipping to second was a little wake-up call,” he said.

Still, that may be the least of his problems. For now, Martinez is trying to show workers of the gig economy that they need unions like the CGT to protect them.

“Many workers, many youth take these jobs now because they think they’ll have freedom and independence,” Martinez said.

“What they find is that they aren’t salaried employees but, in the end, they are neither free nor independent.”

Convincing these workers of the CGT’s relevance might be the union’s biggest fight yet.