Comparing confrontational union responses to restructuring in France
For several decades, workplace restructuring has been a central feature of a shift towards market-driven employment relations in both the public and private sectors in France (Beaujolin-Bellet and Schmidt 2012). Already grappling with the challenges associated with the country’s state-driven thrust towards decentralised collective bargaining, French trade unions now face private sector employers’ adoption of tactics such as vertical disintegration, outsourcing and offshoring to improve efficiency and cut costs (Amable and Hancké 2001). In this context, private sector trade unions have found difficulties in organising and representing an increasingly fragmented workforce, particularly in circumstances where offshoring is a potential threat. Meanwhile, public administration has moved towards private sector-style management through ‘New Public Management’ mechanisms such as privatisation, marketisation and decentralisation. With French trade unionism having been described as “almost exclusively a public sector phenomenon” (Parsons 2005: 62), the privatisation of public services represents a major threat for the country’s unions.
Within this challenging environment, local unions have responded to workplace restructuring in various ways. Whilst ‘cooperative’ strategies such as concession bargaining and the negotiation of social plans are common responses to this type of restructuring, occasionally unions employ more ‘confrontational’ strategies such as political mobilisation to prompt negotiations about alternative plans (Pulignano and Stewart 2013; Marginson and Meardi 2009; Foster and Scott 1998; Jalette and Hebdon 2012; Greer et al 2013). Under what conditions do unions adopt a confrontational approach? In the literature, local unions’ strategic choices have been attributed to a number of internal and external factors (Pulignano and Stewart 2013). External circumstances including social and economic change, the institutional environment, and employer strategies may help or hinder unions in their actions (Frege and Kelly 2003; Jalette and Hebdon 2012; Martinez-Lucio and Stuart 2005). Sectoral and local contexts have also been observed as important factors in shaping union activity (Bechter et al 2012). Given the shortcomings of such external factors in explaining inter- and intra- union variation in action, research highlights the importance of internal characteristics in influencing unions’ strategic choices. While internal and external power resources (Levesque and Murray 2005; Murray et al 2010) help shape the opportunities and threats which unions see in their environment, internal ideology and identity are also considered to be key factors in shaping and sustaining union strategy (Bacon and Blyton 2004; Levesque and Murray 2010; Hodder and Edwards 2015; Hyman 2001).
In examining local unions’ choices to engage confrontational responses to restructuring, this paper compares case studies of ‘critical restructuring incidents’ in two of the country’s most unionised sectors, public healthcare and automobile manufacturing. In doing so, it extends understanding of unions’ tactical choices in responding to restructuring in both public and private sector contexts, thereby offering insight into the extent to which external factors shape trade union strategic choice. Furthermore, the cases offer empirical insight into local union identity within “one of the most divided union movements in Europe” (Connolly, 2010:3). A multi-method approach was used, drawing on semi-structured interviews with key informants and union documentation as evidence.
Preliminary findings from the study indicate that inter- and intra-union variation across and within the sectoral cases can be attributed to a multitude of internal and external factors influencing unions’ strategic choices. However, there are several elements that appeared to be most conducive to confrontational union response: local union identity, employer approach to restructuring, and the substantive content of the restructuring plan. Whereas some unions in the cases had confrontational responses because this forms part of their usual repertoire of action and general union identity, others opted for a confrontational response for other reasons. Unions which are generally considered in the literature to be “non-militant” engaged in confrontational action in instances where it was deemed the best way to protect their legitimacy and power within the organisation. In line with Bacon and Blyton’s (2004) propositions, unions were also prone to engage in confrontational action against restructuring in cases where the employer was seen not to ‘play fair’ in negotiations. However, the form and content of planned restructuring efforts were also important in eliciting oppositional responses. Moreover, unions appeared to be compelled to respond in such a way if proposed changes were especially unpopular (i.e. where restructuring would encroach significantly upon employees’ terms and conditions of employment) amongst members/employees. Again, unions appeared to adopt this position as a means of maintaining legitimacy in the eyes of employees. Furthermore, intra-union variation in the cases indicates that local circumstances such as workforce preferences and inter-union competition appear to play a role in shaping the extent to which unions responded confrontationally. This was particularly visible in the automobile sector, where a pattern of militant one-upmanship emerged in circumstances where workforces appeared receptive to oppositional action.
Patterns within the case findings therefore suggest that unions’ responses to restructuring, although ostensibly similar, are motivated by various external and internal factors, demonstrating that union strategic choice is determined neither by external factors nor professed union ideology. Thus, restructuring poses strategic dilemmas for unions, forcing them to navigate the process by balancing union identity with membership and workforce preferences.