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Today’s Labor Updates, May 24, 2018

Why Labor Protests in France Won’t Stop Macron’s Reforms

Andrea Garnero May 22, 2018

It’s been 50 years since the events of May 1968, when France went through a period of civil unrest, and one year since the election of centrist reformer Emmanuel Macron as president. The country is marking these anniversaries with a series of strikes, rallies, and occupations in response to Macron’s economic agenda. Students, workers, and retirees are protesting, targeting trains, airlines, retirement homes, universities, and government offices. The protests have already cost the CEO of Air France his job: He stepped down after workers rejected his proposal of a 7% wage increase over four years (unions want a 6% immediate increase). This is not particularly surprising for a country known for powerful unions and a strong attachment to social rights.

However, this time, things seem different.

In 1995 a train strike paralyzed France and forced the government to back down from its proposed reform of the railway sector. By contrast, the disruptions today, while sizable, are not comparable and the government does not appear ready to concede much to the protesters. The movement’s organizers claim a convergence des luttes (convergence of goals) among those who oppose the reform to open up the railway sector to competition, or the one to allow public universities to screen applicants more tightly, and those who want a wage increase or oppose the labor and tax reforms by Macron. But so far this rallying cry is failing to mobilize the masses or significantly disrupt the country.

Why not? For a start, despite the discontent in some sectors, the French economy is not doing too badly. GDP grew by 1.9% last year, unemployment is slowly decreasing, and public finances are improving faster than anticipated. Moreover, new technologies are helping cushion the effect of transport strikes by allowing people to work from home or share car rides. Finally, citizens — at least according to polls — remain supportive of the government’s effort to pass long-promised reforms. One year after Macron’s election, Le Monde writes that he “resists in opinion polls, despite fragilities.” With a month and a half left before the summer break, and already several days into the strike, the window for unions to mark a victory is closing. (Of course, never say never, as the surprising rejection of the agreement at Air France shows.)

A second reason the demonstrations are unlikely to thwart Macron’s reforms is that labor unions themselves are also changing. In 2017, just before Macron’s election, the left-leaning CGT lost its historical dominance and was bypassed in workers’ representatives elections by the CFDT, a more moderate and centrist labor union. Moreover, even if they are considered to be very strong, French unions are, in terms of membership, as weak as those in the United States. Only 11% of the employees in France are members of a union (as compared with 10% in the U.S., 15% in Australia, 26% in Canada, and 67% in Sweden), even less if one would focus only on the private sector.

What makes France’s unions different from the U.S. is that almost all workers are covered by an agreement at the sectoral level, setting wage floors and other basic rights. Thanks to the extension of private agreements to all workers and companies, labor unions are able to exert a much wider influence than their narrow membership would allow. In other words, though they don’t have many members, the deals they make apply to every worker in the industry. Nonetheless, their low membership is increasingly used to question the ability of the unions to speak on behalf of a large group of people or not just their narrow basis.

Although the recent strikes seem unlikely to force Macron to make major concessions, the French public is broadly sympathetic with the unions. Though managers in France tend to consider the quality of labor relations in France quite low, in 2010 43% of French citizens declared trust in labor unions, as compared with 25% in the United States.

Not surprisingly, Macron has put labor relations at the center of his reform efforts. He wants to make it harder for labor unions to extend collective agreements beyond those who signed them. His proposed reform introduced the possibility for companies with fewer than 20 employees to negotiate a collective agreement even in the absence of a union delegate, provided at least two-thirds of employees support the agreement. It also allows companies with 20 to 50 employees to negotiate with an elected representative even if not explicitly mandated by the unions. Unions fear that these initiatives will threaten their dominance and lead to abuses by employers who have stronger bargaining power than employees.

Some observers believe these reforms could actually serve to improve and rejuvenate labor unions. The reform would give workers more incentives to join, rather than free ride on sector-level agreements. Moreover, by bringing negotiations closer to the workplace, the quality of labor relations may improve as unions and employers would be more inclined to negotiate concrete and pragmatic agreements without the political symbolism that often marks negotiations at national level. Suffice to say, not all labor unions in France see it that way.

While for most foreign observers strikes remain a typical French feature (so much that they were featured in a controversial artwork exposed in the building where European leaders met in Brussels some years ago), times seem to be changing for French unions as well. Thus far, they have failed to disrupt things enough to force concessions from Macron. The next question will be whether they have the power to stop him from changing the way they themselves operate.

The opinions and arguments expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OECD or its member countries.

NLRB rules to allow union election at Boeing S.C.

By Liz Segrist  May 22, 2018

The National Labor Relations Board issued a decision to allow another union vote at Boeing South Carolina, scheduled for May 31.

The NLRB decision said the unit of 178 Boeing S.C. flight readiness technicians and inspectors is an appropriate bargaining unit. Boeing said it will appeal the ruling.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers filed a petition in March with the NLRB to hold an election for flight line workers in North Charleston. Flight line workers prepare 787 Dreamliners for customer delivery.

The IAM said workers approached the union with serious concerns about management decision regarding overtime, bonuses and work rules.

“The National Labor Relations Board spoke loud and clear against Boeing’s delay tactics and ruled in favor of the right to form or join a union,” said Mike Evans, the lead organizer for Boeing S.C. campaigns, in a statement. “This step in the process moves Boeing South Carolina closer to a better life for their families. We hope Boeing respects the rights of its own employees and lets them make a decision free of intimidation and coercion.”

Boeing has said the IAM’s attempt to unionization the flight line is unreasonable and an isolation tactic.

“Our position on this issue has not changed: We strongly believe that this micro-unit is prohibited under federal labor law and is not in the best interests of our teammates, our site or our community,” the company said in a statement. “Boeing will share all relevant facts and information about the realities of bargaining as a micro-unit. Our teammates, their families and this community need to understand the potential impact this decision might have.”

Previous unionizing efforts

This is the third petition filed by the union for Boeing S.C. in as many years. The first two organizing attempts yielded mass advertising campaigns from each side, espousing their message of pro- or anti-union.

The first planned election was for production and maintenance workers in 2015, but the union canceled it a few days before it was scheduled to take place. Boeing said the move showed a lack of interest by its workforce; the union said the company had intimidated its workers from voting in favor of representation.

The second election occurred in February 2017, during which production and maintenance Boeing S.C. workers overwhelmingly voted against unionization. Seventy-four percent of eligible voters said they were not in favor of representation, and the union soon closed its office on Dorchester Road in North Charleston.

The latest planned election differs in that it is geared specifically toward flight line workers at the North Charleston campus.

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

Employer Handbook Policies Still in the Crosshairs: NLRB Judge Strikes Down Employer’s Moonlighting Policy

Article By: Anthony K. Glenn

In case you thought the NLRB’s December decision in Boeing Co. meant the end of the board’s uber-zealous scrutiny of employer handbook policies – think again. In Boeing Co. the board articulated an apparently less exacting standard for reviewing whether employer policies violate the act, vowing to balance employer justifications for such policies against the alleged imposition on the rights of employees from the maintenance of the policies. However, a recent decision applying the Boeing Co. standard warns employers that their policies may still be subject to strict review.

In Nicholson Terminal & Dock Co., 07-CA-187907, NLRB Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth Tafe found the employer’s policy against moonlighting without the permission of the company to be a violation of the act. Nicholson’s stated justification for ensuring its employees are well-rested and that they don’t work for competitors did not fare well against ALJ Tafe’s judgment; the judge said that requiring company permission to have outside employment was a significant imposition on the rights of employees who might want to obtain outside employment with a labor organization for the purpose of organizing. ALJ Tafe suggested that a “better tailored rule” would better serve the employer’s purposes, while not imposing as much on the rights of employees.

What Nicholson illustrates is that at least some NLRB judges continue to heavily scrutinize employer policies that are not – in their view – “narrowly tailored” enough. Perhaps the board will use this case, or one similar to it, to further clarify the new Boeing Co.standard. For now, however, employer workplace policies may continue to receive heavy scrutiny.

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