One small step for French workers but no giant leap

France appears on the verge of advancing the rights of workers, and although such a victory will be slight, even a tentative step forward is welcome. But it is no more than that: Once we get past the comedy of business leaders wailing that the sky is falling, do we really have anything other than a small reform that leaves the system intact?

It would seem not. The French National Assembly, on September 30, passed a bill that would grant employees a voice when their company is the target of a takeover attempt and require owners of companies with at least 1,000 employees to seek a buyer for a plant intended to be closed. The French Senate must also approve the bill before President François Hollande can sign it into law.

Marching in Paris against pension reformShould the bill be passed, a committee of workers would be organized inside a company being targeted for a takeover, which would be empowered to appoint an accountant to assess the bid. The board of the target company would be required to take the assessment under consideration before making its final decision. Although it is unclear what legal force this workers’ assessment would have, the company’s “works council” (an employee oversight body larger French companies are required to have) could ask a judge to intervene if it believes the board has not responded adequately to its queries, potentially delaying any deal.

The bill would also put a temporary roadblock in the path of a company that intends to shut a plant or some portion of its operations. Enterprises with more than 1,000 employees that intend to shut a facility with more than 50 workers would be required to seek a buyer for three months. Judge would be authorized to impose a fine if the company fails conduct a search or turns down a serious offer.

The French Senate has a narrow majority bloc of Socialists, Communists, Greens and other Left-leaning members, so it would appear that the bill is likely to pass the Senate, enabling President Hollande to fulfill a campaign pledge to give workers more say in the running of their enterprises.

A tiny change, a giant rage

In reality, these new powers, should they enter into law, would do nothing to alter existing relations within the workplace. Nonetheless the principal of the bill — that workers are entitled to a modicum of control over their working lives, at least in theory — has driven business leaders and the corporate media that loves them into fits of rage.

A Bloomberg report on the bill quotes a series of speculators in full indignation, including a Paris investment banker:

“In the M&A [mergers-and-acquisitions] world, the image of France viewed from outside is deplorable, and this law is adding extra complexity.”

Quelle horreur! Bloomberg itself grumbles:

“Foreign companies have spent $14.8 billion on French targets this year, putting 2013 on track to be the weakest for such deals in at least a decade, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The new rules may further dissuade potential buyers. France hasn’t seen a major hostile takeover since Mittal Steel Co. bought Arcelor SA in 2006 in a transaction then valued at about $36 billion.”

Oh, the humanity! Seven long years of only relatively smaller takeovers. How is a poor investment bank supposed to keep its speculators in the style in which they are accustomed? Although the underlying imperative of capitalist competition — expand or die — propels the frenzy of corporate mergers and acquisitions, the proximate cause is to enable enormous profits for corporate executives, investment bankers and partners at corporate law firms. The bigger the deal, the bigger the payday for those on the inside.

Keeping score of the money but not the human cost

Definitive totals on the numbers of jobs lost to takeovers are extremely difficult to come by; this is not surprising when the corporate media reports on mergers and acquisitions in breathless terms of the size of the deal and with assurances that jobs will be sacrificed on the alter of “efficiency.” In other words, the human cost is not even an afterthought. To take just two examples, Washington Monthly, in a report detailing the increasing monopolization that characterizes most industries, wrote:

“Consider two recent deals in the drug industry. The first came in January 2009 when Pfizer, the world’s largest drug company, announced plans for a $68 billion takeover of Wyeth. The second came in March 2009, when executives at number two Merck said they planned to spend $41.1 billion to buy Schering-Plough. Managers all but bragged of the number of workers who would be rendered ‘redundant’ by the deal — the first killed off 19,000 jobs, the second 16,000.”

The money to pour into these deals has to come from somewhere. So can measures like those passed by the French National Assembly reverse this trend? Because the limited “voice” to be granted workers is connected to France’s “works councils,” a look at these councils will help us answer that question.

Although only a minority of workers in France are protected by a traditional labor union, all who work in enterprises with 50 or more employees are represented by a works council. French law proscribes fines and even jail terms for employers who interfere with the functioning of these bodies. In unionized companies, trade unions put forth the candidates for the works council, although if more than 50 percent of the eligible voters do not vote, a second election is organized in which any employee is eligible to run.

The works councils are required to be consulted on the management and general organization of the company; personnel decisions, including dismissals; and changes to equipment, working conditions, professional-training procedures, or hygiene and safety issues. The opinion of the works council is not legally binding, however, unlike a collective-bargaining agreement negotiated with a trade union. Works councils decisions are binding in only a small number of minor issues, such as the hiring or dismissal of the labor doctor.

As private-sector union membership in France is low, the works councils provide a modicum of enterprise participation for French workers. The bill that has passed the National Assembly represents a tiny incremental gain while leaving all the prerogatives of ownership firmly in the hands of capitalists. The wailing from capitalists and the corporate media is more of a reflection of their desire for total control than any actual change in labor relations.

Works councils as controllers rather than consultants

Although their consultative status currently makes them little more than a safety valve, France’s works councils could, in theory, form the nucleus of actual workers’ control. The concept of real workers’ councils, assuming control over the decision-making of an enterprise, has taken root at different times in several countries. All the workers collectively make strategic decisions, and elect a council to oversee the running of the enterprise (including supervising management) and to act as links with other enterprises.

Meetings to discuss, and vote on, the enterprise’s business would be a part of the regular workweek. All ownership would stay within the workforce — each would own one share and relinquish it upon leaving or retiring. Shares could not be transferred or sold, except to the collective. Management would be recallable and promoted from within.

Why should democracy stop at the entrance to the workplace? Cooperatives are already flourishing. There are the examples of the Mondragon collective and the recovered factories of Argentina, among others, in which assemblies of all the workers make the strategic decisions and elect supervisory boards that are responsible to the assemblies. Mondragon has been a planned enterprise from its foundation; Argentina’s recovered factories are the products of workers struggling to restart production while slowly gaining the confidence to be their own managers.

Cooperatives are as yet minuscule islands in a vast sea of capitalism. Several countries have works councils, including Germany, where employers must reach agreement with them in regards to rules covering, inter alia, smoking bans, dress codes, overtime, introduction of new technical equipment and policies on pay bonuses. Employees are also represented on corporate boards of directors in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and several other European countries.

Reforms should be taken whenever possible, but reforms can always be taken away. Instead of being the basis of minor tinkering, why shouldn’t works councils be one starting point for a complete transformation? Top-down authoritarian enterprises that give an elite dominating power over the overwhelming majority of humanity hasn’t been working out so great.

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3 comments on “One small step for French workers but no giant leap

  1. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Wait, you mean there’s countries on this planet besides the U.S.? My high school textbooks only mentioned the ones we conquered. Damn, what else haven’t I been told?

    • Well, there’s universal health care, four to six weeks of vacation, functioning railroad systems, films that don’t involve blowing up everybody and everything in sight. Oops, I had better stop. The NSA may be reading this and I’ll get readers in trouble. If it gets much worse, we’ll have re-education camps where they’ll force everyone to watch Fox News for 48 hours without sleep and then demand that you recite advertising jingles without a mistake.

  2. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Curse you, Systemic. I can feel my horizons expanding even as you speak.

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