Opinion

The Great Debate

In France, where unions rule, a challenge from Hollande

In France, taking a person hostage or sequestering them against their will is a crime punishable by up to 20 years in jail. It also happens to be a very effective weapon in French labor disputes. Since 2009, there have been 15 incidents of “boss-napping” and only one resulted in sanctions: 11 postal workers who were fined $2,000 apiece for locking up their managers during a dispute over a change in how the mail is delivered.

Most of the time, it’s the unions who win. That’s certainly the case in the most recent incident, involving a bitter struggle over job losses at a Goodyear tire plant in Amiens. Earlier this month, union officials occupied the factory and sequestered the production manager and head of human resources for 30 hours. After the government intervened, the battle finally ended last week when the company agreed to triple the severance it had offered. Union leader Mickaël Wamen didn’t hide his triumph. “It was a grand and beautiful struggle,” he wrote in a blog post on Jan. 24, announcing details of the settlement.

This type of labor militancy is the exception in Europe today; union power has taken a battering along with the economy in crisis-ridden nations such as Greece and Spain, which were once bastions of organized labor. But it’s not the only characteristic of the French labor scene that is exceptional. Although only 8 percent of French workers actually belong to a union — a tiny proportion by international standards –  French unions wield enormous political clout over the national economy. Among other things, they run the national systems for unemployment insurance and vocational training, in joint management with employers’ organizations. In fact, they formally play as big a role in setting social and labor policy as organized labor does in Scandinavia, where 80 percent or more of the workers are union members. “The political influence of French unions is abnormal,” says Radu Vranceanu, research director at ESSEC business school in Paris. “It’s not at all in line with their capacity to mobilize people.”

This issue of the disproportionate power of French unions has become the biggest challenge confronting President François Hollande, now that he has sorted out his private life. In an affront to unions — and a move critics in his Socialist Party are calling a shift to the right — Hollande is advocating a new “responsibility pact,” under which companies would see their high social security costs reduced in exchange for creating jobs. Labor unions dislike the initiative because they believe it will mean cuts to social spending, which they oppose, and they don’t trust employers to create jobs in return. Even the more moderate unions that are prepared to accept some sort of a deal are insisting on a formal list of obligations that employers must fulfill — and are calling for a new state body to ensure that these obligations are actually met.

So far it’s just an announced intention, and the details need to be worked out. Employers groups  are sounding cautiously optimistic, but union reaction has ranged from skeptical to downright hostile. In a sign of their influence and central policy role, the pact needs not only the sign-off of the major unions, but also their active participation in creating it.

What public unions and gay marriage have in common

The political fireworks in Wisconsin, culminating in the recent unsuccessful recall election of the Republican governor, Scott Walker, have a lot of people saying good riddance to public-sector unions. Last year, Walker and the Wisconsin state legislature enacted Wisconsin Act 10, stripping most – though crucially not all – of the state’s public unions of their most fundamental powers, including collective bargaining and the ability to deduct dues from workers’ paychecks. Many observers – and not only Republicans – have signaled their approval, arguing that public unions – representing teachers, bus drivers, healthcare workers – shouldn’t exist in the first place.

“Public sector unions have reached their high water mark,” a Forbes columnist cheered last week. “Let the cleanup begin as the red ink recedes.”

It turns out, however, that killing off public-sector unions is a lot harder than most people imagine. And, curiously, the reason is related to recent court decisions about gay marriage. Late last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced. The principle is equal protection under the law: If you allow same-sex couples to marry – as eight states and the District of Columbia now do – you can’t economically discriminate against them (by denying the ability to file joint tax returns or withholding Social Security benefits) simply because they are not heterosexual.

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