The Paths of Labor: The Unintended Effects of Organizational Change in French Trade Unions
Sociology McGill University Montreal, QC, Canada
The revitalization efforts of the American labor movement since the mid 1990s have injected some fresh air in the study of trade unions as an increasing number of scholars draw on social movement theory and neo-institutionalism to explain organizing tactics and mobilization patterns. This focus on revitalization has spread to European scholars who now attempt think about European labor in similar terms. Most of these studies try to explain why certain unions rather than others engage in revitalization strategies and to account for variation in strategies across sectors and countries. Put briefly, they are concerned with the conditions and direction of change. However, in spite of their contribution, they have neglected the difference that the process of organizational change makes. How--and not just why or under what conditions--change takes place matters for the outcome.
This paper contends that different pathways of organizational change generate different unintended effects. Building on the work of Streeck and Thelen (2005), it claims that change through conversion has the unintended effect of fostering counter-mobilization and renewing competition, whereas change through layering has the unintended effect of feeding internal contradictions according to a logic of differential growth. In order to substantiate this claim, this paper traces the transformation of the two leading French labor organizations--the CFDT and the CGT--since the 1970s. While the CFDT changed through conversion and today has to face a new spin-off union that competes against it, the CGT changed through layering and has, as a result, experienced growing internal contradictions between its new institutional goals and its contentious legacy. These unintended effects have contributed to shaping the decisions and strategies of these two labor organizations over time.
This paper aims thus at bringing back in the temporal or processual dimension of labor transformations and showing how solutions to a problem at t1 can become a source of new problems at t2. It relies on a process tracing method and is based on more than a hundred interviews with labor leaders in France as well as archival research at the national headquarters of the CFDT and the CGT.