Success and pitfalls of a large scale union recruitment strategy: a French variation of the organizing agenda
University of Lille 1 CLERSE - CNRS Villeneuve d'Asq, France
ENS - EHESS CMH - CNRS Paris, France
For the last 20 years, most studies on French Trade Unions have been quite pessimistic regarding their ability to prevent membership decline and to find new ways of revitalization, in a context of historical low union density. Contrary to other European countries, the American organizing agenda per se has not been discussed within unions or in the industrial relations academic field.
However, some unions as the CFDT have promoted strong policies of recruitment since the late 1980?s, with a participatory orientation embedded in a militant tradition, that could be related to the organizing grass-roots philosophy. This action has sustained a continuous growth of its membership, particularly in the private and service sector. In 2000, after years of membership regression, this general trade union has managed to get back to its 1976 highest density level (600.000 members), becoming the second biggest confederation in the country.
Using the CFDT archives (1978-2008), we will first show the genesis and evolution of this strategy, from a class-based ideology of emancipation (?autogestion?) to a more pragmatic and moderate approach, focused on collective bargaining. Drawing on quantitative (2002 CFDT Congress survey, 900 answers, 66% response rate) and qualitative data (54 ?life story? interviews) on activists and officials, we will then analyse the contrasted effects of this offensive policy. We will highlight the conditions of its success (sectors, periods, actors) but also the limits of this participatory union model facing the selective appropriation by local leaders and the oligarchic nature of the organisation.
Above all, we will insist on the strength of union internal selection for the access to formal participation and full-time positions and the difficulty for trade unions to change their organisational culture. It seems that union careers within the CFDT are not only linked to personal dedication and activism, but require a wide range of skills and aptitudes, sustained by an intensive internal training program. We will suggest that this process of professionalization in the labour movement can be quite detrimental for low-qualified members. From this example, we will point out the class and gender issues lying behind union organizing and revitalization strategies.