The Economist has an article on the looming battle in the French press, between Le Monde—one of the world’s great daily newspapers—and the powerful print union, the SGLCE-CGT (known familiarly as the CGT du Livre). I’ve always been a big supporter of labor unions—in the private sector; as for public sector unions, it depends—but in this case am 100% with “the bosses” and hope the union is smashed. Totally and definitively. The CGT du Livre is a pernicious organization and bears heavy responsibility for the precarious state of French daily newspapers, whose production costs are among the highest in the Western world and survive mainly thanks to indirect subsidies from the state (i.e. the French taxpayer). But this is not a fatality. It doesn’t have to be this way. The situation is due to a little known anomaly in French trade unionism. In France it is an overlooked fact—and is no doubt unknown to foreign journalists (and maybe even academics) who cover the country—that the CGT du Livre is in reality not a union at all, and despite its name and affiliation with the larger CGT. It is a corporation (in English, a guild). Labor unions in France are protected by legislation—and which mandates collective bargaining in unionized enterprises—but France, like the American South, is a right-to-work country. French workers cannot be compelled to join a union. The very idea that someone could be obliged to join an association—and a dues paying one to boot—against his or her will is shocking to the individualistic French sensibility (and that includes leftists). Moreover, there is no monopoly of union representation in French workplaces. Several unions are invariably present, compete for members, and may be more or less confrontational or cooperative with management. Unions may form a bloc against management or may be divided, with one or more collaborating with the latter (Pete Seeger’s “Solidarity Forever” is often a vœu pieux in French workers’ struggles). And when a strike is called not only can unions not compel the personnel to follow it but can’t even make their own members do so. The right to strike is inscribed in the French Constitution (as part of the preamble) but it is exercised individually—as an individual choice—, not collectively. For these reasons French unions have long had among the lowest membership numbers percentage-wise in the Western world, with one consequence being that French workers have depended more on legislation for protection and benefits than on collective bargaining agreements (as in Germany and the Scandinavian countries).
The CGT du Livre falls outside of this. It enjoys a special status, granted by General de Gaulle at the end of the war and for various reasons, that may have had a logic at the time—one being to mollify the French Communist party (PCF), that other great pernicious organization, which was powerful at the time but is now thankfully irrelevant—but do no longer. The CGT du Livre was organically linked to the PCF until the ’90s—and was a cash cow for the party—and the informal ties remain. Under its special status the CGT du Livre enjoys a monopoly of representation in its branch, is a closed shop—i.e. employees are obliged to be members—, controls access—i.e. it hires the workers (the company has no say in the matter)—, and essentially defines the rules and functioning of the profession. It enjoys a whole panoply of privileges and benefits—among them a special pension regime—and exceptionally high salaries. The entry level salary for a member of the union is around €30,000, which is high for France (and certainly higher than that for an entry level journalist). There is no economic justification whatever for this. The CGT du Livre is not only the aristocracy of the working class but its royalty too. And, of course, the CGT du Livre can call a strike at the drop of a hat, for reasons that are often incomprehensible to outsiders—and that would be illegal in most other advanced democracies—, and worsen the financial state of the already precarious daily press (including left-wing papers, such as Libération, that are on the edge of bankruptcy). And the CGT du Livre’s workers have on occasion behaved like outright thugs, using physical intimidation in its parochial conflicts and with impunity. But as it is, in effect, a corporation (guild) and not a syndicat (union), it is useful to recall that one of the early acts of the French Revolution was to abolish the corporations (via the 1791 Loi Le Chapelier), which had dominated economic life under the Ancien régime. As is well-known, corporatist-type arrangements—notably for pensions—came back through the side door in the early and mid-20th century, but no union has enjoyed the status of the CGT du Livre. It is high time to invoke the spirit of the French Revolution and put an end to the irresponsible, selfish CGT du Livre. Here’s to the management of Le Monde in its upcoming struggle.