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Trade Unions in France and Spain


The field of industrial relations deals with the relationships between workers, more often groups of workers, and the management of an organization. This is why union systems are integral and one of the most important issues connected with the industrial relations. Union system may be characterized by numerous trade unions, the organizations of workers who are united in their pursuit of a common goal; the activities of the trade unions include bargaining with the employer on the part of the members of the union and negotiation of different labor contracts (which is usually called collective bargaining) (Block and Upjohn 1).

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Trade unions were a common case in the middle of the 20th century; in those times in the United States, for instance, one-third of workers were represented by the trade union. These days, however, only 15% of the labor force is constituted by the members of trade unions. Membership in a trade union gives inalienable rights to the workers; they can demand “a shorter working week, longer paid holidays, maternity benefits, better pension and sick pay schemes, improved promotion prospects and training schemes, improved health and safety at work, and better canteen and sports facilities” (Browne 359). At large, trade unions make the workers more protected at their working place and ensure them with all the necessary needs for working. Employers, in their turn also have certain rights within a trade union. The employer is entitled to dismiss the trade union in case of the improper use of the union or its inability to fulfill its primary functions, as well as to reject the demands of the workers if these demands are illegal or inappropriate.

Trade unions function in organizations and enterprises all over the world. The patterns of industrial relations and trade unionism depend, in the first place, on the historical development of the country under consideration (Rigby, Smith, and Lawlor 39). Industrial relation systems in different countries are influenced by a number of factors. Taking into consideration industrial relations in such countries as France and Spain, it should be mentioned that French industrial relations “have always been tense and dominated by strong involvement of the state and the law,” (“France Industrial Relations Profile”) while in Spain, “the industrial relations system has been strongly conditioned by the political, economic, and social changes associated with the transition to democracy” (Rigby et al. 39).

Collective Bargainingcoverage Proportions of employees in union Workplace Representation Board-level Representation Principal Level of Collective Bargaining
62,752,000 93% 8% Union and works council Government and private companies Industry and company

(“Country MetaData”).

Therefore, legal and political factors are responsible for the current industrial relations in both the countries. Since trade unions are an integral part of the industrial relations, they are also dependent on these factors. Spanish and French trade unions share more differences than similarities with collective bargaining and making considerable contributions to the society being the only similarities between them; the main differences are the diversity of issues the trade unions of these countries deal with, their level of success, and general engagement of the employees into the trade unions of the organizations they work for.

Trade Unions in France

At large, French trade union system is regarded as one of the weakest in terms of membership in Europe. Official survey in France has shown that 1.9 million trade unionists are in employment, which means that only 8.2% of workers in France are in union. The actual number of the workers involved in the trade union is not a significant factor; the matter is that France belongs to the countries where “the number of workers required is often higher in real terms, because the number of exclusions is greater (typically apprentices and young people working under new contractual forms)” (Blanpain and Baker 449). Despite the weakness outside the public sector (Webber 138), French trade unions get strong support in elections for employee representatives and they have power to bring up changes in work proportion and working environment. A regular French union is divided into a number of rival confederations, competing for membership.

Trade unions in France can be divided into two forms. The first form of trade unions is widely recognized by the French government; the trade unions belonging to the second form function according to their own rules and regulations. There are only five confederations of trade unions that are recognized by the state and they act as negotiated partners of the government. These are Confederation Fracaise Democratique du Travail (CFDT), Confederation Francaise des Travaoillers Chretiens (CFTC), Force Ouvriere (FO), Confederation Generale du Travail, and Confederation Francaise de “Encadremant-Confederation Generale de Cadres (CFE-CGE). The trade union system in France can be marked by the existence of comité d’entreprise the members of which act “only as employee representatives, presenting individual claims to the employer” (Blanpain and Baker 448) and délégués du personnel, another elected body. Such a model is interesting for two reasons:

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Firstly, legislation has confirmed case law which, in order to avoid artificial and fraudulent subdivision of a company, allows setting up of a single comité d’entreprise, although there may be company units that are legally distinct part of the same economic and social entity or of the same group. Secondly, a committee must be set up for a group of companies… [which] has resulted in a different representation of management on the committee: the head of the parent company… and two representatives of the companies in the group. (Blanpain and Baker 450)

Such distinctive features make French union system unique, though certain differences still exist between it and other countries’ union systems.

Collective Bargaining System

Collective bargaining is one of the major tools used by the trade unions to reach the agreement and this tool proved to be quite successful in France. In this country, collective bargaining mostly is carried out in two stages. The first stage takes place at the national level, covering the needs of each employee throughout the country. Another stage it takes place on the industry level; it includes bargaining at the national, regional (or local), and a company or plant level. In 2004 the procedure of collective bargaining was changed by legislature; this had simplified the procedure diversifying it to the industry level. French trade union system considers industry level as the most important level in collective bargaining, as it covers the maximum numbers of unions and employers’ organizations that are able to negotiate the agreements on salary scales.

In October 2006 there were 84 industrial services that had the minimum pay scale, although some of the agreements signed have only limited rate of pay scale which was below the national minimum wage. In 1997 DARES, the ministry of labor research, estimated 93.4% coverage of collective bargaining coverage and no changes in the figures have been registered since then. Only 34% of salary went up, which entirely depended on the general increase; moreover, it was calculated that 49% of organizations had increase in their pay scale by the combination of general pay increase and individual salary rise; at this, only 17% of them were entirely based on the rise of the individualized salary (“Collective bargaining”).

French Unions’ Contribution to the Society

Generally, trade unions are a source of benefit for a country, but sometimes their objections and demonstrations threaten the peace of the society and worsen the economic situation in the country (n.d. 2009). Due to certain activities of trade unions, French economy saw a decline by 0.3 percent in 2008 and by 0.2 percent in the overall Eurozone economy (Lerougetal & Lantier, 1). In January 2005, different French trade unions merged and started a movement against labor wages, pension, and other issues they were not satisfied with. As stated by the employees, the new set of reforms infringed some of their rights; this made the trade unions step forward and raise their voices against this injustice. However, their efforts were fruitless and ended up with a one-day-long national strike for welfare reforms. This strike caused widespread disruption in the whole country.

By means of it, trade unions warned governments and stood up against social explosion. Two trade unions Chief Jean-Clauat de Mailly and Chief Francois Chereque warned the government that social struggles would continue in the country, because the working class was dissatisfied with the decreasing of their purchasing power and constant worsening of economic conditions in France. The employers were totally discontented with the level of employment, salaries, industrial production, economic growth, and exports, because these were integral aspects of their lives. These days, French public trade unions work harder for the welfare of employees organizing demonstrations against the government and fighting for their rights. French trade unions have seen no changes after the promise of the prime minister of France to re-establish the competitiveness in French economy and carry out structural reforms in the labor market, organization of work, and work legislation. (Lerougetal & Lantier, 1)

Trade Unions in Spain

Spain is the country with a rather low density of union system, which is around 16%. At this, trade unionism in this country is relatively fragmented. In Spain, “the fragmentation is a product of longstanding political and ideological divisions within the labor movement, with the separate federations affiliated to the major union confederations.” (Rigby, Smith, and Lawlor 112). The level of strikes is high in Spain this is why trade unions strengthen their institutional positions and mostly disregard the tradition of the initiators of trade union movements. However, this strategy also has its own drawbacks. Its main flaw is that it weakens trade unionism in work centers and leads to the low rate of unionization. Trade unions in the working places lack organization and the workers’ attitude towards them is quite negative. This means that the trade union system of Spain suffers from representation gap, or lack of representativeness (Richards 1).

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Though the density of union system in Spain is low, the elections show that unions have quite a strong support on the part of the government. In Spain there are two main union confederations, Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) and The General Union of Workers (UGT). The need for the trade unions in Spain began in the early 1900s in Morocco with rising of the campaign against the RIF. Numerous issues which were raised during this period of time presented the labor of Spain in weaker form and led to the formation of Trade unions in Spain. Spain of 1909 saw the beginning of anarcho-syndicalism which was founded in Barcelona as a separate trade union body. Its main purpose was working for the improvement of the social and the working class. In the beginning, this body was not very strong and government hardly paid any attention to its activities; but with time the movement gained force and led to the revolution in industrial relations. It was due to this body that many other organizations were formed afterward. Trade unions raised their voices against different mistreatments and used strikes as their main tool for negotiations.

This, however, lead to unrest in Spain and undermined the economy of the country. These events resulted in the enforcement of trade union law on December 8, 1940. According to this law, strikes were prohibited and trade unions were freed from the society replacing paternalistic corporative organizations. This resulted in certain economical changes, because earlier Spanish trade unions were only causing disturbances and political unrest in the country. Nevertheless, the law was not enacted for quite a long time and trade unions started emerging again. Trade unions in Spain became openly active in 1988 when a conflict emerged between UGT (a trade union that was closely associated with the PSOE for more than hundred years) and socialist government; this conflict caused serious tension between the two parties. UGT opposed the prime minister of Spain, Gonzalez, for disposing of socialist ideas from the reforms. The main demands of the trade union from the government were to enact social justice in the economy, create employment opportunities for the unemployed members of the working class and other society members, and minding the rights of the workers before passing any ordinance.

Due to this, the communist workers’ committee and the UGT together held a general strike. The strike did not lead to any changes except for causing negotiations in 1989; however, even these negotiations did not settle the conflict. There had been discussions carried out between ETA leaders in Algerian, but those discussions lead to the expulsion of ETA representatives from the union, because ETA called off the ceasefire to which it had previously agreed on. This led to unrest in the country as several bomb attacks took place on the railway lines causing the deaths of people. After these events, government together with other parties (including other trade unions) declared that it would no longer negotiate with ETA. Later in January, 1994 a general strike was called against the government in protest for the restructuring of employment market and economic policy by the government. According to the data obtained by Spanish survey in 2004, 2 million people are currently members of the trade unions in Spain, which constitutes 16% of the total population.

Currently, the main trade unions in Spain are Agrarian Trade Union Federation, Basque Workers’ Solidarity, Confederacion General del Trabajo, Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), Euskal Langileen Alkartasuna, workers Collectives, Workers in Struggle Collectives, Workers Commission, and several others. Trade unions have made considerable contributions to the society. One of the major issues they have dealt with was the liberation of the telecommunication sector. Prior to the liberation of this sector, Spain faced high levels of unemployment. Trade unions managed to ensure employment of people and to provide them with universal service quality.

Collective Bargaining in Spain

Collective bargaining in Space takes place in three stages at national, industry, and company (or organization) levels. In May 2006 agreements were made between the union, government, and employers for the solution of industrial disputes, training, and the minimum wages. It is collectively seen that a major problem in Spain is the contract between the temporary workers and the employers. The aim of Spain is to reduce the level of temporary workers and to increase the basis of income and productivity of the permanent employers. In 2005, around 82% of employers were engaged in 5,374 collective agreements in the private sector. In 2005 only 10% of employees were involved in collective bargaining despite the fact that 76% of agreements were done in the companies. In industry 26% of employees have covered in around 1.5% agreements. (“Spain, Collective Bargaining”).

Similarities and Differences between Trade Union Systems of France and Spain

After discussing the peculiarities of union systems of France and Spain it is possible to state that differences between them prevail over the similarities. Thus, the union systems of these countries are united by the long history which preceded the formation of the trade unions and opposition they met on the part of the government; what’s more, France and Spain have similar ways of carrying out collective bargaining (in both the countries it takes place on three main levels). In contrast, they have different representations of management in the trade unions. In France, management is represented by the head of the parent company and two representatives from other group companies, while Spain lacks the management as such. The countries differ in percentage of people involved in the trade union (Spain prevails almost by half). Judging from the history of formation of the trade unions, Spain has been more persistent and, correspondingly, successful than France, thus, its contribution to the life of the country is greater. Lastly, the same history showed that French trade unions deal only with employment issues, while Spanish ones also pay attention to civil matters (in this respect, Spanish trade unions are more peaceful, because they cause fewer disturbances in the country than the French ones).


Trade unions in France and Spain have been active throughout their history. The discussion of their union systems has shown that they have gone through a number of failures before their eventual formation. Such a rich history unites the union systems of these two countries in the first place. Apart from this, their systems are similar in carrying out collective bargaining, which is commonly known as negotiating labor contracts. Trade unions of France and Spain differ in the number of people who take part in the activities of the unions, representation of management, and the range of issues the unions deal with.

Works Cited

“Collective bargaining.” Worker Participation. 2008. Web.

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“France Industrial Relations Profile.” Eironline. 2008. Web.

”Meta Data.” Worker participation. 2008. Web.

Blanpain, Roger and Baker, Jim. Comparative Labour Law and Industrial Relations in Industrialized Market Economies. New York: Kluwer Law International, 2004.

Block, Richard N. and Upjohn W.E. Bargaining for competitiveness: law, research, and case studies. Kalamazoo , MI: W.E. Upjohn Institute, 2003.

Browne, Ken. An Introduction to Sociology. New York: Willey Blackwell, 1998.

Lerougetal, Antoine and Lantier, Alex. “France: Trade Unions Warn Government Against Social Explosion.” World socialist. 2008. Web.

n.d. “Timeline: France.” BBC News. 2008. Web.

Ojeda, Antonio and Aviles, Michael. “Trade Unions Responses to Globalization. International Institute for Labor Studies.” Social Science Research Network. 2002. Web.

Richards, Andrew. “Trade Unions in Spain.” Fundacion Alternativas. 2008. Web.

Rigby, Mike, Smith, Roger, and Lawlor, Teresa. European Trade Unions: Change and Response. New York: Routledge.

Webber, Douglas. The Franco-German Relationship in the European Union. New York: Routledge 1999.

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