Baptiste Giraud, sociologist specializing in collective mobilizations, lecturer at Aix-Marseille University - DR

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  • Sociologist and lecturer at Aix-Marseille University, Baptiste Giraud is a specialist in unionism and social conflicts. While the pandemic has increased inequality at work and exposed many demands, he does not expect an explosion of social anger in the coming months.
  • "Economic crises are unfavorable to union mobilizations," he explains. Little followed, in particular in the private sector, the unions have difficulties in mobilizing.

Calls to strike in Korian Ehpad, demonstrations to obtain bonuses in mass distribution, threats of mobilization of nursing staff ... Employees who have been "on the front line" expect their commitment to work during the coronavirus pandemic to be concretely recognized .

Sociologist of collective mobilizations and specialist in trade unionism, Baptiste Giraud, lecturer at Aix-Marseille University, deciphers the claims in progress. 20 Minutes asked him about the possible outcomes, in the coming months, of this mounting “social anger”.

Do you realize that the pandemic is straining social relationships?

First, it highlights certain aspirations, demands and issues that were previously invisible in media and political discourse. With the exception of caregivers and the public hospital, which were already heard before the pandemic, the Covid took back the representations around the “start-up nation” and the promotion of the digital economy. We could see that the company worked thanks to the employees who in fact occupy the most difficult positions: workers in logistics, food industry, employees of the large distribution ... The Covid put in the center of the attention of the fractions of the salaried very largely marginalized.

There is some form of tension. Mobilizations have started in some hospitals, such as in Dieppe, where staff who have not benefited from Covid bonuses claim them. Ditto in mass distribution, where exceptional bonuses for employees have been announced but depend on a number of conditions.

Are front-line staff in a strong position to negotiate achievements?

Above all, the crisis has given added legitimacy to the demands of healthcare staff. Today, we see that the government is multiplying the announcements about them because obviously, the post-Covid context makes it much more difficult to ignore their demands, which public opinion understands. Everyone has noticed that the management of the crisis has been constrained by the hospitality capacities, Emmanuel Macron himself has recognized. It would be politically risky to continue to ignore them.

But in the case of delivery people, or employees of large distribution, it is not because there was a surge of sympathy about them that it will result in changes in their favor.

Will we see an explosion of "social anger" in the coming months?

We are very ill-equipped in the social sciences to predict the future, but we know from experience that it is precisely in these sectors where the conditions are the most precarious and the legitimate demands that the capacity to translate dissatisfaction into mobilizations collective are actually the most difficult.

In mass retail, the work groups are fragmented, between staff on permanent contracts and all the students who come in for support. And the trade unions are more weakly established in these sectors. Because for these employees, taking your card constitutes a risk for your career.

Another element, periods of economic crisis are rather unfavorable to union mobilizations. In the private sector, unions and employees are going to be put under pressure by the drop in economic activity and exposed to blackmail at work that is not conducive to pushing for improvements in working conditions and wages.

The threats to employment will become more and more concrete. What is likely to happen in companies?

The issues will not be the same everywhere. During the confinement, certain sectors did not experience a slowdown in their activity: in theory, this can feed the employees' desire to have their share of the cake.

In the industry, unions remain established and have militant know-how that does not exist in the private services sector. But they will also find themselves in the classic dilemma of the right strategy to adopt in the face of the threat to employment. To take the example of the automotive sector, the fact that companies are on international markets, subject to a significant drop in demand, puts very strong pressure. The call to strike can be perceived as the risk of aggravating an already tense situation, according to the vision defended by the reformist unions; while for organizations such as the CGT or SUD, it is believed that it is by not acting that employment will be threatened.

However, we must remember the heavy trends. Contrary to the image conveyed on the occasion of closings of media factories or, this winter, by strikes and demonstrations against pension reform, we are in a historic period of low intensity of collective labor disputes. In France, it is also difficult to deny the weakness of unionism: there are only 11% of members.

Beyond the hospital, there is the medico-social. Staff in nursing homes and home help were on the front line during the crisis. Will they be heard?

It is a very diverse category, and these sectors are new. In the Ehpad, there are hesitations to strike. In care professions , that is to say caring for others, stopping the activity or slowing it down poses moral dilemmas, all the more so since there is an obligation of continuity of service.

"Yellow vests", demonstrations against pension reform ... The months leading up to the pandemic have already been hectic. Are we going to start all over again?

Since the pension reform is suspended, I do not think that union mobilization in an interprofessional form will start again. As for the movement of "yellow vests", it also seems to be in a phase of decline. We could see at the time that locally, certain union activists participated in the mobilizations of "yellow vests". But as the latter were not structured, and the union centers also kept their distance, a connection seems difficult to me.

How do you perceive the attitude of trade union organizations during the crisis?

Union activists were mobilized at the level of their companies or their administrations. The only original element that I see emerging at the political level is the plan to end the social and economic crisis proposed by the CGT, Solidaires, the FSU, with organizations like Greenpeace and Attac, with the aim of calling to think together about environmental and social issues. We are on another militant culture. Linking employee demands with the defense of environmental interests is quite original. This is undoubtedly an interesting way to relegitimate their demands, while the trade union organizations are often accused of being corporatists, to the detriment of the general interest.

Do you think the government is paying attention to “social anger”?

Until Covid, it was not. There was an eavesdropping on the hospital staff, and with regard to the reform of unemployment insurance and pensions or the railways, joint financing was very badly damaged by the government.

The government has shown signs of great conciliation by putting the pension reform on hold. Today, he is also forced to recognize, due to the Covid-19, the consequences of budgetary logic on the hospital. But I'm waiting to see if these are just announcement effects.

By providing massive financial support to the economy through short-time working, did the government want to avoid social anger at all costs?

I see it less as a social measure than an economic one. The government was inspired by the German management of the crisis in 2008. Many surveys have shown that the short-time working scheme has enabled German companies to restart faster. When Muriel Pénicaud justifies partial unemployment, she talks specifically about the issue of retaining skills. So it's not like a sign of a social shift in government.

Are we not witnessing a desire to reinvent ourselves, as mentioned by Emmanuel Macron during his first speeches linked to the pandemic?

The situation is so new that everyone thought it could never be the same again. With the crisis, the government was taken backwards on a whole set of projects, reforms and political speeches. We are currently seeing the limits of the rationalization of the hospital, the importance of the public service, the development of certain fractions of the wage-earners. He is forced to bend his speech. From there to that that translates a change of program, I wait to see in the duration.

Trade unions, employers' organizations and the State have a long practice of dialogue. Are they able to find answers together?

As the episode of "yellow vests" had shown, the Covid crisis highlights the need for mediators and relays. For example, in companies, we have been able to measure the extent to which the absence of CHSCTs, replaced by CSEs, could have created difficulties in discussing, for example, how to organize the recovery. From this point of view, the pandemic has put unions back in the saddle, which can prove to be useful.

At the interprofessional level, employers and unions will discuss telework. But it is still necessary that the employers and the government agree to make concessions in their favor. This is the whole problem of the Macron presidency. Since 2017, we have seen the difficulty of unions like the CFDT in legitimizing their negotiating position, as the counterparts granted by the executive are limited.


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