The 35 hours-week law , the french way for flexibilisation

« This is the bigest hold-up in the century ! »

(a worker to a jornalist, about the 35H week law, february 2000)


The reduction of working time is an old labor movement demand. In France in particular, the working class has struggled for it at different periods and, at some moment it even became part of the reformist unions and parties' programs. It was an essential element of their demand for State intervention in private capitalism and a element of the Keynesian perspective within the socialist movement. In 1848, the French government passed a law outlawing child labor, which, for the first time obliged the State to intervene in the work-place of private companies. In 1919, another law established the 8 hour-work day, with a maximun 48 hour-work week. In 1936, the 40 hour-work week law was passed by the United Front government. In fact, it was never applied, a large number of exceptions were obtained by the capitalist class. It was, finally, after the big general strike of May 68, that this law was generally applied.

In recent years, some political groups and left sectors of the union movement started to push the idea that a better distribution of work would bring a solution to unemployment. For some years « Work less to give work to all » was a leftist slogan, it is now the slogan of the communist trade union federation, C.G.T.. This supperficial idea is based in the assumption that state intervention can solve unemployment by law, that politics can run economics. But capitalism is not an altruistic system, concerned with providing people with the possibilities to live, even through exploitation. The exploitation of wage-labor only exists as far as it can realize value and expand the existing capital ; increasing relative surplus-value or the absolute surplus-value. And it is exactly this system which brings about intensification of work on one side, unemployment on the other, creating a proletarian overpopulation.

While the reduction of work time became part of the official labor movement, the working population tended to see it as a secondary demand, primarily because overtime work had became an important part of wages. That is even so today, in a period of larger unemployment. In Germany for example, in recent years, overtime has became a very important aspect of the extension of work-time, about 2 billion hours a year in the metal industry alone. In fact, the fear of losing a job and the concern for the unemployement rate amongst young people, characterizes the present level of working-class reformist conciousness. In these difficult social and economic circumstances, the French state 35 hour-week law, was related to the Keynesian culture of the official left but it also answered to the reformistic working class preoccupations. The official propaganda was organized around three basic aspects : the law will reduce work weekly from 39 to 35 hours ; this reduction will not bring wage cuts ; this work reduction will oblige the bosses to create new jobs, therefore reducing unemployment.

It was this last promise which created a large social expectation for the new law. Nevertheless, it is important to underline that this law didn't came in application after a social movement, which could have made pressure for it. On the contrary, the demand for a reduction of work time has been, for years, expressed only in minority circles of union activists related to leftist parties. It had never been adopted by large sectors of the working class or employees. During the last years, not a single strike has adopted this demand as its own demand. The active sectors of the 1998 unemployement movement, have gone far behind this demand, asking mostly for means to live and engaging in expropriating actions for goods and services. The tiny bureaucratic organizations which survived the demobilisation of this movement, started then to ask for a better work distribution. The communist oriented unemployment organisation tried, after the law was passed, to pressure the big private enterprises to hire unemployed people, sometimes bringing people to the factory gates to beg the management to do so. In some cases, such as in some big Renault car factories north of Paris (Blainville), the unions tried to push for some solidarity from the workers inside the factory but it was a fiasco. The workers were too worried with their job security to engage themselves in a solidarity move.

In other words, the 35 hours-week law was not an institutional response to a social movenent but an institutional reform created by the state. The law was always clearly presented as an attempt to improve the French economy efficiency and performance, in the logic of the general interest of the national economy. It was explicitly oriented to adapt the French economy to the new international rules of flexiblity of the labor market. In addition, and as a counterpart of this « participation » of the working-people in the « general interest », the law would promised a « solution » to the unployement problem : flexibility vs. more employment. Presenting the law as such the left government expressed its nationalistic conceptions of state intervention in the economy. As a change in the national conditions of the French economy could, by itself, reverse the problems of profitability without regard to its integration in the world economy.

Two factors played a role in the reinforcement of the passive social consensus in which the law was accepted. First of all, there was the reaction of the capitalist class. From the begining the capitalists claimed that the law was a kind of revolutionary move which was bound to completely desorganize the French economy. Of course, the modern sectors of the capitalist class knew that such was not to be the case and that they could make a good profit from the law. But they relied openly on the backward sectors of French capitalism, historically opposed to any state action, in order to better negociate the next step, the application forms of the law. The capitalist class knew perfectly well that the present class relations in France were very favorable to them and that under these conditions any deal with the government would end up being a good one for them. Doing so, the capitalist class mobilized the media and made the average working people think that this opposition meant that the law was a bad one for the capitalists. On the other side, the presence of the French Communist Party in the government, made it possible to have a bureaucratic support for the law by the union apparatus and in political life. It is obvious that such a law could never be passed under a rightwing government. In 1995, the right government had tried to pass a reform of social security and it ended up losing power after a general strike of the public sector. Of course, since then, most of these planned measures have been made real by the left government without much opposition or under a total passivity.

The 35H work-week was to be implemented in two phases : by a first law, 1998, completed by a second one, begining of 2000.

We analyze first the different aspects of its application, second its consequences. What really happened concerning the main promises of the law : 1) work less without wage cuts ; 2) new hiring and less unemployment.

The applications of the law

The law is structured around two basic assumptions. First, the reduction of the work hours without wage cut should be done without increase in the costs of production. Second, it is explicitly stated in the law that work time should concern effective work time.

This means that work productivity was, from the very moment the law was conceived, at the center of the whole project and was to determine all the concrete aspects of the application of the law.

In France, the old contracts, for industries and services, in the private sector and public service - some of them dating back from after the second war period - were regulary negociated between unions and bosses, unions and State. This negociated framework seemed now not to be adapted to the new conditions of exploitation. A framework too rigid for the needs the capitalist class, which had to increase all forms of work flexibility. Even though that was not explicitly said by the government, this became clear when the discussions about the application of the new law started.

The law should be negociated first in each economic sector but only in a very vague framework. This framework should, after, being made precise and completed inside each enterprise, sometimes each factory or work place. In the Post office for example, there was a negociation of the law application in each post office bureau. According to the law, each enterprise has its own needs and should negociate in « respect to the specific conditions of each work place ». Only the enterprises which have negociated the law could hope to have the State subventions for hiring new workers. Once these new concrete forms of the application of the law are established, all the workers and employees in the enterprise or work place were supposed to submit to them ; if not they could be laid off without compensation.

A few conclusions can be dranw from what has been said.

First of all, the whole old contract system, upon which the social relations have been based in France for years, was turned upside down, made obsolete, destroyed. It goes without saying that most of these contracts that institutionalized the level of class relations in such or such sector, were sometimes the negociated result of strong class struggles. This new situation brought new consequences for the life of the traditional unions, whose basic function and power over the working people was based in the negociation of these general contracts for each economic sector. With the new law, the basic negociation function was shifted to the union locals, sometimes the rank and file shopstewards in the enterprises, sometimes even to elected (or self elected) delegates, when there was no union presence.

It is possible that the left government wanted to reinforce the union power, weakened year after year. By doing so, they recognized the union crisis and their lack of representivity. They thought that a shift toward local negociation, accompanied by a large demagogical use of referendums and workers consultations, could strengthen the unions from below. The result was nevertheless completely different. By implicating the locals in the negociation, the law compromised them with the new situation created, new rules and conditions of work. Quite often, these locals and shopstewards were therefore placed in conflicet with the rank and file. In the immediate, of course, this prevented the oposition to the law to develop from these locals. Moreover, the local negociations developed a division inside the working class, each enterprise and work place being concerned with its own situation. But, in the long run, this compromise of the union locals with the law added a new element to the union crisis.

The consequences of the application of the law

I - About the work time reduction.

All the restructurating of work time and its reduction were organized around the concepts of « effective work time » and the « respect for the production conditions of each enterprise  ».

What then, does « effective work time » mean concretely ? The capitalist class used this concept to eliminate all the « nonproductif » work periods inside the work process : breaks, pauses, eating time (in some sectors integrated by contract in the workday time), dressing and cleaning time, preparation for work, movements and displacements inside the work places, etc. Pratically in all the entreprises where the law has been negociated this has been the rule. Quite often the step from 39 hour work week to 35, was achieved by this means. In big industrial enterprises, such as the National Railroads and in the automobile industry, the workers lost most of the pauses as well as part of the eating time. In some Renault automobile factories the pauses were reduced from 45 minutes a day (Renault-Cléon). Elsewhere (Renault-Douai), the work presence was reduced but the so called « effective work » was increased by 20 minutes. Workers are now obliged to eat in the assembly line, the factory canteens were closed and, in exchange, pizza distributors and micro owens were installed in the assembly lines. These were working class fortresses, places where, in the recent past, radical strikes took place and where the workers collective force was recognized. In itself, it measures the present level of class relations inside French society and the weakness of the working class.

II. - A longer period of work.

The capitalist private sector and the bosses in the public sector, use the new law to extend the work period. In a first move, they tried to eliminate the 5 day week, dividing the total week time in six or seven days instead five days. The week-end rest period should disappear, so prodution and services can adapt to the « enterprise needs ». That's the case in the National Post Office, where now the work is distributed through six days. If the postal workers work less each day, they work for a longer period of time and they lose Saturday as a rest day. In a second move, the bosses try to impose a new calculation of work time, not any more in a weekly basis (35 hours), but on a yearly basis. And, consequently, forcing people to work according to the company's needs. This calculation of work time on a yearly basis was proposed also in big companies, as in the automobile industry. A strong opposition from the workers has, so far, made impossible the unions to accept it. In general this question has provoke the strongest opposition to the new law, sometimes with strikes. Of course, one of the consequences of this project is to eliminate overtime, to pay night work or Sunday work as normal work. Which means an immediate cut in wages.

Where this new calculation was implemented, as in the service sectors, and the new technological sectors, the new contracts establish that temp-workers are supposed to work 20 hours a week but can be obliged to work up to 60H a week if necessary ; and then to be out of work two weeks. In badly paied jobs, as is the case for the vast majority of the temp-workers, these situations opened the door for the « american model » of two jobs in order to survive.

III. - The limits of the new « free-time ».

One of the problems raised by the law was the recuperation of the « free-time » created by the new intensification of work, the recuperation of hours obtained in exchange for periods of concentration of work-time. In all the enterprises where the bosses felt strong enough, the days-off are to be recovered when the bosses decide, when prodution needs make it possible. In some cases the workers can decide when they can use some of these days. Even in the automobile industry this seems to be the rule. At Renault (Douai), in 21 days « gained » a year, only 3 days can be chosen by the workers ; at Renault (Cléon) half of the days-off can be taken by the workers according to their needs. In some enterprises the application contract says that if the days-off are not taken during the year (according to the bosses will), they are lost.

IV. - The privatization of « private life ».

Because the reduction of work-week time increasses the intensification of work and concentrates periods of work, the organization of work changes the previous schemes of life under wage labor. The week-end pause tends to disappear, night work and Sunday work become « normal », but also, in many work places, the work hours schedules change now from day to day and are often not known in advance. That is in general the case for the distribution sector, in the big department stores, as well as in many small and medium industrial companies. It was no accident that it was in the big department stores that the first movements against the 35 hour work-week law took place. To complete the picture, the days-off, the days « gained » by the increased productivity, can only be used according to the capitalists will and interest.

It is interesting to underline that a law, presented by the official propaganda as « social progress  » and developing « free time », ends up destroying the traditional rhythms of work and rest, disturbing the usual social mechanism of reproduction of labor power. Working people's lives become completely disorganized. From now on, « free time » is much more determined by the enterprise needs ; « private life » regulated by the « enterprise life » more than before. Women, the majority of the work force in the service and distribution services, are primarily concerned.

The communists and leftist parties had supported the law on the assumption that its basic idea was progressist and that its application depended on the balance of power the wage earners were be able to create with the bosses. They not see that the application forms were already determined by the spirit of the law and that the law was itself an expression of the weakness of the working class. Some Trotskyist leaders went as far as seeing it as a sort of « transitional demand », which could lead to a new phase of class struggle, strengthe the working class force. A few months after, the same were nevertheless obliged to recognize : « the law didn't create a great enthusiasm on the workers side, but has mostly helped the emergence of fears (...) » (D. Bensaïd, leader of the French section of IV International, L'Humanité, january 19, 2000). In fact, the application of the law revealed the working class weakness, increased the feeling of insecurity and reinforced the situation of defeat. One imediate sign of this is given by the increase in work injuries, due to increased productivity and higher work intensity, as well as of sick leave and absenteism.

V. - The wage cuts.

The law imposes the principle of no wage cuts. In practice things are not so clear. First of all, the large majority of the contracts introduce a freeze in wages for one or two years, which means, even with the present lower inflation, a cut in real wages. Also, in several contracts the law was signed in exchange for a cut in the overtime rates ; another cut in wage earnings. But the most significant aspect is the fact that all the newly hired workers after the law are to be paied on the basis of 35 hour work payed 35 hours (and not 39). This means a significant global reduction of wages. More important, in political terms, a new division is created inside work places. People performing the same job, under the same prductivity rules, during the same work-time (35 hour week), are now paied different wages.

VI. - Reducing unemployment through flexibility.

The first law, in 1998, make imperative the hiring of new workers each time the company received State subsides to pass from 39 hours to 35 hours, without wage cuts. This imperative disapeared in the second law, in 2000. The fact is that many contracts signed, don't mention anymore this hiring objective. Sometimes, instead, it has been negociated as a halt in lay-offs. A law which was supposed to create new jobs became a fragile guarantie to save jobs. And, as we saw, all the new jobs created are temp and precarious jobs, payed on the basis of a 35 hours work-week. In some enterprises, the workers could barely obtain that the new jobs will be paied on the basis of 39 hours in 3 years...

The official propaganda promised that the new law would reduce unemployement and create 400 000 jobs. Two years later, the more optimistic official figure is about 190 000 jobs created, or saved... That clearly means that, in many cases, the law was applied in exchange of no layoffs and did not create new jobs. What is for sure is that the new law developed the precarity of the labor force, increased temp-work at lower wages. In the begining of 2000, temp workers represent about 10 % of the work force in France and 50 % of all new created jobs are flexible temporary ones. From the begining, the reducing unemployment promise was, for sure, the most atractive aspect of the law. Its failure, added to the fact that the price of the law is clearly an intensification of work and worsening of work conditions, has created a big disappointment. Today, the general feeling is that people are working less time but more intensely and that they have less power over their work lives and their « free-time ». That those who get new jobs have worse conditions and lower wages than before. From promises and propaganda to reality, here is the content of the « biggest hold-up in the century ».

As it has been said, the opposition to the law took the form of strikes and conflicts inside enterprises but it never melted into a general social movement. It is a common idea that only a common demand can unify a social movement. In this case, the common demand existed but never did the isolated strikes become unified. The best example is what happened in the National Post Office, where more than 1 500 local strikes spread all over the country, against the application of the new law and, in this particular case, the generalization of the Saturday work. In the Post Office, 14 000 contracts should be signed, one for each local post office, and, in the middle of 2000, only about 2 000 have been signed. Yet, nevertheless, all these local conflicts stayed isolated. Perhaps the best achievment of the French Left way to flexibility was this capacity to divide even more the working class. A class already depressed by years of defeats and give backs, which consciousness is constantly oscilating betwen anger and rage and support for populism demagogy.


New York, April 2000


Return To Collective Action Notes Home Page

This page hosted by Get your own Free Home Page