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Is it true that union membership in the UK is higher than in France?

There are stark differences depending on public or private sector and the size of the firm

Millions of people joined strike action this year in France Pic: HJBC / Shutterstock

Reader Question: I saw a statistic during the recent strikes that France had one of the lowest union membership rates in Europe – and millions less than in the UK. That surprised me considering the number of strikes that take place. Is it correct? 

Although France has long been associated with powerful worker’s movements – the strikes of May 1968 being one famous example – it is true that a relatively low percentage of people in France actually belong to a union. 

There are in fact more than twice as many workers in trade unions in the UK compared to in France. 

There were 6.2 million UK workers affiliated to a trade union in 2022, says the UK government, equating to roughly 22% of the workforce in the country. 

In comparison, at the beginning of 2023, French media reported that about 2.5 million people were affiliated with France’s eight major trade unions, each of which have wings for different sectors. 

A French government study published this year stated that union membership was around 10.3% of salaried workers.

This rate has dropped from around 30% at the start of the 1950s, according to a study by demographics organisation Centre d’observation de la socitété.

Big difference between public and private sectors 

In France, there is a stark difference between the public and private sectors when it comes to union membership. 

In the public sector (schools, hospitals, transport etc) about 18% of workers are affiliated to a union, but in the private sector, less than 8% of workers are. Levels are even lower in small businesses.

Unlike the UK, France’s unions are often more split by ideology, than sector. 

For example, both the CGT and CFDT unions (which are respectively radical and moderate in ideology) have among their many sub-branches ones that represent workers in the healthcare and transport sectors, instead of there being one major specialised healthcare union and one major transport union.

This can sometimes dilute union activity in sectors where it is typically strong in the UK (such as transport) because the unions do not always agree on strategies, which in turn makes unions look weaker, and less appealing to join. 

The intersyndicale (coalition of unions) which has been in place in France during the 2023 pension reform strikes – and beyond – is surprising to many because it is a rare example of prolonged joint activity by unions, wherein they align their actions.

Any worker can negotiate with bosses, even non-union members

Any business with 11 or more employees in France must have a Comité social et économique (Social and economic committee, or CSE).

Workers vote for CSE delegate representatives during company-wide elections, and these  act as a regulator to check rules are being followed.

They have regular meetings with company bosses to discuss worker grievances and working conditions. 

Part of this can include gaining concessions for workers which go beyond basic labour laws.

Recent examples include how often people in the company can télétravail (work from home) or how many digital meetings can be scheduled back-to-back before a break, which could be different depending on the sector in question. 

The CSE allows workers who are not part of unions to still have a direct link to discuss issues with management in a negotiation setting – something which is potentially more difficult in many other countries.

Union-backed candidates often do well in the CSE delegate elections because even non-members vote for them. If a union candidate wins 10% or more of the votes (in larger companies), they have a seat at the CSE meetings.

The strength union members have in areas such as labour law knowledge and negotiating skills is viewed as making them ideal candidates for the position in the eyes of most workers.

Collective bargaining covers almost everyone

One probable reason for the decline in union membership is the fact that the concessions won by the CSE, and union bargaining in general, do not only apply to workers who belong to the union of the delegate, but to essentially all workers within a company. 

Many French workers therefore do not see any advantage to joining a union as they still receive the benefits from union negotiations with employers. 

This is specifically the case in the private sector, where many employees view the benefits for paying members as being negligible. 

Trade unions and politics do not always mix

Another reason for the comparatively low number of French workers in a union is the relationship between unions and politics. 

While for a number of years one of France’s largest (and most radical) unions, the CGT, often allied itself with the French Communist Party (PCF), this has not been the case since the 1990s. In fact the CGT has always insisted on its political independence. 

In fact as early as 1906 the CGT stated its intention to act independently from any party in a vote called the Charter of Amiens, with almost all subsequent major unions following in its footsteps.

In comparison, most major unions in the UK are closely linked to the Labour Party, working to influence policy and vote on key issues at national conferences. This means, notably, that the UK’s Labour supporters tend to be interested in union membership.

Influence remains despite low membership

As mentioned above, unisons still play a significant role in France, especially in larger firms, despite an overall low level of employee membership.

Also they are often invited to discuss certain topics or policy ideas with both the government and opposition.

You will see this referred to as les partenaires sociaux in the media (which also includes organisations representing business leaders) and many politicians are keen to be seen to at least have consulted unions on major issues of the day.

Unions also manage to mobilise strikes, marches and other demonstrations which have an impact on people’s daily lives and in the media, with many non-union members also joining in on issues of importance to them.

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