Accueil » 54-4 ( 1999) » Régulation sociale et action collective pour l'emploi en France

Régulation sociale et action collective pour l'emploi en France

Christian Thuderoz et Pascale Trompette


L'apparition récente, dans le paysage institutionnel français, d'accords d'entreprise sur l'emploi conduit l'analyste à s'interroger sur la nature du processus aboutissant à de tels compromis sociaux (s'agit-il d'un processus d'échange ?), sur les produits de cette activité (comment caractériser ce type d'accords collectifs ? Où réside la novation ?) et, enfin, sur le sens de ces compromis (en termes de légitimité comme en termes d'action collective pour l'emploi). En mobilisant une sociologie attentive aux processus, cet article explore cette nouvelle dynamique de négociation. On s'attachera à la comprendre comme une forme étendue de régulation conjointe, érigeant l'entreprise comme espace pertinent d'expérimentation de nouvelles pratiques contractuelles et dans laquelle le jeu et les arrangements des acteurs locaux occupent une place centrale.


The evolution of collective bargaining in France since the mid-1990s reveals major transformations in the French System of industrial relations. Remarkable progress in firm-level bargaining has accompanied the proliferation of agreements on employment, which have become a major concern for social partners. These agreements, which link the quantitative management (job creation and social programs, managing fluctuations in both internal and external markets) with the qualitative management of employment (work time management, organization, skills management), are associated with the emergence of a new social compromise, based on the trade-off between employment and multiple forms of flexibility. The French context is traditionally organized along industry lines and characterized by highconflict situations in which actors rebel against local compromises and contractual arrangements. These shifts in the actors' strategies reflect, therefore, a considerable innovation which is examined in this article. Is this change related to new economic imbalance in contractual relations resulting from the decline of workers' power? Or does the employment crisis foster the development of new negotiating practices through which the social partners can explore other levels of action ?

Based on a French-Quebec comparative study, this article examines the reconfiguration of social relations in France, drawing on the analysis of employment agreements and observation of real negotiating practices in firms. Our analysis has three main components: (1) examination of the characteristics of these kinds of agreements and their specificity with regard to traditional agreements; (2) examination of the process which leads to these social compromises and its impact in terms of social regulation; (3) understanding the process of mobilization and legitimation through which union actors make sense of these new practices.

The firm-level collective agreements on employment are an expression of a series of practical and symbolic shifts in collective bargaining. They are the result of decentralized confrontation/concertation which are closest to local realities; they reflect greater interdependence among social partners in regulating production activity; and they are evolving toward more contractual arrangements. In the French cultural context, the state's influence plays a significant role in this reorientation of collective bargaining practices by legislating measures which encourage and then compel the parties to negotiate about local reorganization of work time. A content analysis of these negotiations supports the hypothesis of a "recodifying of the employment relationship" characterized first by an extension of contractual relations. The issue and exercise of "joint regulation" — in the sense proposee by A. Fox and put into theoretical terms by J.D. Reynaud — focus on the workplaces themselves, inciting union actors to break the "management taboo" in order to turn the productive order into a "negotiated order." The result of this type of negotiation can be defined as the joint elaboration of local legal regulations which link the management of production to the management of the internal labour market. While not ruling out the risk of a power imbalance in which employment bargaining can be a pretext for supporting the introduction of multiple forms of flexibility, the authors highlight the need to be sensitive to the leaming effects associated with this new negotiating dynamic. It gives social partners the opportunity to experiment with new roles within the firm, which then becomes a more political place in which social debate is conducted.

The second part of the article addresses the question of the legitimation of these kinds of agreements when they are not directly associated with improvement, to the point of sometimes being equivalent to agreements to "manage sacrifices." Here, the analysis focuses on the way in which the social and symbolic mobilization for employment by union actors is carried out. In particular, it considers the problems encountered by the signatory unions in legitimating their position vis-a-vis their membership. The challenge here is how to reinsert the meaning of their action into the traditional or pertinent symbolic spheres of union action. The rhetoric of solidanty does not have a real significance unless it is embedded in the communities to which workers belong (firm, local area, professional community, etc.). To mobilize workers, the "defence of employment" must be oriented toward a victory, the inverse of a logic of sacrifice which offers much less mobilizing potential. In this way, it is able to re-establish the traditional meaning of union action.

Although, for the time being, union leaders are succeeding in constructing the collective meaning of action for employment, the problem of union representation and legitimacy will continue to exist beyond the agreement. As standard bearers for a logic of flexibility and differentiation within work communities, the employment agreements also contribute to the growth of divergent interests and perceptions among the different categories of workers, making it all the more difficult in the end to aggregate and organize interests in such actions.


La apariciòn reciente, en el paisaje institucional francés, de acuerdos de empresa sobre el empleo lleva al analista a interrogarse sobre la naturaleza del proceso que termina con taies compromisos sociales (se trata de un proceso de intercambio ?), sobre los productos de esta actividad (como caracterizar este tipo de acuerdos colectivos ? Donde se encuentra la motivaciòn ?) y finalmente, sobre el sentido de estos compromisos (en términos de legitimidad como en términos de acciòn colectiva por el empleo). Al movilizar una sociologìa preocupada por el proceso. Este articulo explora esta nueva dinâmica de negociaciòn. Trataremos de comprenderla como una forma extendida de la regulaciòn conjunta, constituyendo a la empresa como espacio propicio a la experimentaciòn de nuevas practicas contractuales y en la cual los juegos y los arreglos son actores locales ocupando un lugar central.