The SNCF is forced to cancel more than a third of its trains December 23, 24 and 25 following a new walkout by some of the controllers, who are demanding "better recognition of the specificities of their profession". Either salary increases and measures related to the management of their career. Around 200 people had their trains canceled and some have no fallback, the remaining trains being full, as are the coaches and car rental companies.
In social dialogue, perhaps more than in any other form of negotiation, the specter of open conflict hangs over exchanges. Unions with a competitive attitude (sometimes accused of being "revolutionary" such as the CGT, in contrast to so-called "reformist" unions such as the CFDT) do not hesitate to use their ability to organize work stoppages in an attempt to get what they demand from their hierarchy.
Experts Hubert Landier and Daniel Labbé demonstrate that, in certain vital sectors of the economy (such as transport, education, energy and agriculture), trade unions enjoy the greatest capacity to "harm" because, by disrupting the organization that employs them, they impact the entire country.
SNCF strike of 23, 24 and 25 December 2022, TFI.
This is what we are witnessing in France in recent months: after refineries (gasoline supply), hospitals (access to healthcare), it is once again, at the end of the year , that strike notices are springing up in transport. According to IFRAP, this is a recurring tradition, since there were strikes in December at the SNCF in 14 of the last 20 years (although it is rare that they extend until the holidays). Although we are concerned here with union strategies, it should be remembered that social conflict is the responsibility of all negotiating parties.
At the negotiating table
In negotiation, you don't have to threaten the other party with harmful consequences to get what you want. Negotiating is not blackmail. If blackmail is part of the negotiator's arsenal, he is not obliged to resort to it. A majority of public and private organizations have a serene social dialogue, in which exchanges take place in a peaceful manner.
If we summarize the thoughts of management science professor Jacques Rojot, the influence occupied by a negotiating party depends on its ability to build as well as its ability to harm. By ability to build, we mean the ability to propose solutions and/or provide resources to meet the interests of the other party. By capacity to harm, we must understand the power to harm the interests of the other party in the event of a lack of agreement and thus put pressure on him to be conciliatory at the table.
The mere evocation of our capacity to cause harm will serve as threat aimed at getting closer to an agreement that would be particularly beneficial to us.
The problem with the threat in negotiation is that it cannot be used as a bluff: you have to be ready to activate it. If we threaten to go on strike at the worst time of the year, then if our demands are not heard, it will have to be called.
Unions in permanent campaign
For a union, the ability to harm depends on its ability to mobilise, which itself depends on the demands put forward, the number of members and sympathizers and the context.
Remember that in France it is not necessary to be unionized to follow union instructions. It is also noted that the continued decline in union density was not accompanied by an impoverishment of the ability to harm trade unions, many agents and employees following union instructions without formally joining the unions themselves.
Researcher Christian Thuderoz has three actors in any social dialogue: unions, management and employees. Unions are in a constant campaign to gain influence and membership among employees.
They must therefore, and constantly, show that they have an impact on working conditions. If the SNCF controllers say they are dissatisfied with their remuneration – via a facebook collective -, then they must bring their claims to management. Opposite, the management must make every effort to have a quality social dialogue, which is proving to be particularly complex today, the 2017 ordinances that led to a considerable limitation of union resources.
A fourth actor: public opinion
In some sectors, the number of people potentially affected by a strike is so large that it merges with public opinion. This is the case for the key sectors of the economy, namely road transport and agriculture (due to their ability to block roads), schools (due to the fact that a closed school is often parents who cannot work), rail transport and fuel refining.
From then on, public opinion becomes an “uninvited stakeholder”, that is to say a party that impacts the negotiation without taking part in it. This impact occurs through two mechanisms: the degree of acceptability of the movement (to what extent citizens support the strikers) and the impact of the movement on people (to what extent the movement harms citizens in their everyday life).
Like the two scales of the scales, public opinion is tossed between support and opposition, dredged up by the public remarks made by employers, even politicians on the one hand, by the trade unions on the other. Thus, the strikes in the refineries in the autumn were initially massively supported by public opinion, before this turned around, when the shortages of fuel were such that entire sectors of employment found threatened.
Today, even if the French are somewhat at odds with government social policy (which could lead them to support the demands of the strikers), the “Covid years” lead most to place great importance on spending the 2022 holidays with the family. The strike is therefore for them a too much cost to be offset by compensation and apologies from the company.
The ultimate threat of a holiday strike has been activated. In the short term, the agents could earn (on their payslip) and the strike will have cost millions of euros. In the longer term, the costs will be potentially catastrophic: growing disinterest in the unions (in this case overtaken by an informal group born on Facebook), distrust of the action of intermediary bodies, bad publicity for the SNCF.
Opposite, the gain could be reaped by SNCF's competitors (such as Trenitalia between Paris and Lyon) which should not fail to take the opportunity to nibble away at the incumbent operator's market share.
Adrian Borbely, Associate Professor in Negotiation, EM Lyon et Pauline de Becdelièvre, Lecturer / teacher-researcher, Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay – Paris-Saclay University