The General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, abbreviated as the CGT) is one of the most important unions in France. On September 18, it sent the following statement to IranWire:
“An interunion solidarity collective with Iranian workers and unions has been taking place in France since 2011. This collective is comprised of French unions such as CGT, CFDT, FSU, Solidaires and UNSA. It closely monitors the situation in Iran by co-operating with union activists based in Iran, as well as activists of Iranian origin living in France. This collective works with Iranian leaders and international bodies to uphold trade union freedoms/rights and human rights. Letters are also sent both to the Supreme Leader as well as to the President of the Islamic Republic. Gatherings are [often] held in front of the Iranian Embassy in Paris, while public meetings with the participation of Iranian union activists have taken place at the Labor Council of Paris. This collective supports the efforts of Iran’s labor union movement, which is independent of both the ruling power and the [dominant] financial circles as they struggle under difficult and often repressive conditions to defend the economic and social demands of workers, some of whom have not received their wages for several months.
This collective of unions also helps other Iranian union activists to participate in the International Labour Conference (ILO), where they have the chance to express themselves and demonstrate for the execution of international labor conventions [in their country], especially trade union freedoms, collective negotiation rights and the right to organize strikes. Solidarity campaigns are also organized together with the participation of other unions in Europe. “
Since its inception in 1895, the CGT has been a force to be reckoned with, defending the rights of workers in France within the framework of the existing constitution, while also striving to improve the constitutional provisions to workers. As a union heavily involved in international solidarity movements in support of labor rights worldwide, the CGT has also assiduously campaigned with different unions in France to raise awareness about the repression of labor activists in Iran and the ongoing climate of strife they endure. IranWire interviewed the CGT to get a better understanding of their work.
Over 100 Years of Union Activism
In today’s France, the CGT as a union occupies a very important place. It is the second-largest union in the country, with more than 700,000 members, and It is the largest trade union in terms of votes (32.1% at the 2002 professional election, 34.0% in the 2008 election).
What explains the success of the CGT, amongst the most important unions in the country since 1895? Céline Verzeletti from the executive commission of the CGT attributes the union’s endurance to “workers’ need to organize in order to better negotiate for their rights and debate about their work conditions.” She notes that the creation of a “balance of power” between workers and their employers has been a key element of workers’ demands and CGT as a union has always strived to change this balance of power in favor of workers. Although there has been a reduction in the number of unionized employees in France in recent years, Verzeletti emphasizes that the “necessity” of unionization makes their organization an indispensable entity in France.
CGT also distinguishes itself from the other unions in France, especially by virtue of the “strategies” and “approaches” deployed when it comes to dialogue with the state. Verzeletti notes that while certain unions in France have “accompanied the government” on certain controversial reforms without any opposition — expecting these reforms to affect workers as little as possible — the CGT has traditionally “contested” many of these reforms. Such contestation derives, she says, from the fact that many of these reforms are often “decided by politicians” and “bring about a considerable regression in the lives of workers.” This commitment to contesting controversial reforms sets CGT apart from many other unions in France.
Civil society is an essential element of healthy democracies. Non-governmental organizations and unions often press the government and the private sector for more accountability, urging them to respect the existing structure of checks and balances. Unions can in his way form their own powers to meet the powers of the private sector and the government. As noted by Verzeletti, “the CGT with its members has been empowering workers to form countervailing powers to state power and the private sector by urging these entities to negotiate better salaries and better work conditions.” CGT's capacity to call for “demonstrations and strikes” has always been an advantage for its members. One of the most concrete examples is the case of current pension plan reforms, which are in the process of being adopted by the government of Emmanuel Macron. Verzelletti notes that the CGT has been flexing its muscles by making counter proposals in the ongoing negotiations.
Charting Challenging Territories
One of the biggest challenges that the CGT faces in France is the low level of unionization in the country. In fact, although outwardly France might give the impression of a highly unionized society by virtue of the preponderance of strikes and demonstrations taking place on an annual basis, in reality, less than 8% of the working population in France is unionized — one of the lowest in Europe. Céline Verzelletti says the CGT is well aware of this colossal challenge, and its activities have been focused on individually visiting companies where unions do not exist and helping workers in these companies launch unions. Many of these visits are aimed at educating workers about their constitutional rights.
Verzeletti notes that unionization in France is often threatened by various factors. One of them is the fact many workers are ill-informed about their rights. Another is the fact is that workers are scared of unionizing because they do not want to face reprisals from management. In fact, “a third of the population in France” reported having this fear, according to a survey conducted by the CGT. This, despite the fact that unionization in France is a constitutional right.
Empowering Women and Protecting Undocumented Immigrants
One of CGT’s priorities, as Verzeletti notes, has been upholding equal wages both for women and men, and pushing for greater representation of women, not only in their own union, but also across France. Women in France live in a more precarious financial situation than men, partly because there are fewer unionized women than men.
Verzeletti also raised the issue of discrimination against undocumented immigrants. She notes that thanks to the CGT’s countrywide efforts, many of the undocumented immigrants who were being “exploited” by their employers have today obtained legal documents to enjoy the same conditions as everyone else at work. In fact, Verzeletti says that the CGT is the only union to have invested so heavily in improving the working conditions of these undocumented immigrants, an accomplishment of which CGT remains particularly proud.
A Union with an International Mission: Support for Iranian Activists
While the CGT’s core activities are concentrated in France, the union has been very active in rendering its support to union activists worldwide. This includes Iran, where recently seven labor activists have been sentenced to a total of 110 years in prison. In a statement sent to IranWire, the CGT outlined its commitment to Iranian workers, stating that since 2011, the CGT had “an interunion solidarity collective with Iranian workers” together with several other French unions. As part of this solidarity, it “closely monitors the situation in Iran” through its contact with Iranian activists in and outside Iran, and helps them to uphold their rights. It also helps Iranian union activists to forge links with international labor groups and initiatives so that they have the opportunity to express their grievances and help push for labor reform in the Islamic Republic.