France: State education staff called to the ballot box for the social dialogue elections

published 6 December 2022 updated 8 December 2022

French education unions are currently campaigning for their social dialogue elections. The 1.4 million voters in the Ministry of National Education and Youth, the Ministry of Sports and the Ministry of Higher Education and Research are invited to vote by internet from 1 to 8 December 2022.

By taking part in these social dialogue elections, they can choose which of their union representatives sit on the social dialogue bodies, for a four-year term.

The December 2022 elections are for seats on the following bodies:

  • The Conseil Social d'Administration académique et ministériel (Academic and Ministerial Social Council), which is responsible for examining collective labour issues: distribution of resources, health and safety at work, management guidelines, fighting against discrimination, equality in the workplace, etc….
  • The Commission Administrative Paritaire (Joint Administrative Commission), which meets to issue opinions on individual staff member's situations (refusal of tenure, disciplinary sanctions, refusal of a request for part-time work or training leave, appeals concerning an education worker’s assessment, etc.).
  • The Commission Consultative Paritaire (Joint Consultative Commission), which gives an opinion on individual issues concerning contract staff (refusal of requests for part-time work, dismissal, examination of disciplinary sanctions, etc.).

These same bodies also exist at local level (academic, departmental) to act locally on certain decisions and to decentralise social dialogue.

There are also social dialogue bodies that cover the entire civil service (education, health, etc.). “It is actually in these bodies, which are not specific to national education, that a lot of negotiations take place, particularly on pay rises, notably in the Conseil Commun de la Fonction Publique (Common Council of the Civil Service,” points out Dominique Bruneau, federal secretary of the Fédération des syndicats généraux de l'Éducation nationale et de la recherche-Confédération française démocratique du travail (Sgen-CFDT). “The trade union landscape in France is very diverse, unlike in other European countries. These elections are clearly a way of expressing our differences, but also of setting out what we want for the education system, for the staff, and how we are going to do it.”

Alexandra Bojanic of the Syndicat national unitaire des instituteurs, professeurs des écoles et PEGC-Fédération syndicale unitaire (SNUipp-FSU) confirms that the union elections have “an indirect impact on getting an audience at the Ministry, which sometimes only receives the biggest unions. The participation rate and the score obtained by the union have an impact on how much the Ministry listens”.

According to Fabrice Sechet, in charge of training at the Union Nationale des Syndicats Autonomes-Éducation (UNSA-Education), “in all of these social dialogue bodies, the unions are kept informed and they have the opportunity to comment and make proposals, but it is basically a consultation by the authorities, who are then in no way obliged to take into account the opinions of the trade union side.”

Trade union values

“Making proposals is above all about carrying a certain form of trade unionism,” explains Bruneau. “The Sgen-CFDT is a general, cross-category union because we believe that corporatism is not a solution. As such, our activists work with all categories of staff. To be more effective, we work together to improve the achievements and rights of all. In this respect, we are a union that makes proposals, that always considers all possibilities for action and will always prioritise those that enable progress to be made for everyone. For us, favouring dialogue and negotiation means choosing an effective and constructive style of trade unionism.”

In her view, there are several subjects that are common to the different professional categories:

  • The fight against all forms of discrimination.
  • Equality between men and women, regardless of status (contractual and permanent employees). Equal pay for equal work.
  • An increase in all salaries to make up for the drop in purchasing power and the rise in inflation.
  • Tenure without competition and with evaluation and seniority conditions for contractual workers.
  • More resources for a more humane management of staff.
  • The need to adapt the education system to the challenges of the environment and sustainable development.

Sechet details the main values and actions of UNSA-Education:

  • To play a positive and constructive role in our professional landscape
  • For equality between women and men
  • For secularism and the promotion of the public education service
  • For freedom and against discrimination
  • To educate against the far right and the unexamined acceptance in public debate of its extreme ideas.
  • For an inclusive society.

UNSA-Education calls on state education workers to also vote for the category demands, in relation to the problem of the attractiveness of the education professions, which is the consequence of insufficient pay (all the more so at a time of inflation), as well as a lack of recognition.

Alexandra Bojanic of the Syndicat national unitaire des instituteurs, professeurs des écoles et PEGC-Fédération syndicale unitaire (SNUipp-FSU) says that her union has been fighting for several months now for a real increase in salaries for all (a historic increase had been announced by the government but never came), by marching in the street and going on strike.

Furthermore, a few weeks ago, the union launched a petition to demand an additional €300 net per month for all as a starting point for negotiations. This petition has collected more than 47,000 signatures. “The number of signatures we’ve had clearly shows that everyone feels the need for an immediate and substantial increase in salary, as the downgrading of salaries has gone on for far too long, as all the surveys show.”

Bojanic adds that “working and learning conditions for pupils are also improved through in-service training for teachers, we must regain the breathing space that allows us to work with our pupils. We must regain control of the job, but not only. This is the reason for all the initiatives we are taking: the various mobilisations we are organising, whether they involve rallies, strikes, demonstrations, public debates, petitions, etc.”

Thus, “how we influence salary discussions, but more broadly how we influence education policy, is also an issue for the social dialogue elections. Electing our representatives is important in the current period, we need to be as representative as possible for our demands to carry weight. For the SNUipp-FSU, it is also the time to present what it has achieved but also its future plans for education.”

For her, “these plans require additional resources to shore up the specialised support networks, to ensure replacements by creating posts, to create a real status for the teaching assistants working with pupils with disabilities and to pay them better. We must take advantage of the demographic decline to reduce the number of pupils per class, and create more new teaching posts than classes. Our plan is to radically changes education policy, putting back at the heart of it a real equality of rights for all pupils and the recognition of the teaching profession.”

She also considers that, although the system of social dialogue elections does not set the trade union landscape in stone, because “everything is up for grabs at each professional election”, “when you are the majority union, you have a better chance of remaining ‘strong’. For a new or small union, it is more difficult to break through.”

Impact of electronic voting

For the past ten years, voting has been electronic for the social dialogue elections, and therefore much more individualised than before, when voting took place on a given day in each school.

Bojanic believes that, while the switch to e-voting has had an impact on turnout and its decline (over 61% in 2008, 38% in 2011, 42% in 2014, and 43% in 2018), another element has also played a role: until 2008, there was a turnout quorum to be reached, which was abolished with the introduction of e-voting.

Despite meetings, working groups and hearings at the ministry, there are still many technical and material difficulties, she says. “Some categories of staff have not received voting slips, others are not able to collect their slips because they haven’t arrived at their voting station.”

Bruneau notes that the change in the voting system in 2012 led to a drop in turnout of around 15% and that “it is difficult to say whether this drop is directly attributable to electronic voting or to other factors”.

For the Sgen-CFDT, there is probably not just one reason, but several:

  • A steady fall in staff interest in what the trade unions have to say.
  • Problems linked to the use of electronic voting and some colleagues’ aversion to this tool.
  • Technical difficulties, almost systematically since 2012, in the voting system.

It also points to a steady decline in interest in all elections, both political and trade union, over the last ten years in France: “We are seeing a fall in participation, an erosion which varies according to professional category. So, while voting by permanent teachers is close to 60%, only 5 to 8% of contractual agents take part - for example, teaching assistants for children with disabilities or contract teachers. For the latter, this is above all due to the mistreatment of staff and the lack of recognition.”

The Sgen-CFDT believes that these are state education workers in their own right who deserve full respect for the tasks they are entrusted with, and it is the union’s duty to defend them.

It goes on to point out that “local voting is not necessarily a membership vote, because activists in a school can incite people to vote for a certain trade union organisation. Electronic voting can therefore allow a worker to cast a genuine vote of support for a form of trade unionism and/or for a set of demands”.

Sechet pointed out that, although turnout fell when the electronic voting system was introduced, it had risen from 38% to 42% over the past ten years, “a sign that staff have got used to the voting system and take the opportunity to show their support for the unions freely and democratically”.

Trade union unity on the most important demands

“The social dialogue election system does not really have an impact on relations between unions. The French trade union landscape is more the product of a long history. The divisions do not prevent people from coming together in difficult situations”, he is happy to say.

“This does not necessarily mean we have fewer joint positions - recently we had joint communiqués on pensions, the reform of the vocational training system, salaries - but obviously at this time each one puts forward their own issues”, said Bojanic.

Bruneau agrees and highlighted the fact that “outside of this particular electoral period, there are many joint union platforms that allow us to build common positions, especially when a reform or a ministerial decision is contrary to the interests of state education workers. This is often the case in the texts presented in the various bodies where we make strategic alliances”.