“Adapt or die, unionism must choose”

Since March 2020 and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, work has undergone major, brutal and unprecedented changes. Is it necessarily less well?

LAURENT BERGER – It all depends on the determinants we assign to work. If we refer to acts of production, whether goods or services, workers responded. And this regardless of your situation, face-to-face or teleworking – remember that 70% of employees carry out an activity that is not eligible for the latter. Companies have no reason to complain about the involvement and care that employees have taken to keep their jobs. On the other hand, another aspect of the work casts a shadow over its question: the way in which the exercise of work was apprehended, experienced and experienced in the test of personal life. And in this area, we are far from being able to learn all the lessons.

In the first place, there is teleworking, subject of immense paradoxes with which the CFDT itself is necessarily confronted, like any company. Collaborators or members tasted it with pleasure, others are disgusted. It all depends, of course, on the context – housing, distance, family situation, etc. Regarding the ways of cooperating, the effectiveness of the meetings, the affective dimension, the collective competence, we did not finish measuring the virtuous and deleterious effects. However, I cannot fail to consider that the meaning of work, by nature linked to human and social interactions, suffers globally with this phenomenon. What makes a job “humanize”: dialoguing, getting to know, laughing, sometimes fighting, making friends (and even making love), in short, sharing, is collapsing in this accelerated digitalization of work. Of course, teleworking also calls into question the separation of professional and personal time. For many, these times have intertwined, the boundary line becoming increasingly undetectable, opening the floodgates to further intensification and pressure.

Finally, what about all those previously invisible workers whose immense usefulness has been “discovered”… and the immense injustice faced by lack of recognition and poor pay? Workers in commerce, logistics, agri-food, cleaning, private security, are finally a little more considered. And the health professionals? More than ten years ago, at CFDT, we alerted to the dramatic situation of the hospital, and it took a pandemic crisis for politicians, media and public opinion to take care of it!

Telework accelerates the fragmentation of “physical” spaces and moments of collective work, disseminates and isolates workers, challenges human and social bonds, the spirit of cooperation, the feeling of belonging, shared intelligence, “human management”: for these reasons, it is poison for the unions…

The two extremely difficult years we’ve all been through have also been difficult for unions – think for example of many companies where we didn’t have access to employees’ professional mailboxes, which would allow us to get in touch with them. The interpersonal bond is woven in trust, and trust in collective action. This is contested in a context of lasting change in work organizations where maintaining the bond with workers will be more complicated. We don’t know if this translates into a backlash of the collective for the benefit of each individual’s uniqueness; however, telework specifies the latter according to the conditions in which it is carried out and the way in which it is wanted (or not) to be included in a collective perspective. How to rebuild the collective in contact with telework: this is a great challenge for companies, but also for unions urged to reinvent themselves.

Should we fear that companies will appropriate this phenomenon – spontaneous or forced – of individualization to outsource more and more, to atomize even more work collectives – in particular, dispensing with contracts in favor of self-entrepreneurship?

The risk is on several levels. Teleworking at 95% condemns any opportunity for “physical” meetings and social interaction. And, in fact, taken to its climax, the logic of the autonomization of functions can lead to the outsourcing of positions and the replacement of the status of individual entrepreneur by the salaried. Regarding this statute, which was very successful in 2021, we tend to focus on the tip of the iceberg (independence, time and workplace management, etc.), but below the waterline the dangers are numerous. Being an employee or service provider does not give access to the same rights. And it doesn’t give the work the same “sense”.

Precisely, the search for meaning resonates with a wave, which the pandemic has exacerbated: the digitization (and, underlying, the dematerialization and relocation) of work, which particularly worries young people who are by nature very insensitive to unionism. How do you adapt to what appears to be a danger to unions?

The challenge of rehumanizing relationships must deal with this digital reality. Which will get in the way of work much more than the job. Continuing to create bonds, continuing to nurture a common feeling of belonging to the condition of worker, continuing to deal with everything that alters performance at work: risks of alienation, intensification, precariousness, isolation, degraded status, etc. The challenge is to continue to look at the evolution of the work and demonstrate our usefulness – in particular by giving existence, recognition to all these “invisible” works.

Unionism must choose: adapt or die. and for the benefit rights to build, it should request a capital lever: that of regulation, focused on sharing value and governance. It is absolutely necessary to rebalance the powers in the company.

Can salvation come from Europe? As President of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), what do you expect concretely and realistically from the French presidency of the European Union, which runs until June?

A minimum wage across Europe is no longer a utopia. This social convergence is essential. It’s going to be complicated, but we can do it. Other topics: fight against wage inequality between women and men, a real scandal of which companies are guilty despite the law. Increase social protection and coverage of self-employed workers, who are very vulnerable – a directive on presumption of employment is in preparation, which would put an end to the exploitation, also scandalous, of “subject” self-employed work; that people stop taking us for idiots by saying that we are totally happy to walk through Paris in the rain and deliver a pizza for a few dozen cents! Finally, at European level, we can influence the social and environmental behavior of companies – within them but especially among their subcontractors outside Europe, in countries without demanding standards. This is the objective of the fight that the ETUC is leading in favor of a directive on the duty of vigilance at European level.

On the subject of work, what will be left of Emmanuel Macron’s five-year term?

A minimal approach. Priority was given to employment (better access, fewer rules and constraints) with some success on specific points such as learning, so work was treated as a ‘by-product’. None of the job attributes just mentioned were addressed. During the pandemic, good measures were implemented in favor of workers and activity. From the future president, I hope that he decrees the organization of great Labor Conferences, dedicated to defining what work is and what should be: what it is now, what it is for and for whom it serves, how to inoculate meaning, how to link, how to distribute value, which organizations, etc. A global approach – sociological, philosophical, economic, managerial, organizational – to position work at the center of our development and at the center of society.

Under what conditions can work “make the reconciliation” between the employee and the employer?

Just before entering the factory, sitting at his desk, opening his business or starting the engine of his truck, the worker doesn’t take his brain out of his skull to leave it at the door! Any worker can be a contributor to their own work, to improving their work, to better performance at work and, therefore, participates substantially in the economic and social success of the company… if given the chance. This requires some conditions: to be heard, considered, respected, to configure the work so that it is a source of emancipation and self-fulfillment, to cultivate opportunities for cooperation and sharing – from all points of view, including governance . There is a place for humanism at work.

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T La Revue article #9 “Working, is it really reasonable?” – Currently on newsstands and available at kiosque.latribune.fr/t-la-revue