After the Social Crisis: The Transformation of Labour Relations and Work Organization at France Telecom

Friday, 3 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
CLM.2.04 (Clement House)
Virginia Doellgast, London School of Economics, London, United Kingdom
Maxime Bellego, University of Aix-Marseille, Marseille, France
Elisa Pannini, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, United Kingdom
France is known for having highly centralized, hierarchical, and bureaucratic organizations (Crozier 1964; Maurice and Sellier 1986), as well as weak and divided labour unions (Amadieu 1995). Legislation at national level has aimed at giving French workers increasing voice in organizational decision-making – via, for example, personnel delegates and ‘expression groups’. However, most analyses conclude that these do not provide effective voice mechanisms due to the weak formal bargaining rights associated with these bodies (e.g Gumbrell-McCormick and Hyman 2006). In this climate, ‘managerial unilateralism’ is widely viewed to be the norm (Goyer and Hanké 2004), with particularly low adoption of ‘high involvement’ forms of work organization in international comparison (Guerro and Barraud-Didier 2004).

France Telecom (FT) long appeared to fit the stereotype of the typical low-trust, hierarchical French organization. In the mid-2000s, following liberalization and partial privatization of the company, management implemented a series of controversial restructuring measures aimed at reducing personnel, centralizing decision-making, and reorganizing work via consolidation and increased specialization. These were widely criticized by FT’s unions, and became the focus of negative media attention following a wave of employee suicides in 2007-2009. Management responded with initiatives aimed at improving the quality of working life, including negotiating a series of ‘social accords’ with FT’s labor unions.  These involved the unions in a substantive social dialogue for the first time about restructuring policies and work organization practices.

In this paper, we examine the resulting changes in labour relations and work organization at France Telecom that occurred between the late 2000s and early 2010s. We focus on one major group of FT employees – field technicians – to analyze the effects of initial restructuring measures and the subsequent changes in management policies on both job quality and the labour relations climate.  Findings are based on several studies conducted by the co-authors. The first involved over 30 interviews with labour and management representatives between 2010 and 2012, at the beginning of the changes discussed. The second involved 54 interviews with field technicians and managers in 2011, with a focus on the experience of this group of employees with changes in work organization in the mid-2000s. The third was based on a follow-up study in 2013 of this group of field technicians after work reorganization initiatives aimed at both job enrichment and improving skill utilization through creating ‘multi-skilled teams’.

Together, these studies show that the success of these work reorganization initiatives can be attributed in part to new power resources of labour representatives following the ‘social crisis’ at both local- and company-levels. Findings contribute to debates over the conditions under which ‘high involvement’ models of work organization can be created and maintained in settings with weak formal institutional support for worker participation in decision-making.