The referendum is a democratic weapon to be used sparingly and wisely, in social relations as well as in politics.
Jean-Marc Janaillac, the CEO of Air France-KLM, learned this from bitter experience, as Jacques Chirac did before him 13 years ago, about the European Constitutional Treaty.
To everyone’s surprise, since the government and almost all the observers took for granted the success of the Yes in favor of the wage agreement, laboriously negotiated between two strike movements, between the top management and the ten unions organizations of the company. If the unions originally asked for a general increase in the salary grid by 6% in 2018, the management had approached this claim by proposing 7% spread over 3 years when the social partners asked only +5.1% the first year. As the interunion rejected its final proposal, the CEO announced on April 16, to everyone’s surprise, the organization of a consultation of all employees on the drafted agreement. Much more, he linked his position as group’s head to a positive response. On Friday, May 4, 55.44% of the company’s 46 771 employees replied “No” to the question. A clear-cut result with a strong turnout of 80.33%. The failure of the management is blatant and Jean-Marc Janaillac had to draw the consequence, announcing, as he had committed, his departure.
Three main factors could explain this “social crash”.
All the observers had in mind the precedent of 1994. Christian Blanc, appointed CEO a few months earlier, had successfully submitted his recovery plan for Air France to the approval of the employees.
The context, however, was quite different: the company was coming out of a very tough conflict that had led to the departure of its previous CEO and its sustainability seemed threatened after a difficult double merger with UTA and then Air Inter. Jean-Marc Janaillac and his collaborators were unable to convince their employees that in 2018 the issue was of the same order. The conflict remained that of a debate on the sharing of the group’s results, which became positive in 2017 after ten years of continuous losses
Moreover, the successive concessions of the management, through the meetings, could have reduced the awareness of the risks for the commercial competitiveness and the financial health of the company.
Far from having the feeling of engaging the survival of their company, the employees, all categories combined, reaffirmed their willingness to be associated with the recovery of the company and to see their remuneration revalorized in a uniform way to “offset the price increase since 2011”.
Management was all the less credible in its effort to “dramatize” the issue of consultation that it had itself benefited from significant wage measures at the beginning of 2018. It was the announcement of these that triggered the social protest and allowed the launch of the strike movement.
This is obviously an essential factor in the failure of the consultation, as the management of the company was not “in a position” to convince the staff of the risks created by their demands.
The last factor to be addressed is the communication strategy, both internally and vis-à-vis public opinion, management and public authorities.
Both have denounced relentlessly, including after the failure of the referendum, “the selfishness” of the pilots, considered the main blocking factor of the negotiations. A double mistake.
On the one hand, because experience shows that the stigma of a social category is never a very effective argument in France. President Macron acknowledged that about the status of railway workers in his recent interview with JJ. Bourdin and E. Plenel, and even “confessed”, it was not sufficiently pointed out, that the Government had made a mistake on this point. Wanting to mobilize a social category against the privileges of any particular group does not work in our country. It’s a constant in our social life. It was seen for example in the years 70-80 about the printing workers and in the years 90-2000 for the dockers and then for the employees of the SNCM. Without coming back to the case of railway workers yet questioned at regular intervals since the great strike of 1953.
On the other hand, this explanation does not seem to correspond to the reality of the conflict. The 4 000 pilots represent 8.5% of the 46 771 employees of Air France. 44.53% of these voted No. 20% chose not to vote. Whatever the attitude of pilots representatives, imputing to them the responsibility of the conflict and the lack of regulation seem to disregard the expectations and aspirations of other categories, which reflects the strength of the interunion which has so far remained united. So it may be asked whether Air France officials have not taken up their own communication on this point and have not for this reason underestimated the reality of social discontent.
The use of the referendum is always random. To be successful, it assumes that the context allows for a fundamental issue to emerge and to convince the electoral body of the absence of any “plan B”. The issue for Air France employees of a rejection of the plan: in the immediate future, after the appointment of a new CEO, a new negotiation7ith him to get out of the crisis… presumably with an improvement of the drafted agreement.