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

Thursday, July 13, 2017
Gilbert Scott Building - Room 356 (University of Glasgow)
Virginia Doellgast , Cornell University
Maxime Bellego , University Aix-Marseille
Elisa Pannini , Management, London School of Economics and Political Science
France is known for having centralized, hierarchical, and bureaucratic organizations (Crozier 1964; Maurice and Sellier 1986), as well as weak and divided labor unions (Amadieu 1995). France Telecom/Orange (FT) long appeared to fit this stereotype. In the mid-2000s, 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. In this paper, we examine the resulting changes in labor relations and work organization that occurred between the late 2000s and early 2010s. Findings are based on a study of organizational restructuring in European telecommunications firms between 2010 and 2012; and a study examining the experience of field technicians and managers with work reorganization in 2011 and 2013, prior to and after initiatives creating ‘multi-skilled teams'. Union representatives played an increasingly important role in both formal and informal negotiations, as the company moved to a more collaborative model relying on broadened skills and enhanced employee participation in decision making. We argue that outcomes can be attributed to new communicative power resources of labor, derived from the strong and ongoing media attention to working conditions at FT in the wake of the suicides – and marking a shift from conflict-exclusion to conflict-partnership.