“If the Conflict Ends in Court, the Case is Lost”

Justice at Work
Legal Action as a Constraint in Trade-Unions’ Mobilizations
By Baptiste Giraud

Despite the development of considerable activist experience in the use of Law, many trade-union activists remain ambivalent about the relevance of legal action. They consider it as a last-resort, both for legal, organizational and strategic reasons. We explore this issue using an ethnographic survey conducted among activists from a local structure of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT). The first results highlight how trade unions have an ambiguous effect as intermediation spaces on the recourse to legal action by its members. Legal counseling and legal support to members, as well as legal training for unions’ local representatives, has indeed become a central activity for the leaders of the organization, and an opportunity to recruit new members and to support their militant action. Yet, legal activities and recourse to justice are mitigated by a widespread preference for more militant methods of industrial conflict, thought to be more effective and aligned with the values of the organization. In a second step of the analysis, we study a long strike movement, which highlights the legal strategies developed by employers to contain strikes, but also the difficulties met by trade-unionists in conjointly leading legal action and the organization of strikes. To conclude, this article accounts for a number of limits in the “judicialization” of trade union strategies, and for the diversity of conditions upon which a judicialization of labor disputes may indeed happen.

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