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Strike at TotalEnergies, crisis profiteer in the crosshairs of its employees

For ten years, it has almost become a physical law, as intangible as that of water boiling at 100 degrees at sea level: at TotalEnergies, dividends never drop. Whatever the economic situation, whether profits are soaring or collapsing, the tricolor giant guarantees its shareholders unfailing loyalty. “In 2020, when the group made “only” 4 billion dollars in net income, there was panic on board, mocks Thierry Defresne, of the CGT. But since they had 7 billion in dividends to pay despite everything, our leaders simply decided to borrow from the banks. As a result, the group’s debt ratio fell from 16% to 19%…»

Right now, tankers have every reason to be rubbing their hands. Boosted by the war in Ukraine, the price of brent (crude from the North Sea) has reached 120 dollars a barrel, while the price of fuel at the pump is flying from record to record: the liter of diesel reached 2.15 euros this Thursday in French service stations, according to the Carbu.com site. While the vast majority of motorists stick out their tongues, Total shareholders see life in pink: the group earned $ 4.9 billion in profits in the first quarter of 2021 and should announce half-yearly results next July.

An unprecedented mobilization in the group

It is in this context of sweet euphoria that the CGT calls, for the first time, all of the 35,000 French employees dependent on TotalEnergies (group and subsidiaries) to disengage, this Friday. In question, the low wages, especially for the least qualified workers of certain subsidiaries, who see their management taking full advantage of inflation, while they are struggling to fill the tank of their car.

Khaoine Rahou, staff representative and elected CGT at the CSE of Argedis (service stations, 3,200 employees), is in this situation. For twenty years, he has worked in a petrol station of this subsidiary, on the A13 motorway, for a royal pay of 1,300 euros net. “Right now, I have to pay 120 euros for a full tank of gas, which only lasts me a week and a half, he curses. I live in Paris, 50 kilometers from my workplace. I have been offered several times to work in a station in the capital, but it is a very bad idea: in Paris, stations can close overnight and you find yourself on the street. The points of sale sit tires on highways have a much longer lifespan…”

Despite everything, Khaoine believes that he is not the worst off of the employees of his gas station: “There are only two of us with my wife, with no mouths to feed. But I know a cleaner with three children, paid 1,200 euros a month, forced to go to Restos du Coeur… People are afraid to talk, but these situations exist. »

“80% of Argedis employees are eligible for the activity bonus (granted to the lowest incomes – editor’s note), fulminates Djamila Mehidi, CGT central union delegate. We are the lowest paid group employees. The management opposes us that the situation is similar with our competitors… As employees of this subsidiary, we cannot benefit from the common social base practiced in the group, and in particular profit-sharing. »

Until now, says the trade unionist, the Argedis salary scale nevertheless started above the minimums for the branch, but the recent rise in the Smic has led to a decline in salaries. This Friday, striking employees are demanding increases that at least cover inflation.

Wage increases fluctuate between 1.1% and 1.7%

For years, the group has been trying to buy social peace with generous bonuses and profit-sharing (beneficial for employers, because it is exempt from social security contributions), but has been more stingy when it comes to wage increases. Since 2015, general increases for Total workers and employees have fluctuated between 1.1% and 1.7% per year, despite the almost continuous growth in profits. “Give us back Christophe de Margerie!” », laughs a trade unionist from the group on condition of anonymity.

According to him, the former CEO, who died in 2014, practiced a slightly more balanced salary policy: “Since the arrival of Patrick Pouyanné at the head of the group in 2015, the time has come to reduce costs. All the benefits, such as the seniority bonus, have been integrated into the general increases to inflate the envelope. » This does not prevent the group from being much more generous towards its leader, whose remuneration has soared by 52% in 2021, to 5.9 million euros. Enough to fill up with gas…

The latest wage agreement, signed in January 2022, provides for a 2.35% general increase, which does not cover inflation. However, the current geopolitical context could encourage management to loosen the purse strings. At the moment, oil companies are winning on all counts: upstream, thanks to the surge in the price of brent caused by the invasion of Ukraine; but also downstream (distribution), thanks to the explosion in refining margins, i.e. the difference between the cost of crude oil purchased by refineries and that of the product they sell once refined . These margins, traditionally low, have exploded in recent months, following in particular the sanctions voted by the United States and the European Union against Russian refineries, which reduced refining capacity on the continent.

In addition, the oil groups have ceased to close refineries in Europe for ten years. Logical consequence: when supply cannot keep up with demand, prices rise! And it’s the consumers who drink… For example, refining brought in $1.1 billion for Total in the first quarter of 2022, or 4.6 times more than last year over the same period.

Around the world, political pressure is mounting for the oil giants to join in the general effort. In the United States, President Joe Biden recently castigated the voracity of Exxon, which “made more money than God this quarter”. In Italy or Great Britain, governments have announced the creation of exceptional levies on the profits of energy companies.

Tax superprofits and invest them in the ecological transition

In France, two channels could be used: an exceptional tax on Total’s profits and a temporary freeze on fuel prices. Supported in particular by Nupes during the legislative campaign, these two tools seem quite credible in the eyes of Thomas Porcher, an economist specializing in hydrocarbons: We must tax the superprofits of the oil companies. This has already been done, notably in the 1970s in the United States, when people spoke of “unforeseen” profits. The argument of the multinationals, which oppose it by highlighting the need to invest in renewables, is not admissible. After 2003 and the explosion in oil prices, they reinjected a large part of the their benefits in the pursuit of the exploration and production of fossil fuels (shale oil, in particular). It is therefore necessary to tax their “unforeseen” profits, and to use the proceeds to invest in the energy transition.»

As for the temporary blocking of prices (six months), it is permitted by article 410-2 of the Commercial Code in the event of exceptional circumstances. In practicecontinues the economist, it will be necessary to bring together all the players in the French sector (production and distribution): the oil companies, which reap colossal profits; supermarkets, which use gasoline as a loss leader and which have the financial means to deal with price freezes; and finally, independent distributors, who represent a small share of the market. It will be necessary set a price that guarantees the survival of the independents, knowing that everyone will have to cut back on their margins…»


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