Part 3. Grenelle


The Grenelle negotiations were attended by the trade unions, the employers and the government. They were given this name because the offices of the Interior Ministry, where the meetings took place, were located on Rue de Grenelle. They began on Saturday, May 25 at three in the afternoon and ended on Monday, May 27, at seven in the morning. They were the culmination of a series of contacts between employers, the government and the trade unions. A few days earlier, the National Council of French Employers (CNPF) had carefully noted Séguy’s1 May 20th speech at Billancourt. We will recall that the CGT at that time rejected the CFDT’s demands for co-management. The CNPF let the CGT know that they were always open to discussion. For his part, Jacques Chirac, the Minister of State for Social Affairs, met with Magniadas of the CGT at Anvers Square and spoke with Krasucki2 over the phone.

During the course of one of the first meetings, the CGT requested that the government repeal the Social Security reforms as a gesture of good will, in order to generate the right atmosphere for the negotiations.3 And the CGT also made it known that payment for all the days of the strike and the sliding scale for wages were preconditions for any negotiations. Pompidou4 did not respond. Then they addressed the question of the SMIG (guaranteed inter-professional minimum wage). The three parties (State, employers and trade unions) agreed upon an immediate significant increase in the level of the SMIG. After that point, however, most of the topics of negotiation remained deadlocked. And this deadlock lasted until the second night of the negotiations. According to Adrien Dansette,5 Séguy declared at midnight on Sunday, that the negotiations had reached a dead end. But he met with Chirac around four or five in the morning in a tête á tête in a lounge in the Ministry. During the course of this interview, Séguy withdrew his demands for the repeal of the Social Security reforms and for the sliding scale.6 Chirac took notes of their conversation and brought them to Pompidou. As a result, the negotiations would continue and all parties agreed on the text of the protocol that we shall now examine.

The Protocol of Agreement

This agreement was not signed but its preamble indicated that the parties involved in its elaboration were: the CGT, the CGT-FO, the CFDT, the CFTC,7 the CGC,8 the FEN,9 the CGPME,10 and the CNPF. Its 14 points were as follows:

1. An increase in the guaranteed inter-professional minimum wage of three francs per hour, effective as of June 1, 1968;
2. Salaries of civil servants and similar categories: the discussions were to be ongoing;
3. Wages in the private sector: an increase of 7% in June 1968. This percentage included the increases already granted since January 1, 1968. The increase was to be ramped up to 10% on October 1, 1968;
4. Reduction of the working day: an agreement between the employers and the trade unions on the principles for an agreement to reduce the hours of labor “with the ultimate goal of a 40 hour week”. Before the end of 1970, a reduction of two hours for those who worked regular 48 hour weeks, and a reduction of one hour for those hourly workers whose work week varied from 45 to 48 hours;
5. Revision of labor contracts: a commitment on the part of the negotiating parties to meet to amend the contracts to conform with the results of the Grenelle negotiations;
6. Employment and training: the negotiating parties resolved to come to an agreement in order to improve the guarantees of stable employment, reclassifications of job categories, and training;
7. Trade union rights: the government made a commitment to submit legislation on trade union rights in the enterprise. For the time being, an agreement was concluded with respect to trade union sections in the enterprise and the hours granted to the delegates for conducting trade union business;
8. Social Security: reduction of the co-pay11 [“ticket moderador”] from 30% to 25%. Agreement on the need for an immediate parliamentary debate on the ratification of the Social Security Reform Laws;
9. Family Aid: establishment of support services for families with three or more children, single mothers and one-income families;
10. Old Age: an increase (without specifying any figures) of the minimum level of support for indigent elderly, to go into effect on October 1, 1968;
11. Taxation: commitment to implement fiscal reform measures for the purpose of reducing taxes on wage workers;
12. Purchasing Power: commitment to hold a meeting between the government, the employers and the trade unions in March 1969 in order to discuss the decline in purchasing power during 1968;
13. Prices: the CNPF requested that price controls not be as strict as the controls imposed in the other countries of the Common Market;12
14. Days Lost to the Strike: these were to be made up for. The employers would advance 50% of the wage bill, reimbursable with hours of labor that would be made up for. Should the hours not be made up for before December 31, 1968, the balance would fall to the worker.

We shall now examine the principle points of the agreement.

There was a whole series of points that were nothing but promises or commitments. This was the case with respect to Point 5 on labor contracts, Point 6 on training and Point 11 on Tax Policy. Point 12 was just a promise, too: to discuss the consumer price index and the wage levels in March 1969. This promise was all that remained of the “non-negotiable demand” of the sliding scale.13 Point 4, on the reduction of working hours, was a firm commitment but was to be implemented in stages, for those hourly workers who worked 45 to 48 hours per week, and only stated that the parties agreed as a matter of principle to return to the 40 hour week.14 Similarly, Point 10 on the minimum retirement age represented a commitment with regard to the date when it would be lowered, but not how much it would be lowered.

So far, then, there is nothing very substantial.

Point 8, on social expenses, was more meaningful and beneficial: the co-pay would be reduced from 30% to 25% (which means that the government reimbursement would increase from 70% to 75%). This was not trivial, but it was all that remained of the non-negotiable demand regarding the repeal of the Social Security reforms. It announced a parliamentary debate on the issue, to make this setback easier to swallow.

Point 7 was more concrete … for the trade union members, but perhaps not so much for the workers as a whole. At the same time that the government made a commitment to submit legislation on trade union rights, the employers and the trade unions immediately agreed on a certain number of measures that allowed the trade unions to operate in the enterprises. This was a just reward offered by the employers for the good work done by the trade unions with regard to the regimentation of the strikers. There was, of course, an entire sector of the employers that was violently opposed to trade unions, above all those employers organized in the PYME. This was a feature that would characterize the entire Protocol: the “conquests” of the wage workers were much more annoying and worrisome to the small employers than to the large ones, and the large employers thus entertained the hope of driving some of their smaller competitors out of business.15

There remains the question of wages.

Point 1 pertained to the SMIG, which was increased by 35% (in Paris). This increase affected approximately 7% of the wage workers. It was above all a readjustment, since the gap between the SMIG and the average wage took years to build up. As we said above, this measure was especially irritating to the PYME, and thus had a favorable restructuring effect from the macroeconomic point of view.

Point 2 affected civil service workers. It said nothing about wage increases, but simply proclaimed that the question remained open to further negotiation.

Point 3 announced a 7% increase in wages for the private sector to go into effect on June 1, 1968, followed by a supplementary increase of 3% on October 1. Cornelius Castoriadis16 carried out the following calculation: the two-stage increase meant that measured on a per-year basis, the total increase was no more than 7.75%. This figure must be compared with that of the natural decline of wages during this period, which varied from 6% to 7% per year. The strike therefore won a wage increase of between 0.75% and 1.75%. And since only half the hours of labor lost to the strike were to be paid (Point 12), the work stoppage cost between 3% and 4% of the annual wage (if the duration of the strike is assumed to be between three and four weeks). Castoriadis thus thought the outcome was negative.

As a whole, the agreements were very unsatisfactory. They had no similarities whatsoever, concretely, with the Matignon Agreements of 1936, where the workers “had immediately obtained the 40-hour week and two weeks of paid vacation, considerable trade union rights and a substantial increase in real wages—the total increase is estimated by Alfred Sauvy as equivalent to a raise of 35% to 49%”.17

Thus, the wage increase was in most cases derisory. But the accords said nothing more about the form this increase would assume and the reform of pay scales. The increase was therefore hierarchical, as the CGT desired above all. And nothing was said about the methods of payment, such as piecework or pay according to the type of job. It is a well-known fact that the latter is a weapon that in the hands of the foremen can wreak havoc on assembly line workers. A great deal of the dissatisfaction of the specialized workers was connected with this problem. The Protocol of Grenelle said nothing about it, and it is not surprising that the Protocol did not get a warm reception in the factories where specialized workers were most numerous.

The Rejection of the Protocol of Agreement

We may therefore ask why the trade unions thought it was possible to present this document for the approval of the wage workers. Three answers are possible: either the trade unions, especially the CGT, were content with the protocol. In which case, they had to present their about-face to the workers of Renault-Billancourt, where Georges Séguy and Eugène Descamps18 (CFDT) went on Monday morning, May 27, after leaving Rue de Grenelle. Or Séguy knew that the Protocol was bad, and in this case he wanted it to be rejected by the workers. Or else he hoped he could get the workers to swallow it. In the latter two cases, the decision to go to Billancourt was correct. For if the goal was to make sure the Protocol was rejected, the workers at Billancourt would oblige, since they did not gain much by it; and if the goal was to impose it by force, and if Billancourt went back to work, the rest of the working class could be dragged back to work, too.

The accounts of what happened at the famous ceremony-rally at Billancourt on Monday morning, May 27 are not very informative. The rally had been planned before the beginning of the Grenelle negotiations, as part of the regular routine of the trade unions. Nonetheless, obviously, this day generated a great deal of expectation: the day would be more exciting than usual, since the big bureaucratic bosses had spent the weekend in negotiations and were coming to visit the rank and file.

Walking down the stairs after leaving the Ministry, around 7:30 a.m., the big bosses did not seem to be dissatisfied with their work during the night. Séguy declared that, “there is still much to do, but an important part of our demands has been taken into consideration and what has been resolved is by no means insignificant”. For his part, Eugène Descamps, of the CFDT, felt that “we have obtained results that we have been demanding for years…. The gains thus achieved are important”.19 But both of them said that the decision to accept or reject the agreement had to be made by the workers assemblies. A little later, when Séguy arrived at Billancourt, the rejection of the Grenelle Agreement and the extension of the strike had already been approved, after a speech by Halbeher, the secretary of the CGT. In order to entertain the personnel until the arrival of Séguy, Frachon20 spoke for three-quarters of an hour. He evoked the “appreciable gains” amidst an inauspicious silence. He was followed by Séguy, whose speech was greeted with many shouts and catcalls. For some, it was Séguy who provoked the boos and derision directed at the Points of the Agreement that were unsatisfactory. For others, it was the workers themselves who protested against the Points that Séguy was trying to get them to accept. Various testimonies provide concrete evidence that it was the proposal to make up for the hours of work lost to the strike that provoked irate protests. Séguy evidently finished his speech by approving the continuation of the strike.

We shall now focus on the alternatives that were posed. We could address the issue in a different way. Why did Séguy so abruptly change his position, renouncing the preconditions for negotiation and accepting an agreement that did not correspond with his previously announced intentions? On Sunday afternoon, in the midst of the negotiations, Séguy declared that he was under “imperative orders” to obtain the sliding scale and the repeal of the Social Security decrees.21 He even left the session in order to tell the radio reporters what he had just declared. But later, during the night, after a telephone call, he renounced these two demands, as we have seen. Why? In any case, the explanation is not that Séguy obtained in exchange positions for the CGT in various international organizations like the European Commission or the BIT,22 since these posts had already been promised by the Prime Minister himself in a private meeting on that same morning.

At this point we must pursue a brief detour from our account in order to review the petty internal politics of the left. Throughout the night, Séguy had probably been kept informed of the backroom scheming on the part of the non-communist left. According to Baynac,23 during the night of May 26-27, there was a meeting between the PSU (Rocard, Martinet, Huergeon), the CFDT, the FO, the UNEF and the SNESup. This alliance sought to promote a Mendès-France24 government (Mendès-France was also present at the meeting). Baynac also says that the PCF was immediately informed of this development. This would therefore be the reason for Séguy’s reversal, and Séguy would have therefore been instructed to conclude a pact at any price. The degree of urgency responded to the seriousness of the threat posed by Mendès-France to the PCF. For Mendès-France had the support of the other two major trade union federations, the students and the universities, as well as the support of all kinds of left wing and right wing personalities (Lecanuet,25 Isorni,26 and two-time former Government Minister, Couve de Murville27 ).28 The threat was simply that a center-left government was being planned without the participation of the PCF! We know that Séguy conferred with the party on that famous night. Did he receive the order to sabotage the agreement in order to get the workers to reject it and to aggravate the crisis; or did he just want to rapidly reach an agreement in order to pull the rug out from under the feet of the non-communist left, by putting an end to the strike?

We shall not answer this question in this book. Evidence in favor of the first hypothesis is the fact that, while Séguy was negotiating with Chirac, L’Humanité was on that very same night getting ready to publish a special edition headlined, “The Strike Continues”. Prior to the end of the negotiations, the CGT of Renault distributed a pamphlet with the same message. In that case, Séguy had no other choice but to bear the catcalls and the abuse at Renault with good grace. The strike would continue, the social crisis would become political. Such would have been the plan of the PCF according to this scenario.

The other hypothesis assumes that the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing due to the fact that different factions within the Stalinist bureaucracy were at loggerheads over the question of how to deal with this complicated problem: according to this version, while Séguy was negotiating an agreement that he thought was acceptable (even to those who were giving him orders from the Central Committee?), L’Humanité and the CGT had rejected it in advance and were stoking the flames of the strike at Billancourt, which forced Séguy to make the best of a bad situation.

Our sources do not tell us anything about how the other important enterprises rejected the contents of the protocol that same morning on May 27. On the very same day, Renault-Cléon, Renault-Le Mans, Berliet, Sud-Aviation, Rhodiaceta, Snecma and Citroën-Paris voted to continue the strike. This list29 is not, of course, complete. In some enterprises the workers went back to work but changed their minds when they saw that most of the other workers were still on strike. By the afternoon of May 27 there could be no doubt about it: the strike had obtained a new impulse.

Nothing had changed, nothing had happened? Wrong! For, whatever explanation may be offered for Séguy’s behavior, the result of the Grenelle negotiations, even though the agreement was a dead letter, was the liquidation of the little unity the movement had displayed up until that time. Throughout our account up to this point, we have drawn attention to the efforts of the trade unions—principally the CGT—to limit and to control the unification of the movement. The unified action of the trade union hierarchies, sanctioned at the highest levels by the opening of negotiations with the government and the CNPF, were counterbalanced by efforts to perpetuate the separation of the rank and file. Now, the failure of Grenelle did away with even this bureaucratic form of unity. Negotiations, and thus the strikes as well, and above all, the question of a return to work, were relegated to the level of the industry or the enterprise. Because it was at this level that the employers and the trade unions situated the framework for seeking to revise the Grenelle Protocol in such a way as to allow a return to work. It became quite clear at this time that the revisions would be the outcome of a struggle that would take place at the level of the individual enterprise or the industry, rather than at a national level. While it is true that the return to national negotiations was excluded by neither the CGT (with regard to the issue of the sliding scale) or by the CFDT (with regard to the issue of trade union rights and the Social Security Reforms), such declarations, broadcast after the announcement of the elections, were hardly capable of generating any illusions.