13-18 May – the tremors

The 13 May general strike

The demonstrations of 13 May had a real success but more in terms of number of participants than in terms of any strikes that were behind them. The section of industrial employees belonging to companies with less than 50 staff did not go on strike, but those in the big workplaces, or rather in the state sector, were in the front line: EDF and GDF (80%), Railways (50%)<fn>A very strong participation in the Paris region as well as in the provinces.</fn>, RATP (60%) education (75%) and above all the Post Office. In the latter, sporadic strikes had been breaking out since 8 May in the offices of Paris Nord (74% strikers), Paris Est (33% strikers), Paris Austerlitz and Paris Brune, and on 10 May amongst the drivers on the orders of the CGT, following on from agitation growing since March<fn>The account relating to Paris Austerlitz.</fn>.

However, in the Paris metalworking industry the figures for participation were only between 25% and 35%, principally in cars and aviation. 35% of the employees in Social Security and from 10 to 16% in the insurance industry were involved. At Renault-Billancourt the participation in the strike is difficult to estimate (between 40 and 80% according to the figures), but it was mostly the unionised, therefore the most skilled, who went to the demonstration. At Thomson (Bagneux and Gennevilliers [Hauts-de-Seine]) the rate of participation was 60-65%. In the Atomic Energy Centre (CEA) at Saclay (Essonne), the rate was 75%, at Chausson 90%. At the Rhône-Poulenc chemical factory in Vitry (Val-de-Marne), it was 50%. These few figures give an idea of the atmosphere in the workplaces, because if it had been a long time since a trade union “day of action” had achieved such a success, this was still not a tidal wave. Without doubt it is this which encouraged the management of Citroën-Levallois to lock out the workers, who had not yet gone on strike.

More important, certainly, is the fact that thousands of workers were affected by the student agitations and, however weakly, had expressed their disapproval of the authorities. What would happen next? The strike began<fn>Delale and Ragache signalled the first case of an occupied factory, Wisco at Givet, in the Ardennes, where the boss had refused to apply a regional collective agreement since April: “The workers replied with a series of stoppages with no result. On 9 May they decided on a surprise occupation of the factory: at 2 in the morning the strike pickets took up position. The boss then called for two platoons of gendarmes and a bailiff. In response the strikers barricaded themselves in the building (trade unionists of the CFDT, CGT and FEN came as a march to support them). The face-off lasted two days. Fearing disturbances the prefect made the boss apply the agreement. Victorious, the first “occupiers” of May went home on 10 May, at 21.30”</fn> on 14 May in Woippy, a suburb of Metz: 500 workers from the Claas factory (producer of agricultural machines) went out. After a brief meeting, they demanded the application of a metalworking industry joint agreement, a new salary scale, the improvement of working conditions and the revision of timing norms. The next day they voted for an indefinite strike. now let’s look at some of the workplaces that were significant at the beginning of the strike.

Sud Aviation

The strike subsequently started up at the Sud-Aviation factory, in Bouguenais, close to Nantes.<fn>In January 1968, Sud-Aviation Bouguenais employed 2682, of which 1793 were hourly-paid workers and 831 were technicians and salaried staff.</fn> For a few months there had been the threat of redundancies and reductions in working hours – following a reduction in activity, the management wanted to cut the working week from 48 to 47 hours, paid for 47 hours; the workers wanted the cut to 47 hours but paid for 48 hours – which led to a certain amount of agitation which would reach its crescendo at the beginning of May. Thus between 9 April and 10 May there were thirteen days when there were stoppages called by the unions, between one hour and eight hours long<fn>For more details see: www.mondialisme.org.</fn>

Finally, on Tuesday 14 May there was a stoppage from 14.30 to 15.00 and from 15.30 to 16.00 with a march through the workshops. The meeting between the delegates and the management achieved nothing. For the first time the salaried staff stopped work. The director Duvochel was blockaded in his office during the wait for the response from the managers in Paris. The delegates blocked the exits to stop the workers from leaving so a de facto occupation was put in place, perfectly controlled by the CGT. The director and his assistants were therefore kept in the management offices, with telephones, kept supplied by the unions until they were freed on 29 May.

Renault Cléon

On 15 May in Cléon<fn>The factory was recently built (1958) and implanted in a rural area where traditional industries (textiles at Elbeuf) were being rapidly lost. It employed 5200, of whom 750 were contractors. The rate of unionisation was 18% (national average 22%). There were 11% immigrants and 1600 younger than 25. The majority of workers were unskilled, and there were 95 different hourly rates! The factory made engines and gear boxes.>/fn> the unions took the temperature of the shop floor to see if they could rebound from the success of the 13th and bring some pressure to bear for the removal of some Social Security regulations imposed by the government on 21 August 1967. They succeeded in getting a decision for a one-hour stoppage per shift.

During the morning stoppage the workers, led particularly by the resurgent youth, marched through the workshops to incite the non-strikers to stop work. They called for the formation of a strike committee and hardly mentioned the question of the regulations in their slogans. It took all the diplomacy of a CFDT official to get the workers back to their posts, and elsewhere they frequently interrupted work to discuss and keep the new arrivals up-to-date about what had happened.
For the afternoon shift there was the same initial scenario of a stoppage, but under pressure from the
youth they organised a march. At its head were 200 young people who went and chanted slogans under the management’s windows. There they gathered, pushed in front of their stunned delegates and demanded that these should be met (the director refused). In the offices, the department heads panicked, blocking the doors with iron bars. Seeing this, the workers announced that the management would not leave their offices until they had met the delegates. At 6 p.m. no one was working any more and the occupation was voted for with enthusiasm. The managers were therefore blocked in like at Sud Aviation from the evening of the 15th. The CGT tried to free them on 17 May, but had to give up in the face of the outcry which met their proposal. They finally succeeded on 19 May.

The unions created an order service. They organised the occupation — which consisted in particular of protecting the machines — and put forward a list of demands, which appeared in the form of a pamphlet at 11 p.m.: “Reduction of working time to 40 hours without loss of pay; minimum wage of 1000 francs; lowering of the retirement age; transformation of the contract workers into permanent staff; increase in trade union rights.”

On the same evening the strike, complete at Renault, paralysed two other workplaces in the region: Kléber-Colombes at Elbeuf and La Roclaine at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. Nevertheless, the CGT (and the older workers) rapidly gained control of the strike.

Renault Flins

At Flins<fn>Constructed in 1952, the Flins factory, which mostly recruited from rural areas, was famous for its harsh regime. Above all, it is here that Renault put in practice the principle of a job wage, before the generalisation to all it establishments. According to this principle, a worker is paid according to the job he does, and not according to qualification. The job wage therefore had a double effect: an infinite division of the particular situations of workers, and the reinforced power of the boss who could change a worker’s job to either bully or promote him. The factory employed around 10,500 at the beginning of the year and 12,300 at the end. 1968 was also marked by the passage to working in two shifts of eight hours (“2x8”).</fn> on the morning of 16 May, the trade union activists of the CFDT had arranged a meeting to discuss how to put into practice the confederation’s directives on the question of the regulations. Before going to this one of the members heard by phone that the Cléon factory was on indefinite strike with an occupation, and that the managers were being held. As a result the CFDT-ers decided to go and see the CGT to propose a one-hour stoppage at 10.15 a.m. In teams of two (one CFDT and one CGT), the union activists went into the workshops to give the order. At the appointed hour around 500 workers stopped work and gathered outside the buildings. They went back into the workshops as a march to encourage the others to stop work. At 11.30, they regrouped in front of the canteen. The two officials of the CFDT and the CGT explained what had happened at Cléon and proposed to start an indefinite strike. The proposal was adopted and the occupation was organised right away. At the beginning this consisted of putting pickets in place and writing names of volunteers on picket lists.

Before breaking up for lunch they met up at 14.00 for a new meeting with the afternoon shift. This meeting again adopted the principle of the indefinite strike with an occupation. At 15.30, the management shut down the factory for those who were still working. This version of events comes from a unionist of the CFDT.

At the morning meeting it had above all been a question of solidarity with Cléon. In the afternoon, one of the unions presented a list of demands: “40 hours without loss of pay; 1000 francs minimum wage; retirement at 60 (55 for women); five weeks holiday for young people; cancellation of the regulations; trade union rights”.

Renault Billancourt

A lot has been said about the CGT/PCF versions of how the strike started, of impressions, of false or tendentious facts etc. We will remark only that the account of Aimé Halbeher, General Secretary of the CGT of Renault Billancourt, has this flash of honesty; “On the 17th in the morning at 6 a.m. they opened the doors to the shifts arriving for work and set up a rendezvous for a meeting at Seguin Island at 10.00” and, further, they “decided on Friday to occupy for the weekend”<fn>According to Aimé Halbeher (See n°34, April 1998 “Un début modeste dans la "forteresse ouvrière"”): “At Renault, the strike movement started on the 16 May in the morning at Cléon, then at the branch in Le Mans. At Billancourt, hearing on the radio what had happened, we called a meeting on Seguin Island and there were a thousand of us out of 35,000 workers. We one thousand occupied Seguin Island. We occupied for the night but it wasn’t decided in place of the boys, we occupied to avoid a bosses’ lock-out. In the night a few hundred salaried staff joined us after getting an idea of the development of the movement from the radio. On the 17th in the morning, at 6 a.m., they opened the doors to the shifts starting work and we got together for a meeting on Seguin island at 10 a.m. There were a lot of people there. The CGT was the great majority in the factory but they had looked for an alliance as quickly as possible. During the night they joined up with the FO and the CFDT and appealed for the strike together.
A strike massively voted for every morning
They didn’t call for an indefinite general strike but for a renewable strike with an occupation, with a vote by the general assemblies each morning. This was a new approach. They decided on Friday to occupy for the weekend to give time for the management to open negotiations without seriously disturbing production. They created strike committees by section and by workshop, each one putting forward its list of demands. The management showed no sign of life. On Monday there was a new mass meeting where the three trade union organisations proposed carrying on with the renewable strike, it was massively voted for each morning.
Hot days for the first worker-students meeting
The first night the radios had passed on the slogan of the students to go into the factories to fraternise with the workers. We appealed to the students not to come. We didn’t want to give any pretext for a police intervention. The students didn’t understand that we were refusing them permission to enter. That was the first worker-student encounter. I am certain that, if we had let the students in, the next day the workers would not have re-entered the factory to occupy it with us. In those hot days in May, we often went in a delegation to Nanterre. I even invited Sauvageot to debate at the Place Nationale on the themes of “workers’ power” and “student power”. They refused to debate, but they organised one which I went to in the middle of the night. It was a crazy world. Sauvageot was not present. I explained the rights that we already had at Renault and that their slogans about comanagement did not bring any great thing that we didn’t know already and that all this stuff wasn’t very revolutionary. We had debates like this throughout the duration of the strike.”</fn>

True, except that the factory had already been stopped since the day before, because it is rather on the 16th, the Thursday, that the sectors got going spontaneously. At no time was there any link-up on the afternoon of Thursday 16th between the strikers of sections 55 and 70 and those at 37 (on the headland downstream from Seguin Island).<fn>In 1968, Billancourt had 38,230 employees.</fn> Contrary to what has been written elsewhere (cf. mondialisme.org), sector 37 only went on strike towards 5 p.m. How therefore could there be a common meeting between the two sectors of strikers at the Zola Kermen crossroads opposite sector 37 (more than two kilometres away on foot)?

This is the account of a comrade who worked in section 37, sheet-metal working, composed of skilled workers. He was at this time in contact with the group Voix Ouvrière [“Workers’ Voice”, “VO”]. On the famous 16 May at mid-day there was an attempt at a meeting in the National Square of the Trotskyist group the PCI (“Lambert” group) and the workers from the neighbouring buildings returning from the canteen. They stopped for a few minutes, discussed and then went back to their workshops, while others went to lunch, left, etc. In the aftermath of this the workers of sections 55 (bar turning) and 70 (small scale machining) began to move without being on a declared strike but without working very much either for an hour or two. The word went around the island that the strike had started, but they didn’t know what had happened and, in section 37, sprits rose. The boys said “good, let’s go” and then it fell back again. Then it started up again, with everyone discussing. The union delegate for the CGT local was in the same boat as the others and knew nothing. Finally, towards 5 p.m., without anybody in particular taking the lead, it started up massively when 200 to 300 boys from the department began to go back to Seguin Island in a march, therefore crossing the assembly lines (metalworking, bodywork, assembly) where mostly immigrants worked (and where the presence of the CP and CGT was weaker). The lines stopped and the mass of unskilled workers deserted the factory right away. It’s difficult to say that the lines were on strike. They weren’t working any more, that’s for sure, but a good part of the workers simply fled before the march, running away and leaving the factory. Hardly any workers from the lines joined the march of strikers from section 37. In a situation of total improvisation, the strikers launched an occupation. It wasn’t a question of occupying the whole island because there weren’t enough of them. They therefore went off to occupy the Bas-Meudon sector and thus at the same time closed the southern access to Seguin Island by blocking the Meudon bridge. The next day, Friday 17, the factory was closed. There were a lot of people at the meeting organised by the CGT at 10 a.m. in the middle of Seguin Island. The CGT had largely mobilised the sectors where it had the major influence, that is to say the professional sectors, and that made up a lot of people, but there were also a lot of workers from the assembly lines on the island. After the meeting the CGT contingents headed towards Bas- Meudon supposedly to “reinforce the pickets”. In fact, starting from then, the workers in occupation since the day before were submerged and it was the apparatus of the CGT which took charge of things with all the means at its disposal: canteens, works councils etc., and this was the case until the end of the strike.

To sum up after some considerable research, the strike began on Thursday 16 May in two separate parts of the factory and two hours apart without any direct connection between them:

· Sections 55 and 70, towards 14.15,
· Section 37, towards 17.00.

These two beginnings were “outside the unions”, as Halbeher recognises in a comment elsewhere<fn>See the note on the previous page</fn>

First impressions

Geographically, the strong points of this first wave of strikes were the Paris region and the valley of the Seine as far as Le Havre, the region of Nantes Saint-Nazaire and the Lyon region. In the other regions the strike remained limited.

On 17 May the number of strikers reaches 200,000. The movement spreads like wild fire around the original regions and then takes the South East, from Besançon to Provence. In the Paris suburbs many factories were on strike but, up to the evening of the 17th, it was above all the workers of the provinces who led the action.

On the first days workers’ spontaneity was obvious. “Occupied Factory: we’ve had enough!” proclaimed the banner on the Vinco factory (metal office equipment) in Dieppe. This was not an isolated case. The anagram which the workers made from the letters of BERLIET, replaced with LIBERTÉ, was charged with a symbolic value. None of these actions corresponded to a precise slogan.

This first wave has often been presented as spontaneous, which is not exactly true unless we understand spontaneous to mean “the absence of trade union strike slogans on the federal or confederal level”. In the absence of detailed reports from each factory, it nevertheless emerges that many strikes were launched or supported by militants of the CGT<fn>See M. Seidman “The imaginary revolution”, p 169</fn>, however often they were imposed or carried out by minorities (like the 200 young people at Cléon) who carried along the rest of the workers or won their passive agreement. Even in the Paris region, where we have the benefit of reports from the CATE (Worker-Student Action Committee) of Censier on the contacts made that week in numerous workplaces (FNAC, BHV, RadioTechnique, NMPP, etc.), we can state that only a minority of workers, including CGT delegates, asked themselves the question “what shall we do?” and were not hostile to outsiders turning up to discuss things with them. What were the causes of this?

First of all there were the years of frustration, as much for the younger generation of workers as for the older ones. Then there was the weariness from the days of action which were seen as repetitive and useless even by the union militants. Finally there was the sensation that the authorities were weakened and that this was something they could benefit from. More marginally, for some PCF union militants there was the fear of being outflanked. These various pressures were not fought by the leadership of the CGT even if it didn’t necessarily make publicity about them. But elsewhere the movement carried on and extended itself. Let’s take a quick snapshot of the sectors entering the strike from 14 to 17 May. Among the first factories, 45 were linked to heavy metalworking or engineering, 19 others were in car manufacturing and 13 were in aeronautics. However, the massive presence in this avant-garde of chemical and artificial textile workers (23 factories), of electrical engineering (17), of food processing (15), of building (2) and still other sectors indicates a profound and general discontent which went beyond simple sectional problems.