30 May to 7 June – the downturn

The first retreats

During the first five days in June there were numerous police interventions affecting all the big cities of France. The priority targets were: post office banking centres, tax offices, petrol depots, ORTF relay transmitters, etc.

The unions had given moderation instructions: stop the scabs returning to work but don’t oppose police intervention. Nevertheless there were incidents at Dijon, Nancy, Metz, Nantes and Rennes, where the central post office had to be evacuated using tear gas grenades.

The SNCF posed a particular problem: they couldn’t imagine a serious return to work just on a local level. The occupation by the police of one station or one isolated depot could not lead to a significant result in itself. Nevertheless, the government counted on the wildfire effect, due to the supposed demoralisation of the strikers. On 3 June, in Paris, the police cleared the stations of Lyon, Strasbourg, Colmar and Mulhouse. Some trains from the suburbs set out for Strasbourg but at Mulhouse the strikers lay down on the tracks and reoccupied the signal boxes. At 3 in the morning the strikers peacefully reoccupied the stations of Strasbourg and Mulhouse. The demoralised scabs preferred to go home.

In the PTT there was the same disappointment for the authorities: with few exceptions the non-striking
personnel were not sufficient to maintain minimum levels of security. Each morning they had to go back under the protection of the police and the boos of the assembled strikers. After much hesitation, the minister admitted his defeat and sometimes returned the evacuated buildings to the pickets, providing that they promised to maintain a “minimal service in the public interest”.

So they had to wait for the results of the big negotiations taking place. These were taking place in the
offices of various ministries and conformed to the methods put in place during the Grenelle greements, taking on the appearance of real marathons. In most cases there was an impasse: the unions demanded a substantial increase in the financial package assigned to the new social measures; the ministers declared that this was outside their area of responsibility.

The return to work on the SNCF

On the SNCF the government proposed 1200 million francs worth of concessions, the unions wanted 200 million extra. The government consented to one last effort on condition that the union organisations ordered the return to work. This therefore made 1400 million. The unions voted depot by depot, station by station. Alsace- Lorraine took part: the vote on 4 June gave a massively negative response.

During the day of 5 June there was a new ministerial ruling: all of the hours lost would be considered to be immediately reclaimed, because the return of the network to normal required an “exceptional effort” from the rail workers. No train had run for almost three weeks, and it was necessary to prepare the tracks to allow the functioning of signal lights, verify that the signals are working, reconstruct the trains whose carriages have been scattered randomly across France by the strike...

But this final “flower”, which in 1968 was unique, came with an element of blackmail: if there was no return to work the next day the arrangement was cancelled. In the evening, they organised new consultations which had various results: while trains were already moving in the East and the return to work was generally decided in the North and in Paris, on the other hand votes in favour of continuing the movement were carried in the West and the South.

The trade union organisations then published a joint communiqué which allowed them to give in to the
ministerial blackmail while maintaining the illusion of “trade union democracy” and “workers’ unity”. Citing the various results with a small majority for a return to work (although they still hadn’t received all the results), they called for a total stoppage of the strike. What’s more: “In response to worries about coordination expressed by many militants, the federations demand that the rail workers in the centres which have decided to return to work must organise the return in unison within the next few hours”.

On the morning of 6 June, the trade union delegates had the task of liquidating the strike at any price.
They proceeded with a new vote amongst the obstinate workers and when it was, despite all the pressure, once again negative (as was the case in Nantes and at Montpellier station), the local unions decided even then to go back, in the name of “workers’ discipline” and “so as not to oppose the rest of France”.

This technique of the forced return to work was used in other branches and had the result of sickening the strikers most involved in the action. Some of these, in some places, publicly tore up their union cards. But this symptomatic reaction often only reflected the powerlessness of the strikers to take over their strike themselves along with their isolation.

The return to work on the RATP

On the RATP, the return to work was going to be more difficult. Following the refusal of the return to
work on 3 June, new consultations were undertaken by the Corporation, which accepted some additional concessions: a more substantial budget was provided, paid holidays were increased by one day. On 5 June, they voted in the depots again.

The CGT and the independents declared themselves unambiguously in favour of a return to work. Didn’t the Confederal Bureau of the CGT say “that, everywhere where the essential demands have been satisfied the interest of employees lies in pronouncing themselves en masse for a unified return to work”? However, a minority of employees did declare themselves for the determined continuation of the movement. On the morning of 6 June, five lines of the Metro, Nation station and three bus depots (including the Lebrun depot in the Thirteenth Arrondissement) were completely paralysed.

Since the evening before there had been violent discussions between the union officials and part of their own militants, supported by many not belonging to any organisation and the comrades linked to the Censier action committee.

Above all, the CGT systematically spread misinformation about the return to work in other depots to counter the recalcitrant workers and make them believe that such and such a depot was the only one wanting to continue.<fn>Oral account.<fn> You could see drivers getting into their vehicles in tears. But what this showed is that horizontal connections between depots were in their infancy and that the CGT was the master of centralisation. With the RATP having gone back along with the SNCF, normal life in the Paris region was able to begin again.

The return to work in other sectors

In the PTT, in the collieries, in the steelworks of the East, in the refineries, it took almost a week to
negotiate an agreement and some time to convince the workers that they had to accept that agreement. But from 6 June, the return to work was accepted by the employees despite the strikes sporadically continuing for a few days until the bosses employed scabs and temps to break these last strikes. On the evening of Friday 7 June, even if the situation was still far from having returned to normal, France was no longer really paralysed. But the last sectors of strikers show themselves to be more resistant to the hand-back to the bosses. So, amongst the Paris primary school teachers the protesters called a meeting for the evening of Monday 10th at the trade union offices. The unions refused to let them have the offices. But at the appointed hour 3,000 angry teachers demanded to be heard. The return to normal in primary education only happened on 14 June. In many other sectors, like metalworking, electronics and rubber, the conflict dragged on. Feeling themselves buoyed up by the Gaullist wave, the chambers of commerce refused any idea of a national collective agreement and pretended, in the best cases, to stick to a strict application of the Grenelle accords. However, the regime won a psychological victory for public opinion: petrol reappeared in the service stations.

The blockades of the fuel depots

In the Paris region three complexes assured the supply of petrol: the port of Gennevilliers, Villeneuve le Roi/Choisy and Colombes. From 21 May, the depots of Gennevilliers (Mobil, Elf, Antar and SITESC) were occupied along with Total at Saint-Ouen, Antar at Villeneuve and Desmarais at Colombes. On 23 May, the strikers tried to storm the Shell refinery at Nanterre but without success, despite the destruction of telephone cables. But in fact, with the exception of SITESC in Gennevilliers, the main petrol depots were protected by very light pickets (Total Saint-Ouen) or no picket at all (Antar Gennevilliers, Mobil Gennevilliers, Total Colombes). It was therefore very easy for the government to negotiate a reduced distribution with the unions and then to retake the depots after 30 May, peacefully most of the time or violently like at BP Vitry, where the strikers were expelled militarily.