'35 hours' against the proletariat - Mouvement Communiste (France)

1. Introduction

The 35-hour week (Aubry) Bill, passed through the National Assembly by the so-called 'plural' Left, has been hailed as a great social reform worthy of standing in the Pantheon of the achievements of the French workers' movement, alongside the 40 hour week and 2 weeks paid holidays conceded by the Popular Front in 1936.[1] 'An outstanding social advance' and 'cultural improvement' were among the proliferation of superlatives: the CGT chief bureaucrat Louis Viannet particularly excelled himself in this.[2]

According to its advocates, the Aubry Bill would exist within a long-term historical process, in which a marked drop in the length of the working year would lead us to the promised land of the 'heteronomous' liberation of work.[3] For us (communists), this law is part of a tendency, which began to emerge noticeably in 1982 with the 39-hour law: encouraging re-organization of the immediate production process, planning of working time (flexibility, annualization) and in fine the lowering of wages, in order to increase the rate of exploitation of the working class. Behind appearances, the reality is thus considerably less idyllic.

The Aubry Law can be seen as part of the succession of anti-working class laws over the last twenty years, thanks to the large-scale defeats of the proletariat following the restructuring of capital in sectors (metallurgy, car plants, shipyards) where the working class used to be strong, on both the objective and subjective levels. The role played by the PS/PC (Socialist/Communist) government in power at the beginning of the 1980s was at the cutting edge of this offensive, by virtue of its institutional function as political representative of the working class, transmitted into the very heart of the class by its trades union regulatory mechanisms. Thus the Left was the more able to push through the necessary reforms at state level at the same time as playing the role of social experimenter, in order to meet the needs generated by the accumulation of capital.

French capital has been confronted over the last twenty-five years by devaluation crises of ever-increasing magnitude and seriousness (which still show no signs of letting up, as we can see from the '91-'92 crises ), by an historic slowing down in its rate of accumulation and by a decline in its standing on the world imperialist scene; and so has taken to attacking the proletariat with a violence unprecedented since the end of the Second World War. Flexibility, insecurity, atomization: these were the slogans writ large on the banners of the French bourgeoisie, slogans realized in the labour-market which has been turned upside down over the last twenty years.

2. The turning point of 1982

The Aubry Law is the rightful heir to the ruling of January 16th 1982 relating to the decrease in working time. Today, it is only the transition from 40 to 39 hours without loss of salary and the fifth week of paid holiday that the Left would like to retain from this law. As for the working class, it hasn't forgotten that in this period the same ruling only provided full compensation to workers paid the SMIC (the French index-linked, guaranteed minimum wage), at the time of the transition from the 40th hour to the 39th hour. Already, then, sharing of jobs and incomes was on the agenda. Moreover, a reorganization of work was recommended alongside ultimately restraint over the progress in workers' purchasing power. These tendencies provoked a wave of strikes and struggles in early '82, whose key demand was full maintenance of the wage alongside a refusal of the reorganization of work (which meant Saturday working and the abandonment of additional holidays according to seniority and service in some branches of industry, on the pretext of introducing the fifth week of paid holidays), depending on local conditions. The government of the day only dropped its plans in the face of the scale of the workers' mobilization.

Government schemes

(i) The lowering of wages. The lowering of wages was at the source of many disputes. But it is noticeable from the example of the Lavenalet textile factory that the retreat by management on this question hasn't been adequate to the application of a law, which was first of all about company 'modernization', which is nothing other than an increase in productivity. It was necessary to exchange the shortening of working time by an hour for a reorganization of work which permitted the lengthening of the time that machines were in use, both daily and weekly.

(ii) The increase in machine-time. According to the Left, the working time reduction laws were aimed at reducing unemployment. Studying their internal logic shows the contrary: increasing productivity, i.e., fewer workers producing the same commodities.

(iii) The increase in working-time in the public sector. A third thing that is at stake with the laws on working-time reduction, has passed by even more imperceptibly: the legal work duration of 39 hours has been used in order to increase working-time in sectors where the working week was less than 39 hours. This was especially true in the case of public employees. Thus there were echoes in the press of struggles where the press sneered about the 'privileges' of civil servants, overlooking the fact that the specific conditions of their working hours were being used retrospectively to justify the pitiful level of their wages.

(iv) Suppression of breaks and formal and informal dead time. However, what was even was less understood about the 39 hour law, was that in reality it allowed an increase in working time by virtue of the reorganization of the immediate process of production. Because given that formal work-time is 40 hours, the real work-time is in practice more scanty. The resistance to the domination of capital takes place on a day to day level, not just in periods of open struggle. It's a struggle which may be collective and/or individual, and which aims to eke out break-times by any means possible.[4] In particular, there are the collective breaks, tied to meals and so on, which increase gradually, unless the relation of forces allows the framework to reduce them. The renegotiation of work-schedules is always the time chosen by management to call these breaks into question. This is the explanation for sectional disputes for example, generally every two years, at the time of 'technical' reorganization of schedules. This was perhaps one of the least acknowledged reasons for the movements against the 'working time reduction' Act in 1982 and the years following.

A wave of struggles.

In 1983, an article in the French Review of Social Affairs drew up a balance-sheet of labour disputes in France between 1950 and 1982. This article gives a detailed account of four 'multi-sectoral national strikes', "simultaneous strikes in a large number of nationalized and private industries over common demands, chiefly to do with wages, and capable of lasting several weeks". The dates of these were: 1950, 1953, 1968, 1982. The article points out that these movements were not initiated by trade union slogans.

Except for a few specialists in such matters, no one noticed the existence of a 'multi-sectoral national strike'. Indeed the number of days lost in 1982 was not anything like the same magnitude as in 1950, 1953 and 1968. But according to an official account, the period 1969-77 saw half as many days lost as in 1982; and the period 1978-81 saw six times less.

'Local site, partial struggle': thousands of struggles, all directed against the setting up of the 'working-time reduction' law at the level of individual firms, were thus realistic. The local papers gave an account of this. The national papers just spoke of a handshake between them. The unions negotiated the administration of the law case by case, avoiding informing the workers in each firm that their the problems weren't local, specific, particular, for the simple reason that they were broadly sympathetic to the law, in the general context of the Left allowing them to participate more closely in the management of the firms.

The ruling squeezed by struggles

All that remained of the ruling of January 16th 1982 was as follows:

  • the generalization of variable (individualized) working hours, with week-by-week adjustment of working-time, without overtime payments where the weekly duration was exceeded;

  • some departures from the prevailing weekend break regulation, allowing the establishment of weekend shifts;

  • the possibility in industry of making women work until midnight, previously limited to 10pm.
  • What the Giscard-Barre government had vainly attempted to establish at the end of the 1970s due to trade union intransigence was thus realized in a few weeks by the Left and the unions, who had suddenly become more 'inclusive'. Though the introduction of increased flexibility had passed, the government still had to deal with the matter of wages, which the workers had refused to see lowered in return for the reduction of working time. That was achieved at the time of the famous 'change to toughness', in the course of which the prices and incomes freeze was established by June 22nd 1982 law, passed by the Stalinists and social democrats.

    The unleashing of flexibility

    So then the 1982 law opened the Pandora's box of flexibility, annualization and individualization of work. For Jacques Rigaudat, Michel Rocard's old 'social' advisor, the principal merit of the law, beyond dazzling us with free time and the reduction of unemployment, was that it "had introduced a new notion into the Work Code, that of work-time adjustment. (...) Indeed for the first time since its establishment, the Work Code provided for the possibility of departing from the usual rules, from the time that there had been negotiation and agreement."[5] Successive governments of the Left and Right consolidated this tendency, which was further increased over the years by bill after bill encouraging part-time work, temporary work,[6] 'grey' work (TUC, SIVP, CES, CRE,[7] jobs for the young), the development of annualization (Delebarre, Seguin),[8] the re-establishment of night work for women in industry, reduction of overtime (read decrease in the wage differential).

    3.Consequences of the Aubry Law.

    The Aubry Law then is fully situated within this continuity,[9] and brings its own novel touch to capital's magnum opus:

  • Negotiations by sector;

  • the end of uniform social legislation applying to all workers together;

  • the setting up of two SMICs (index-linked guaranteed minimum wage);

  • the acceleration of the development of the annualization of working time.

    Negotiations by sector

    The question is one of a turning point in the relationship between the state, businesses and the working class, which marks the end of the era of the planner-state, which imposed the rules of social relationships from above, as much for the bosses as for the workers. Thus, contrary to the laws of 1936 and 1982, which provided for enforcement directives, the enactment of working time reduction is left at the mercy of negotiations in branches and companies. The law is satisfied with fixing a single buffer date, the terms of which are to be negotiated branch by branch, and especially company by company, according to specific particular situations. As the Minister of Labour Martine Aubry stated to the National Assembly, 'the bill recommends the most decentralized use of collective bargaining possible and great flexibility in the terms of working time reduction so as to improve companies' competitiveness'. This will mean an increasing disparity in the conditions of exploitation of the proletariat leading to a deepening of divisions in its ranks: here annualization, there the employment of part-time workers; here wage-cuts, there atomization by bonuses, etc.

    The end of uniform social legislation

    Beyond the particular terms of enforcement, the law deepens two major divisions: between public and private sector workers, since working-time reduction only affects private companies; and that between workers in firms with more than 20 employees, in which the transition to the 35 hour week takes place on January 1st 2000, and the others which will have to wait until 2002. The government even provides special arrangements for small businesses. This then is the end of uniform legislation for all the workers.

    The setting-up of a dual SMIC

    An hourly SMIC has been kept for those working 39 hours (to avoid an 11.4% hourly rise in costs) and a monthly SMIC for the 'lucky devils' whose employers have moved over to a 35 hour week. However, at 5240 francs a month, these latter will pay dearly for their new-found leisure. Their wage will be almost frozen, and their monthly minimal payment - or whatever they call it - will not increase as fast as the hourly SMIC: "(...) a modest reappraisal of the new 'monthly SMIC' agreed by the state would give an additional indication of strictness to those employers whom the 35 hour week is in danger of provoking into appearing stricter still over payments."[10]

    The development of working time annualization

    The annualization of working time is at the heart of the government's bill, inheriting the tradition of the Seguin and Giraud laws, which allowed companies to depart from legal arrangements on matters of working-time and established annualized part-time work. Replying to the questions of a small businessman in the building trade, the Minister of Labour stated: "why do you say that you are unable to go over to a 35 hour week? No one's telling you how to run your business. You can work more when you have a job to finish, and the workers will make it up afterwards, when business is slack. It will be an average: weekly, monthly, yearly, depending on your needs. No one is going to impose a seven hour day on you".

    At the National Assembly on January 29th, Martine Aubry confirmed: "annual adjustment can be stabilized if it is negotiated and if it doesn't go back on major guarantees. This adjustment we are in favour of". The annualization of working time allows bosses to pay no more for overtime. Indeed, if the working time is calculated by the year, on certain weeks, when the vagaries of production demand 42, 44 or 48 hours per week, overtime (paid at up to 25%, or even 50% more than the normal rate for night work) won't be paid at all, on the pretext that during slack weeks, the working week will be able to drop below 35 hours.[11]

    However, it is well known that in the absence of wage struggles, overtime is the only way that many proletarians can hang onto their purchasing power.[12] Annualization then means the lowering of wages. This is the objective of the Aubry law even though this is obviously not trumpeted by the high-priests of working-time reduction, only in the more muted atmosphere of the National Assembly. Jean Le Garrec, reporting to the Assembly for the PS, openly stated it after doffing his cap to UDF deputy Gilles de Robien[13]: "Everything may be put on the table, notably concerning organizational flexibility. There's nothing hampering a cyclical or annual perspective: in many agreements, we can see the idea of annualization. One of the aims of the agreements is wage control".

    The full logic of job sharing is that workers must accept that wage austerity is the price of working-time reduction and, according to the experts in the pay of the government, is the only guarantee of its proclaimed but mystified objective, to solve unemployment[14]: "it remains for employers and workers' representatives to determine the correct progress for wages that is consistent with the economic perspectives of business", insists Martine Aubry. "In the future, the evolution of wages will have to take into account the lowering in the length of working time (...). I am sure that workers will play their part in creating more jobs in their firms".

    The freezing of wages alongside working-time reduction, together with job creation[15]: such is the lesson drawn by the government from the failure of the 39 hours law (70,000 additional jobs, either created or preserved, in the non-agricultural commercial branches during the first week of 1982), whose magnificent apparatus was scuppered from the start by the 1982 strikes led by selfish workers.

    4.Within companies

    A long story

    The bosses didn't wait for the Aubry Law in order to reduce working-time within their businesses, from the moment that working-time reduction took the form of a Trojan Horse concealing a reorganization of the labour process incorporating the lowering or freezing of wages. All the elaborate legal structures over the last twenty years have given businesses permission to agree working-time reduction locally.

    Let us remind its fanatical exponents, that working-time reduction is not an end in itself for the proletariat. Its application and its effects on 'the labouring classes' are going to depend on the balance of forces between classes. Now, it is well known that for the last fifteen years, this balance of forces has been largely unfavourable to the working class, notably due to the existence of a massive industrial reserve army. Indeed, what good is a reduction in working-time if proletarians pay in full for this with wage reduction (nominal and real), labour flexibility, speed-ups (intensification of work) and the development of shift-work (lengthening of the time that equipment is in use).

    The observation of previous agreements between unions and bosses in recent years perfectly illustrates this mug's game. Most of the time, under the threat and blackmail of lay-offs, bosses have been able to impose nominal wage cuts of up to 10% against a reduction in working-time. This situation is symbolized by the agreement between the CGT, the CFDT and FO (the three main French unions), and the Montalembert public works company in the Rhone, where working-time was reduced from 38 to 34 hours at the price of a 10% drop in wages. Likewise at the Potain crane-building factory in Lyon, one year the unions accepted a cut and freeze in wages. This kind of agreement flourished during the 1990s, always in the name of the fight against unemployment and lay-offs, which of course didn't stop unemployment exceeding all-time records.

    Some examples

    In industry, working time was also at the cutting edge of the development of shift work. Thus, at Flins, the biggest production centre of the Renault group (workforce of 8400 at the moment), the management created a third shift for the production of Twingos on April 5th 1993. This shift, whose working week was 32 hours long (from 8.18pm to 2.03am four days a week, from 8.18pm to 5.18 am on Thursdays), has allowed a 40% increase in the time that the Twingo assembly line is in use. Only the normal overtime agreed for night shifts allowed the wage-level to be maintained, a drop in wages contrary to the victorious proclamations of the local left-wing CFDT branch.

    In Caen, the German firm Bosch has succeeded, thanks to the unions, in organizing work so as to keep the wheels turning 24 hours a day, 6 days a week, 144 hours a week. Four shifts operate to ensure the continuity of production, one day-shift working 39 hours and three alternate shifts working 32 hours each. The latter are paid for 39 hours, due to the integration of bonuses for night work.
    Management in the micro-computer division of Hewlett-Packard in Grenoble went ahead with a radical reorganization of labour. The agreement signed by the CGT and the CFDT on December 22nd 1992 permitted the creation of six shifts allowing equipment to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The weekly hours fluctuate between 26.5 hours for the two evening shifts and 34.5 hours for the two morning shifts, with 33.5 hours for the two afternoon shifts. The wages have dropped because they are calculated on the basis of 37.5 hours not 39.

    The BSN Gervais Danone company, under the direction of the socialist boss Antoine Riboud, had been the first to resort to the 'offensive reduction of working-time', in the jargon of the labour sociologists. The 1982 agreement, signed by the five CGT unions in BSN (the CGT controls 80% of the votes in the workers' electoral body) provided for an average working week of 33.36 hours for the 2400 shift workers, conditional on a reorganization involving the creation of a fifth shift. Complete compensation for lost wages was only considered in so far as productivity gains would reach 6-7%. This objective will be achieved while the decrease in working nights, Sundays and public holidays will reduce workers' wages by 1.6%, because of the loss of overtime bonuses.[16]

    This kind of working-time reduction, compensated for by a reorganization of the labour process and a fortiori by a lowering of workers' wages, fully and forcefully meets the needs of capital. Indeed, to free itself from its fixed component, it is vital for capital to speed up its turnover, allowing the value congealed in the machines to be transmitted ever more rapidly. This acceleration of turnover allows a decrease in the value of the commodities produced, sharing out the value of the fixed capital among a greater mass of commodities. The company which is the first to introduce this reorganization is then in a position to make super-profits by reducing the individual value of the commodities it is producing below their average value.

    Thus, without new investment in fixed capital, the reorganization of the labour process has allowed Hewlett-Packard to triple production and double productivity, and Renault-Flins to produce 300 extra cars. The unions are proclaiming victory, because in order to cope with the expansion of production and the reduction of hours, management have been forced to recruit (200 at Flins, 40 at H-P), but this expansion of the workforce (badly paid young workers, one of the causes of the 1995 dispute at Flins[17]) is more than compensated for by the productivity gains achieved by the new organization of the labour-process and the continual termination of jobs in other sectors of production.

    Company agreements put in place

    The first company agreements anticipating the transition to a 35-hour week in the year 2000 are being put into place, and they clearly demonstrate that, for the workers, working time reduction means lower wages. So on April 1st the unions FO and CFDT in the Eurocopter (manufacturing Franco-German helicopters) signed an agreement providing for the transition to 36 hours on January 1st 1998 and to 35 hours on January 1st 1999, in return for annualization (alternating four and five day weeks) and incomplete compensation for the lost hours[18] (60% for workers on more than 10,000F and 90% for the rest).

    In the commercial, financial and insurance sector, the one where joint agreements strictly regulate working hours,[19] the bosses quickly realized the benefits they could draw from the Aubry law. Thus Michel Freyche, president of the Association Francaise de Banques (AFB, French banking association), stated in an interview dated February 13th 1998 with the daily paper Les Echos:

    When it is negotiated reasonably, working-time reduction can be useful. (...) We don't want anything to do with negotiations for the 35-hour week by sector. On the other hand, we are ready to encourage and facilitate discussions at the company level, that is to say to examine what in the union agreement would constitute obstacles to the bringing in to play of working-time reduction.

    The financial and commercial sector employers' body then was eager to terminate collective bargaining agreements, especially the 1937 directive which guaranteed employees in these sectors two consecutive days off, including inevitably Sunday. The proposed 'deal' with workers in these sectors was to be as follows: in exchange for the 35-hour week, you will accept annualization of working time (46-48 hours during the legal holiday period); Saturday working (6 x 6 hours), the development of shift work (widening the range of hours previously limited to eleven hours under the 1937 decree); and last but not least, 'wage moderation'. Jacques Perillat, the president of the UCV (the association of inner city big retailers)[20] summed perfectly what was at stake:

    Currently, 40% of full-time employees are off on Saturdays, the day when we achieve our biggest takings. It would be preferable if this figure was no more than 20%.

    In addition, the Aubry Law seems to offer the opportunity to introduce annualization of working time, which "would allow employees to work 48 hours during the holidays; in return they would work four day weeks in June".[21] 48 hour, not to say 52 hour weeks are frequent in the commercial sector, but overtime is paid, which will not be the case with the introduction of annualization.

    In the current wave of terminations of collective bargaining agreements, what is also at stake for the bosses is the definition of working-time. In a great many union agreements, dressing, snacking and showering are included in the actual working-time. On-call time (when the employee is at the disposal of the employer without being in the workplace), which is not included in the actual working time, is paid. The introduction of the 35-hour week will allow the cancellation of these departures from the labour code (article L.212-4), which clearly specifies that the aforementioned times must not be accounted as actual work and therefore paid.[22]


    The analysis of the apparatus being put in place via the Aubry law demonstrates well that working-time reduction, contrary to the tale told by the various decaying remnants of the 'plural' left, isn't aimed at resolving unemployment, even less at freeing workers from the curse of wage labour in order to bestow more 'free' time upon them. As we have fully demonstrated, this law will in practice mean lower real and nominal wages, an increased submission to the imperatives of capital's valorization and thus a rise in the rate of exploitation. In return, to achieve social peace, the capitalist state is refining, even sophisticating the process of integrating the unions into the maintenance of capitalist order.

    Indeed, this integration is nothing new, but it remains noteworthy that, from year to year, the union apparatus appears ever more closely associated with all the new measures which adjust the capital-labour relation. Encouraging negotiations at company level, the Aubry law officially secures for the union company section an unprecedented role.[23] Thus, the wheel has turned full circle: from the Economic and Social Council to the smallest sections of the capitalist enterprise, from the general interest of the state to the micro-economy of the company, the union is more than ever the institution likely to transmit the requirements of capital's valorization through to all levels of civil society.

    More than ever, the capitalist state needs intermediaries. The apathy, the indifference of the exploited classes to public matters arouses the unease of a ruling class which is well aware of the weakness, not say non-existence of its intermediaries. The state treats this 'French sickness' by distancing itself from the unions whose representation is derisory, and indeed creating so-called representatives ex nihilo, as it did with the supposed unemployed organizations.

    The fact remains that the struggle for the expansion of wages and the reduction of the working day are still on the agenda, and will be so as long as capitalist relations of production are in place:

    When the workers strive to restore the working day to its former rational limits, they are just carrying out a duty to themselves and to their kind. They are just setting boundaries against capital's despotic usurpation. A man who has no spare time, whose entire life is appropriated as work for the capitalist, outside of merely physical interruptions for sleeping, eating, etc., is less than a beast of burden... And yet the history of industry shows that capital works without consideration or mercy to lower the whole working class to this extreme level of degradation, if no obstacles are placed in its way.

    (Marx, Wage-Labour and Capital)

    Mass unemployment, the development of various forms of job insecurity, have undoubtedly relegated the demand for a lowering of working-time to second place in workers' preoccupations.[24] Today's problems are the erosion and splitting up of the working day, annualized part-time working, insanely fluctuating working hours,[25] with the development of shift-work in industry as well as in offices.[26] It wouldn't even be surprising if there were to be an upsurge in movements for a genuine eight-hour day, without annualization or flexibility of hours.[27] Besides, struggles are beginning to emerge against Aubry's version of 35 hours and in defence of collective agreements.[28] Undoubtedly, we are a long way from the 32 or 30 hours proposed by leftists, at pains to be radical,[29] always desperately seeking the supposed miracle demand, in this case, the abolition of unemployment.

    In the 1980s and '90s moreover, the leftists became great specialists in demands - alternative strategies capable of reconciling the interests of the workers, the bosses and national economic competitiveness at the same time. So recently (in Le Monde, on January 21st 1998) we have seen Pierre Khalfa, a bureaucrat of the SUD union, making his little contribution to the Aubry law, by proposing a precise plan to alleviate the burden on small businesses. Christophe Aguiton, a paid official and media figure in the same union at France Telecom,[30] for his part seems more nostalgic. Debating in Le Nouvel Observateur with a small businessman (these people seem decidedly anxious worried about the fate of the PME),[31] he expressed a longing for a return to the good old days at the beginning of the 1980s, the golden age of social protection according to him!

    Nostalgia isn't what it was any more in the ranks of the Left: Marx being far too old-fashioned, they are falling back on Keynes and snivelling bitterly as they pick through the debris of the 1960's welfare state. Here we have a new version of reactionary socialism, what could be called the socialism of the 'glorious thirty', described by Marx as feudal in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, the socialism of those who are nostalgic for feudalism, for its guilds and artisans.

    We must remind them once again that that it is the class itself that decides its demands, out of its own needs, and that a contemporary factory struggle against annualization and increased flexibility can be a more meaningful example to the whole proletariat than bawling for 32 hours on Saturday demonstrations in Paris,[32] Let us also remember that in the scenario of a generalized revival of class struggle, a slogan such as 35/32 hours could appear timid and paltry, if the real movement goes much further than this.[33] Finally, remember also that, in the revolutionary tradition of the workers' movement, the diminution of the working day has never been accompanied by the illusion that it could create jobs. The same goes for rising wages demanded by leftists and Stalinists to boost consumption and get out of the crisis,[34] reducing the workers' struggle to a means of kick-starting capital accumulation. The task of past, present and future revolutionaries is to contribute to the defence of working class material interests, independently of any consideration of the interests of business or the defence of national economic competitiveness.

    [1] The Popular Front is the great moment of the 'myth of the Left in power' (see the book The Myth of the Left in Power by Phillippe Riviale, Jean Barrot and Albert Borcuk, Tete de Feuilles edition, 1973). We mustn't forget that the 40 hour week and the fifth week of paid holidays wasn't part of its election platform, intended first of all to reassure the middle classes in the name of 'anti-fascist unity of the French people' (Thorez). These few gains of the working class were to be briskly swept aside, leading to the decree-laws which introduced so many loop-holes in the application of the 40 hours law that it was virtually repealed, despite the fierce resistance of the workers before the fiasco of the 1938 strike. With the end of the strike wave and the pacification of the workers, mass lay-offs and price increases to cope with higher production costs wiped out the wage increases agreed in June 1936. During the Second World War, the average duration of work fluctuated between 55 and 60 hours.

    [2] ...before roughly tempering his ardour in the face of the meagre amount of enthusiasm aroused in the companies by the Aubry law. In Le Monde, February 1st 1998, Louis Viannet stated: "in such condition, the bill has big deficiencies. (...) If a legal duration of 35 hours leaves a margin to employers, which allows them to have 48 hour weeks, this cannot work." M. Viannet makes as if to discover annualization of working time years after this has been at the heart of different left and right-wing schemes of working time, and whose application the CGT (Communist Partly aligned union) is negotiating within companies. Besides, in its official publication, L'Hebdo de l'Actualite Sociale (no. 2786), the CGT is much less vindictive with regard to the Aubry law: 'working time reduction provides an opportunity to reflect and consider a better organization of work, backing the involvement and skills of the men. The possibilities offered by new technologies are overtaking the demands of work to ensure quality products and services, while so bringing a new response to the challenges of competitivity.'

    [3] A concept coined by the ideologue Andre Gorz to designate forced labour, alienated in relation to labour said to be autonomous, creative, not subject to the law of capital. Here Gorz is cheerfully plundering Marx, who at the end of Capital, vol. III, refers to that sphere of necessity that the communist mode of production will allow to be minimized. With one small difference nonetheless: in his ideal society, Gorz holds onto commodity production, wage labour and the state.

    [4] It is therefore quite possible that the driving force behind the wave of anti-smoking bans from the USA, clearly not its rulers' interest in public health, or even the costs incurred from health expenditure, might have been a study estimating that 65 hours of work time is lost through what the French call 's'en rouler une' (rolling one up).

    [5] Reducing Working Time, Syros Edition, 1996.

    [6] In 1997, Manpower and Adecco (temp.) became the first private employment agencies in France. By the end of February 1998, 409,573 people were employed in temporary work as against 376,142 at the end of January. Out of 189,600 jobs created in 1997, 120,000 are temporary jobs, mainly affecting industry (53%) and the BTP (construction of public works) (20%). Temping has become a major component of industrial employment. Thus, in car sub-contracting, temporary employment frequently represents 50% of the manpower and 15% among construction workers. For company management, this method of recruitment has nothing but advantages: "The intensity of work of temps is superior to that of the permanent staff. Younger, often better educated, more multi-purpose, paid the SMIC if certificated, non-unionized, never ill or else immediately replaced..., temps only have 'qualifications', for the user-venture, destabilizing unqualified workers on short-term contracts." For proletarians the advantages are less obvious: three times more accidents at work, no medical supervision; a very meagre average working year.

    [7] TUC (Travaux d'utilité collective; 'Community useful work'): low paid work (maximum 2000 francs per month), for young people mainly in the schools or in local councils. SIVP (Stage d'Insertion à la Vie Professionnelle; 'Insertion in professional life course'): dirty jobs in private sector companies for young people just out of school and on the dole; very low paid and sometimes not paid at all. CES (Contrat Emploi Solidarité; 'Solidarity job contract'): this defines a very low paid temporary (6 months) job which is 'offered' in the state administrations (ministries, state railways, buses etc.). CRE (Contrat de Retour à l'Emploi'; 'Return to work contract'): used to put long-term unemployed people back to work; in this case, the worker got a regular wage but half is paid for two years by the state; after those two years the worker is often sacked.

    [8] The question of 'grey' jobs is yet another manifestation of the seamless continuity between the politics of Left and Right which has developed over the years. It is the Left in government, and its prime minister of the time Laurent Fabius, which is again becoming aware of the great merit (for capital) of having launched this sort of employment. Indeed in 1984, once the lyrical illusions of the 'state of grace' had faded, the then government launched the TUC. Those TUCs, which under the directive of October 16th 1984, had to be only for 'training and preparation for professional life' very quickly became means for the 'French public sector' to obtain labour for fully-fledged jobs virtually free, bereft of status. At the time, the private employers' body, feeling cheated of the opportunity to benefit from the services of these new slaves, had demanded via the CNPF (Le Conseil National du Patronat Français: bosses' union, similar to the CBI) the extension of the TUCs to the private sector. Thus the SIVP was born and carried to the baptismal font by Left and Right (in 1986, by Phillippe Seguin), putting young workers at the disposal of companies on the pretext of training. The pseudo 'jobs for the young' of Jospin's government are just a metamorphosis of this state-controlled policy of devalorization of the price of the commodity labour-power. There again, the Left has broken new ground in creating the five year CDD (short-term contract), renewable each year.

    History is repeating itself, since the CNPF is claiming the feasibility of applying this sort of employment contract to wage-earners in the private sector. As with the 35-hour week, the goal of these successive employment policies is not to 'find work for the young', but to supply public and private bosses with labour at prices which beat all the competition. It's a way of breaking up the wage scales (get someone with a vocational training certificate and two years higher education, for 2000F instead of paying at the rate provided for by the branch union agreements), to crack the minimum wage, to increase competition between proletarians on the labour-market. This is also a factor, for now, in industrial peace: workers on 'normal' contracts, paid at the agreed rates, are enduring terrible pressure because of the existence of this lower-paid mass at their sides. How can they make demands and go on strike when there are fellow-workers even worse off in their office or factory? Workers pay very dearly for forgetting that the basic principles of class struggle are equal work, pay, status and conditions.

    [9] Mme. Aubry blithely assumes this continuity moreover. To the Right-wing deputies anxious to see annualization of working time written into every letter of this Bill, she replied that this was not necessary: the five-yearly law of M. Giraud (former employment minister in Chirac's RPR party) has provided all the measures to that end without any need to return to it.

    [10] Le Monde, January 29th 1998.

    [11] Let us note in passing that the weekly number of working hours beyond which overtime gives rise to a 50% compensatory break (in companies with a workforce of more than ten) will become 41 hours in 1999 as against 42 hours at present. Logically this threshold should have been at 38 hours, but for the plural Left, it's no small gift for the bosses.

    [12] The real duration of the working week for wage-earners averages 41.05 hours.

    [13] UDF = Union pour le Democratic Français: centrisr party, pro-European and associated with the RPR when in government (1986-8, 1993-7) and now in the opposition. The Robien law was presented both to the Left and to the Right as the miracle means of saving, indeed creating, jobs by the reduction of working time in return for the drastic reduction of employers' contributions (up to 50%). In many companies, agreements were signed which maintained the illusion among proletarians that henceforward they would be immune from lay-offs. The first disillusions are coming to light. Thus, at Nimes, in the Well tights-manufacturing company, a year to the day after the unions signed an agreement protecting the company's 776 jobs, the boss has just announced that one third of the jobs in the factory are to go. Motive: the market isn't absorbing the product as expected. A cruel occasion to recall that it is the rate of accumulation and the concomitant capacity of the market to expand which determines the creation of jobs, and that all the skillful arrangements (lightening of charges, RTT [réduction du temps de travail: 'working-time reduction']) are of no use at all in time of crisis, except to allow the bosses to pocket millions of Francs from the state.

    [14] Once again, the blackmail of jobs in return for wage cuts is on the agenda with the Aubry law. Thus, according to an OFCE study, under the direction of Jean-Paul Fitoussi, the transition from a legal duration of 39 to one of 35 hours in the year 2000 could lead to the creation of half a million jobs in companies of more than twenty employees. On the condition however that the employees 'pull their weight' and sacrifice the equivalent of 5% of their wages... On the other hand, Rexecode, the bosses' organ of expertise, is less optimistic and predicts the destruction of thousands of jobs, as the high cost of labour-power in companies remaining at 39 hours accelerates the substitution of dead labour for living labour. Unless, that is, that the employees, in exchange for a lowering of the working time, accept annualization and a drop in wages... From OFCE to Rexecode, it's the same old refrain.

    [15] We cannot stress too much how the creation of jobs and lowering of unemployment are nothing but pretexts, and that the proclamations of the Left about the hundreds of millions of jobs to come into being thanks to the Aubry law are nothing but eye-wash. Dominique Strauss Kahn (affectionately known as DSK by the lapdogs of Le Monde), whom the atmosphere of the Davos forum seemed to lend a certain sincerity, acknowledged it (Canard Enchaine, February 4th 1998): "It is certain that the 35 week will involve pay restraint. (...) In these conditions, no one can say whether more jobs will be lost than gained." One thing is certain then: wages will fall!

    [16] La Temps de Travail en Miettes, Jacques Freyssinet, les editions de l'Atelier, 1997.

    [17] On the strikes of Spring 1995 at Renault, see Le Bulletin Ouvrier, no. 1.

    [18] After a small calculation on the basis of 35 hours plus four hours paid at 60% for a worker earning 10,000F, we end up with about 1000F lost in wages a month. For a worker on SMIC, the loss would be about 350F. For FO, whose chief bigwig never stops affirming his opposition in the media to every form of annualization, flexibility and lowering of wages, this agreement is 'noticeable'.

    [19] The National Federation of French sugar manufacturers, a bosses' union, has also just announced its decision to call into question the union agreement covering the sector's 12,000 employees. In the newspaper Liberation, March 6th 1999, one chief executive explained the reason: "This termination was forced upon us. We are one of the few sectors to possess a union agreement which fixes working hours". The journalist's comments deserve reporting: "Farewell paid holidays, rules of seniority, making up overtime and other advantages gained in what is after all a healthy sector, formed into cartels, with no more than two big groups: Eridhania-Beghin Say, on whose board of trustees sits a certain Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, and Saint-Louis general sugar-refinery. In exchange for a 35-hour week, the employers wish to inaugurate annualization, which would allow 46 hour weeks during busy periods, and 32 hours the rest of the year. The conventional system in France would go from 'ready-made' over to 'made to measure'."

    [20] This sector includes the popular stores (Monoprix, Prisunic) and some big stores (Le Printemps, Galeries Lafayette, BHV, etc.). The two collective bargaining agreements governing working conditions date from 1995 and cover almost 40,000 employees.

    [21] Le Monde, Wednesday 25th March 1998.

    [22] Parliamentary debates (National Assembly, Senate) have given rise to some tragi-comical gesticulations between Left and Right over the notion of actual work. The Greens had got an amendment passed, adding an article to the Labour Code, defining actual working time as "the time during which the employee is at the disposal of the employer". This had been overturned on the second reading by senators who offered a more restrictive definition: "the actual duration of work is the time during which the employee is at work, at the disposal of the employer and carrying out his activity or his functions". Lionel Jospin, such a Solomon, has finally settled for introducing the notion of permanence: the actual working time becomes "the time during which the employee is at the continuous disposal of the employer". This new definition is sufficiently ambiguous to allow free flow to a multitude of interpretations. In view of the state of the balance of class forces, we can be in no doubt that the bosses, satisfied in other respects with Jospin's intervention, will know how to make profits out of this ambiguity.

    [23] This is no small gift to the unions. Thus the Law provides for the payment of worker-representatives to negotiate the transition to 35 hours with management or to undertake the smooth application of the agreement in ad hoc committees.

    [24] Above all the explosion of part-time work which affects about 17% of the active population today as compared with 7% in 1982. Out of this 17%, more than 40% would like to work more, not for the love of working but to earn a wage which would enable them to survive. We are a long way from the idyllic representations, dear to the CFDT left, of part-time work chosen so as to have a wonderful world of free time at our disposal. The creation of this sort of job correlates with some poorly-qualified jobs.

    [25] Notably the case of cashiers in big volume distribution whose working day, most often part-time, is completely split up, breaking off for three hours at a time (10am-1pm, interruption, 4pm-8pm). Unable to go home, they are condemned to spend these interruptions waiting around for the resumption of work. Taking into account an average of two hours a day minimum traveling in big built-up areas, we have established that in the big distribution sector, capital has devised the part-time working day of 12 hours. For more on the disastrous working conditions of commercial 'proletarians' in big volume distribution, read Gregoire Philonenko's work Aux Carrefours de l'Exploitation, ed. Desclee de Brouwer, 1998.

    [26] 22% of wage earners are on shift-work, as compared with 17% in 1982.

    [27] See the1995 strike by the TGV cleaners, who were refusing the introduction of part-time with loss of wages and discontinuous hours.

    [28] The struggle of the Nobel chemical company workers, who refused the transition to a 35-hour week at the price of annualization of working time.

    [29] Surpassed on their Left by Klaus Kahn, president of the German unemployed association, who is calling for 28 hours.

    [30] Aguiton is perhaps best known as the spokesperson for AC!, the unemployed campaign.

    [31] Petites et moyennes enterprises.

    [32] In these times of mind-numbing commemorations of May '68, let us remember that the leading factory which launched the movement, Sud-Aviation near Nantes, was on strike against a reduction of working time (from 48 hours to 45) with loss of wages.

    [33] In 1920, a period when the revolutionary upsurge of the German proletariat was in full swing, the miners in the Ruhr were struggling for a 30-hour week. In Italy, during the 1970s, there were massive struggles over the inclusion of travelling time in actual working-time.

    [34] If the leftists of the LCR have specialized in calling for a 32 hour week, the Lambertists of the Workers' Party for their part are putting forward the necessity for a rise in wages to kick-start the economy and get out of the crisis. It is true that, in contrast with their fraternal enemies, the 'pablists', they at least have the decency not to call for revolution openly any more. These days, their concern is to defend local democracy, secular education, the Republic and other institutions of the capitalist order.

  • Posted By

    Joseph Kay
    Feb 5 2007 22:34



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