Henri Simon's account and analysis of the strikes at the Cellatex and Moulinex factories.
For two generations French workers have been used to the transfer of economic activities - mainly industrial factories - from the main towns (especially from Paris industrial suburbs) towards the country. For a time it was a very profitable for companies: the mechanisation of agriculture "liberated" quite a lot of farm workers (in 1945 more than 30% of the population was living from agriculture and not even 10% 20 years later - 5% today). Wages were lower (then legally) up to 30% less than in Paris; small towns, local administrations and the state gave copious incentives. These companies could speculate with the freed urban land and they could also engage a new manpower easier to exploit for a while; even if the conditions of work and wages were not that good, they often were better than the farm work, for these country people not used to industrial work; even more important, these workers and their families could stay close to their birth-place. These economic transfers did not raise resistance because in the main towns deserted by industries it was then easy to find another job, the unemployment rate being very low.
It is important to consider the point that for medium country factories having been built in the '50s, often the only factory, and job possibilities in that area; the closure would be a local catastrophe, not only for the workers, but for the subcontractors and for most part of the population (distribution and administrative sectors). We also have to consider that most of the French people in general are very reluctant to move, not only because they cling to their birth-place but even in general. What reinforces this resistance to any moving is the fact that most of these country workers, thinking after decades this local industry would be perennial, manage to get their individual house and garden, a kind of relative comfort, which also means the regular repayment of debts, implying a regular wage. The closure of the local factory in a region where there is often no other industries or in de-industrialised regions means far more than the lost of a job and constitutes a rather explosive mixture pushed by complex reactions against such a painful transformation of the life of the concerned workers.
The evolution of capitalism which provided local work to farm workers fired from the mechanised farms in relocated industries was already the consequence of world competition. The same possibilities offered by underdeveloped countries, and the low cost of all kinds of expanded means of transport, compels the same companies to look for other relocations all over the world. They could not escape the consequence of the industrial development of third world countries able to flow cheap goods to more developed countries: either they have to look abroad for cheaper manpower or they have to invest heavily in new machinery. It was often an impossible situation for capitalists: they could not impose on their workers the conditions of production used in poor countries because of both work regulations and workers resistance, it would often be very difficult to invest in new machinery (and sometimes impossible because of the competitive prices) because of this they also came under the grasp of banks and/or merged with more wealthy companies. One way or the other, solutions in capitalist terms means what is called restructuring, e.g. redundancy and the closure of the less productive or less improvable factories; this also could means bankruptcy and the total closure of all factories. Anyway, the workers were totally submitted to the capitalist imperatives. Facing such a situation, the workers try to defend their conditions of work and standard of living, even more fiercely in the circumstances described above. It is not by chance that all threats of recourse to violence or of violence in industrial conflicts have happened in remote or very depressed industrial locations.
Another point has to be pointed to explain a new phenomenon in the evolution of the methods of struggle in class conflicts is the concomitant evolution of mentalities amongst country people who were traditionally rather conservative; it was part of the ideas behind re-locations to employ docile and respectful workers coming from agriculture traditions. This situation was particularly evident in the western part of France where most of the Moulinex factories were located. As national and local politicians claimed to have had a role in these smooth industrial and economic activities transfers and in the guarantee of some social benefits - mainly the possibility to stay in their own area, there was a persistent belief in the possibility of the political and labour system influencing the economic evolution. But little by little this belief was eroded by the many attempts to adapt the process of production to the world economic pressure, which meant the progressive loss of benefits, harder conditions of work and finally different marginal cuts in the staff (early retirement, use of temporary or part time workers, not replacing workers leaving, etc.) and a growing feeling of insecurity. All the explanations referring to the building of Europe or to the world trade were understood as an external unavoidable evil against which any political or union power were powerless. So, the concrete experience showed that all the former possibilities of mediation in the economic activity and its social consequences were totally useless. Most of these workers at the centre of this economic turmoil were compelled to fight to the bitter end.
It is what a rank and file woman Moulinex worker expressed with her simple words: "For the presidential election, I will not vote. I will send back my polling card barred with red writing úMoulinex. Anyway nothing could go ahead like that. After us, some other workers will follow us. One day we will have an explosion. If such eventual events could get a comparison, May 68 events will look like a joke." This sounds not like a threat, but rather like a statement about a situation not at all exceptional in France for several years and accelerated in a recent period. We can think that this kind of open violence started in July 2000 in the Cellatex textile factory in a remote part of the north of France: it was for most part the role of the media, which had ignored quite a lot of other similar facts having happened before, and which were obliged to reflect the sudden concern of the ruling class and of its auxiliaries faced with this sudden burst of industrial violence. But, in the previous years either spontaneously, or more or less reluctantly organised by the unions, the workers reactions against factory closures or restructuring and the following redundancies implied a certain degree of violence (factory or office sit in, official building occupations, pickets to prevent the removal of machinery or goods, locking up of managers or of the political responsible, blockades of railways or motorways, disruptions of factory councils, companies boards or of mediation team meetings, etc.). Even contained by the unions, sometimes organised by them with selected workers as a preventive measure, sometimes spontaneous but quickly controlled, all these actions reveal that the usual legal means of struggle were powerless against the economic consequences of the world trade in a free market generally advocated. The pressure of such a level of violence was aimed at compelling the company, the local and national authorities, the state to "do something" either against the closure or for better benefits in case of redundancies (more money, better conditions of retraining, new employment in other companies).
If during a former period such possibilities with the help of the state could work, little by little, it becomes more difficult as the economic crisis was rising up again to offer a convenient solution to these factory workers. As most of them had been often obliged in the past to reluctantly agree with the conditions imposed by the "social plans" mentioned above, the threat of a definite closure amongst purposely spread rumours of bankruptcy, amongst a perpetual uncertainty, caused a rising discontent easily turning to a more radical violence. The end of this workers fight, as they know through all this procrastination aimed at weakening their combativeness, was not against an "unavoidable" closure but to get more redundancy money. As with Cellatex workers, the Moulinex workers of one of the condemned factory threaten to blow up the factory with the slogan: "Du fric ou boum" ("Money or Bang").
In France, usually, a redundant worker can get from his employer an indemnity fixed in the collective work agreement. We can sum up this legal right as follow:
- nothing for temporary, part time, seasonal workers or permanent workers with less than two years or seniority
- 1/10 of the monthly wage for each year of work after two years of seniority
- 1/15 of the monthly wage above this 1/10 after 10 years of seniority
- some collective agreement could bring more than these legal indemnities.
Because the Cellatex workers, after the threat to blow up the factory in July 2000, got 80.000 F besides these legal indemnities, for all the workers not considering their status, this amount (about one year of a minimal wage) becomes - illegally - the standard of the claims for redundant workers. Since Cellatex, in about one year more than ten small factories used the same threat to get more redundancy money and promises about retraining and new jobs. The last one of this series was another textile factory near Lille (spinning mill Mossley at Hellemes, 123 workers) where part of the factory was burnt down and where workers started to burn material in the streets. After 71 days of struggle and a sit in the factory they got about the same as Cellatex workers one year before.
If the situation at Moulinex was more or less the same as in these examples, it was also more complicated and more important. The more recent conflicts about "restructuring" and factory closures in large companies were dealt with either inside the trust (for instance the multinational Danone closing some biscuit factories Lu), or through State intervention to guarantee new employment (for instance in the air company AOM - Air Liberté) or with a total buying by another company (all department store of Marks and Spencer in France bought by Galeries Lafayette with promise of reemployment of everybody). So we can see the difference in the treatment of closures according the size of the company and the possibility of containing the struggle in the frame of legality as long as there is some kind of a solution for workers to escape redundancies, although they could be obliged to accept some reduction of their previous working conditions.
Moulinex was not as small company but neither was it a multinational. At first a family company started more than 70 years ago, having grown during the thirty years of capitalist prosperity after the '50s to become the main leader in home appliances and kitchen equipment in France. This firm used the possibilities we have mentioned to locate its factories in the country and most of them were in the west of France, precisely a very conservative area with a background of catholic influence. There were discussions in the capitalist and union milieu incriminating the family company for not having been able to modernise early enough to face the world competition, mainly of Asian production; even if Moulinex recently had subsidiaries in the USA (Krups), in Mexico (Vistar), in Spain and in Egypt, the core of its activity was in France in terms of production and of dominant market. On the other hand, as this competition needed more capital, meaning borrowing from the banks, and also meant being obliged to comply with the orders of the financial milieu. It was at first various restructuring and finally in 2000 a merging with a sister company Brandt, a subsidiary of an Italian holding El.FI, the fourth European group of home appliance (the Novicelli brothers) which held 74% of the capital of the group Moulinex-Brandt. Apparently, the situation of the group was not catastrophic: from April to December 2000 the total turnover grew by 5,5% on the previous year; but this figure dissimulates a distortion between the turnover in France dropping by 6,7% as the turnover abroad increased of 18%; in 2001 this tendency was reinforced as more recently the prospects of selling in the USA were rather dull; so the share holders mainly interested in global profits considered that Moulinex was the black sheep in its multinational and need a drastic restructuring.
Moulinex workers already alerted by previous "social plans" and by the merging with Brandt were left for seven months in the uncomfortable situation knowing that there will be some unavoidable restructuring but left totally ignorant as to the scale of this. On the 25 of April, the Moulinex-Brandt new group proposeed a total regrouping of the 16 French factories (11,000 workers on a total of 22,000 European workers) with the definite closure of three factories, two most important ones in Normandy and one in the North of France:
Alençon (Orne), 1,100 workers making small home appliance, production partly transferred (flatiron) to Mexico;
Cormelles le Royal (Calvados), 1,100 workers making microwave ovens, production totally stopped accused of loosing too much money;
Lesquin (Nord), 700 workers making fridges, production transferred to Poland.
The workers in the factories to be closed went immediately on strike occupying the factories leaving the unions no choice but to refuse this restructuring plan. From the holidays on the 21 of July all the factories have a chaotic production and some of them Alençon, Bayeux, Cormelles and Falaise, all in Normandy are often totally closed. With the end of the holidays on the 22 of August, the situation was not better for the company even though the unions tried to control the struggle with for instance the call for a 2 hours strike on the 25 of August. Soon, the movement escaped their attempts to regulate: during the night of the 29 of August, in Alençon factory, the night shift start the occupation and erected barricades at the gates. The occupation started again in most of the factories which were blocked at a standstill.
The group Moulinex-Brandt answer, with the refusal of the Italian owner to put more money in the restructuring, is to go for bankruptcy on the 8 of September with the judiciary designation of a receiver. Some will incriminate the banks for having refused a new loan but apparently the responsibility was shared not only between the real owners and the financial milieu but certainly with other people interested in the disbanding of the group in order to get a dominant position in this industry. Of course the workers were left alone, with the unions and the local authorities trying to present alternative plans to keep all the factories working, all more or less shaky mainly because they have no power at all, mainly because they could not raise money to implement them and also they were certainly going against more important financial concerns. What were the possibilities of workers action in factories supposed to be closed, all of them if the bankruptcy was definite? On the 10 of September, all occupations stopped as the rumour was spread of the selling of the factories, totally or in retail, if the workers stayed quiet so as not to discourage an eventual owner. It was of course the real aim of the operation, stopping the occupation, puzzling the workers in hopeless speculations because they have no means to judge the situation (and even the union kept pretending to play a role in this tragicomedy).
So, from this 10 September for more than one month all the factories were supposed to work normally but most of the time running either with period of management stoppage or with a reduced production; the unemployed workers could get the money paid by the employer for technical rest. They were persuaded to stop any disturbing actions except the traditional demonstrations called and controlled by the unions. And they regularly "informed" the workers of the ups and downs of the running negotiations to find a new boss. After many proposals, finally the receiver agreed about a take over of the Moulinex part of the group by SEB, its main French competitor and the disbanding of Brandt staying in the El.Fi holding. This announcement on the 23 of October reveals that more or less SEB was more interested by the Moulinex subsidiary abroad mainly in order to penetrate the North and South American markets, already having several factories in France making the same products as Moulinex. For the Moulinex workers the restructuring plan which had provoked the sudden burst of strike on the 27 of April was more or less the same to be implemented by the new owner. The two main factories of Alençon and Cormelles le Royal would be definitively closed and the other ones would have some cuts in the staff.
The Moulinex workers had lost six months of struggles and had been cheated in order to break their combativeness. Now they have only one possibility as they can't stop the disbanding of the group and the closure of these factories. So, similarly to Cellatex, they have to fight to get more redundancy money and better retraining and reemployment. Immediately after the announcement of the deal, the two factories of Cormelles and Alençon were occupied and totally blocked. The claim is what the Cellatex workers had got: 80,000 on to of the legal rights common to all workers. As the discussions and unions actions went nowhere for twenty days, the workers of Cormelles le Royal spontaneously started something similar to the Cellatex fight. As the CFDT union is very dominant at Alençon, we can suppose that this union kept a tight control that the occupation stayed within the legal limits. Cormelles went far beyond these limits. On the 13 of November, the part of the workers of Cormelles le Royal, one of the factory to be definitively closed (1,1000 workers) who had already occupied the factory, piled up at some strategic points inside quite a lot of inflammable products (gas canisters, petrol, other chemicals, etc..) and put on the front of the gate the claim "Du fric ou Boum". As a proof of their good will, exactly what the Cellatex had done in pouring some sulphuric acid in a stream or as the Mossley workers in burning down part of the factory, these Moulinex workers burnt down part of the factory building. Of course, this action was strongly condemned by the social democratic minister of the "affaires sociales". But at the same time, a poll amongst the population gave 90% of support to the Moulinex workers action.
Nobody tried to stop them as the discussions were going on with the authorities to try to settle "the problem". The difference in the method of struggle can be seen in the fact that the police stayed quiet in front of Cormelles factory but, at the same time, prevented the workers of Alençon factory, called by the dominating union CFDT, invading the head quarter of the boss union MEDEF in Paris with the repressive action of the special cops who injured some of the demonstrators. Anyway, the Cormelles action accelerated the outcome of the dispute. In order to prevent the extension to other factories, the solution was found in one week. But, as usual this solution was taken in order to divide the workers in a slightly different manner from Cellatex. This last "social plan", agreed by all the unions but the CFDT union, allowed SEB, the new owner of Moulinex, to get rid of 3,700 workers out of 5,600 with the definite closure of Alençon and Cormelles and drastic cuts of staff in the other factories. The workers had to evacuate all the occupied factories and resume production. The amount of extra indemnities was not the same for all workers but different according to the seniority from 30,000 F up to 80,000. As this "social plan" had to be voted by the workers, this first division of the workers was completed by a vote organised factory by factory. So, the result of the vote was more or less known in advance. As the CFDT union had refused to sign the "social plan" because of its dominant position in the Alençon factory, the workers in this factory refused the plan but they could not do anything, as they did not think to go beyond the legal limits and evacuate the factory, as all the other Moulinex factories had accepted this plan.
Entirely coincidental, these Moulinex threats occurred just at the same time as the terrorist actions against the New York World Trade Centre. But nobody talk of "terrorism" about these workers actions. Again, as for Cellatex, some comments in all kinds of milieu talked about luddites and luddism, more or less considering it as a fight against technology and the use of technique. The luddite fight was not at all ideological: it was class struggle against the exploiters, selectively using the destruction of machinery in order to get better wages and better conditions of work, the destruction targeted only at bosses refusing to implement these better conditions. The current of violence which is bursting up in France for more than one year now, is very similar to this past action of the luddites only in the specific case of factory closure in order to get more money but had nothing to do with the ideology some try to stick on it. It is that, and only that, a mean of struggle, more radical and of course more efficient than the usual legal means, the only ones supported by the unions.
Of course, it would be completely wrong to consider these actions as some kind of a revolutionary move. Of course the recourse to this violent method of struggle has a meaning. But if it jumps over certain mediations and breaks with the traditional way advocated by the unions, these mediators are still recognised as able to discuss and fix the conditions for a solution of the conflict; if these mediators had to bring back the agreement they have fixed with all the capitalist representatives and to submit it to the vote of the workers, they have anyway, as we can see at Moulinex, there is still the possibility of manipulation in order to prevent any extention of the radical method of struggle. The words of a woman Moulinex worker quoted above show that this possibility of extension is not a fallacy.
We have to place all these events in the dialectical process, particularly in the relation between labour and capital. On the economic side of the conflict and considering what the capitalist system (companies and governments) has to pay for the solution of its actual problems beyond what it considers as tolerable for the rate of profit, the fact it was obliged by class struggle to pour out money in order to maintain the social peace has to be seen as a brake on the permanent attempts to stop the decline of this rate of profit. The persistent and recurrent pressure to "get more" is not of course a death for the capitalist system but underlines some weakness in its functioning. Class struggle is still here and as strong as ever.
It is not however, a reason to crow. If without doubt, in the limits we have just talked of, this violence can be considered as a manifestation of the workers autonomy, it is, as far it remains in these limits, part of the dialectical process between the workers action and the capitalist constant repression. This repression comes from the unions using their legal power to manipulate. If they still fail to keep the struggle within legal limits, then the police intervene with violence until the struggle is within these limits and unions can resume their function. This repression is not only used against specific actions but is organised at a more general and less specific level in order to cope with a global struggle. On one hand, if this action would have gone beyond a threat even with some token examples and had spread locally, regionally or in other factories or in solidarity actions, the repression would have shown its ugly face; of course with the risk of degenerating into a larger movement, what the repressive forces tried evidently to avoid in evading a too direct repression. On the other hand, as the first line of repression against the autonomous tendencies, the unions can, as they have done in the past, "organise" some pretended autonomous action to keep the control of the movement (as they did in the 1995 strikes in France). In this respect, the "new" unions built in France apparently "against" the traditional unions can play a crucial role in channelling the autonomy towards another kind of legality. Anyway, in this dialectical process, it is somewhat difficult to separate what is autonomy of what is not autonomy: we have only to consider that something is moving under the pressure of class struggle escaping the previous forms in which the capitalist system tried to determine the exploitation of work.