153 French workers find a way to make themselves heard - Henri Simon (trans. Loren Goldner)

The following is the translation of a drastic abridgement/summary of a much longer article on workers' struggles at Cellatex, appearing in the Summer 2000 issue of 'Echanges'. Written by Henri Simon and translated by Loren Goldner. First published November 8th 2000. Republished in 'Anarcho-Syndicalist Review' #31 (Spring 2001).

Submitted by Craftwork on September 23, 2017

Givet is a town of 8,000 on the Belgian border in northern France. The area was largely dominated by steel and textiles until the plant closings and restructurings of the 1970's, when it became an ex-industrial wasteland. 22% of the local population is unemployed. The Cellatex plant, where the following struggle took place, was founded in 1903 and produced one of the first synthetic fibres. In the early 1950's, it had 700 employees; by July 2000, this number had been downsized to 153, one-third of them women. The factory had been acquired by the multinational chemical firm Rhône-Poulenc, but after 1991 it was sold to a series of new owners. The last owner, an Austrian firm, acquired it to loot its assets.

Since 1991, the successive owners had used the usual threats to close the plant in order to freeze wages, cut overtime pay, and to impose early retirements and work on Saturdays and holidays. By spring 2000, there had been months of useless negotiations to avoid a closing. The workers had put up with all this in part because four generations in Givet had worked there, grandparents alongside grandchildren. Still, the plant was old, full of toxic materials, and had never been seriously "modernized". Having accepted so many cuts to preserve a factory inseparable from the life of the town, the workers exploded in rage when the final closing was announced. As one of them said, "We have been completely forgotten in this boom".

As late as June 30, 2000, talks to save the plant continued, but on July 5, a local court declared Celatex bankrupt. "We were thrown out like so much garbage", said one worker. Upon hearing of the bankrupcty, a 41-year old woman worker said "I didn't hesitate for a second. I'm so angry I'll blow up the plant..". The workers knew exactly where their weapons were, having worked with them for years. The European Union had classified Cellatex as an environmentally high risk plant, having 50,000 liters of sulfuric acid and other highly toxic and flammable materials. It had occurred to no one that such "good and docile" workers would turn these materials to such use, and the local notables had taken no security precautions against such an action. (During the steel plant closings of the late 1970's, some workers in the region had in fact burned down one company office.)

By 8:30 PM on July 5, the Cellatex workers had occupied the plant, (In the first days, there was a total media blackout, making it difficult to precisely reconstruct events). All workers signed a statement saying they would blow up the plant unless production was resumed or they received guarantees of far better severance packages and retraining than were required by law. The action was outside the control of all union bureaucracies, and until July 10 the workers made a bonfire of various products and materials in front of the plant. The offices were stripped, all computers disappeared, and the plant gate was soldered shut. A leaflet signed "the hard core of Cellatex" threatened to dump the sulfuric acid into the Meuse river. A court bankruptcy officer, a local official from the labor department and a local member of Parliament were forcibly held overnight in the plant.

At a local meeting of government officials, union bureaucrats and various city councils to solve the crisis, several workers poured gasoline on the floor and brandished their cigarette lighters, setting off total panic. Local authorities evacuated the entire area within a 500-meter radius of the factory. Those evacuated apparently showed no hostility toward the workers. When talks resumed to discuss the main demand of 150,000 francs (ca. $20,000) per worker on top of normal unemployment benefits, the evacuation was ended.

There was apparently a split in the work force between the "hards" and the "moderates", though not much is known about it. But the unions met a solid front of hostility. "The union leaders are politicians completely dominated by their parties." said one former delegate. " We can't trust them... There is a total divide between workers struggling for survival and the future of their children, and the union leaders who still "negotiate" all by themselves." The authorities adopted a waiting strategy of wearing the workers down, for months if necessary, a strategy that had worked many times in the past. But with Cellatex, they had miscalculated. When they proposed moving the most dangerous chemicals for "security" reasons, one worker replied: "If these chemicals are moved, the negotiations will end minutes later. As long as I don't get my security, they won't get theirs." Outside meetings of local notables, Cellatex workers demonstrated outside with banners reading "We'll go all the way...boom boom..."

On July 12, 5,000 liters of sulfuric acid, symbolically dyed red, were dumped into a creek leading to the Meuse. Firemen under police protection stopped it from reaching the river, but the workers threatened to continue releasing 10,000 liters every two hours, a threat never carried out. (The factory had a solid reputation as a polluter, putting 5,000 liters a week of sulfate derivatives into the river.) One CGT official phoned the factory and demanded the workers "stop desperate actions". The action did, however, result in renewed negotiations in Paris. It also broke through the media blackout on the Cellatex struggle, throughout Europe. The government strategy was to divide the "hards" and "moderates", who continued violent debates inside the factory.

The workers kept up the pressure inside and outside the factory, tossing chemicals into large fires in front of the factory gates and setting off small demonstrative explosions for the media. Hundreds of cops massed nearby, out of sight of the factory. On July 19, new terms were proposed to the workers, and were accepted unanimously. Each worker received 1) a special indemnity of 80,000 francs (they had initially demanded 150,000, and been offered 36,000). 2) a monthly supplement to unemployment insurance so that all workers with more than 6 months in the factory would receive their full salary for two years 3) special advantages for retraining. The agreement also established a body to oversee the execution of the agreement (and also to prevent any renewal of the struggle by workers who had "taken precautions"). The minister of labor rendered homage to the unions and local politicians.

In the aftermath, the message of Cellatex to workers throughout France was: "struggle pays". In endless commentary about it, however, what came through from all economic, political and trade-union leaders was the fear of seeing such struggles break out anew, with unforseeable consequences. All the sociologists were mobilized. Some said that Cellatex "was the cause of all those who do not see themselves in the claptrap about the Internet revolution, the blossoming economy and shortening unemployment lines." In fact, in the two weeks following the Cellatex agreement, similar struggles broke out in a number of French workplaces.

Some ministers spoke of "terrorism" and "ecoterrorism". In other plants, surveillance of "dangerous materials" was tightened, and various forms of trade-union, political and administrative intervention were updated. The dialectic of class struggle, however, is like a jack-in-the-box, always breaking out in new forms while the experts try to nail down the old ones.


Readers with a knowledge of French can obtain the full article from Echanges, BP 241, 75866 Paris Cedex 18, France.