Andre Hoyles analyses the development, organisation and end of the mass strike in France, 1968, with reference to case studies of particular factories.
In May of 1968, France was shaken by the boldest, most widespread and most promising wave of mass struggle that Western Europe had witnessed in several decades. The struggles reached into every corner of French life, and set in motion a train of events which led to the toppling of President De Gaulle. To many people, the French events demonstrated for the first time the real possibility of revolution in advanced industrial countries.
In the U.S. the commercial newspaper reports of the French events focused on the activities of the students, which were often quite daring and dramatic. They paid very little attention to what was going on in the factories, mills and offices where the largest part of the French population carried out the chores of daily life.
The left-wing press was, if anything, less informative than the commercial press. Every little radical group seized upon the French upheaval as an occasion to produce long analytical articles advancing its particular "line' on how to make a revolution.
To our knowledge, no one has yet published, in this country, any real account of what the French workers were doing during the great days of May '68. To fill this void, we are publishing this pamphlet. It first appeared as a chapter in the 1969 edition of the Trade Union Register, published by the Institute for Workers' Control, of London.
One special feature of French life, not explained in the pamphlet, must be dealt with in order for American readers to derive the full benefit of it. In France unlike the situation in basic industry here, union membership is not compulsory and no union has a monopoly on the workers in any enterprise. There are three major union federations, which compete for members in every large factory. All workers, whether or not they are members of any union, have the right to vote for delegates on the joint slate which represents them in negotiations with management.
Sojourner Truth Organization
THE OCCUPATION OF FACTORIES IN FRANCE: MAY 1968
by Andre Hoyles
It is far too soon to try to write a comprehensive account of the "events" of May and June 1968 in the factories of France, and this study cannot claim to be any more than an attempt at defining the forms taken by the strike and occupation in a few selected places, and judging their meaning and effect. What appears here is based on a special enquiry undertaken during September of 1968 and conducted with a detailed questionnaire used in interviews with trade union officials and militants, supplemented by accounts printed in articles, books and leaflets representing various points of view.
Most of the examples are from factories in Paris and its suburbs and in Nantes, but some are taken from the situation in other provincial towns. We have covered mostly the car industry (Renault and Citroën) and the aircraft industry (Sud Aviation. Dassault and Orly Nord Air France maintenance plant). Parts of the public sector, mainly the Post Office and railways and of the electronics and chemical industries. Our contacts included members of the various trade unions, both officials and rank-and-file militants, and some of the young workers who were unorganized before May. These became involved in the Movement, were more open to contacts with the students and often critical of union bureaucracies. We have tried to reflect and analyze rather than enter into polemics: and in particular to define how the great strike started, in what ways the workers organized the occupation of their workplace. The nature of their demands and their reactions to the agreements reached.
From a few hundred strikers on 14th May at the Sud-Aviation air craft factory in Nantes the strike spread rapidly: 2 million strikers by 18th May, 9 million by 24th May, reaching nearly 10 million two days later. Of the 15 million workers in France, only some 20 per cent belong to a trade-union - that was the situation before May. How strong and influential then are the Unions over the mass of industrial and other workers?
Of the three main Union federations, the most important numeric ally is the C.G.T. (Conf Gén du Travail). The C.F.D.T. (Confédération Francaise Démocratique du Travail) is less than half its size, the C.G.T.F.O (Confédération Genérale du Travail-Force Ouvrière, more widely known as simply "Force Ouvrière") follows closely behind. But their influence is not limited to their membership: they compete for the votes of the rank-and-file workers who elect representatives to the Plant Committees (Comités d'Entreprise) and call on them for industrial action. The question here is whether the Unions reluctantly took over a strike movement started "unofficially", and successfully organized it, and how far the movement escaped or resisted their control, especially in the early stages and at the time of the return to work.
Before we deal with the details of the strike, a few general points have to be made. The first is the diversity of the movement, in spite of superficial similarities in the organization. This is linked to geographical factors, Paris as opposed to the provinces, or rather large industrial areas as opposed to small towns, but also to traditions of militancy. Some firms have traditionally a high level of militancy, like Sud-Aviation (Aircraft, Nantes). Berliet (Car Industry. Lyon), Rhodiaceta (Synthetic fibres, Lyon); some have known very few strikes, like Citroën. The size and kind of firm (large state-owned plants or small family firms), and the level of unionization and relative importance of the various unions in the firm also played an important part in determining the characteristic features of the strike.
Then there is competition and sometimes bitter fighting, between the various unions. In Sud-Aviation the C.G.T. and C.F.D.T. are bitter opponents of F.O., which they have denounced repeatedly for minority actions. They all claim to be independent from political parties. The C.G.T. statues state that it "groups, outside any political school, all workers conscious of the necessity to fight for the disappearance of employers and employed", it contains many non-Communist members; but it follows very closely the policy of the Communist Part (P.C.F.), and three of the most influential members of its national executive are also members of the "politburo" of the P.C.F.: Benoit Frachon, Georges Seguy and Henri Krasucki. The C.F.D.T. also "refuses any subordination to a political party"; but it also takes definite positions in the political field. The C.F.D.T. leaders, André Jeanson and Eugene Descamps, at a press conference on 29 May 1968, congratulated Francois Mitterand, as leader of the left-wing social democratic federation (F.G.D.S.), and singled out Pierre Mendès France as "the statesman most capable of taking up, at the political level, the aspirations which have just been displayed both in our universities and in our factories". At a vital moment of the crisis, the C.F.D.T. was thus supporting the bid for power of the non-Communist Left; this reflects the opposition between the two union federations as well as the struggle between the two main parties of the parliamentary Left. So the strike and occupation opened up on a political crisis within the French Left, and this in turn had effects on the later developments of the strike.
Thus in May there was a sharp distinction between the Union federations both in the attitude adopted towards the student movement and in the kind of demands that were made. The C.G.T. from the start angrily snapped at the students: "Some petit-bourgeois with feverish brains slander the workers' movement and pretend to teach the workers a lesson. The working-class rejects these stupidities: it has come of age a long time ago; it needs no tutelage; it knows when to brush aside provocations tending to divide, isolate and turn it away from its aims. It is with the working-class around it that all those who really wish to move forward, towards deep economic and social changes must act". The C.F.D.T. took a different view "refusing to judge or attempt to separate the good from the bad students. The students have their own union: U.N.E.F., which is adult and responsible", and underlined: "in this respect, the C.F.D.T. has distinguished itself from the C.G.T." At the height of the crisis, this recognition came in a common press conference given by U.N.E.F. and C.F.D.T. and at a mass meeting of 35,000 on May 27th at the Stade Charlety. Force Ouvrière was at first reluctant to join in with the C.G.T. the C.F.D.T., F.E.N. (the teachers' Union) and U.N.E.F. (the students' Union) in a call for a nation-wide strike on 13th May, as a reaction to brutal police repression of student demonstrations, especially during the "Night of the Barricades" (10th-11th May). The National Executive of F.O. did in fact support the one-day strikes, although the decision came too late for a common press statement between all unions. But we shall see later that some local sections of F.O. as at Nantes were in very close contact with the students.
However, all unions were in favor of keeping students out of factories, although there were isolated examples in Besancon and Nantes of students being admitted to meetings or climbing over and sleeping in the occupied factories. What the C.G.T. discouraged were contacts, discussions and common demonstrations and these were welcomed by the C.F.D.T. in the belief that both students and workers were fighting for the democratization of their own workplace.
The distinction between the Unions was just as sharp on the workers' demands: the C.G.T. put forward traditional "quantitative" demands, and on the whole considered the movement to be a traditional strike that just went on longer and took more extreme forms; the C.F.D.T. gave priority to "qualitative" demands for union freedom and to control by workers over employment policy and investment, while salary claims took second place. We shall examine the importance and limits of both positions by drawing on the traditions and strategy of these two Unions.
Finally, although the role of the Unions must not be played down, one must always be aware of the existence of the general body of workers, whether or not members of a trade-union, who were suddenly activated by the conjunction of the violent repression against students, the students' call for a workers' revolt,' the accumulated frustrations of the past ten years or more and the encouragement derived from their own fellow-workers who started the strike at Sud Aviation and Renault. These had been the "apathetic" flock, uninterested in union militancy or politics; they suddenly felt concerned, and in many cases were as active in the organization of the strike as life-long union militants whom they had ignored before. In some cases, they worked within the existing union structures; in others they tried to substitute their own new forms of organization, "workshop committees" and "workers' councils", for the traditional inter-union strike committees. This phenomenon, although difficult to document in terms of precise figures, is one of the most interesting aspects of the May-June strike. It leads on to the questions: will these new militants stay militant? Will their ideas develop and flourish? Or will their initiatives be gradually incorporated into the system, their committees and councils paralyzed, and their enthusiasm lag?
The great strike lasted from mid-May to mid-June, but a few precise landmarks determine the various phases: the "night of the barricades" (10th-11th May); and the popular answer, a 24-hour strike (13th May); the Grenelle negotiations (25th-27th May) and the workers' rejection of the "agreements"; General De Gaulle's speech (30th May). The first period can be described as the student phase, the second as the "economic" strike, the third as the "political" strike, and the fourth as the crumbling of the strike.
1st May: According to the C.G.T. (and the P.C.F.), the 100,000 strong Republique-Bastille march, authorized by the government for the first time in 14 years, was both a climax for a long series of isolated struggles and the starling point of the May Movement for the working class. The called for the demonstration, the Pans section of the C.F.D.T. and the F.G.D.S. refused to support it. This claim of the C.G.T. that the first of May was the starting point of the great strike movement is very important: it underlines the consistent refusal of the C.G.T. and the P.C.F. to accept the role of the student movement as detonator to a large Working-class outburst of militancy.
2nd May-13th May: From the closing down of the Nanterre Faculty (2nd May) and the Sorbonne (3rd May), the students demonstrated in the streets in ever-increasing numbers, against the closing of the University, then against the arrests of demonstrators." Some young workers start joining them. The sadly famous articles by Georges Marchais in L'Humanite denounced the "leftists" led by the "German anarchist Cohn-Bendit". The General Secretary of the C.G.T. in a press statement on 7th May denounced the repression, but also gave a warning against the attempts by the "leftists" to "empty the student trade union movement of its claims and of its democratic and mass nature." Le Peuple commented on a Bill introduced by the Communist Parliamentary Group extending the fourth week annual holiday to all workers,' and recorded various partial strikes; it also summed up what had happened on the student front. But workers and students were clearly treated as totally independent from one another, a characteristic attitude maintained throughout, even when it became obvious to most people that the two movements had points of convergence
As the snowballing student movement gained increasing support from the population, especially in Paris, the Union federations issued press statements (8th May) expressing solidarity with the students and denouncing police repression. On Friday 10th May, a common demonstration was announced by the Unions and students for the 14th. But it the evening, the Latin Quarter was surrounded by police; at 2.17 the order came for a police charge; fighting continued until 7 am the radio reported it throughout the night; the brutality of the repression was thus brought home to millions of people, while the Latin Quarter population was witness to it and very often helped the students. On the Saturday morning, anger against the police exploded. The working-class had known violent police repression during recent strikes: at Caen and Le Mans (autumn 1967) and at Rhodiaceta that same winter. The trade-union national executive met on Saturday and called for a 24-hour strike on Monday 13th May, the tenth anniversary of De Gaulle's return to power: the legal five-days' warning was not respected.
13th May: Huge demonstrations took place everywhere (700,000 in Paris at least) with millions of workers on strike. The Sorbonne was occupied by the students that evening.
13th-25th May: The strike starting at Sud-Aviation aircraft factory (in Nantes-Bougueflais) spread across France. Sud-Aviation was occupied on 14th May; one Renault plant (at Cléon) on 15th May: other Renault plants (Flins, Le Mans, and then the largest, in the Paris suburbs of Boulogne-Billancourt) on 16th May: the movement then extended rapidly to the provinces. By Friday evening, 17th May, public transport was seriously disrupted. By Monday 20th May, most industrial sectors were affected. A referendum on "participation" was announced, to take place in June. On Wednesday 22nd May, the strike became general: Nine million workers occupied their factories, work shops or offices; but no "general strike" call had been issued nationally.
25th-27th May: The representatives of the trade-union federations met the representatives of employers and government. A proposed agreement was reached at 7 am. Monday 27th May.
27th-30th May: Most workers rejected the proposed agreements and the strike was consolidated. The movement became openly political; the question of a power "vacuum" was raised. A meeting of at least 35,000 at the Charlety stadium in Southern Paris on 27th May revealed the emergence of a new, unorganized "New Left". The F.G.D.S. suggested a provisional government under Pierre Mend s France, pending presidential elections that would follow a Gaullist defeat in the proposed referendum. Mitterand would be a presidential candidate. The P.C.F. was reticent and called for a "popular government" on 29th May. Speculation was at its highest on 29th May: De Gaulle had left Paris and was lost track of. On 30th May, how ever, he reversed the situation by a tough speech: Parliament was dissolved, general elections were announced for 23rd and 30th June; "order will be restored". Massive Gaullist demonstrations took place in all major cities.
From 31st May: The strike movement was slowly broken. Negotiations started by sectors of industry. Partial agreements were reached and the unions encouraged a quick return to work where agreement occurred. By 11th June the hard sectors had been isolated: that is, in metallurgy including the car industry, and in the chemical industry. Opposition in these sectors was stubborn, but repression had started as parties and unions pressed for pre-electoral order. The rearguard battle of the radio and TV journalists (O.R.T.F.) continued until 15th July, a total of seven weeks of strike.
THE START OF THE MOVEMENT THE FACTORIES
Long-term causes: What caused this sudden outbreak of militancy? A general strike, involving ten million workers occupying their factories, can only be the expression of deep-rooted discontent. Most often quoted by trade-union militants and officials alike are the numerous strikes of the last few years which failed to get any more than a few crumbs, and the increasing threats to security of employment. The aircraft industry is a case in point. The workers experienced a deep sense of frustration: so when the time came, when the huge Renault complex was brought to a halt, they seized their chance- now was the time to strike a big blow.
This is in fact only part of a more general and complex situation referred to as the crisis of neo-capitalism. Beyond the purely economic causes inherent in the system, other more "subjective" causes are often quoted: frustration at being excluded from joining in the riot of consumption which widespread publicity exacerbates: increasing rigidity of hierarchical structures and the limits of internal promotion: the change from rural to industrial life with its loss of freedom and high costs of living for the thousands of workers who have taken up mainly unskilled jobs in the mushrooming over-crowded suburbs of Paris: disorganization of family life and general disruption of life by the spreading of the continuous day work (three eight-hour shifts) etc. The C.F.D.T. tends to insist much more on this second set of causes, the C.G.T. emphasizing the more directly "economic" demands which were still not satisfied after repeated short strikes and, in their analysis, led to the outbreak of the long May strikes.
1. Rhodiaceta Plant in Lyon
In a Lyon suburb, the Rhodiaceta plant at Vaise, part of a large synthetic fibers complex, was one of the first to be occupied, on 16th May. The struggle of workers in this plant, against redundancies in particular, had been acute for over a year, and included a 23-day strike in March 1967 against the implications of a take-over bid. On 6 December 1967, the management announced the redundancy of 2,100 workers, and a 50 per cent backdated curtailment of a profits bonus; the unions estimated an average reduction of wages by 20 per cent. This was an attack on both security of employment and wage levels: a spontaneous strike broke out on 7th December. On 15th December, pay day, the management announced a partial lock out. Ninety-two workers were sacked, accused without grounds of spoiling the machinery; they were all on continuous eight hour shift work, groups which contained the most militant workers. Sixty out of the ninety-two were members of the C.G.T., ten of them shop stewards. During the first four months of 1968, the struggle went on: at the time of the 24-hour strike of 13th May, there was a lock out, due to end only on 20th May. At the end of the very orderly mass demonstrations in Lyon (13th May), a break-away group refused to disperse and to the cries of "Tous a la Rhodia" proceeded from the town centre to the factory at Vaise and broke open the gates. The management was forced to meet a delegation of workers and three days later, the factory was occupied.
In the southern suburb of Vénissieux, the Berliet factory, a large commercial vehicle plant, was also occupied on 16th May. A 24-hour strike had affected a large section of the workers on 7th May and negotiations over "bonus" schemes were due to start on 13th May.
There again, it was a resort to direct action so that negotiations could be undertaken from a position of strength.
2. Nantes-Saint-Nazaire -- Shipyards and Sud-Aviation aircraft plant
Nantes and Saint-Nazaire are twin towns some 40 miles apart at the head of the Loire estuary in Southern Brittany. There is a long local tradition of revolutionary trade unionism: there were tough strikes in 1953 and 1955, when a Central Strike Committee was set up in the town. This is a "red" area, where syndicalism is still a living force, thanks largely to the personality of Alexandre Hébert, the regional secretary of the C.G.T.-F.O. in Loire-Atlantique a popular orator and a formidable tactician.
The ACB shipyards in Nantes are among the seven largest in France, employing nearly 3,000 workers. There is a constant threat of redundancy. More precisely, in April 1965, 475 redundancies were announced. The unions tried to fight back and the management threatened a lock-out. The clash came on 19th May, after the management's refusal to meet a delegation over a bonus payment: the whole workshop (300 men) turned up at the manager's office. The answer came that evening in a press statement: lock-out for the 2,900 workers. Five days later, 22nd May, 22 "agitators" were sacked for their militancy. When the shipyard reopened on 31st May, the management had imposed its law. This is the sort of background to the high level of militancy of shipyard workers in May 1968: direct action, brutal repression, and insecurity, helplessness of unions to fight back and get workers reinstated. During the winter of 1966-67, a whole series of strikes in Saint-Nazaire caused the workers to organize them selves efficiently: walkie-talkies had been used to avoid running into police barrages and there was an attempt at centralizing food supplies. Here again, there had been experiments which were naturally tried again in May and very successfully.
The Sud-Aviation aircraft plant at Bouguenais just outside Nantes employs 2,800 workers. There have been several lock-outs in recent years-in 1957, 1960, and 1962. The threat of insecurity had increased in the last years, with the announcement of 15,000 redundancies in the aircraft industry by 1970 according to the 5th Plan. The Unions have been constantly denouncing the increase in redundancies, the attacks on union freedom, the reduction of working hours involving loss of pay. In 1967-68, a 'Plant Agreement" was being negotiated between the management and representatives of all unions from the various Sud-Aviation plants. Nantes opposed this idea of a Plant Agreement, and pressed for an "Aircraft Industry Agreement" that would apply to nationalized and private firms alike. The level of unionization is high: C.G.T. (800 members). C.F.D.T. (700), F.O. (300). There is an almost permanent system of inter-union meetings; and the small group of Trotskyist militants, which forms the hard core of the F.O. section had kept bringing to the fore their radical controversial proposals. When a half-day strike was staged on 25th January 1968, F.O. reluctantly joined in. while insisting on the necessity of generalized action, the consultation of all workers in general assemblies at plant level and the need to follow-up every "token" strike by other action. In March 1968, new limited strikes had been announced; F.O. reiterated its proposal for a democratic conference of aircraft workers organized by all unions, leading to a general aircraft strike, prepared in advance by the creation of strike preparation committees in each plant. The ground had also been prepared for student-worker links at the time of the student demonstrations which had been violently repressed in February 1968: in particular, a parallel was drawn between the Nantes students and the Caen workers, both submitted to the same police repression. An inter-union meeting in Paris on 22nd March had decided on consultation among all Sud Aviation workers as to forms of action. The reluctance of the stronger
C.G.T. and C.F.D.T. sections at the Bouguenais plant to carry out the decision in this form led F.O. to organize the ballot alone. It was carried out through a leaflet issued on 4th April, asking four questions: 1). repeated half-hour stoppages: 2). limited general strike; 3). indefinite general strike; 4). other forms of action. A general meeting the next day gave 76 per cent vote for strike action, and a 24-hour strike followed. F.O. called for the formation of a strike committee, elected by the workers and responsible to the general meeting. Repeated stoppages were decided on, while F.O. still pressed for a "total strike". Given this background, it is hardly surprising that Sud Aviation was the first occupied factory on 14th May.
3. Dassault Aircraft Plant at Boulogne-Billancourt (near Paris)
This is a large trust, which has links with the political forces in power and has a monopoly of military aircraft contracts. Its eight factories employ 11,000 workers. Two are in Bordeaux, three in the suburbs of Paris. For a long time, repeated stoppages had occurred, with 20 per cent below Paris levels. There is a well organized C.G.T. presence and a common platform of demands had been defined for a long time. The main demands were: wage increases (to catch up with the rise in the cost of living), the shortening of the basic working week: a lower retirement age: a fifth week's annual holiday. All these demands were outstanding just before May.
The last eighteen months had seen an increase in militant action. It started at the Bordeaux plants at the end of 1966: in February 1967, there was a lock-out in Bordeaux after the strike movement was reinforced in answer to sackings designed to force a return to work. Mass demonstrations were held in the centre of Bordeaux. The electoral campaign was on. The local Gaullist M.P. met the trade union representatives. A settlement was reached: 5 per cent below Paris rates of pay and a vague promise to reach parity by October 1967. In October, the movement started again, and ended up with a new agreement: to 3 per cent below Paris to be reached in stages, sew forms of action were decided on, short stoppages, half-day strikes, with hardly any results beyond promises. In May 1968, the demands formulated were still unsatisfied; the moment had come to strike a final blow. Dassault workers joined in the strike movement: "not to please Renault or the students" said a C.G.T. official.
4. Against Bad Living Conditions: The Citroën Co hostels
For workers in large plants, the links with the company extend beyond their presence in the factory. The Citroën firm organizes children's holiday camps, dances and various forms of entertainment and often houses some of the workers. This is in particular the case with immigrant workers, who are then wholly dependent on the firm and are easily intimidated. The conditions at the "prison-hostels" run by Citroën are probably extreme, and were denounced in a leaflet distributed during May. This gives an idea of the extent of the frustrations of workers in such situations, and their militancy once they embarked on questioning their conditions, and is quoted in total:
Inhuman material conditions.
1) Tiny and unsanitary rooms, whether in council flats as in Villejuif, or in "prefabs" as in Chatenay-Malabry.
2) Barrack-like furniture, bunk beds, six chairs for twelve workers, insufficient lighting, cracked walls.
3) Insufficient and irregular heating, which was out of order for a whole month during the winter 0f 1967 in Chatenay-Malabry.
4) Insufficient food; before leaving at 5 a.m. the workers only gets black coffee, without sugar or bread. They have to wait for a short break at 8 am, when they have to buy a snack.
5) Lunch costs from 4F to 5F (approx. 7s. 6d.). The lunch break lasts hour, but there may be 20 minutes queuing. Dinner at the hostel is a thick soup, boiled potatoes, and perhaps a piece of omelet: only one piece of bread, and no wine (in France! A.H.). The Sunday evening meal, more meager still, is always cold.
6) There is no first-aid available, no health centre. When ill, even if contagious, they have to pay for their own treatment and remain in their shared rooms.
7) There is total lack of entertainment, except for one TV set con trolled by the hostel superintendent.
8) There are no company buses, so that for those who are in the suburban hostels, 2 to 3 hours daily are spent on traveling.
9) BUT NOTE that, to be housed in those "prison-hostels", the workers must pay their board, and Citroën takes advantage of these "camps" to get back 130 Francs per month (about £11) from the lowest-paid workers.
The intolerable attack on human dignity
1) All visits, including those by families, are forbidden.
2) A daily inspection, army-like, makes sure that beds are made according to standards and prevents workers from keeping personal belongings.
3) At the Nanterre hostel, speaking at table is FORBIDDEN. Newspapers, leaflets, even discussions are FORBIDDEN.
4) Taking photographs is forbidden.
5) Any complaint is punished: the signatories of a petition asking for better sanitary facilities were expelled.
6) SPYING on others and DENOUNCING them are practiced and bullying is encouraged by hostel superintendents recruited among former foreign-legion soldiers.
In the same shared rooms, workers on different shifts are mixed, some coming in at midnight, others getting up at 4 am.
The workers are not all as badly off as these, but this call for human dignity had repercussions for everybody. The May strike would probably not have started from such a demand, but once it had, such demands became more and more important, as workers were becoming more conscious of their alienation: for once, they had tune to think about it, they could express it, and this they did in the numerous meetings during those few weeks in May-June 1968.
The last questions one may ask about the long-term preparations for the strike are: could it have been foreseen, and was it? Few observers dare claim they had such foresight, everybody was taken by surprise. But E. Mandel in an article recalls the 1936 strike, of course, but, nearer to us, the Belgian general strike of 1960-61, and goes on to quote from one of his 1965 articles where he defines a process of radicalization "until eventually the struggle concludes with a general strike which either overthrows the régime or creates a duality of powers." More important than deciding whether Mandel was a prophet or not is this description of a continuous trend which can lead to sudden explosions: but why in France in May 1968? The long- term causes do not point to an inevitable outburst at that precise moment. We are led to the very controversial question of the spontaneous start of the strike.
A SPONTANEOUS START!
"If the workers are on strike, we must be conscious that, to a large extent, it is thanks to the students who faced problems that discussions, negotiation and dialogue had been unable to solve. Direct confrontation and repression were necessary if one was to conceive of a disruption of that society which all of us, workers as well as students, question." This is from Rousselin, a C.F.D.T. official of the Renault-Flins plant, at a public meeting on 20 May 1968.
"The students started the train rolling and we thank them for that. Once we saw the train off and running, lie climbed aboard'', said a Renault worker at Boulogne-Billancourt plant, member of the C.G.T. and P.C.F., in an interview with M.A. Waters.
This on the one side; but from the Communist leaders:
"It has been said that the student movement was the detonator of the great strike movement by workers, technicians, white-collar workers and civil-servants. Let us note that speaking,' of a 'detonator' is admitting that there had been an accumulation of tinder in the working class. We know, however, that time fact that an event is anterior to another is no sufficient proof of a casual relationship. The cause of the strike, we have just seen, although totally new in its extension, is no mystery: it is the government's policy over the last ten years" (Waldeck Rochet, General Secretary of the P.C.F.).
To the outside observer, the connection between the student explosion and the workers' strike, through the nation-wide 24-hour strike of 13th May, seems obvious. But no one would pretend to deny the on-going militancy of the working class or doubt their consistent pursuit of the fight for their particular demands.
The C.G.T. officials (and some of the militants) deny any hint of a spontaneous start of the movement, if what is meant is an uncontrolled start by the rank-and-file against the advice or wishes of the union delegates. They can recall examples similar to those of Sud Aviation or Dassault quoted above. But they do not offer an explanation for the sudden "strike and occupy" initiatives reported in numerous places, before any general meeting had discussed, let alone voted on the proposal. They admit proudly that the workers themselves were left to make their own decision, without the need for a national call from the Union Executive: "this general strike is in the making without the necessity for us to call for it, and it has been prepared under the responsibility of the workers themselves."
So the strike started at grass roots level. In an article in which he studies the tactics of the C.G.T. in May-June, Michel Johan claims that the movement was often started by young workers, whether or not union members; or by political militants, members of the P.S.U. or of a Trotskyist or pro-Chinese group; and he insists that C.G.T. officials were never at the origin of the movement during the first week, and were often panicking when faced with a situation that took them by surprise.
The part played by young workers has been documented in numerous interviews and articles. One of them explains how the strike started at the sorting office in a Paris Railway Station. "On 17th May, when we came in to work on the night shift at 6.30 p.m., we heard that the Montparnasse railway workers were on strike. We did not need a vote to decide and do the same, enthusiastically. It is true that the night shift is composed of a majority of young people. The first evening, we did not even think of occupying the office for lack of experience. The next morning, some of the day shift workers wanted to come in. We had to convince them. We then understood that we had to occupy the place and protect it with a strike picket".
But there are examples of the movement being well organized from the beginning around union officials. At Orly-Nord, the strike started on 17th May at 3.45 p.m. after a meeting called by the C.G.T. with the agreement of F.O. and C.F.D.T. The unions suggested the occupation, time for discussion was granted, and a show of hands decided on the strike. The C.G.T. claims it had locally called for the strike in the evening of 16th May. "The shop-floor union branches (sections syndicales de base) are claimed to have helped establish the occupation: After our decision to occupy the factory, and in the context, the student movement over the whole country, the workers, in agreement with the "shop-floor union branches" decided everywhere to strike and occupy. Only then did the national strike Executives call workers to act" (from a C.F.D.T. source, Sud-Aviation aircraft factory). And the unions certainly worked for the spreading of the movement once it was well under way: particularly so in the provinces, and after 20th May.
What is remarkable in the reasons given for the decision to strike and occupy especially in provincial towns is the recurrence of remarks like: "the national movement", or more precisely "Süd-Aviation's example" or "Renault's decision to occupy" encouraged us to do the same. In Nantes, the strike spread particularly quickly: what needs to be underlined is that the very workers who started the strike first. Sud-Aviation aircraft workers were themselves uncertain of the effect of their decision. They occupied the plant very precisely because they wanted to force the management to meet them immediately: and for the first two days all workers stayed in, expecting a move from the employers, and quite anxious. It was only after the second day that they clearly realized it was going to last and started organizing themselves more systematically. The fact that they had locked up a group of managers only made their anxiety the greater!
The decision by the whole Renault plant to occupy was taken by a vote, but after there had been stoppages in the workshops where workers had the worst conditions. It is said to have started in some workshops around 4 p.m. on 16th May: workers were asked to remain around the shop and discuss among themselves. Later that evening at 7 p.m. a vote took place to decide about the strike, but workers were asked to go home. The Union branch executive then discussed the possibility of occupying the factory and decided to put it to the vote, which took place the next morning (17th May) at a mass meeting of 20,000 workers. At Dassault, the decision to occupy was delayed over the week-end.
The psychological effect of the Renault complex being part of the strike movement was decisive for the small plants around the Flins Renault factory; to this one must add the practical efforts of groups of young workers who went on a round tour of all the small factories and were instrumental in bringing them out. Elsewhere, it was the efforts of determined political militants: the Trotskyist O.C.I. who, in .Nantes. kept plugging the idea of a General Strike of students, workers and teachers from the beginning of May if not before: or the Maoist students in Lyon who discussed with the in-going and out-going shifts at the Richard-Continental heavy machinery plant, some workers staying out to discuss the matter with a group of 200 to 300 students. Those who went in stopped work for an hour to discuss whether to strike; the C.G.T. branch official was worried and called the regional headquarters for advice, a delegate was sent down and advised workers to resume work and stage a one-hour strike from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. The C.G.T. official did not believe the strike would be followed in Lyon and said that more massive support would have been needed to call for an unlimited strike; but the following day Richard- Continental was on strike and occupied (17th May).
On the whole, it seems that in numerous factories, many initiatives were taken at shop-level before official meetings were called to discuss and vote the strike official. It is of course difficult to be sure of facts, since, after a few months, workers themselves cannot remember precisely if the whole thing started in this or that workshop, and at 3 p.m. or 5 p.m. Another cause of unreliability is the interpretation which is very quickly indistinguishable from facts but this does not imply deliberate distortion of the facts. We had several cases of the same questions answered in totally different ways by two or more workers from the same plant, according to their own views of the situation or the union to which they belong. What further confuses issues is that in some places, no work was done for several days (Saclay mentions a week) before the situation was "legalized" by a formal vote. It is undeniable that in many places the local union officials played a major part in getting the occupation organized, and that elsewhere they did not oppose it even though they were not certain of its chances of success. But it is quite clear that there were instances of action taken over the heads of the officials, and that within the commissions and committees there were bitter anti-union attacks by the workers' equivalent of the "Enrages." The unions usually denounced these disrupting elements and did their best to neutralize them, and they no doubt found this more difficult than ever in May.
"Besides the claims, often vague in fact (aren't some factories going on strike even before having fixed their objectives?), the 1936 strike is before all else a breaking away (rupture') from the everyday environment" (Esprit 12, Dec. 1968 p. 750. Chroniques Sur le Front Populaire).
The Front Populaire still lives in memories and myth: but the demands were no longer "vague" in 1968: in a large number of factories, the charters of demands were ready: in others, they were quickly drafted with the urgent prodding of trade-union delegates: but in some, the strike was started in that very vagueness and on a wave of enthusiasm and newly-gained confidence. E. Mandel quotes the example of the Atlantic Yards at Saint-Nazaire, where "the workers occupied the plant and for ten days refused to submit a list of immediate demands, despite constant pressure from the union apparatus". At the Atomic Energy plant at Saclay, they insisted on their "exigencies" and refused to play the old game according to the rules set in the capitalist context: they wanted thus to assert their power to decide for themselves, and implemented it.
When clearly drafted, the demands are very similar: they are summed up in an inter-union leaflet issued at Flins on 19th June: "increase in wages, progressive reduction of basis working week with the aim of returning to the 40-hour week with no loss of wages; lowering of retirement age; extension of trade union freedom and rights within the factory". Of course, there are differences, according to the level of militant consciousness, the position of strength of the workers in firms with a long tradition of struggles fought (and partly at least won) with a high level of unionization and with active union officials. The conditions vary of course according to industry, location, size of firm, private or nationalized.
But, looking at these demands, one is struck by the radical aspect of even the material claims ("alimentary") witch were beyond normal expectations under the present regime, especially in view of the parsimony with which claims had been granted n the recent past. The unions' analysis is always that the firm or trust can pay, and of course it can, looking at profits and investments, etc. But under the present regime, and given the fact that the present average salary in France is of the order of 950F (i.e. if everyone received the same salary), could the demand of a minimum salary of the order of the 1,000F a month claimed by Renault workers be conceivably satisfied? The same goes for the lowering of retirement age and reduction in basic working week without loss of pay. If there had been a change of regime but even then, what would have been its viability in terms of the fall in production?
There are a number of examples of very radical (revolutionary?) demands: for example at the CIT. (Compagnie Industriale de Tellecommunications) with nearly 2,000 workers including employees and staff "cadres" a leaflet issued by the strike committee on 27th May demanded a minimum monthly wage of 1,000F and a uniform increase in wages of 150F per month.
So the workers did "ask for the moon". Did they believe they would get it? There was a moment of elation when everything seemed possible. It is interesting, however, to note that a union official (C.G.T.) commented to us that "we thought we might get it without really believing it, but we put it in the charter of demands all the same" talking of monthly wages for all workers in the plant.
It was commonly said in May-June, and has been argued since, that the C.F.D.T. was pushing for more "revolutionary" measures than the C.G.T., who consistently refused to depart from the traditional economic demands: the C.F.D.T. was talking of "workers' power," and this ought to he put in context.
Some points of the program outlined during the electoral campaign mention traditional socialist claims, and raise important problems, but remain vague. Under the heading of "economic democracy", they call for a "true democratic planning based on the real needs of the people and on full employment": "democratic management ('gestion') of nationalized firms", "nationalization of key sectors of the economy when their influence is such in the life of the nation that it is the pre-condition of any deep reform of the economic structures". Under "Democratic Sociale" the first point is the establishment of "trade union power within the firms----with the right to negotiate wages and working conditions, a power which constitutes the basis for a transformation of the balance of forces within the place of work and starts the process of real economic power for the workers". In a statement issued on 16th May, the idea of democratization of structures is somewhat more precise: "Democratic structures, based on 'autogestion' (literally meaning self-management) must be substituted for industrial and administrative Monarchy. The extension of trade union freedoms, the recognition of the union branch in the plant, security of employment, the right of workers to the 'gestion' of the economy and of their firm must be asserted more strongly than ever'. The C.F.D.T's action "is determined by the desire to associate workers in the widest possible way, in decision-taking in what concerns them". When the strike became general, from 20th May, "the C.F.D.T. placed more and more emphasis on structural reforms and the recognition of 'workers' power' in factories", while the C.G.T. only placed the extension of trade union rights on the same level as other professional and social rights. On the "economic" level, the C.F.D.T. also emphasized the need to reduce the widening gap between high and low wages by calculating age increases in such a way as to distribute them more evenly over the mass of the workers.
But what does all this mean in practice?
Supporters of the C.G.T. official line, supporters of the "class struggle tendencies", a minority position within the C.G.T. (from either a Trotskyist or pro-Chinese standpoint), and "syndicalists" alike underlined that the C.F.D.T. is not the natural ally of the workers united for the overthrow of capitalism, but with no animosity against the C.F.D.T. militants' call for unity etc. The C.F.D.T's opponents denounced it as "unrepresentative of the main current in the working- class" because "it only groups a minority of unionized workers". They accused it of professing the "democratization of capitalism" and of standing for "class collaboration rather than class struggle". They admitted that A. Jeanson. President of the C.F.D.T. had written in Le Monile that it will "struggle against capitalist power," but also insisted that "to raise the problem of workers' power in the factory is valid on the condition only that the problem of State power is also raised. The workers must not contemplate management of factories when they do not manage the state. . . . The only power that the workers or the students can conquer at the level of their own sector is that of participating in the capitalist management of that sector".
As to the "union branch within the plant" the danger of incorporation was seen by many as being greater than the advantage, the unions being used as a buffer between workers and management or becoming in effect jointly responsible for a rationalization of capitalism, and being prevented from taking immediate action without prior consultation, thus giving their approval to measures which should be wholly questioned. The C.F.D.T partly answer these criticisms by explaining that "it is necessary for the workers to be able to express themselves freely in the factory, to be able to stop, within the framework of the 'plant committee' a certain number of decisions being taken by the management, when for example, investments are abnormal, or measures concerning the workers must be modified. We were always saying: union rights, power for the workers, then one can negotiate. Otherwise the unions can only record decisions: from now on we refuse the soliloquy". This may sound reasonable. But when one examines closely the list of problems to he tackled by a proposed "negotiating commission" in that same firm relative to a merger (between Thomson and C.S.F.), the dangers mentioned above become very clear: "Safety of employment and salary: union rights, credit of 200 hrs. per month to the 'union branch s the plant': democratization of the factory in the perspective of 'autogestion' of the workers; contractual and promotion policy; job definition: training; plan for the development of personnel; control of appointments and financial control of the establishment and of the firm etc", and with this last sentence we are directly stepping into the dreaded "collaboration".
A more general, if perhaps unfair criticism is that of the "past" of the C.F.D.T. its origins and links with the Christian C.F.T.C. which was decidedly for "collaboration" rather than class struggle: the image sticks, in spite of the thorough renewal of perspectives at the time of the split from the C.F.T.C. in 1964, and the growing radical element within the C.F.D.T. itself. The suspicion remains in the minds of militant socialists that this is the class enemy in disguise, or as a self- professed syndicalist rather bluntly put it: the C.F.T.C. is "the traditional 'right' which announces its color"; the C.F.D.T. is a "fascist- type grouping, which practices an incorporation policy under a leftist vocabulary. It is national-socialism without the anti-Semitism". This is an extreme way of putting it, but it expresses a real feeling of suspicion.
As to direct "participation" favored by the Gaullists, and taken up, by de Gaulle in his 7th June speech, the unions agreed in their total rejection of the idea. The aim and the incorporation process are made very clear in the little bible of participation written by Francois Sommer who has exposed his ideas and the results of the experiment conducted in his own firm. First the aim: "allow the workers in each firm to enter an association with it and receive a large surplus thanks to the complementary results of production, this without with drawing anything from the basic capital and while enriching the state"; clearly a salvage operation for the capitalist firm, "without modifying deeply its fundamental structure": one could not be more precise. As to this incorporation process, it is admirably described:
"To participate is first to know what happens in the firm, why a given decision is taken, a given situation occurred. Participation supposes the extension of responsibilities by various internal measures, which anyhow exist in a large number of American firms; like for example "shop budgets" controlled by every individual according to his rank and post. . . . It is the progressive transformation of an automatic act into a voluntary act. It is also the action of a Participation Committee which, from its necessary original role as an organ of information, progressively becomes an active member of the management by giving its opinion in the same capacity as the Management Boards (Conseils de Direction) in some firms".
This long quotation sums up the whole issue. Participation has been discussed, analyzed and criticized by unions and by student/worker commissions alike. What is put forward as an alternative is "autogestion" "which supposes the abolition of the capitalist system"; and as a first step to increase consciousness by discussion, to extend union rights, and in particular to insist on "time allocated for discussion in the factories, taken out of working time, and envisage within trade unionism a real 'autogestion' so that the workers can more actively participate, the union official not being always the same, the workers having the means of controlling him". An example given is that of Yugoslavia; and the brief spell of "popular power" in Nantes between 26 and 31 May 1968 is seen as an encouraging, if short-lived, attempt. Lastly, it has been argued that, given careful maneuvering, trade unionism could catch capitalism in its own trap of "participation" through a careful choice of "control" measures and rejection of "participatory" action.
Most factories, plants and offices were occupied, but not all. For example, in the Hauts-de-Seine Department near Paris, 31 of the 39 factories were occupied in Issy-les-Moulineaux. 20 of the 40 factories in Boulogne-Billancourt: 16 of the 26 in Malakoff. The first areas to be affected were the large industrial conurbations of Nantes. Paris, Lyon: in other areas where factories are small and isolated, the strike started later and finished earlier, and the percentage of occupied plants was lower.
The strikes lasted for from three to live weeks, and were toughest in "metallurgy". The main difference in organization comparing the 1936 strike with the events of May 1968 was that this time the occupation was on a rota basis, whereas in 1936 workers barricaded them selves inside the factory for the whole of the strike. The other main difference as that white-collar workers and civil-servants like teachers, railways and post-office workers joined in whereas in 1936 only industrial workers were involved.
In all but two of the cases investigated the whole of the factory was controlled by the workers. Most often in the car factories, the heavy machinery plants and aircraft factories, the machines were checked and oiled and the workshops were cleaned and then locked to all but one technician in charge. In one case, an aircraft plant dealing with military contracts, seals were officially affixed under strike committee control.
An interesting example of the extreme respect for property was that of a provincial Rail Sorting Centre: the manager's office was finally occupied only because the keys were found: large amounts of French currency and shares which the strike prevented from being exported were carefully stored in a safe and constantly guarded: suggestions that the locked office should be broken into were strongly resisted: suggestions that the money could be requisitioned and used by the strikers were hardly considered. Such is the inbred respect for legality and property, but lack of confidence in the ultimate victory of the movement can also be seen in the fear of reprisals behind such reactions.
It was a mass occupation, but there was a system of shifts, the numbers of workers in occupation usually dropping to a minimum at night: 50 at night, 500-600 during the day for example at one Citroën plant. In two cases studied the numbers were increased around the political crisis of the 29th May. The proportion of workers in occupation varied according to the size and geographical layout of the plant: in Orly-Nord, a maintenance plant for the airport. 800 to 1, 500 workers were on duty day and night out of a total of 5,200, rising to 3,.500 for the daily "general assemblies" and other meetings. Eight-hour shifts were sometimes organized, reflecting the normal shift-work pattern. At an electronics plant (C.S.F.) workers clocked in and out as usual to take part in commissions and other duties. There was one notable exception to this fairly flexible pattern reached -after general agreement: at Sud-Aviation (Bouguenais) nobody was allowed out for the first two or three days: after that, shifts were organized on a voluntary basis.
The proportion of workers who took an active part in the occupation varied greatly: in Orly-Nord, the proportion was high, and cases were reported to us of people coming from up to 30 miles on foot after petrol rationing to do rota duty: in a Nantes firm incidents were reported, on the return to work, between the militants and those who had not taken part in the occupation. An interesting incident is documented in an interview published in Intercontinental Press: "very few workers are occupying the factories now'. The C.G.T. 'as sent them home because they are afraid to keep them all together in the plant where they will talk and discuss. If they are home with their wives and children they are easier to control".
There was one widely-published case of the management trying to take legal action to throw workers out: at Citroën. The tribunal, however, rejected its claim which was based on "freedom to work" and "respect for private property": "since the strike does not imply breaking the work contract, except in cases of serious misconduct by workers, and since taking part in a strike picket does not constitute such misconduct: since the trade union organizations are discussing the present strikes at national level with management representatives: since the legal situation is highly complex the magistrate cannot, with out exceeding the limits of his powers, make a decision. For these reasons, the request is rejected". So Citroën failed to get the law on its side, but extensively used police intimidation to try and break the strike. It is however important that the right for workers to occupy their workplace was thus explicitly recognized.
THE STRIKE COMMITTEE
In every factory, a strike committee (or occupation committee) was set up to organize and co-ordinate the strike, but its composition and mode of election or nomination varied. Although the unions had not actually called for the strike, they successfully controlled it in most cases: the strike committee was an inter-union committee composed of union officials and shop floor delegates.
"In the tradition of the working-class movement, the strike committee represents the totality of the workers on strike, whether union members or not. A general meeting is called, the committee is elected and its members can be revoked by the majority at any time. In the event of union delegates being elected to the strike committee (hence the danger to 'control' by the union leadership), the procedure of election and recall makes it possible for shop-floor pressure to be exerted more directly. Its role is to organize the strike: pickets, security, and charter of demands and to help unionization. At a higher level, it becomes necessary to co-ordinate the strike committees by industry and by area, up to national level."
In most cases the strike committee was in fact under union control: it reflected the unions represented in that particular factory, although not necessarily their respective strengths. The inter-union committee at the Lyon Central Railway Station (sorting office) was composed of 6 members: 2 C.G.T. representing 200 members. 2 C.F.D.T. with 80 members and 2 F.O. with 10 members and no representative of non-unionized workers.
At one of the Paris Citroën plants no proportions were given to us, but only unions were represented and the strike committee was "set up by the representatives of the C.G.T. and C.F.D.T.. the only unions to follow the strike", excluding the C.G.C. organizing the cadres or officials: here again it is explicit that the unions were firmly in charge. A slightly different and more complex pattern was established at the Orly maintenance plant: "at plant level an inter-union strike committee of 14 members was elected by the whole body of workers on strike: 6 C.G.T., 2 F.O. 2 C.F.D.T., 1cadre COT, 1 cadre F.O., 1 cadre C.F.D.T. 1 cadre C.G.C. This was the only decision-making body. At shop-floor level an inter-union committee (union and non-union members) was elected by the strikers and made responsible for decisions of that particular shop". In this case 'non union members had a say but at shop floor level only. In factories where only one union is represented, the strike committee was the "union committee" plus representatives of all categories or workers. In Dassault (Boulogne-Billancourt) union members elected the Committee; in others all workers did so irrespective of union membership: but it is very clear that in such cases the overwhelming voice would be that of the union.
The strike committee could he expected to be the executive body and indeed it was in Orly. Sud-Aviation, Saclay and Rhône-Poulenc, although in different ways as we shall see. But often the C.G.T. seems to have tried to minimize its influence and reduce it to the role of co-ordination at the level of practical organizational problems, and to insist on each union making decisions on proposals by the strike committee. This was emphasized repeatedly by C.G.T. officials, who insisted in interviews with us on the basic difference between their approach and that of the C.F.D.T.: "The C.F.D.T. wanted the strike committee to direct the strike; the C.G.T. wanted the unions to make the decisions": and on the attitude of the "leftists" (including non union members): "they wanted the strike committee to make decisions, and wanted inter-factory committees; but only the workers of one particular factory can know their own problems".
The same conflict is reflected in the situation in Nantes where an inter-union strike committee was set up at the level of the "Département", and controlled all main roads of access to the town for 5 days. The C.G.T.-F.O. regional secretary, A. Hebert, a self-professed syndicalist, stated that the C.F.D.T. and the C.G.T. opposed proposals to make that committee an organ of power, which it never was: "We wanted to centralize power: the C.G.T. and C.F.D.T. refused. The organization of road blocks was not the result of a decision of the Central Strike Committee, but the direct responsibility of transport workers themselves. Their union is controlled by 'anarchistic' elements, who spontaneously without a doctrine re-discovered their own method. This is no surprise given the natural independence of drivers. But it would he wrong to generalize from this example". And he sums up the problem of suggested loss of control by the unions: "The organizations were strongest. Nobody tried to by-pass them. The loss of control can only be expressed in terms of initiative taken by individual militants who suggested forms of action and attempted to force the unions to organize them on that basis".
As to inter-strike committee co-ordination, this seems to have been effected always through normal union channels-whether at local, regional or national level, and within an industry or with other industries. The existing bureaucracy does not seem to have been by-passed or seriously threatened, even in Nantes which was considered as the spear-head. The inter-union consultative and co-ordination commit tees, at plant level; local and regional levels existed before and still exist.
EXAMPLES OF STRIKE COMMITTEES
The strike lasted 21 days (17 May-6 June) and was actively supported by a majority of workers of all categories. The elected inter-union strike committee met every day, with representatives of shop-floor committees in increasing numbers as the strike developed. A general meeting every morning, of up to 3,500 workers, heard reports by various union representatives who made proposals and these were voted on by show of hands. Lists of demands were made on proposals from shop-floor committee representatives as well as from union officials. It was in this way that the continuation of the strike was decided upon. Each shop-floor committee was responsible in the shop for organization of duty rotas, safety, guarding of one entry or post, organizing the collection of food, petrol coupons etc. But, at the same time, each union retained its own framework which continued to function. At shop floor and plant levels, each union member or dele gate was therefore making proposals which had been elaborated and discussed previously within their organization. It is clear that the unions were thus firmly in control of the movement. Organization was reported to have been efficient machinery well looked after, more so than in "normal" conditions, they said, if this can openly be stated in the servicing of planes! Efficiency and discipline were unquestionable in this case. An interesting example of strike committee initiative was a call for women workers to get together at plant level and form their own "action committee".
2. Sud-Aviation at Nantes (Bouguenais)
An inter-union strike committee had existed before May almost continuously as an "inter-union committee". Huts were erected for the control posts with 20 to 30 workers in each, about thirty posts for the whole plant. The F.O. union, a minority union here following a "hard" line, especially the branch grouping the hourly workers, was in favor of giving more power to the strike committee. The other two unions according to an F.O. official wanted to retain control and decision-making on behalf of their members. The inter-union strike committee had therefore a coordinating role. Each post was controlled by one of the unions, but within each post individual militants belonging to other unions could influence action and decisions through constant discussion. The posts controlled access to the factory and organized the practical life of the workers, accommodation, food, etc.
The Sud-Aviation strike took on very radical forms: especially the detention of members of the management, in spite of official union opposition. One probable channel for the influence of radical elements over the conduct of the strike was the Comité d'Alliance Ouvrière (C.A.O.-Committee of Workers' Alliance. Trotskyist inspired, but grouping militants from various backgrounds). This was in existence before May, and still exists, it did riot directly play a role: but it met every day during the strike, in small groups, to discuss tactics and. general problems, and especially the release of the detained managers: the C.A.O. members then took part in discussions in their own union meetings. The strike was controlled by the unions, but some actions were certainly forced upon them by determined militants.
3. The Atomic Energy Centre at Saclay
Of the 6,000 to 7,000 workers, including a large proportion of highly qualified research workers, 83 per cent took an active part in the strike and occupation. A Provisional Central Action Committee (Comite Central d'Action Provisoire) was constituted, from lists of volunteers, union members or not. It coordinated a vast system of commissions involving all workers. It organized food distribution, meeting rooms, transport, meetings with the management it made press statements and gathered information on the national development of the strike.
After the first three days a permanent body was elected: the Central Action Committee (Comité Central d'Action). It was composed of five union representatives (not elected). fifteen members elected by the workers and eight representatives of workers who were not members of the industry proper-around 1,500 of them, research students, foreign and French observers, cleaners, doctors and various other occasional staff. Union members were in a majority. The Central Committee insisted that it acted from a position of strength. Use of the internal phone system had been refused by the management-a vital help in instantly reaching everybody in the plant: so about 1,000 workers went over to the management representative and took it over. Clocking in and out was stopped to avoid keeping a record of strikers' names that could be used later for victimization. A dual authority was gradually established. The inter-union committee also existed, but its activity was limited to confirming decisions taken by the Central Action Committee, and to meeting the management which refused to meet any other group than union representatives. The delegation which met the management was composed of two distinct types: the representatives of the Central Committee and the C.G.T. and the representatives of other unions. The first agreement reached was denounced by the Central Committee and by the C.G.T. although the C.F.D.T. v in favor of accepting it and the F.O. undecided. On a vote, 80 per cent of the workers voted for it and work was resumed after a fortnight's strike.
4. The Shop Floor Committees at Rhône-Po (Vitry)
The strike started on 20th May: the C.G.T. proposed the formation of Shop Floor Committees, which were "quickly swamped by non union members". There were thirty-nine such committees for the whole plant grouping 1,850 workers. Each elected four representatives to the Central Strike Committee whose members could all be instantly recalled.
"Meetings of the central committee were public and could be reported. Shop Floor Committees were organized in each building, so that while some combined various categories of workers-from un skilled to staff grades-others, for instance in the research buildings were made up entirely of technicians".
There was also an Executive Committee, made up of union representatives elected by all workers; it became the official spokesman of the workers since the management would meet only union representatives.
Such shop-floor committees existed in other firms, though perhaps not quite so carefully organized and linked as this one. Such forms of organization could escape the direct influence of union leadership. at least to a certain extent.
In most cases, the inter-union strike committee did control and perhaps contain the movement, the unions never giving up their independence and power into the hands of an autonomous committee. The exceptions are few (Saclay, Rhônc-Poulenc, CSF), although they arc important. Most often questions involving policy-making were decided by the unions through the strike committee, while practical problems of food (cheap meals from Is. 6d. to 5s.), entertainment, security, social cases, issue of petrol companies etc., were in the hands of the "Plant Committee", which itself reflected union representation. The Plant Committee was responsible to the strike committee. Finally, in Orly Nord, Saclay and other places the strike committee also organized the pay of workers quite normally through the help of voluntary office staff and the banks' strike committees: quite an interesting role for a strike committee\to perform.
THE STRIKE PICKETS AND SECURITY
The strike pickets were under the control of the strike committees and responsible to them: they were organized on a voluntary basis and on a rota system. The organization as sometimes decentralized: at Orly-Nord, each workshop strike committee (inter-union) was responsible for the protection of one of the nine entrances to the plant or a key post such as the telephone centre, finance office etc.: a constant telephone link could bring reinforcements if needed.
At Flins 1,000 workers altogether are claimed to have taken part in picket duty out of a total of about 10,500; seven or eight pickets protected the whole of the factory by regular rounds: one worker claimed to have spent a total of eight nights on duty. At first, the pickets were on duty for long stints at a time but this was finally reduced to 4-hour shifts. In other plants the change-over was hourly. In some, a precise "journal" of the strike was kept giving details of shifts etc.
The main gates were usually locked, side entrances being easier to protect. Apart from the possibility of calling up reinforcements, there were instances of elementary "armament" (the nearest the strike got to a "workers' army"): sticks and spade handles and plastic helmets were distributed under union control both in Nantes, at the Batignolles heavy machinery plant and in Sud-Aviation, The spade handles were inscribed with: "No to Dictatorship", and proudly carried during demonstrations. The strike pickets took on a special form in the case of lorry-drivers: "Roadblocks are our strike-pickets" said a Names driver. The drivers' pickets actually controlled all roads of access to tile city for several days: only food lorries and traffic sanctioned by the Central Strike Committee were allowed through a pass system: students provided reinforcements and the police who tried to clear the roads several times were pushed back. This seems to be peculiar to Nantes, although there may have been similar road blocks elsewhere.
The main purposes of strike pickets were to prevent strangers from entering the factory, to protect the plant from attempted sabotage and to forestall a take-over of the premises by force. "Passes" were issued by the strike committee: workers had their own factory card or similar document; union officials carried a special card. Journalists were most often kept out and workers came to speak to them outside the factory gates. At Renault (Boulogne-Billancourt), however, according to a C.G.T. official, they were issued with daily passes and only allowed to remain in the factory for the length of the meetings proper. At Sud-Aviation, journalists ere only allowed on one occasion when the factory was opened to outsiders for a big Sunday open air festival: well-known militants were allowed in only if accompanied by at least one union official: but students are known to have climbed over and even slept in. according to a group of Nantes militants.
These protective measures were not often put to the test and constituted safety precautions only. Some elaborate watch posts were set up in Nantes: at the Batignolles plant a whole series of watch towers equipped with arc lamps was used to light up the surroundings of the factory. There was only one incident during the night, early in the strike when bangers exploded, but it might have been children playing, and this was never cleared up. At Sud-Aviation towers were put up at intervals just inside the factory walls. People slept in these sometimes quite elaborate barracks or in tents. At the end of the strike a last night's watch was organized by "uncontrollable elements" of the C.G.T., who flew their union flag at half mast and erected a road block: officials unsuccessfully tried to disperse them, but no action was finally taken against these rear-guard picket-fans.
There were of course instances of strike pickets being assaulted; one is reported in Nantes. by a C.D.R. group (Comités pour La Defense de La Republique), which was quickly disbanded: there were several around the Citroën plants in the Paris area, and especially outside the Quai de Javel plant, where violent scuffles of opposed workers and groups of police occurred-"pavés" (Paris paving stones), sticks and even fire hoses were being used. The union officials tried to intervene and prevent violent clashes. But the worst repression was certainly at Flins at the Renault plant and at Sochaux, the Peugeot plant. The workers at Flins did not face isolated bands of thugs but thousands of highly trained riot police who harassed them for days using helicopters and cars to track workers and students down in fields and on country roads attacking even Red Cross ambulances and causing the death of at least one demonstrator at Flins and two workers at Sochaux.
The first attacks were against strike pickets alleged to have been made up of student provocateurs, but quickly the situation deteriorated into a guerilla-type war, workers, students and population facing well organized police forces. Strike pickets armed with sticks was of course inadequate in fighting off such opponents: but after the drowning of a young demonstrator near Flins the whole population was ready to start lynching the police.
CONTINUING PRODUCTION UNDER WORKERS' CONTROL'?
Production and commercial activities were totally discontinued during the strike in the majority of factories and offices, except for the upkeep of machinery which was usually carried out by the strikers under the responsibility of their own shop-floor committees.
There are however some exceptions to this:
1. In the case of perishable goods, or in industries where machinery needs to be kept functioning continuously, a minimum level of activity was maintained (this was in fact part of the upkeep of machinery). For example, some railway workers continued unloading perishable goods (Aix-les-Bains): and a continuous-combustion furnace was kept going in a synthetics factory.
2. In the case of industries which must keep functioning in the interests of the population (gas, electricity, rubbish collection, food supplies) a minimum service was operated under the supervision of strike committees.
3. In a number of factories initiatives were taken in a deliberate attempt at experimenting with workers' control in the running of the plant or parts of it. E. Mandel lists some of these attempts in his article; others have been documented in the first issue of Cahiers de Mai, which was wholly devoted to the Nantes experiment tinder the title of "A whole town discovers popular power". Two examples may be taken from the electricity plant at Cheviré and the other from the A.C.B. shipyards.
At Cheviré, on 2nd June, the workers refused to return to work after an average monthly increase of 150F (about £12 10s) had been offered. We may take up the story from the Cahiers de Mai, "One worker explained: 'The managing staff have been away for two weeks, and everything s going fine. We can carry on production without them'. This statement started a discussion on the problem of the staff (les cadres). I was told that in the Loire-Atlantique, they had joined the workers in great numbers, and this was totally new. The main demand was not for better wages: what welded them together was the problem of management ('gestion'). The technical staff are always frustrated by the excessive centralization in public services: they are reduced to signing papers in their offices, but never in fact have the power to make decisions. Self management ('autogestion') quickly appeared as a necessity. When the 293 workers occupied the plant on 18th May, they selected a strike committee from delegates of the various unions (there is a 90 per cent unionization rate). It was necessary to regulate production so that local industry was paralyzed while hospitals and other services were kept going. The strike committee asked the workers to 'take responsibility'. At the time of the enquiry, production had been under the strikers' control for a fortnight. A militant explained 'We wanted to prove that we were capable. and therefore had a right, to control the running of the means of production. And this have proved'.'
At the A.C.B. shipyards the workers organized the payment of wages and food distribution. A statement issued by the Central Strike Committee gives some details: "No difficulties have arisen for the organization of rounds and shifts. All workshops and offices are now well organized and this needs to be underlined. When the workers are in control, they know how to organize themselves. Wages were paid normally on Wednesday at 3 p.m. A number of comrades have not yet collected their envelopes: they should apply to the Central Committee (exchange 322). A distribution of tinned food followed the wage distribution, and wish to underline the discipline of the workers who all respected the 30F maximum on orders which had been required of them". The dockworker explained: 'The management staff have been away for two weeks, and everything is going fine. We can carry on production without them'. This statement started a discussion on the problem of the staff (les cadres). I was told that in the Loire-Atlantique, they had joined the workers in great numbers, and this was totally new.
The dockers also requisitioned food supplies held in port; such an act had never before been attempted. Ship owners tried to resist, but gave in to threats of blowing up doors and locks. An inscription appeared on the Nantes walls: MASS INCREASE IN WAGES WITHOUT A CHANGE IN ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL STRUCTURES = INCREASE IN THE COST OF LIVING AND BACK TO POVERTY WITHIN A FEW MONTHS. This seems a fair summary of the feeling in Nantes at the end of May.
The last example which we shall give of workers running the plant is that of the Atomic Energy Centre at Saclay. 'The Central Action Committee, as the organ of dual power, organized self-management ("autogestion"), in which the workers saw a way of furthering the struggle while refusing to run the economy for the capitalists. "At the C.E.N.S. (Centre d'Etudes Nucleaires de Saclay, official name of the center) we don't talk about 'autogestion', we practice it. 'The CENTRAL ACTION COMMITTEE of the C.E.N.S. gives a mandate to the workers in charge of the FINANCE OFFICE to deal with urgent requests and gives them AUTHORITY to require the help of strikers' was a typical order at Saclay, this one issued on 26 May 1968. Immigrant workers go hungry in a nearby prefab settlement. A lorry, money, petrol are seized and the necessary chickens and potatoes purchased from farmers' co operatives. Hospitals need radio elements: work is resumed in the corresponding workshops to provide the required goods. What is above all needed in this, isolated centre is petrol. The Finac strike picket in Nanterre sends 30,000 liters; local stocks are placed at the disposal of students for the needs of the wounded: rubber gloves, oxygen, overalls, spirit are delivered to the Sorbonne for their mini- hospital". The author of this account wished a paper-producing plant had functioned under workers' control to provide workers with the necessary paper to produce the mass of leaflets and reports issued daily.
These examples are the exception, there is no elaborate theory of follow-up at present which looks likely to lead the way towards establishing dual power and thus preparing for workers' control in a socialist framework. But numerous discussions, in particular in the Action Committees and within the C.F.D.T., are the signs of a desire for structural changes and of the consciousness of problems raised by "workers' control" within the capitalist system.
ATTITUDE TO MANAGEMENT AND STAFF "CADRES"
The "strike and occupy" movement started with great adverse publicity in most of the press: the first two factories to be occupied (Sud-Aviation in Nantes and Renault at Cléon detained members of the management in their offices to the general horror of everybody, from right-wing politicians to union officials, including sections of the left-wing press. The national executives of union federations firmly stated their opposition to these actions. Georges Séguy appealed on the radio for the release of the Sud-Aviation management team and even sent a special delegate by plane to try and obtain this from the workers.
In Nantes itself, the decision to detain M. Duvochel, the managing director of the Bouguenais Sud-Aviation plant, and his companions was strongly criticized, and the example was not followed. At the large Batignolles factory the manager was allowed to enter his office, collect his files, and required to leave. The official union line was to leave the initiative to local strike committees, but to recommend them not to detain anybody. The managing-director of Farman at Boulogne-Billancourt was allowed free access to his office and went in every day. In another Boulogne-Billancourt factory the manager could go anywhere he chose, but never interfered of his own accord. The C.G.T. proudly stated that their members behaved in a responsible way, and that the managers of French industry had no need to fear for the safety of the means of production, due to past experience. This shows the position of the C.G.T. "revolutionary" intentions do not even have lip service paid to them no reference was ever made in inter views to the ultimate aim of appropriation of the means of production as a reason for the upkeep of machinery.
One member of the management team was normally required to be present in the occupied factory, the security engineer at Orly-Nord for example, who had to refer any decisions to the strike committee before carrying them out. Normally there was nothing for him to do and at Dassault he joined in games of table-tennis.
It is very difficult to generalize on the attitude of the middle and top managers: the proportion of the staff "cadres" who supported the strike was extremely variable. In Renault and in nationalized industries in general, a number of top managers are reported to have been sympathetic towards the movement, but they did not normally join in by coming to the factory: financial support was more common. At Citroën, some members of the administration teams who openly supported the strike were sacked during the summer. In Orly the great majority joined in fully and helped the strike committees in the conduct of negotiations, with their technical know-how on the upkeep of the 90 odd planes stored for these three weeks, with social services, including office staff, especially medical and finance office staff. 10,000 Francs were donated by Air France Staff at the start of the strike. Among the Lyon Post-Office employees the minority of the higher grades of staff who supported the strike at the beginning grew to include a much larger proportion in the last week. But in one small provincial firm, only three out of fifty staff "cadres" were on strike, and two of these were members of the strike committee. Most people interviewed as to the general attitude of management spoke of a reaction of fear and reserve: at least at the beginning, there were no provocations from the management, who sometimes approached the strike committee to attempt negotiations, as at the Post Office in Lyon. The management of Citroën, where the strike-the first real strike for the last 16 years-lasted 36 days, the management attempted to play off hourly-paid workers against the monthly-paid and carried out a number of provocations. During the first week, five coaches of police were stationed at Quai de Javel: on the 3rd June, several hundred "agents de ma”trise" gathered to ask for freedom to work. The unions tried to prevent any action, some workers openly threatening particularly hated representatives of management and there were some violent scuffles. At Orly-Nord there was loss of control and complete collapse for the first days, then stiffening: but finally the management caved in. At Flins the management called for police intervention. In a multitude of places attempts were made to break the movement by organizing secret ballots to force a return to work, often unsuccessfully because of the refusal of strike committees to co-operate.
In the case of Sud-Aviation, a group of 20 members of management was detained for over a fortnight, in spite of repeated appeals by unions to release them. They were locked up in the offices and had the use of a terrace. Their family was allowed to bring them food and sleeping bags etc. and they had the use of a telephone. A group of over 20 strikers stood guard outside, in 2-hour shifts, sitting on the floor in gloomy surroundings. At first a loudspeaker blared out the Internationale as "an effective way for bosses to learn the Internationale without ideological effort", but this was discontinued when the workers themselves could no longer stand it. Various pressures on the management included granting permission to go to the lavatory only under escort and restrictions on bringing food so that they shared the same fare as the strikers instead of eating chicken etc. At every general meeting a vote was taken to decide on whether to release them or not. The purpose of the locking up of Duvochel etc. was at first to force a quick settlement by asserting a position of strength. After two days it became clear that the strike was going to last and the detention took on the form of a political act: it became the symbol of the workers' revolt, and the example was followed elsewhere. This action was certainly important in creating the reaction of fear among the managing class reported above, and in establishing the workers' confidence in their own strength, although its validity was questioned in heated discussions.
"The men in power had their universities
The students took them
The men in power had their factories
The workers took them
The men in power had their radio
The journalists took it
The men in power only have power now
We shall take it"
(Poster by the Popular Workshop of the Ex-Beoux Arts, September 1968.)
No strike bulletin was produced in any of the factories covered by the enquiry, but there were daily leaflets produced by each union, or by the inter-union strike committee, often by both. The numbers printed varied from a few hundred copies of a leaflet issued by the union regional headquarters to the 20.000 daily issued by Citroën and 20.000 to 22.00)) at Renault. Leaflets were meant for both inside and outside distribution. The information of strikers was complemented by daily general meetings, branch or shop-floor committee meetings, normal weekly or hi-monthly union papers, and of course notice hoard and endless discussions. At Orly-Nord, the first leaflet came out on 18th May at 2 am, and 35 issues were made during the three weeks of the strike with up to 2,010 copies of each. At Nantes several different leaflets were issued from the various organizations daily but not many came from Sud-Aviation itself, since most of the decisions and statements were taken at regional rather than plant level as soon as the strike started to spread: but between 15,000 and 30,000 copies of most leaflets were distributed over the whole area. After the end of the strike, each organization resumed its previous practices, except for the Trotskyist OCI which was one of the eleven organizations dissolved by the government on the 12th June.
The predominance of leaflets over proper bulletins was explained by lack of time and by the sheer efficiency of communications through meetings which can be easily organized and attended when a factory is occupied.
Only a few remarks must suffice: a full study would require an article to itself. National press reporters were often allowed into occupied factories for general meetings, but individual interviews were normally given outside. Le 4 reproduced the complete text of some motions and statements. But the workers often complained about the inadequacy of the local or national press in printing the statements sent by their strike committee.
A very interesting phenomenon was the flourishing of a host of newly created newspapers, magazines, duplicated sheets, sold on the streets and usually produced by student/worker committees. Some of them gave well-documented reports on the particular aspect of the strike in precise factories and carried on theoretical discussion. They were "leftist" biased of course, and as such violently denounced by the C.G.T. and the P.C.F. Some were politically broad-based like Action, which first came out at the beginning of the movement, and Cahiers do Mai which appeared on June 15th. These reflected the May movement's principal characteristic. Others were organs of a particular line or faction such as the Trotskyist Voix Ouvrière or the pro-Chinese Cause do Peuple. "Area Action Committees" often produced their own bulletins which were distributed locally.
The regional press provides a good example of a missed opportunity for the May movement: in Lyon a large trust controls the whole regional press, and produces a daily paper sold in a large part of South-Eastern France called Le Progrès. When the printing workers went on strike, left-wing organizations suggested that the workers should take over the running of the paper and use it to further the movement, giving all groups, unions or political groups, space for their own news. The P.C.F. and the C.G.T. refused to co-operate in such a venture; the non-Communist left produced its own paper: Le Journal du Rhone, while the Communist La Voix de Lyonnais went on appearing as before. Had the experiment taken place this would have been a major step forward in the field of communications: a large powerful paper taken over by the united workers. As it was, the population was left without its daily paper for nearly four weeks.
Films and Posters
The O.R.T.F. journalists and technicians were on active strike during May/June and worked day and night shooting miles of film of demonstrations, strikes in factories, meetings etc. The cinema producers and technicians did the same. The films were shown, and are still being shown, in meetings organized by May militants, in mass meetings to inform the population of what was happening over the whole country and to demonstrate what non-government-controlled news was like. These gave rise to discussion of the events that were illustrated as well as to debates on the freedom and objectivity of press, radio and TV.
Posters were even more effective since they could be printed in large numbers and spread much more widely. The aim of the Art Students who started the "Popular Workshops" was not only to put their skill at the service of the workers on strike, but to establish lasting links with them, and to raise the question of the position of the artist in a capitalist society. Their 350 different posters, with well over 100,000 copies, were put up everywhere by teams of students and workers. The design and wording were decided on by workers and students, and discussed in the daily general meeting in the occupied Art colleges. Art students also produced puppets used for topical shows presenting information on the movement in yet a different medium.
The success of a general strike lasting over three weeks depends largely on the full support of the strikers' families and on the efficient organization of food supplies and essential services.
Most of the families were reported as having supported the strike, all the more so when they were well informed and actively involved. Of course there were problems, which were partly relieved by money collected nationally and by food coupons distributed through strike committees. Disruption of family life was reduced to a minimum, since the occupation was based on a rota system, although, as we have seen, some workers remained in the factory the whole time. In some places the support of the population seems to have been overwhelming: in Flins, for example, where the brutality of the police repression united the whole population behind the strikers in giving board and lodging to students who had come in car and bus loads from Paris and were hunted down by police; above all in Nantes where the workers took over the organization of food distribution, price control, transport and public services, support for the strike was widespread.
The Central Strike Committee in Nantes, which represented all four main unions, was set up in the City Hall, used the former administration's facilities and even the staff who voluntarily gave their services. It was not elected by the rank-and-file workers, but made up of union officials. It was not, however, an organ of executive power, and did little more than hand out petrol and food vouchers, and at best coordinated information. This in itself was important; in the words of a C.G.T. official: "In face of the powerlessness of the officials, we had to take public activities in hand. Today the only use the police com missioner is to us is to send on our decisions to Paris. For us, he amounts to nothing more than a mailbox".
How far the Nantes Central Strike Committee did in fact co-ordinate the organization of strike activity by the occupying workers is difficult to assess since witnesses' reports differ greatly. The organization of food supplies which was certainly the most efficient part of the whole operation is said to have been run from a head office in a school, and from the Area Committees (the largest two being that of Batignolles and Rezé in the industrial suburbs) rather than from the Central Strike Committee. Some of the organizers said that it had in fact been prevented from operating effectively in the City Hall and had had to move out.
This, however, does not alter the basic fact that the workers them selves-through their own organizations-were in control: the Central Strike Committee issued statements to the local press-appeals to the population not to panic and hoard unnecessary quantities of food; appeals to shopkeepers to maintain normal prices; announcements of measures concerning the issue of petrol vouchers with a list of authorized petrol stations and of food vouchers, and the organization of rubbish collection. This was only a partial service; the lorries carried a red flag and were accompanied by strikers with red armbands. In fact, the control exercised went quite far. New "inspectors" started checking prices on the markets and in shops; stickers were issued announcing: "This store is authorized to open. Its prices are under the continuous control of the unions". Even the local Woolworth's carried such a notice. Care was taken to let through lorries carrying essential supplies to farmers and bringing foodstuffs into the town through the road blocks: they had a pass signed by the Central Committee.
The strikers' wives were not inactive: some even went around the countryside to spread the message and encourage non-strikers to join in the movement: those who were themselves strikers were usually on the lowest wages and knew about bad conditions. More important still, they themselves very efficiently organized food distribution and meetings for giving out other information. The Batignolles Committee is a case in point: the women's work all started when two women from the Council Estate borrowed a van and a loudspeaker and called for a meeting on 21st May. Two hundred people attended. The local "Social Centre" was taken over as headquarters. Every family registered and was issued with a card. Farmers from a nearby villa La Chapelle sur Erdre brought in food which was sold at cost price or given away. Milk, vegetables and fruit were delivered every day, eggs and chicken once or twice a week. Prices were extremely low: 20 centimes (4d.) for 1kg of apples (over 2lb.) 50 centimes for 1 liter of milk; 10 centimes (2d.) for 1kg of potatoes etc. Tons of food was thus distributed directly from producer to consumer. The Committee also organized film shows, discussion meetings, play groups and free meals for children, whose teachers were on strike, with the voluntary help of teachers and students. People still talk excitedly about the enthusiasm and co-operation of everybody: anybody addressing any body, discussing things repressed for so long. And this in fact is repeated at all levels, and echoes what Simone Weil said of the 1936 strike and occupation: "This movement is much more than the success of this or that demand, however important. It is, after months and years of bending down, suffering everything, accepting everything in silence, daring at last to stand up".
The confidence gained by the people of Nantes and by all those in France who took part and have built the strike into something of a myth, is of course a positive gain in itself. Workers took over the organization of the local social security and family allowances office, replacing the nominees of the government on the administrative Board by elected union delegates, and forming their own provisional management committee, although the C.G.T.-F.O. refused to participate in this. This feeling of victory in assuming responsibility is well expressed by a C.F.D.T. delegate who said: "It is the people's health which is at stake. We want the complete management of the workers' money by the workers themselves. This is a national problem which needs action at national level and requires a national solution." He was here calling for the abrogation of the extraordinary measures taken by the government to control and curb social services, and insisting that no half measures could be acceptable. This of course could not be achieved within the context of the present political set-up. But the words no doubt will go on echoing for a long time to come. Will it ever crystallize into general action? Will the short Nantes experiment in workers / peasants / students power ever be reproduced in hundreds of other places?
LINKS WITH THE STUDENTS
The students called for a link-up with the workers from the very beginning of their movement. Immediately an angry rebuke came from the COT and the P.C.F. national spokesmen, who kept denouncing the petty bourgeoisie wanting to organize the workers and acting as provocateurs, flying the "sinister black flag of anarchy". The national executive of the C.G.T. issued a warning against letting students enter factories, for fear of attracting repressive police action. But this must have been also a defense mechanism, caused by the fear of seeing the revolutionary ideas spreading too successfully among the young workers and endangering the COTs own position with the workers. The C.F.D.T. was much more favorable to contacts with the students, and the Factory Action Committees had a high percent age of C.F.D.T. members, although the C.F.D.T. admits that they often escaped its control.
The students found it difficult to enter factories, and where the COT was powerful found it difficult even to establish successful contacts outside the factory gates: many workers heeded the C.G.T. warning. But some students managed to get through. The Action Committees that were formed inside and outside factories, spreading information, organizing collections and discussion, printing leaflets, still exist, and are often actively fought by the unions who see their position threatened.
Two cases need special mention here: Nantes and Renault-Flins. In Nantes, thanks to the long-standing contacts between the C.G.T. F.O. and some students, workers' demonstrations were traditionally supported by groups of students. In February and March 1968, there were common demonstrations and joint leaflets: but the population itself was at that time on the whole indifferent and uninvolved. In May students reacted very quickly and marched the eight miles to Sud-Aviation to offer solidarity and financial help. They clustered in small groups outside the factory gates and invited trade unionists to speak at their own meetings.
In Flins the solidarity was even stronger because of police brutality. Of course, when the students' march on Flins was announced, after an unsuccessful attempt by the management to force a return to work, the Renault branch of the COT. denounced it: "We hear that the leaders of the students' and teachers' unions have decided to call a march on Flins. We wish to make it clear that we totally disapprove of such an initiative which could cause police provocation and harm the Renault workers' fight". The CGTs grip on Flins workers was certainly not strong enough to have prevented a link up. Some of the workers in fact expressed a feeling of gratitude to the students: "They all put themselves, as Geismar said at the Etoile meeting at our disposal; this is why there were never any rash initiatives by the students and teachers who had come to help us to stand up to the forces of order and repression. They did a marvelous job by giving explanations, and they no doubt prevented some nasty incidents, especially young workers regrouping and being picked up. Some who could have acted irresponsibly were in fact sent back to Paris. And the students from the various liaison committees were always respectful of union positions. I am quite definite on this point". The same union official, who made this statement, and a number of others, explained how the students gave "practical tips" in coping with the police, like "how to force back the demonstrators and get protection against a police charge". A young worker explained how students warned him about an intimidation man by the police: "Two policemen arrived: one pulled a revolver and said: 'turn back or we shoot'. The students told us: don't be frightened, they are not allowed to shoot, we'll stay here and keep them busy while you get across the line down there; this is how we got across".
After the battles of 6th June, the C.G.T. regional committee issued a statement denouncing the students' intervention: "After the government had decided that the C.R.S. should occupy the factory and while the workers were peacefully assembled, groups alien to the working- class and led by Geismar, who more and more appears to be a specialist in provocation, infiltrated the gathering to incite the workers to re-occupy the factory. Those formations, trained in paramilitary fashion, have already come to the fore in operations of a similar nature in the Paris area, and are obviously acting in the service of the worst enemies of the working-class. It is difficult to believe that the arrogance of the French metallurgy bosses, the help they receive from the government and the police brutality against the workers in the course of these provocative undertakings are not all concerted". This sums up the C.G.T. and P.C.F. accusations against the students, condemned as leftist provocateurs in league with Gaullist power and capitalist bosses. The issue has been at the centre of a fierce controversy. One eye-witness report of a young worker will give us the opposite point of view: "The movement in this area started from Renault, and this is why they sent us the C.R.S. (special riot police). But in the fighting, the barricades and all that, it is not true that the students started them. At 5 a.m. in front of the road blocks, there were nearly only workers, and the C.R.S. were the attackers: it was afterwards only that the students suggested 'we could do this or that' to help us withdraw. This is what I found great with them: they always stayed in the front line, whereas they could easily have decided that this was nothing to do with them".
Of course, one cannot solve the controversy by giving the report of one witness, who in any case does not answer precisely the accusation. The accounts are numerous, and this is not the place to develop this point. What is clear is that the students' presence was appreciated by a measurable section of the workers, that the population gave them cover and food, while some C.G.T. officials tried to neutralize them and prevent them from speaking at meetings. The whole situation culminated in the drowning of a young student. Gilles Tautin, while trying to escape from a police charge: it is only thanks to trade-union leaders and militants that the police were protected from being lynched.
So there was solidarity in action, and in many cases contacts, discussions, the feeling of a common purpose, especially among the young workers. Of course, the workers' movement and the students' movement were parallel, each with their own peculiar demands. But for some precious days in May and June they discovered common ground. This can be summed up in these words by a student: "It can be said that it is indeed the radical character of the students' revolt which seduced the Young workers: they equally refuse any reformist, paternalistic perspective: this questioning of all forms of authority and accepting no concessions, which the students' revolt represents both in its content and in its forms, they have joined with. What is certain is that this young 'marginal' proletariat has found a point of agreement with the student revolt. It is incredible that we can talk so easily with them, when we think that we are all the children of bourgeois and petty bourgeois when we compare our demands with theirs, think of all that separates us: in spite of our different way of expressing ourselves, it is paradoxical to discover this, while we cannot get on politically with people whose language is nearer to ours. We have reached the same results by different roads. While for us violence is learnt from books, for these young workers it is a daily experience, the necessary answer to violence imposed on them".
Every left-wing intellectual's dream of unity with the working-class certainly cannot be deemed to have come true. But in spite of efforts made to keep students and workers apart, in spite of a long tradition of distrust for the students as future managers and class enemies, in spite of incidents that may have justified and reinforced this distrust, there have been innumerable cases when this barrier fell. The workers' organizations were far from enthusiastic on the whole; when the "popular summer universities" were prevented from functioning in the universities which were taken over by the police in early July, appeals for accommodation in trade-union owned build were rarely answered. But for the young people who threw themselves whole heartedly into the May movement, this was a formative experience which may have repercussions in the years to come.
"Why the Citroën Strike?"
"The Citroën workers have been on strike for over four weeks now against the anti-social policy of the management.
"The workers are transferred, penalized and promoted not according to objective criteria, but according to services rendered to the firm'. The Citroën management thus rejects workers who vote, who refuse to make good by overtime the working hours, lost in the strike, who continue to think. The reign of the arbitrary must stop at Citroën
The workers are:
ON STRIKE: for the respect of the human person and for more dignity
ON STRIKE: for the immediate enforcement of trade-union and individual freedoms in the factory
ON STRIKE: against excessive speed-up of work which ruins their health
ON STRIKE: for greater hygiene and respect in the company hostels
ON STRIKE: for better conditions of life and work.
Inhabitants of the 15th Arrondissement, we ask you to be concerned about the problem of freedom at the Citroën plant.
We thank you for supporting our struggle by your solidarity.
SIGNED: Some Citroën Workers, 17th June 1968."
This leaflet makes no mention of better pay, but puts to the fore other grievances which go much deeper. These tend to be concealed by the immediate material problems any member of the working-class is faced with, tinder the pressure of life in our consumer society. The walls of Paris were inscribed in May with: "Consume more, you will be less alive": in September, there were stickers everywhere in grocery shops: "Buy well to buy more. The expansion is ... you. Here we defend your standard of living": the pendulum had swung back.
Of course, the workers have a right to their fair share of consumer goods. But what the May "events" crystallized for many people was their alienation. Suddenly the routine was broken, there was no television, the newspapers themselves became irregular, and there was no petrol to join in a rush to the countryside. People stuck in occupied factories with no work to do, going to innumerable meetings and demonstrations, started talking: about their conditions and the frustration of their lives. And when the O.R.T.F. journalists and technicians on strike visited factories, workers were involved in the debate, condemning the government's control of the news, learning from technicians how censorship worked at all levels. Some objected that "some TV programs were interesting", but "weren't these programs neutralized by the constant trash pouring out", and "how can one concentrate on a serious intellectual discussion after a day's work", so you "turn it off when it becomes serious". And "what about programs based on publicity, the innumerable quizzes" etc. The whole debate appeared relevant to current events when a discussion was started with a historian on the Popular Front and the 1936 strikes: the necessity of some historical knowledge to understand present political events. And even readings of Dickens or Maupassant short stories could develop into discussions of contemporary life and environment. This occurred mostly here there was a group of workers who were actively involved in running a film society or other cultural activities. Because in some places workers were prepared to start that sort of discussion, some unusual demands came to be added to the existing lists: the necessity to have a separate room within the firm, where various activities of a social and cultural nature could take place, such as discussions and film shows: the granting of free time to take part in these activities, since the members of the firm's football team were granted one day a week for training.
This experience was reported as very valuable by both workers and actors involved and the initiative of actors' visits to factories in the Lyon area had conic from the trade-unionists of a chemical plant who telephoned the "Théâtre de la Cité": it was unexpected, and something had to be put up in a hurry-readings that required little equipment and few actors, or simply discussions on art and entertainment. Teams of three or four actors thus visited dozens of firms in the whole area. This kind of experiment may not be meaningful in terms of immediate rewards for anybody, but it was repeated in a large number of factories where no such thing had ever happened before. And for the artists, it was the beginning of a thorough questioning of their role as providers of a "bourgeois" culture, of an attempt at defining what they called for lack of anything better "cultural action". This sort of experiment fits in with the general questioning of the values of western consumer society, the desire expressed so often in May for a fuller "human" life which everybody agreed was there, over and beyond economic demands.
THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF THE STRIKE AND OCCUPATION
The strike and occupation of factories forced the government and the employers to enter into negotiations with the unions. These started on Saturday 25th May and, after nearly twenty hours of discussion, were concluded on Monday morning, 27th May, when agreement was reached on a text known as the Grenelle Protocol or Grenelle Agreements.
1. Quantitative gains: the Grenelle Protocol
The S.M.I.G. (Minimum Interprofessional Guaranteed Salary) is the most spectacular measure: 35 per cent increase, from 2.22F to 3F per hour with a monthly minimum of 519F. It covered 250.000 workers only, at the lowest level, but affected about two million. The S.M.A.G. (for agricultural workers) was aligned with the S.M.I.G. and this meant an increase of between 56 per cent and 59 per cent.
Overall increase in salaries: in the private sector (the public sector was negotiated separately later in the week) 10 per cent over the year (7 per cent in June, another 3 per cent in October). But wage increases already acquired since January 1968 (i.e. 4 per cent) were deducted. Hierarchy was respected in the distribution of these increases and this went against the wishes of the C.F.D.T., which was asking for an average increase, the same sum for all grades.
Payment of strike days: There remained an ambiguity in the text on this point: "The strike days will be made good in principle. 50 per cent of their normal salary will be paid to workers who have suffered a loss of wages. This will be reimbursed by cuts taken from the payment of hours worked to make good lost production. In cases where such 'making good' would have proved impossible before 31 December 1968, the whole or remnant of that sum will be granted to the worker" So the minimum stated was a loan of 50 per cent of the lost salary, although in practice, more was often granted after further discussions.
Trade-union rights within the factory: No agreement was reached on this point, but a number of points were to be discussed at a later date.
2. The limits of this text
Social security (i.e. the health and welfare services): The trade unions were demanding the abrogation of all the orders decreed by the Government on all major points concerning the administration of the Service-increase in workers' contributions, decrease in reimbursed sums (a French patient pays his doctor, his dentist, his prescriptions and is partly reimbursed afterwards), government nominations to the Administrative Boards etc. What was gained was a mere 5 per cent concession: 25 per cent of all costs instead of 30 percent would remain to be paid by the patient.
Sliding scale of salaries: Such a measure would have guaranteed an automatic adjustment of basic salary scales to the cost of living. In the absence of such a clause, a 10 per cent wage increase can be neutralized fairly quickly by rising prices. This is true also of the S.M.I.G. based on a list of 173 basic articles of consumption since the list can be manipulated by the government and some union officials expressed doubts about the value of this demand.
Reduction in basic working week: lowering of retirement age: nothing was given away on this very important issue.
3. The workers' rejection of the Grenelle Agreements
Le Morn/c of 28th May stated: "The C.G.T. leaders could not convince the militants that they should return to work". The union leaders had made it clear-a wise precaution, at the start of negotiations-that the return to work would depend only on the acceptance by the workers of the results of the talks. But it is fairly obvious that the union leaders were in favor of a return to work on the basis of this text. Then the test came: Georges Séguy and Benoit Frachon of the C.G.T. and P.C.F. went to address a packed meeting of 20.000 to 25,000 workers at Renault-Billancourt. Frachon's speech was met with stony silence: the C.G.T. and C.F.D.T. speakers. Séguy and Andre Jeanson, then uttered the reassuring words: "We have not signed," greeted by shouts of "Don't! Don't!" Similar reactions came from all over the country. During the next few days the strike hardened and turned openly political: during the last days of May and until de Gaulle's speech on 30th May, the regime was openly challenged and threatened.
4. Change of tactics
The strikers were now demanding a "Government of the people" taken to mean different things according to political tendencies. For the union leaders, a new strategy had to be worked out. Negotiations at national level had failed to produce a solution: they would continue at the level of the various sectors and branches of industry. The strike was reinforced, and negotiations often produced agreements that went far beyond the Grenelle Protocol. But after the 30th May speech by de Gaulle, containing the promise of general elections and threats if order was not restored, the "tough" sectors were gradually isolated. By 6th June the return to work was well under way.
5. Maneuvers to force the return to work
Massive demonstrations in support of the government accompanied de Gaulle's 30th May speech. This restored the employers' confidence: they could start using pressures and intimidation to break the strike. Secret ballots were organized by the managements: strike committees denounced them and strikers went on occupying the factories. Such total failures were recorded in almost all large factories in spite of direct pressures.
Renault-Flins is a case in point: the unions had not been consulted on the organization of the ballot of 4th June; members of the management team had visited workers in their homes to encourage them to come and vote and had intimidated immigrant workers by threats of expulsion if they did not conform. 6,000 police reoccupied the factory on the night of 5th-6th June. Strikers still did not return to work. This was finally decided by a vote on 17th June when 58 per cent only voted in favor of resuming work.
This pattern with variations was repeated in other places. The government of course did all they could to isolate sectors where the strike was hardest, granting substantial gains in vital public sectors such as communications, electricity and the civil service and thus creating a psychological climate for the return to work despite attacks from leftist groups.
The unions' leaders were also in favor of a return to work, so that normal life could be restored in time for the opening of the election campaign. The C.G.T. called on the workers to be realistic and "fully appreciate the value of the concessions imposed on the government and the employers", and more precisely: "The executive thinks that, where the essential demands have been met, it is in the workers' interest to give mass support to the return to work in unity. Over and beyond the concessions the government had to make on demands, they were forced to dissolve Parliament and call for a general election. This general election will allow workers to express their desire for change, to prolong and complete the victory won on their demands". This is from a C.G.T. statement made on 5 June 1968.
There was strong resistance at grass roots level against repeated attempts by the unions to encourage acceptance of agreements finally reached even when the stopped far short of the demands. While the union leaders were confident, on the assumption of a victory for the Left, that elections were the answer to the ultimate satisfaction of demands not yet met, the rank-and-file workers often felt cheated and resisted. In the Peugeot and Renault car factories, there were new walk-outs after the return to work. According to the extreme left-wing press there were also attempts at Citroën, Renault and Sud Aviation by one union to outwit the others by encouraging resistance in order to gain militants' votes at the following elections to Plant Committee seats. It must also be noted that the press and radio played a great part in creating the climate for the disintegration of the strike by publicizing information, sometimes false, and insisting on the isolation of the remaining sectors on strike.
They vary considerably, from the basic Grenelle Protocol applying in small firms, where work was usually resumed soon after 27th May, to quite substantial advantages in the public and nationalized sectors. Salary increases varied from 146 per cent to 2110 per cent in Electricity and Gas with 122,000 workers: they were of the same order for transport workers and civil servants, if all advantages are averaged. For shop-assistants who sometimes had received less than the minimum wage the increase was as much as 72 per cent. At Air France, the average was 1 per cent, but the lowest paid workers an extra 13 per cent to 20 per cent. At Dassault the average was 14 per cent, but for skilled workers it was as high as 22 per cent.
In the car industry the situation varied: Citroën workers got 10 per cent to 13 per cent, Peugeot 12 percent to 14 per cent, Renault a minimum 12 per cent.
7. Other advantages
It is difficult here to generalize:
The basic working week was cut by 1/2 hour at Citroën, 1 hour at Dassault, 1 1/2 hours for rail workers, 2 hours in the chemical industry, where the average had been over 48 hours per week.
Strike days were paid IOU per cent in Air France and in the civil service in general by tacit agreement. 50 per cent at Renault or 50 per cent subject to making good by overtime work.
On the subject of trade-union freedom, very little was given in precise terms.
Altogether, the wage increases sere quite significant for the lowest- paid workers: hut the increase in the cost of living soon reduced the importance of the average gains. In the private sector, the payment of strike days was partial and subject to making good. Other essential demands, like the return to a basic 40-hour week, retirement at 60, no cut in social services, full payment of strike hours etc., were hardly ever touched on.
"CRUMBS" claimed a leaflet by Citroën workers: "SIGNIFICANT VICTORY" clamored the C.G.T. It all depends on the point of view. But disillusionment was expressed by many workers and is reinforced after seven months of repression and the monetary crisis. Disillusionment spread once the parliamentary way of completing the victory had been blocked by the Gaullist landslide victory at the elections. Victimization has hit the May militants, blatant in O.R.T.F. and Citroën, less so of course where the unions are strongest.
8. Unionization and militancy
Some of the disillusioned workers who were the most critical of union leadership did tear up their cards. But on the whole, the numbers of union members increased dramatically. The C.G.T. is often quoted as having gained the most, "because of its omnipresence, the outspokenness of its militants, and its courage in taking firm stands, even though they were sometimes unpopular,' these were among the reasons given to us. One official mentioned a total increase of 500,000 new members. In the Hauts-de-Seine (Paris suburbs), the number of C.G.T. union members is reported to have increased from 50.000 to 69.000 and 300 new branches were created. Le Peuple mentions 350,000 new members for the C.G.T. and 5.000 new branches in 3 weeks. Precise figures are not known, the only definite source of information being the election to the "Plant Committees". To compare the two main unions, we can quote the results of such elections published in Le Monde on 21st-22nd July: 11 per cent for the C.G.T. at the expense of C.F.D.T. and F.O. at the S.A.V.I.E.M. (Caen), while at Berliet (Lyon) the C.F.D.T. progressed by 430 votes, the C.G.T. losing 534 votes.
Perhaps more important than figures is the general increase in militancy: workers becoming conscious of their (collective strength. experiencing the power of collective action, learning to escape isolation and refusing to submit without speaking up. But, of course, May was an extraordinary time, and the enthusiasm may lag. After seven months, the situation is far from hopeful.
"The occupation was right for a fortnight. After that, it would have been more valuable for militants to be somewhere else": this remark made by a Nantes trade-unionist sums up both the value and limits of factory occupation as an advanced form of struggle.
It is more spectacular than an ordinary strike, easier to control, more effective in stopping production. Locking up members of management also played its part in establishing the workers' confidence in their own power and revealed the employers' panic. This was the first step towards questioning legalism, the first attempt to enter a revolutionary insurrectionary phase: but there was no follow-up in that direction, and the movement was kept well under union control on the whole. To become an "experiment in revolution", even a "mini-experiment", and the strike had to go out of the factories. The Nantes movement was not limited to the factories; there was an attempt at establishing control over the whole organization of life. At this stage, some claim that militants are more needed outside factories than inside.
But did the workers want power? The C.G.T. summed up its view of the nature of the movement in Le Peuple: "No, the ten million workers on strike were not demanding power for the working-class, but better conditions of life and work". This interpretation was of course challenged by the "leftists", who accused the P.C.F. and the C.G.T. of having put a damper on the movement, opted for the parliamentary game and turned their back on the realities of the class struggle.
The whole debate revolves on the revolutionary model applicable in Western Europe today. Whether revolution was possible in May 1968 will he discussed for a long time. What must be recognized is the reformist nature of the P.C.F. strategy based on the declared aim of achieving power through Parliament. Underestimating the support for the P.C.F. is no help. Within the C.G.T. were organized groups of workers openly challenging the official line, from a Trotskyist or a pro-Chinese standpoint:' they called for new leadership while wanting to assert their attachment to the organization itself, and were vocal and militant-if few in numbers. And during May, those workers who experimented with new forms of action tending to create a duality of power at plant level-the most advanced example of this being probably the Atomic Energy Centre at Saclay-may have opened new directions. But there are limits to what can be achieved without a change in the state superstructure. Industrial democracy is impossible within the capitalist system and the Saclay militants were well aware of this. What is debatable and is being debated is whether their experiment is a major contribution "to the establishment of workers' control over production": they see it as "training ground for workers' power within the factory: and a real power in establishing some control over employment policy".' They recognize the constant danger of incorporation, but insist that it can be contained by aware- ness and is superseded by the continuous questioning of the existing power which must cause it to weaken. The C.F.D.T. militants and officials have set their heart on workers' self management: many others are dubious. But one Communist theorist has recently expressed some guarded interest in the establishment of centers of popular power at all levels as a way of undermining the bureaucratic and centralized State. A satisfactory theory of socialist revolution in advanced capitalist countries has not yet emerged. The ultimate value of the May 1968 upheaval in France for socialists may prove to be the injection of new ideas into a continuing debate.
Text taken from www.prole.info