A short biography of Swiss building worker, labour organiser and anarcho-syndicalist Lucien Tronchet.
Born in Geneva in 1902 while a building workers’ strike in favour of the 60-hour working week was underway (it was Switzerland's first general strike) Lucien Tronchet became an anarcho-syndicalist militant from 1920 onwards and played his part in all of the social disputes in Switzerland.
He experienced a very impoverished childhood in Carrouge, one of the most deprived towns in the Geneva district. After the end of the First World War, having tried his hand at several menial jobs, he was dismissed by a baker and pastry-maker in Granges for petty pilfering. On 14 November 1918 he witnessed strikers being gunned down in Granges. He was never to forget those three deaths and they weighed mightily upon his subsequent career as an anarcho- syndicalist activist.
His apprenticeship as a baker over, and unable to find work, he was taken on as a bricklayer in Geneva alongside the construction workers who had been behind the victorious strike of 1918. He joined with anarchists committed to trade union struggle. Between the world wars, it was hard times for the workers’ movement and the unions were forced to start all over again. Lucien Tronchet threw himself into this work in a social climate of increasing tension. On 1 July 1922 the Federation of Wood and Construction Workers (FOBB) was launched. The FOBB was to affiliate to the Swiss Union of Trade Unions. Lucien Tronchet joined the FOBB in 1926 and was to lay the groundwork for its bricklayers’ strike two years later. Besides this he had to defend the unions’ independence against the "moscoutaires" (Moscow-teers), Communists determined to wipe out all opposition to the Third International’s Twenty One Conditions for affiliation. This obsession with the independence of the union was to remain a lifelong theme in Tronchet’s activities.
In the 1930s, Tronchet was to become of the leaders of the LAB (Construction Industry Action League), a direct action organisation set up in response to the reluctance of employers to observe collective agreements. There were many breaches of these agreements and regulations on working hours were ignored. The LAB stepped in to shut down the offending sites and bring work to a standstill. On every occasion, the bourgeois press whipped up a frenzy against the labour unions. Whereupon the FOBB issued two watchwords - "Any worker agreeing to work in conditions less than those stipulated in collective agreements is guilty of treachery" and "All work performed outside of the regulated collective agreements is to be demolished immediately or at a later date". Given the intense trade union activism, police pressure was stepped up against the Action League. After a minor incident, fourteen militants were brought to trial. The trial was so stormy and solidarity with those charged so solid that every one of them - Tronchet among them - was to be acquitted. But the trial was only the first of a long line of trials.
In a Europe where the rise of fascism was creating fresh tensions, workers’ efforts to erect a barrier against the totalitarians were many and repeated. Thus on the evening of 9 November 1932, a fascist kangaroo court had decided to arraign socialist leaders at a public meeting. There were significant counter-demonstrations but there was no threat posed to the armed forces cordoning off the hall. Yet the army opened fire. Thirteen people died and sixty five were wounded in what became known as the Geneva Massacre. Naturally Lucien Tronchet was among those rounded up in the ensuing police swoop. Yet again he was acquitted on the grounds of insufficient evidence, whereas other workers received prison terms. Once again no soldier and no fascist was charged. The real terrorists in society were getting off scot free.
Not that that was Lucien Tronchet’s last brush with the law. In 1935 the FOBB launched an intense campaign of agitation over workers' homes which were little better than hovels. Many huge posters were put up. Leaflets and pamphlets were issued in large numbers. Soon, public opinion began to respond and to shift. It was quickly determined that the slums should be demolished and demolition teams went into operation on the night of 4 December 1935. Thirty trade unionists started to smash up the roofs and windows! By morning the authorities in Geneva gave in in the face of the anarcho-syndicalists’ determined battle against slum housing and the TB which infested it. At the end of the campaign Tronchet alone was arrested and brought to trial. He was sentenced to a month in prison and to a heavy fine.
In the same spirit, in 1978, Lucien Tronchet was called in to lend his support to the actions of squatters in the Grottes area of Geneva.
In July 1936, he was take practical steps in solidarity with the comrades of the CNT-FAI. News from the CNT was released through Le Reveil anarchiste- Il Risveglio. Tronchet travelled to Spain in the company of Luigi Bertoni, arms shipments were arranged, etc. Like other anarchists abroad, he was to lend his support to the Spanish anarchists in the construction of a libertarian society.
Tronchet was an anarchist and he was to remain such in 1940 when his call-up papers arrived. This was the second time that he had refused the draft, having refused to join the army in 1920. In March 1940 he was brought before a court martial and asked his friend Luigi Bertoni to plead his case. This provided a chance to reassert that national defence merely preserved a certain social set-up of which the ruling class are the real beneficiaries. In the end the court sentenced him to eight months in prison plus five years of deprivation of civil rights. Tronchet was back behind bars again!
Not that the war stopped trade union activity though. There was a flurry of wildcat strikes throughout Switzerland. Right after the war these led to a demand for paid holidays ("days off, days of misery" was the slogan). In spite of trade union pressure the bosses stood their ground and at Easter 1946, a strike erupted. It had been organised by Tronchet. This unforgettable stoppage was to end in rioting and in the storming of the town hall in Geneva.
The bosses caved in and agreed to award paid holidays - May Day excluded!
In spite of everything, Tronchet the trade union secretary could rightly be proud of what he had achieved through his use of radical anarcho-syndicalist methods.
Not that his commitment to economic struggles prevented Tronchet from having commitments elsewhere - to the campaign to liberalise abortion rights, anti-militarism, setting up producer and housing co-ops, etc.
In 1968 Tronchet reached retirement age and was able to devote his attentions entirely to May, the month when the workers' memories come back to the surface. 1968 also saw the resurrection of Le Reveil anarchiste.
Tronchet had high hopes for this and dreamt of seeing the anarchist movement in Switzerland revive. It was to prove one of his last campaigns. The fight for workers’ dignity was and remained for him an all-round struggle for human dignity.
Adapted from Le Monde Libertaire (Paris, No 452, Summer 1982)
From the Kate Sharpley Library