Workers Occupy Their Factories

Submitted by libcom on December 20, 2005

PARIS, May 20, 1968

The work-force which has taken power in France's main industries was characterized, in the past, by unbridgeable conflicts of interest. The conflicting interests were exploited by factory owners, by the police, and by the state. With the occupation of the factories the differences have diminished, but they have not disappeared, and the differences continue to be exploited, in modified form, within the occupied factories.

In large factories like Citroën, the main conflict was between French workers and foreign workers. This article will limit itself to the forms of exploitation, past and present, of the conflict of interests between these two groups.

Foreign workers, mainly from Portugal, Spain, Yugoslavia and North Africa, worked for wages which were, on the average, less than half the size of French workers' wages. The foreign workers had no choice. First of all the foreigners do not know French, and could not inform themselves either of their human rights or of legal forms. The union did not establish schools for them. Secondly, numerous police bureaucracies made it nearly impossible for foreigners to find jobs once in Paris, and sent them back to their own countries after they had spent the money they had somehow saved in their own countries to come to Paris. In other words, the foreign worker is virtually forced to give up his humanity in order to find a job. Consequently, the foreign worker is not willing to risk losing his job even if his very definition of himself as a human being is in question, since he has largely ceased to define himself as a human being. Systematically dehumanized, these workers were easily manipulated by the owners of France's big industries : willing to work for low wages, they lowered the overall wage scale; willing to work under any conditions, they were used to break strikes.

From the point of view of the French workers, the foreigners represented a constant threat. An unemployed French worker had to compete with foreigners willing to work for lower wages in worse conditions. Employed workers, privileged in terms of type of job, working conditions and wages, could strike only hesitantly from fear that the factory owners and the state would use the strike as a pretext to replace French by foreign workers.

In order to justify their relative privileges and to rationalize their fear of the foreign workers, French workers developed psychological outlooks which are nearly identical with racism.

The Communist Party union ( the C.G.T. ) did not make special efforts to equalize the conditions of the foreigners with those of the French workers. This is largely because the work contracts of most of the foreigners were temporary, and the foreign workers could not vote, which means that the foreign workers did not represent a power base for the Communist Party. And some union spokesmen contributed to a further worsening of the foreign workers' situation by collaborating with the police repression of the foreigners, and even by publicly defining foreigners as the greatest threat to the French working class.

In order to understand the present clash of the Communist union with the movement for direct democracy, it must be noted that a "union" is not the unified community of workers of a factory or a region, and it does not express the will of all the workers. The "union" is in fact a particular group of people who "represent" the workers, who speak for the workers, who make decisions for the workers. This means that a movement of revolutionary democracy which seeks new political forms for the expression of the will of all the workers ( for example, through a general assembly of all the workers ), threatens the very existence of the present day "union." The movement for revolutionary democratization, initiated by students, affirms the principle that the union of workers, namely the entire collectivity, is the only body which can speak for, and make decisions for the workers. In this conception the official union ( and the French Communist Party ) would be reduced to a service organization and a pressure group with no decision-making power. This is the reason the C.G.T. ( and the Communist Party as a whole ) has consistently maligned, insulted, and tried to put an end to the student movement, and the reason why union functionaries have tried to prevent any form of contact between workers and students. In this struggle with the revolutionary movement, the Communist Party, viewed by American liberals as the epitome of evil, has fought for goals and has employed techniques long familiar to American liberals.

The first workers to be influenced by the student movement for autonomy and direct self-government were workers who had much in common with the students, namely young, educated and highly politicized workers. The factory revolutionaries are neither the old party stalwarts nor the uneducated and superexploited foreign workers, but rather relatively privileged young French workers. It is these young workers who take part in the continuous discussions of direct democracy and the overthrow of capitalism and statism which take place continuously at the University of Paris. And it is these workers who are the first to call for strikes in a factory, and who define the goals of the strike as a substitution of capitalism and statism by a system of direct, socialist, workers' democracy.

Once the revolutionary stirring in the factory begins, the union functionaries behave like American liberals in a period of crisis. The union functionaries place themselves at the "head" of what they call the "reform" movement, and instead of speaking of a radical transformation of the socio-economic system, they speak of negotiating with the factory owners ( who have de facto been expropriated ) for higher wages. And in order to constitute themselves the only legitimate spokesmen for the workers, union functionaries employ a liberal-type "consensus politics" which consists of a maximal exploitation of the conflicts between the interests among the varied levels of workers in the factory.

Union functionaries frighten older, conservative French workers with a threat of the unimaginably violent repression which "anarchist adventurism" will lead to. This threat is given force by the fact that, during the growth and radicalization of the movement, the Communist Party has increasingly cooperated with the state power ( which still holds the force of the army in reserve ), and by the fact that the Communist Party has not been France's greatest critic of police repression or even of colonial exploitation. In fact, the policies of the Gaullist regime coincided with the policies of the Communist Party more frequently than not.

And union functionaries try to isolate the revolutionary young workers by making one of their rare appeals for the support of foreign workers. The morning of the factory occupation is one of the rare occasions when a great effort is made to translate union leaflets into all the languages of the foreign workers. And in these leaflets, and through the loudspeakers, the union spokesmen, in characteristically liberal fashion, tell the foreign workers that "our" demands are for higher wages and longer vacations. The use of the first person plural is artificial, since except for the words spoken over the loudspeaker, there is very little contact between the union functionaries and the foreign workers, and the one-way speaker system obviously annihilates the very possibility of a two-way discussion which enables the workers to define what "our" demands actually are.

Although students and revolutionary workers are the dynamic forces behind the occupation of the factories, once all the workers have been convinced to move inside the factory and "occupy" it, union officials close the factory gates on the students standing outside, and they isolate the revolutionary workers on the inside. The union functionaries isolate the young workers from the old by painting the young workers as extremist adventurists who will bring the police running into the factory, and from the foreign workers by insinuating that only the union is fighting for the improvement of wages of the foreign workers, and if the union fails, then the foreign workers might lose their hard-won jobs and be forced by the police to return to their countries.

Since the originality and courage of the students is admired by most sectors of the French population, the Communist Party vascillates between mild support and extreme attacks. And in order to prevent the revolutionary and experimental political forms developed by the students from flowing into the working class, the Communist Party is cooperating with the state, collaborating with its "class enemy" ( the factory owners ), and exploiting differences of interest among the workers which were formerly exploited by the capitalist state and the owners.

Thus after the factory is occupied by all its workers, the union becomes the only spokesman for the workers. In other words, while the workers as a whole have decided to take over their own factories and to expropriate the owners, the workers have not yet developed political forms through which to discuss and execute their subsequent decisions. In this vacuum, the union makes the decisions instead of the workers, and broadcasts its decisions to the workers through loudspeakers. And at the present writing, the Communist union had decided for the workers that the expropriated factories were to be returned to their owners in exchange for higher wages.

F. Perlman