Report on strikes at three French aeronautics plants in 1988, which quickly spread beyond union control.
‘Change the bosses’ smugness into fear!’ – SNECMA Strikers 1988
‘The SNECMA strikers are coming to talk to you… because we believe that in the factory where you work, you have the same problems of pay’
Last year’s elections in France failed to smother the working class discontent with political promises. Whilst the TV pundits played games with swingometers, the French working class has been pushing forward its own interests against those of all the political factions.
One of the most significant strikes of last year was the one at the three SNECMA nationalized aeronautics plants in the spring. The strike, which continued throughout the presidential elections, began at the Gennervilliers factory on March 16th 1988 at the initiative of workers in the steel foundry. By March 23rd, against the advice of the unions, the strike had spread to the factories at Villaroche and Corbeil - making a total of over 12,000 workers on strike.
As has been shown in the British nurses regrading dispute the bosses are very keen to divide workers by giving larger pay increases to some people than to others. The SNECMA workers were determined not to fall into this trap and put forward as their central demand: "a 1500 francs a month a rise for all" (about £150).
From the very start it was the strikers themselves who controlled the running of the strike, not the unions: "In each factory, every day there is held a general assembly of all the workers, union members or not, and militants from all currents, all united in the same will: to do everything to win, for 1500 francs. This assembly decides sovereignly the actions to be taken and the path of the movement… a Co-ordinating Committee of strikers, including members of various organisations and non-members, has been set up to co-ordinate and unify all the factories on strike." (All quotes are from the strikers’ own leaflets.)
In contrast to the traditional union-led passive stay-at-home strike, large numbers of strikers were active in the movement, mounting permanent 24-hour pickets of the factories, producing daily newssheets and leaflets, and generally making their presence felt through such actions as blocking roads, stopping trains and throwing shit around the stock market, Most important strikers attempted spread their struggle to other groups of workers.
Realizing that "the best defence is attack" and announcing that "we will not allow ourselves to be shut up in our own workplace" large delegations of a hundred, five hundred or even a thousand strikers went to talk directly to other groups of workers to explain why they were striking and to encourage them to join the struggle: "workers in other firms we come to talk to you because we see more and more clearly that our interests and your interests are linked, that we cannot defend them separately each on our own account, that we will win together or lose together". SNECMA strikers visited steel workers and others at Air France, Air Inter, Citroên Aulnay, Dassault St Cloud etc. Contact was also made with workers who participated in SNECMA demonstrations, including some from the Post Office, railways, hospitals, Paris Metro, banks, etc.
Following a court order to lift pickets and faced with a lack of money, the SNECMA strikers returned to work after 69 days at the end of May, receiving only a 3.3% wage increase. Even after going back however workers continued to meet in their assemblies and to take action- on June 9th they occupied the lobby of a radio station to spread "just and correct information" about their strike.
Although SNECMA strikers didn’t manage to build a mass strike movement around their own strike, they no doubt contributed to the "autumn of discontent" that later developed, notably amongst workers they had developed contacts with, such as transport workers, postal workers and healthworkers.
The actions of some of the later French strikers have further confirmed that workers have to organise their own fightback, not the unions. The largest union federation, CGT, has been mainly used by the French "Communist" Party to regain some of the ground it has lost in recent years. On the other hand, while only 4% of nurses belong to unions, they played a major part in the autumn strike wave - on September 29th 1988 90% of Paris nurses and at least 80% of those in the provinces staged an unprecedented national strike.
In November transport workers in Paris walked out demanding better pay and conditions; some railway maintenance depots were occupied by strikers. At the beginning of December prime minister Rocard responded by calling in the army to try and break the strike, with hundreds of military lorries being used to replace strikebound buses and trains.
Any illusions about the election of a "socialist" administration having anything to offer the working class have been swiftly shattered.
The recent unofficial strike movements in Italy, in which workers organised themselves in non-union ‘cobas" (Comitati di Base) are the subject of an interesting pamphlet by David Brown: The Cobas - Italy 1986-8: a new rank and file movement. It is available from Echanges et Mouvement, BM Box 91, London WCIN 3XX.
The Red Menace, number one, February 1989. Taken from the Practical History website.