A new kind of strike in France (Citroën etc.), 2005

Submitted by Steven. on November 23, 2006

Article about the 2005 strike at Citroen and other struggles and issues in the European car industry, and the political situation in France, including the left, the EU constitution, and a wildcat strike of rail workers.

Citroën factory strike and others
The world car market - and, of course, the European market - is saturated. It is one of the main economic activities of the modern capitalist world, closely connected to the oil world market. Its fluctuations have for ages influenced the national economies and the social conflicts but have also involved a fierce competition in the conquest of new markets. The result is twofold; on one hand a concentration of the car companies and the disappearance of the weakest ones (the closure of the Rover factory in the UK or the difficulties of Fiat in Italy are among the most recent examples), on the other hand, the internal restructuring. This restructuring can take the brutal form of heavy staff cuts (looking at the recent past we could produce a long list of these collective dismissals in either definite factory closures as in Renault Vilvorde-Belgium in 1997 or as in downsizing, also fairly important as we could see recently in Germany with the Opel-General Motors factories). But recently we have also seen this restructuring take the form of sub-contracting important parts of the production process or of the management (often owned by the main company) with or without the transfer of workers, but without the benefits and guarantees of the main company.

Change in Work Organisation
All these transformations have been taking place for years, along with radical transformations in the work organisation of the production process, connected to what is called ‘just in time’ production, which means the total elimination of stocks i.e. of any immobilisation of capital. What was new in the extent of these new methods was that they were implemented not only on the assembly line of the main factory (they were previously often reduced to this line) but to all the sub contractors. These sub contractors not only had to provide the required parts at a regular pace ‘in time’, but also had to assemble complex sets of parts, to do the research concerning this production and to deal with the logistics concerning their production. Practically, this included being obliged to settle close to the main assembly factory, often inside the factory. From the point of view of the class struggle, the fact that most of the workers participating in this puzzle were divided in small units of production, each having a distinct legal status and different conditions of work, creates independent fragments, even if the total workforce involved in this production was effectively submitted to the pace of the assembly line i.e. to the market imperatives.

As the concept of the division of work and/or the assembly line had produced the ideological and social concept of ‘Fordism’ which meant a global vision of the workers life (with a certain level of consumption) linked to the organisation of work inside the factory (aiming at a mass production for a generalised minimal consumption), the various restructurings of the car industry we have just explained have considerably modified the living conditions of the car workers, inside and outside of the factory. On one hand, redundancies and the transfer to the subcontractors with the loss of all the guarantees of collective contracts have created a total insecurity about job employment and wages, on the other hand the new methods of production have imposed on the workers the same constraints imposed on the production of parts and raw material to be assembled on the line in a finished product: everything that had the social aims of providing mass consumption goods is still working, but is now increasingly in total contradiction with the increasing pressure on the workers to extract more and more surplus value from their work.

Zero stock of parts and raw material, zero stock of the work force. Following the example of many other industries, the cost of production has to be reduced as much as possible, not only through the classic pressure on wages but also through a perfect matching of the working time and of the market fluctuations (so as to avoid repeatedly building up stocks of finished cars and thereby the immobilisation of capital and to answer as quickly as possible to the flexibility of the customers orders for a large range of models imposed by the competition). The consequence for the workforce was the development, over the past twenty years, of a wide range of various ‘models’ of working contracts: temporary work through agencies, short time contracts and also a practice of what was called ‘technical temporary unemployment’. In a certain way all car contractors need a core of permanent trained professionals and this temporary technical lay off solved the problem of adapting as tightly as possible the required production to the need for the workers to be working without ‘dead time’. In a certain way, the balance of struggle obliged the companies to pay for these temporary days not worked but at a reduced rate. Doing so, they avoided social conflicts, got what they wanted (no stock of cars) and got a labour force ready to work with full competence and at full speed when required. Renault and PSA in France had such a system and recently these two car companies have planned such days off from March 2005, up to 2007 to reduce the cars stocks.

We could find such systems in all the industrialised countries but France had gone for another system for productivity per worker and per hour by implementing what was called the ‘Aubry laws’ (from the name of the then social democrat ministry of labour [see also the leaflet on this in this newsletter). This is a collection of complex measures known here with the name ‘Reduction du Temps de Travail’ - RTT (reduction of the working time) or with the other name ‘the 35 hours’ (weekly). Behind the ideological propaganda of the ‘35 hours of work’ these laws were profitable for the French capitalist economy because it allows all branches of the economy to adapt perfectly the effective work to the production needs, meaning an almost total flexibility of the effective working time (the average weekly working time was calculated on the year and the management had the possibility to extend or to reduce the weekly time according to its needs). The actual aim of the reform was effectively achieved, as it was recognised that French capital can be glorified to have the highest productivity per worker per hour. The ‘RTT’ was a very useful complement to the ‘technical lay off’ days. Every factory could use a wide range of different measures concerning the working time which means a high degree of flexibility in the exploitation of work in such a way as to practically eliminate the ‘dead time’. One can agree that it is this wide range of possible flexible time which, in the recent period allowed the French car companies to escape the difficulties and social conflicts having plagued their European competitors, German, Italian and British.

The Problem of Wages
But another question was connected to this question of flexibility and was part of the high rate of productivity: wages. The management had gained both ways: after some strikes and collective agreements about the ‘35 hours’, not only wages had been frozen for several years and with the annualisation of the working time, overtime had been eliminated in most cases. But, on the other hand this freezing of wages was part of a general offensive of capital to use the economic crisis and the threat of unemployment to impose a progressive decline of the standard of living. The slow but constant rise of wages ended in 1977 but the effects on the living conditions were only felt in 1982 with the rise of unemployment and a reform of the unemployment benefit system which made unemployment far less attractive than before. Furthermore, over these twenty years, the gap between gross and net wages had not stopped increasing and evidently it was the low and middle level wage earners who were the most affected: the rate of this levy on wages has gone up from 6 percent in 1950 up to 21,1 percent in 2000 (and even more today). Considering only the period 1984-1996, official figures show a 58 percent rise of prices and only a 7.2 percent rise of the average wage (according to some union figures theses rates were even more apart, a rise of 94 percent for the prices and a decline of 12.4 percent for the wages). The freeze of the wages mentioned above for the recent period 1996-2004 has only increased this gap between wages and prices, as a consequence of the ‘Aubry laws’, of the steady rise of unemployment and of illegal immigration (and legal migration too inside the EU).

Considering this matter of wages and prices, the pressure of unemployment to calm the eventual claims about wages, and the fact that the wages are presently just enough to cope for a minimal living, any measure aiming at lowering the monthly wage was somewhat explosive. Even in branches such as the car industry, where these problems had been apparently settled. It is not by chance that the most active in the Citroën strike were young workers: they are the most severely hit by financial problems, especially when looking for accommodation, considering the intense speculation in this matter. Only a small decline of a monthly more or less stable income will break the fragile balance of the family budget. Then, it will not be a direct claim for wage rises, but the warning that on this matter a kind of bottom limit has been reached and that in a certain way, workers have been driven into struggle.

Strike at Citroën plant
The Peugeot-Citroën factory in Aulnay-sous-Bois (a north-east Paris suburb) now is the only car factory in Paris or a close suburb, but does not have the same symbolic value the now disappeared Renault factory in Billancourt (also close to Paris) had. In this factory out of 5,000 workers 3,800 worked on the production of the models C2 and C3, together with 500 temporary workers. The average monthly wage for a worker is between 1,100 and 1,000 Euros, not that much more than the compulsory minimum wage (SMIC [Salaire minimum interprofessionnel de croissance]). The usual quota of production has been recently modified from 6,000 cars per week, or 1,200 a day in 5 working days. Management asked for 1,500 cars on 4 days with a technical day off the Friday, which means extra work for each post on the line. The company interest was evident: as it turned out, for a Friday off just 60 percent of the normal day wage are being paid, so the same production is achieved but with one day 40 percent less payment.

In 2004, the world and European car market has not improved at all. The sales of the two French car builders PSA and Renault dropped by 3.3 percent and 1.1 percent respectively. Figures already estimated that the European car factories were running at 77 percent of their capacity of production in 2003 (Renault and PSA were amongst the best, running at 83 percent and 89 percent of their capacity respectively). It is impossible in such an article to analyse the strategy and tactics of these multinationals of the car industry, which could play on quite a lot of various factors never completely disclosed (for instance what will be the function of the factory built by PSA in Slovakia or the possible transfer of the production of the C3 to the Madrid factory). All these facts could be considered to explain the decision of the management of the Aulnay-sous-Bois factory to impose 30 ‘technical days off’ in 2005, 8 in March, 4 in April, 8 in May, and more during the year and some others in 2006. As we have said above, the pay for these days off is 60 percent of the normal wage up to 150 hours and 65 percent beyond. For a worker earning a monthly average of 1.200 Euros the loss of wage, for March alone, would be 175 Euros for a day shift and 250 Euros for a night shift, which means a cut of wages between 15 and 20 percent.

The Aulnay factory, as most of the big car factories, has been organised in such a way that most of the subcontractors are producing close to the assembly line in order to provide a constant delivery of parts. Around this factory we can find quite a lot of these subcontractors, most of them owned by PSA but legally apart: Trigo (control of the parts), Valeo (electrical connections), Energie (fuel tanks), Harvin (exhaust pipes), Gifco (logistics), Magneto (drop forge), ENCI (cleaning), Tais (collecting metal refuse), Avenance (meals in the canteen), etc..

These subcontractors have to follow the same organisation of work as the assembly line factory but they do not have to give their workers the advantages of the collective contract of PSA. They are also under pressure to reduce their costs because their client (the main factory) gives its orders to the best offer. Because of this pressure, the subcontractors’ workers have to work under worse conditions for lower wages.

In the recent period quite a lot of conflicts have taken place at most of these subcontractors. In 2004-2005 we can quote:

* a strike on the 24th of May 2004 at ENCI which lasted five days, with demonstrations at the gates; the strikers got a 13th wage/year and the strike days paid (they work solely at night for 1,200 Euros a month);

* a strike at Trigo on the 7th of June 2004, and at the same time at Valeo and Avenance for wages;

* a strike at Tais on the 22th of February 2005 where 30 workers got a bonus for quality raised from 20 up to 70 Euros a month, 100 percent for the ‘technical days off’ and for the strike days;

* on the other hand there is an on-going conflict over a declaration of the management at the end of February 2005, that 268 professional workers would have to go, as there were still 500 temporary workers in the factory. More recently a group of 27 old Moroccan workers were denied the right to take early retirement and they have to go to the court to have their fate fixed.

There is no doubt that these conflicts and their result had some influence on what happened next. As soon as the plan for the ‘technical days off’ was unveiled at a factory committee on the Wednesday morning, 2nd of March, a bunch of 17 young workers (some sources say only six) started the strike. The different sources of information do not give many clues about the beginning of the strike. Some say it started on Wednesday afternoon, others the following day, Thursday, 3rd of March. They also name different locations or workshop where the strike started to spread to other departments. Some say on the line making seats, others on some section of the assembly line. What is sure anyway is that the strike started spontaneously over a claim to get full pay for the ‘technical days off’ imposed by the management. What is also sure is that they succeeded in extending their strike at first to the 250 workers of their department (out of 350), but that they failed to spread the strike to the other departments of the factory. Anyway, the changes of shift (afternoon and night) did not change the situation: within its limits, the strike was still strong. The top manager asked for a meeting with delegates of this department on strike, the strikers asked him to come and to discuss openly with all of them, what he refused to do.

Friday, 4th of March, was a day off (a managerial trick, as we have explained above). Perhaps the management hoped that the strike would be over after the long week-end. But on Monday, 7th of March, the strikers were even more numerous, even if it is difficult to give an exact number: between 400 and 700, some sources claiming up to 1,000, most of them in the same departments. It was evident that the strike was a selective strike aiming at creating a bottleneck paralysing the assembly line. Hence, there was a battle around the figures of finished cars. During the night Thursday to Friday only 50 cars may have been produced instead of the 310 planned; the management produced figures pretending that on Thursday 1,127 left the line instead of 1,530. A leaflet signed ‘Workers on strike’ dated 9th of March, said that ‘since the 3rd of March the production of the factory was at a standstill’. Even after the end of the strike it is difficult to know the actual effect of the strike as the management can use the flexibility and recuperate the loss.

On Monday, 7th of March, between 400 and 700 strikers try to demonstrate all over the factory and to push the other workers to strike. They did not succeed, even though they were welcomed with sympathy. As soon as the strike broke out, all the unions tried to jump on the band-waggon. We will further analyse the attitude of the CGT union: It could not openly take a position against this wildcat strike, but did not do anything to call for its spreading and showed a very conciliatory approach towards the management. As the strike went on and threatened to stop the production, the management started some discussions with the unions and, what is more important as a kind of recognition of the autonomy of the strike, with delegates from the strikers as early as Monday, 7th of March. The strikers then added to the original claims the full payment of the days of strike. These discussions did not produce any result. Tuesday, 8th of March, another meeting with the same people brought an agreement with full payment for the days of ‘technical unemployment’ but imposing a condition on the strikers: they have to work 12 days more during the year to repay the days of strike. This agreement was signed by four unions: SIA/GSEA (which is the remains of a boss’s more or less fascist union), CGC (a managers union not at all concerned with the strike), CFTC and FO. Three other unions, the most important ones, SUD, CFDT and CGT refused to sign. But more important, the strikers assembly refused the agreement and the strike went on.

For weeks the main unions had organised a national ‘day of action’ on Thursday, 10th of March, against the government’s social policy with demonstrations in the main towns and a big one in Paris. Numerous strikers of Aulnay were there behind a banner claiming support for the strike and distributing leaflets about their strike (signed ‘workers on strike’). 50 workers of the subcontractor GEFCO working in the factory had been on strike since the 3rd of March for claims similar to the Citroën workers’ ones (at the end of the day the 50 workers got what they wanted after hading spread the strike to other sites of the subcontractor).

On Monday, 14th of March, at 6 a.m., the day shift was welcomed by three hundred management staff all dressed in Citroën uniform who tried to stop the strikers going into their work department (the management tried to restart the assembly line with scabs - temporary workers). The managers then followed the workers as they went to demonstrate inside the factory in order to produce pressure on and to threaten the non-striking workers.

The same morning, a new meeting with the management, the unions SUD, CFDT, CGT and the delegates of the strikers did not improve anything. But at a new meeting in the afternoon, the management yielded: full pay for the ‘technical days off’, transport benefit paid; for the days of strike, they will be paid fully but the workers will have to give some days of RTT, 2 days will be considered as days of retraining and they will have to work three more days in April (these days were planned as days off). We can see this change of mind by the management as a result of the fact that the strike was still strong even after the pressures of the morning and that the risk of a line-stoppage was increasing, perhaps also of an expansion of the strike The strikers assembly voted to accept the deal and to resume work on Monday, 14th of March. The night shift worked normally. The general atmosphere in the factory is that the strike was worth while.

The Political and Social Context
Even though this strike could be seen as a minor one and did not attract much media coverage we have to place it within the general political and social context in France.

* The present intense propaganda around the referendum on the European Constitution is more and more designed as a political fight that covers up a social problem. Most of the groups and parties advocating the rejection of the European Constitution - in particlular the left of the Socialist Party, the Trotskysts, the Communist Party and the very confused neo-reformist ‘altermondialism’ (Attac) - use the deep social discontent to build their opposition. But they do not want to push too far the various current strikes: quite a lot of strikes would have a negative effect on their political ambitions. That could explain the attitude of the leftist groups during the Citroën strike.

* In this respect, the attitude of the Trotskyst group ‘Lutte Ouvrière’ is very significant. The fall of the USSR and of the French Communist Party and the the decline of their influence on the CGT union and of all unions in general has allowed all these oppositional political groups, formerly systematically evicted and barred from entering the union apparatus, to take functions in this union bureaucracy at the low and medium level. Willingly or not, tactically or not, they have to respect the union policy in order to climb the ladder because what is more important for them is not class struggle in itself but the conquest of political power using this union activity as a step in this respect. The rank and file militants however tend to act quite differently. Maybe initially attracted by the political and social offers of these competing organisations, these militants have a tendency to act more according to their immediate class interests than to the interests of the organisation. As often, concerning this relation between union apparatus and rank and file, it is difficult to know the actual dialectical process between the CGT Citroën (controlled by Lutte Ouvrière) and the rank and file action (even if the leaflets were anonymously signed by ‘workers on strike’ they could still have been inspired by Lutte Ouvrière, which did not dare to put the organisation’s name in the context of the strike).

What is more important than all these ‘diversions’ related the the present political situation, the Citroën strike has to be placed in the French context of class struggle, in what we consider the start of a new turn of class struggle.

As we have said at the beginning of this article, the ‘Aubry laws’ and the RTT have not only modified the work organisation and produced a freeze of wages, but have increased the weight of labour with the removal of any constraints (legal or illegal), changed the pace of work and greatly disturbed the workers’ daily life. The time to rest has not at all been able to make up for the new kind of physical and mental exhaustion linked to the stress (anxiety, depression, psychological and physical diseases). The new forms of work organisation apparently give workers more autonomy but at the same time impose a stronger control on them. According to some official figures the removal of the ‘grey time’ [temps gris] (working time allowing the worker to choose his own pace of work, to stop to work from time to time) produces “urgency” and forces everyone to hurry up. Even on the Taylorised assembly lines the organisation of work was modified in such a way that each ‘operator’ (worker) is constantly has a work-load up to his/her capacity, while he/she is also liable for the imposed productivity. At the same time this method of work organisation has been widely introduced, even in the service industry. In some call centres for instance, even the language is regulated. It is forbidden to use certain words such as ‘delay’ for instance. Workers in these centres have to follow various illogical orders, for instance to smile when they are answering, to end certain calls and to stop calls which are too long, while on the other hand they are required to keep a call going in order to please the customer or to sell them some products (thereby they have the feeling that they are not performing ‘good work’).

Some research shows all the disorders connected to this new organisation of work. Taylorism has not at all disappeared but, on the contrary, has invaded all industries. Instead of being imposed by the levels of management, the responsibility for the work organisation is put on the shoulders of the workers themselves, and this is particularly difficult to cope with for any worker. The only question for the workers is how to respond to these new forms of exploitation. The reactions can be individual (sabotage, absenteeism, etc..) or collective. But they can take the form of claims which are not directly linked to the original problems of conditions of work (the recent strikes in the call centres are an example). Often they take forms of resistance buried in the day to day life of exploitation and not very well known. But they are evidently part of the general discontent we can currently observe in France.

General Discontent in France
Till recently, most of the strikes in France were about the resistance against the consequences of the restructuring and of re-location of factories. The strongest often violent ones were about definite closures and were demanding not the repeal of the closure but better benefits for unemployment (the best example was the Cellatex factory strike in the North of France which for some time was a model for quite a lot of similar strikes). They were defensive strikes which did not question the competition between capitalist companies looking for the best profitable conditions of exploitation. These rather defensive struggles have not ceased, neither did the restructuring. But recently other kinds of strikes have emerged, making visible a new offensive attitude against the conditions of exploitation, wages and/or working conditions. These new conflicts about wages and working conditions appear in a situation where the 35 hour-laws (Aubry laws), the threat of re-location of production and the fear of unemployment has forced workers to accept a wage freeze.

One of the most interesting of these conflicts erupted last December within the Swedish textile company H&M, exploiting 3,000 workers in 63 shops all over France. The delivery for these shops was concentrated in a big warehouse located at Le Bourget (northern suburb of Paris). The 300 workers of this warehouse have to handle heavy parcels and are being harassed by the management for a gross wage of 1.180 Euros a month (reduced for different reasons for many of them down to 600 to 750 Euros). Numerous claims for a wage increase were pushed aside and the workers considered this attitude of the management as a kind of provocation.

On the 13th of December all these workers decided to strike. This date was well chosen because the end of the year is a very profitable period for the company. The strike was very efficient because the warehouse was blocked by a picket-line which prevented any car or lorry from entering and leaving the building. H&M did not try to break the picket-line, but to organise another distribution centre with scabs, which later on proved to be particularly inefficient. Then the management put forward a complaint at the local court in order to get a legal decision for the removal of the picket and against the strikers, forbidding the blockade of the warehouse gates.

On the 28th of December, the cops managed to dissolve the picket (this date coincided with the beginning of the sales and the need for big supplies for the shops). At the same time the management proposed a wage rise of 6.2 percent, back-dated to 2002, but it tied the wage rise to such preconditions (e.g. of seniority) that 80 percent of the workforce would not get anything. The reason is that the staff has a very considerable turnover because of the poor working conditions. The strike was continued but without the strength of the blockade. In order to compensate for that the strikers tried to spread the strike to the most important shops, mainly in Paris and the suburbs. They failed because of very different conditions of work in the shops, because of a serious turnover with limited contracts and the intervention of the cops. New proposals: wage increase of 7 percent for people who started working before the 1st of January 2002, 4 percent for others and 1,8 percent for 2005 for all of them - and a after a ballot the strikers resumed work on February, the 7th.

More recently, different strikes all over France have patchwork-like disturbed all sectors of distribution - hypermarkets and supermarkets. Often the workers used strategies similar to the ones at H&M, blocking the warehouses which supply the centres of distribution. Most of these strikes were about wages, some of them are still going on. Considering these strikes and other recent less known but similar struggles, we can again observe a new offensive character of these class conflicts. Of course, it is too early to draw a definite conclusion even if we can underline their size and potential. It is for sure that as early as last year the managers who are connected to the political world were aware of these upcoming new offensive claims. On the background of these struggles for higher wages we can understand last year’s various government attempts to have ‘voluntary’ cuts in the prices of goods sold in supermarkets and the announcement to allow workers to get money from special accounts of frozen benefits. On the other hand various reforms of social, juridical and repressive matters aimed for the reinforcement of control over possible social conflicts. We can also reconsider this fuss about the constitutional referendum and see it as a diversion of the social conflict, which is supposed to be contained in the political ‘democratic’ fight.

We think that another proof of a general discontent was given by two wildcat conflicts connected not to wages but to the working conditions. On the 1st of February 2005 at the Orly airport (one of the major Paris airports, south east of Paris) the death of a stewardess who fell off an unprotected gangway brought to light the consequences of the pressure of productivity on the security at the airports. But, of course, the driver of the lorry carrying the gangway was immediately penalised and threatened to be sacked. His immediate lay-off started an immediate wildcat strike of all the people working on the runways of the airport and the traffic was heavily disturbed for two days. Another strike happened between the 18th and 22nd of March when a disciplinary committee was supposed to meet.

A similar conflict happened at the end of January with the ticket-controllers of the SNCF [French Railways] involved. On the 15th of January in the evening a woman controller was raped by a traveller in a regional train around Toulouse (south-west of France). When this aggression became known to the public in the morning of the 26th, a wildcat strike started in the Toulouse region and quickly expanded all over France. It put the whole rail network to a standstill. Some 9,000 controllers refused to work (for security reasons a train cannot run without a controller). Immediately the top manager started negotiations with the unions about some measures to guarantee more security for the controllers. But the traffic was still deeply disturbed for the following days because most of the controllers were not that pleased with what was proposed by bosses and unions.

Apart from the fact that these wildcat strikes are expressions of a big discontent which breaks loose in such sudden actions about some ‘minor’ incident, it is remarkable that nobody cares about the compulsory notice before starting the strike, in the railways as in the airports. The political discussions about a law imposing this notice and the obligation of a ‘minimal service’ were totally swept away by the strikes.

This text was sent by a comrade from ‘Echanges et Mouvement’, Paris.

prol-position news #2, 5/2005