Appendix - The bourses du travail: their creation and day-to-day operations

Submitted by Alias Recluse on January 5, 2012


The Bourses du Travail: Their Creation and Day-to-Day Operations

It would be superfluous to fully explain the role played by the Bourses du Travail in today’s economic relations, and that which they will be called upon to play in the future social organization. The rapid growth of these institutions, from nine Bourses du Travail in 1892 to forty-three in 1895, clearly indicates that they constituted the link which has been vaguely sought after by the proletariat in order to confer upon the action of the trade unions in each city the unity needed for the work of the social revolution.

Isolated efforts are not only incapable of producing good results, but can actually cause disaster. This is why there is no use in organizing the majority of the workers by trade, if one cannot bring the various corporative groups together and get them to associate with one another and know one another and, upon this foundation, come to the conclusion that all social activities are interconnected, and that the most basic political and economic changes have, besides their visible effects—in accordance with the words of Frédéric Bastiat—other effects which only an in-depth examination will allow one to conclude that no trade can improve its own condition without damaging that of the other trades, and that proletarian emancipation is subordinated to the simultaneous effort of all the workers or, as it was asserted in the International, that the “social transformation will only be capable of exercising a radical or definitive effect by utilizing methods which would affect society as a whole.”

The Bourse du Travail has been such a school for social economy. It is undoubtedly due to the exchange of ideas within it that a profound development has taken place during the last few years in the spirit of the workers organizations. The controversies which the latter have engaged in have reinforced the conviction that the social question is exclusively economic, because, at the root of all misery, moral as well as material, we discover the lack of money and, at the origin of all oppression, the power of capital. They have also taught the futility of political promises and revolutions which have resulted in a change of regime, because such regimes only value what men in general value, since they have a deplorable tendency towards despotism. The Bourses du Travail have, so to speak, and in an incalculable way, hastened the hour of social transformation. It is therefore necessary to multiply the Bourses du Travail, and this memoir is intended to provide the means to achieve this end.

The method used for creating a Bourse du Travail varies, depending on whether the trade unions of a locality are isolated or are already associated in federative coalitions. We shall examine each case.

1. Isolated Trade Unions

In this case, the trade union secretary or any other citizen who is a member of the trade union convokes a plenary assembly of the trade unions, or at least of their administrative councils, and explains the usefulness of the Bourse du Travail.

In today’s society the Bourse du Travail must be a society of resistance. A society of resistance against wage reductions, against the excessive prolongation of the working day, and also (without which the other benefits would be ineffective) against the increase, or more accurately, since the commercial mechanism renders such an increase inevitable, against the exaggerated increase in the price of consumer goods. Preserving, to the greatest possible extent, the equilibrium between the price at which labor power is sold and the price at which consumer products are sold, constitutes the present function of the Bourses du Travail and, in order to assume this function, it is necessary to wage war on capital, a war which will only come to an end with the disappearance of the current political and economic system.

If the assembly assents to the principle of forming a Bourse du Travail, it nominates a committee composed where possible of one representative from each corporative body in attendance, which is made responsible for carrying out the proposal.

The first matter which this committee must attend to is, on the one hand, the absolutely necessary expenses for the project, and, on the other hand, the resources upon which the future Bourse du Travail can rely.

Expenses. The services of a Bourse du Travail are: the Office of the Secretary, the Treasury, the Archives and the Library, the Job Placement Office, the General Registry of the Unemployed (where there is no unemployment relief fund) and, eventually, a travelers’ aid fund, as well as the establishment of a professional training course. It is obvious, however, that the number of these services and their respective importance are subordinated to the resources at the disposal of each institution. Some Bourses du Travail have all of these services, but others have only organized some of them. Here we shall set forth the most basic balance sheet, assuming that the future Bourse du Travail will not be able to rely on external support.

1. Among indispensable expenses, we encounter the most important one, renting real estate. This rent must cover, at least: an office for the Secretary, and for the meetings of the General Committee and the Executive Committee; a room for the library and the archives, and two or three other rooms for adjunct meetings of member trade unions; the total rent for this workers center could be estimated at around 800 francs per year.

2. The costs of lighting and heat, calculated on the basis of two hours daily over three hundred days, taking into account summer evenings, Sundays and holidays, and the length and number of days the offices will be closed. This cost can be calculated to be approximately 1 franc per day, or a total of 300 francs.

3. The salaries of the officers of the Bourses du Travail: secretary and treasurer. Some Bourses du Travail do not pay full-time salaries and, in this case, compensate their officers for only two or three hours in the evening for the purpose of addressing everyday questions, keeping correspondence up-to-date, maintaining the minutes, receipt of trade union dues and managing the library. Other Bourses du Travail, whose officers work similar hours, pay their officers an amount proportionate to the importance of the job, which is sometimes a fixed sum, and sometimes an hourly wage. In this second case the total pay generally approaches 300 francs per year for the secretary and 200 francs per year for the treasurer. Finally, the wealthiest Bourses du Travail have a permanent secretary and employ an accountant-treasurer for three hours each day. The usual pay rate is in this case one franc per hour. The number of hours required of the secretary varies depending on the importance of the task, but setting this question aside, the monthly expenses for the secretary’s assignments cannot be less than 150 francs in cities with between 20,000 and 30,000 residents, 200 francs in cities with up to 100,000 residents, and eight francs per day in cities with more than 100,000 residents.

The maximum stipend therefore varies from 1,800 to 2,700 francs (an average of 2,250 francs) for the secretary, and from 900 to 950 francs for the treasurer. The permanent secretary’s functions involve handling correspondence, recording the minutes of the General Committee (which the secretary attends in an official capacity, but without voting rights), keeping the registry of the unemployed, assessing the relation between supply and demand for jobs, and, lastly, administering the library (unless there is a comrade who would volunteer to do this without pay on evenings and on Sunday).

4. Pay for the building superintendent (a position which may be established at the discretion of each Bourse du Travail).

5. Office expenses, which may be estimated at 200 francs for the small Bourses du Travail, and 500 for the others (an average figure), per year.

6. Acquisitions for the library, an expense which is generally covered by a fixed monthly allocation.

7. Lastly, the expenses incurred by the professional training courses (acquisition of instructional materials and pay for the teachers). This service exists only in the most important Bourses du Travail and we shall not deal with it here. Nîmes, Saint-Etienne, Béziers, Toulouse, Marseilles, etc., can provide precise details concerning this matter. The chart below summarizes the average annual expenses for all categories of Bourses du Travail:

[Chart Omitted]

Sources of Income. Generally speaking, in order to satisfy their needs, the Bourses du Travail must rely upon their own resources, that is, on the dues contributions from the trade unions. A Bourse du Travail with expenses of up to 1,600 francs, and which has from 700 to 900 members in 15 or 20 trade unions, could fix the monthly dues at 20 or 30 centimes per member, that is, an average of 10 francs per trade union. It is only in this way that the Bourses du Travail can maintain a high degree of independence in their relations with the public authorities and the private capitalists. We shall, however, briefly examine the subsidies which the Bourses du Travail should request and which they might receive.

Some Bourses du Travail receive a subsidy which is awarded in full in the form of cash and is deposited in the accounts of the General Committee itself or the Municipal Finance Commission. It is not our purpose to examine these aspects. Others receive their subsidies partly in the form of cash, and partly in other forms.

1. As for real estate, three procedures have been adopted. Sometimes the property is rented by the administration of the Bourses du Travail and the rent is paid by the municipal administrative office; or the property is rented by the municipal administration itself, when it is not actually owned by the municipality, and the rent is paid by the municipality or the Bourse du Travail; or it is sometimes the case that the Bourse du Travail will occupy one of the buildings in the municipal office complex itself.

The Saint-Nazaire Bourse du Travail, for example, makes its own choice of a building and the municipality pays the rent; the Boulogne-sur-Seine Bourse du Travail occupies an old school building owned by the municipality; other Bourses du Travail, such as Nîmes, possess buildings constructed for them by the local administration. Other Bourses, such as those in Le Puy, Narbonne, Saint-Chamond, Issy-les-Moulineaux, etc., have offices located in the municipal building itself.

2. Some municipalities pay for heating, lighting and office rent on the basis of accounts presented monthly by the administrative councils of the Bourses du Travail. This system, which avoids calculation errors and misunderstandings, is of great benefit for Bourses du Travail of modest means.

3. Besides the subsidies granted for the administrative operations of the Bourses du Travail (secretary, treasurer, rent, heat, light), the municipality may also grant extraordinary credits for job-placement services, for the acquisition of books and tools for vocational training, etc.

The following are the average subsidies1 granted in the form of money or various materials to the Bourses du Travail of each of the categories defined above:

1st category—from 900 to 1200 francs;

2nd category—approximately 2000 francs;

3rd category—from 4000 to 8000 francs;

4th category—from 10,000 to 20,000 francs.

The first category includes the Bourses du Travail in towns with fewer than 30,000 residents; the second, those in cities with between 30,000 and 50,000 residents; the third, cities with between 50,000 and 80,000 residents; in the fourth, those Bourses located in cities with a population of over 80,000. Among the latter we must except Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon and Nantes, whose subsidies have been either withdrawn or reduced. The other categories also have their exceptions, which are determined by the importance—of greater or lesser magnitude—of their working class populations, which in turn determine the importance of the Bourses du Travail themselves and, above all, the viewpoints of the various municipalities.

Regardless of the size of the subsidy, in order to avoid the disagreeable consequences which would usually issue from the always-possible event of a conflict with the municipal administration, the Bourses du Travail should take the precaution of setting aside from their incomes a reserve account, maintained by a dues subscription of between 2 and 5 francs per trade union per month. In addition, the administrative councils of new Bourses du Travail are well advised to make every effort to assure that the subsidy is granted annually, or at least every six months, and also that it is given in advance.

The Constitution of the Bourse du Travail

Having calculated the budget and rented the building, the Commission then draws up a preliminary draft of the statutes.2 Once this is done, it again convokes the plenary assembly of the member trade unions and submits the results of its deliberations. If its budget and its statutes are approved, the assembly elects a general committee composed of a certain number of delegates from each trade union (two or three, if the Bourse du Travail is composed of less than ten trade unions).

At this juncture the role of the Commission is terminated. The general committee or the administrative council appoints in its place, and from among its members, an executive committee, responsible for supervising the implementation of its deliberations and choosing the officers: the secretary, the treasurer, the librarian (where such an office exists) and their assistants. Then all that remains to be done is to deposit with the prefect’s office (or with the department heads in the municipalities) two copies of the list of the Council membership, and of the member trade unions, and also the Statutes of the Bourse du Travail.

Trade Union Federations

We said above that the methods used to form a Bourse du Travail differ according to whether the trade unions are isolated or federated. Obviously, if a federation of trade unions already exists, the preparatory tasks are simplified and, one might say, already accomplished. These federations, in effect, already have statutes, budgets, offices, councils, and officers. What remains to be done? To obtain the trade unions’ agreement to authorize the addition of the name of Bourse du Travail to that of their federation, that is, to subsume the Bourse du Travail to their federation.

The advantages of this simple addition of names are considerable:

First of all, the Federation will obtain from the municipality, under its new name (which, let us repeat, does not exclude the use of the old name), the aid which it had never previously received, not having been accustomed to it, under the name of the federation of trade unions.

Secondly, under its new name it can be admitted into the Federation of the Bourses du Travail3 and thereby obtain the moral and pecuniary benefits offered by that Federation to all its members, which the Bourse du Travail of Cholet, for example, took full advantage of when it lost its municipal subsidy.

Furthermore, as a result of the decisions implicitly adopted in 1895 by the national trade union congress held in Limoges and by the national congress of the Bourses du Travail held in Nimes, which rule that future congresses should be held in cities which have a Bourse du Travail, the local trade union federations which adopt the name of Bourse du Travail will have the right to submit requests for hosting the confederal congresses.

Finally, any transformation of trade union federations into Bourses du Travail would constitute a step towards the unification of the corporative organizations, whose multitude of separate groups contributes to the spiritual confusion of the workers.

One essential point, however, must be emphasized: on the day that the trade union federations, with their subsidies, become Bourses du Travail, not only in name, but in fact, in that they possess one or more services characteristic of a Bourse du Travail, their statutes and their officers must also as far as possible, become the statutes and the officers of the Bourses du Travail. There are many examples of trade unions which are ready to join the Bourses du Travail without wanting to join the federations, and of trade unions which want to withdraw from the federations without leaving the Bourses du Travail. In neither case could they do so were the administration of the federations identical to that of the Bourses du Travail. The federations will therefore become an association with its own particular character within the broader association, which, on the other hand, will not prevent them from embracing, in one way or another, all the trade unions which are members of the Bourses du Travail.4

Operational Guidelines for the Bourses du Travail

It is understood that we cannot provide an extensive explanation of the life of the Bourses du Travail here. If the Bourse du Travail offers a limited number of services, its operation is a simple affair and any explanation would be superfluous. If, on the other hand, a Bourse runs an important job-placement service, deals with an extensive flow of unemployed workers and administers training courses, it would be necessary to plunge into a detailed explanation which, however exhaustively examined, would still remain obscure. The best way for the new Bourses du Travail to familiarize themselves with their future services, and to ascertain how many general assemblies they should hold, etc., is to carefully read the official bulletins of the Bourses du Travail, and the Annual Report published in 1892 by the Paris Bourse du Travail, which the committee of the federations of the Bourses courteously placed at its disposal. There, one can find the finest details, and the most interesting and indispensable documents concerning their work. In addition, the new Bourses du Travail should request that the federation send them the statutes of the viaticum or travelers’ aid, and the guidelines and statutes required for the formation of agricultural and maritime trade unions.

The Federations of the Bourses du Travail

Beyond the particular committees of each Bourse du Travail, we are currently interested in the Bourses in their entirety, but such a study cannot be undertaken without a voluminous correspondence and a considerable loss of time. This mission, entrusted to a committee located in Paris which is composed of one delegate from each Bourse du Travail, constitutes the intermediary between all of them. From the moment when a Bourse du Travail is formed, the Bourse sends its membership roster and its statutes to the federation. It also proceeds to elect, from among its fellow trade unionists who live in Paris or, in the absence of such persons, from a list of candidates drawn up by the federal committee, a representative to the committee who is responsible both for defending the proposals in its collective interest which require the assistance of the other Bourses du Travail, as well as examining the proposals put forth by the other Bourses.

The following questions and fields of concern are therefore the responsibility of the federal committee: notifying all the Bourses du Travail concerning any discoveries or achievements attained by each Bourse; applying the confederal viaticum, reviewing inquiries on legal issues and statistical problems, etc.; examining and then approving or disapproving the appeals of various Bourses du Travail, whether or not they are members of the federation, for solidarity actions by the other Bourses, drafting proposals for the formation of (agricultural and maritime) trade unions, for vocational training courses, for museums of labor, etc.; and, finally, organizing the annual national congresses, to which only the federated Bourses du Travail will be admitted.

The federation dues, payable every four months, are fixed at 35 centimes monthly for each member, with a minimum of 1.75 francs per month for Bourses du Travail with less than five trade unions.

Paris, October 1895

On behalf of the Federation of the Bourses du Travail of France and the Colonies,

The Secretary,
Fernand Pelloutier

Translated from the Spanish translation, Historia de las bolsas de trabajo: los orígenes del sindicalismo revolucionario, available online at:

The original French text, Histoire des Bourses du travail, originally published in 1901, can be found online at:

  • 1The Annual Report of the professional trade unions published by the Ministry of Trade lists the subsidies received by each Bourse du Travail, from both the municipal as well as the General Councils.
  • 2In order to facilitate this task of the Commissions, the Federations of the Bourses du Travail provide them with examples of the statutes of existing Bourses du Travail, asking in turn only that the newly formed Bourses du Travail should return copies of their statutes to the Federations.
  • 3This is no longer true, insofar as the Federations currently admit trade union associations and Bourses du Travail under the same conditions.
  • 4The need for this dual constitution has been understood by all the city’s labor federations because, taking into account the considerable number of trade unions, respect for each one’s autonomy is the guarantee for the unity of all of them. This is what took place in Paris, Marseilles, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyon, etc. This is the way to neutralize the effects of the inevitable centrifugal trends with a single organization and unified administration.