Chapter 3 - The birth of the bourses du travail

Submitted by Alias Recluse on January 5, 2012

Chapter 3

The Birth of the Bourses du Travail

While the various socialist factions went their separate ways after the 1882 Saint-Etienne Congress, and were later condemned to pursue a course of increasingly attenuated and limited demands, which highlighted the impotence of the reformist trends in proletarian action, the workers organizations began to recognize just how chimerical their projects for a reconciliation between the producers and the owners actually were. What results were attained by those committees that had stirred up so many hopes? Nothing was achieved. The owners refused to even discuss working conditions. Furthermore, the strike weapon, which certain trade unions had rejected because of their loyalty to French industry, without thereby conferring any benefits upon the workers, was recognized as a necessary weapon and it was declared to be not only permitted but indispensable, because otherwise the workers would be threatened by wage reductions. The divorce between the corporate bodies of the working class and the public powers, already highlighted by the refusal of the Parisian workers to accept a 100,000-franc subsidy on the occasion of the Philadelphia exposition, definitively consummated the break between the “Barberetist”1 trade unions and the socialists. It was then that, no longer led by the illusion that they could possibly get any results from an agreement with the owners, the trade unions embarked upon the second stage of their evolution.

Believing that the complete failure of the socialist school was due to the inadequacy of its tactics, they proposed a policy of action by the trade unions themselves, based on shop-floor organization, mutual aid societies, etc., and decided to exercise the function of legislator and to present in Parliament, by way of distinguished deputies subject to their control, projects for economic reform which they had themselves elaborated.

What were their demands? They included the reduction of the working day to a maximum of eight hours, with the establishment of a minimum wage determined by the price of consumer goods in each region; also a compulsory weekly day of rest, and the implementation of the legislative decree of March 2, 1848, which forbade “the exploitation of the worker by means of piece-work”; they also sought the suppression of the private employment agencies, the suppression of labor contracts involving either the reduction of wages or illegal profits and their replacement with labor paid at the prevailing rates; the acknowledgement of the business owner’s responsibility in workplace accidents, the replacement of private insurance schemes by funds financed by the business owners and administered by the municipality; appointment of labor inspectors by the trade unions, the suppression of prison, monastery and sweatshop labor (addressing the issue of labor carried out in monasteries or charitable institutions) as well as giving assurances to this effect to all wage workers; and finally, the adoption by the trade union commissions of health standards for job-sites and workshops.

Does this mean that their program explicitly or implicitly adhered to the propaganda and methods recommended by the party? Not at all. Besides the fact that the revolutionary trade unions persisted in their belief that social salvation, far from consisting in the seizure of political power by way of parliament, was to be found in the violent destruction of the State, there were also the following two basic differences between the economic programs of the Party and the workers associations: one was considered to be accessory and the other was the exclusive goal. While the workers party sought to achieve its goals solely by way of building a parliamentary majority, the trade unions, on the other hand, making further distinctions, left to the “vigilance and solicitude of the public powers” only those questions which they thought they were themselves incapable of directly addressing. As for other matters, they showed their intention of making themselves respected on the strength of their own efforts, since they had only a limited amount of confidence in the zeal of the public administration.

In addition, the sort of reforms advocated by the trade unions, unlike the reforms promoted by the workers Party, were inspired not by a theoretical and therefore Platonic separation of society into classes, but by a real division, created by everyday material and moral sufferings and which were consequently particularly suited for exacerbating the social conflict. Finally, and this should not need to be repeated, the trade unions did not for the most part believe, like the workers Party, that the special propaganda needed to win the eight hour day or a weekly day of rest would exempt them from carrying out any other kinds of activity. They did not cease their efforts to perfect the marvelous network of mutualist institutions which allowed them to defend themselves against capitalist exploitation, even while they hoped for problematic government protection.

Such was the situation in 1886. That was when some men who were members of both the workers associations and the Parti ouvrier français, who thought that the new program of the trade unions proved that the workers associations had been definitively won over to parliamentary socialism, and who also understood that the trade unions constituted a force which would be childish to discount, conceived of a plan to unite all the trade unions in a national association.

A general combination of the trade unions was indeed necessary, as it was true that the various institutions created by the trade unions had to some extent disappointed the hopes of their founders. As it turned out, ignorance of the organizational form and operation of these institutions, which varied in accordance with their location and the results they obtained, and even of their very existence, prevented the trade unions from deriving the fullest advantage from their experiences, and led to the creation of useless or counterproductive services, or interfered with the provision of other services acknowledged to be excellent. In short, a considerable dispersion of forces arose, and the trade unions, although still convinced that their own efforts benefited the socialist goal even more than did the efforts of the workers Party, proved to be incapable of acquiring the powerful unity which was indispensable for multiplying the force of their energies. Guided by the general idea of free association and individual initiative, they ignored the results obtained and found themselves threatened with remaining stalemated on the path they had already traveled. Only unification in a federation could lead them to recover their original ardor.

The new federation, however, did not realize the hopes of either the workers or its founders. Why not? Because, instead of being a corporative association it was from the beginning a war machine put at the disposal of the Parti ouvrier français in order to facilitate the success of the electoral action which the Party had been so insistently advocating. Conceived and led by men whose intention was not to patiently and quietly establish a series of socialist economic institutions so as to progressively eliminate the corresponding capitalist institutions, but rather for providing the declining political movement with an important revenue source, the new federation publicly announced a basic program:

“The goal of the Federation”, states its Declaration of Principles,2 “is to achieve the liberation of all those who work, to carry out in the most effective manner the struggle between the interests of the owners and of the workers and to reanimate the energies of the latter by opening up a wider front of resistance”. This declaration was quite vague, but this defect was the result of the economic ignorance of the Federation’s administrators (who should have been at least capable of paraphrasing the economic part of the program of the Parti ouvrier), rather than their scorn for corporative action or their exclusive desire to enroll the actual working class masses by way of the back door of the “party”.

The Federation’s functions were not made more precise. Of the three commissions which the national council was supposed to create, one, the propaganda commission, responsible for “everything that should be known about the Federation and its mission”, never functioned at all. The task of the second commission was to publish a monthly bulletin: this bulletin never provided any statistics, nor did it present any plans for organization or action. The third commission, the statistics commission, was responsible for collecting all useful documents on French and foreign production, the cost of raw materials, and the sales prices of manufactured goods, and for calculating, taking the production prices into account, the profits obtained by capital; it also was supposed to conduct a comparative calculation for each locality with regard to wages and consumer goods prices, and to publicize the gap between the wages received and the really necessary wage. What tasks did this commission assume? Which ones did it put into effect? At this point we must confess our ignorance, but the fact is that, as we said above, the Federation’s bulletin, the principal instrument of publicity at the disposal of the federal council, never provided the trade unions with any economic information at all. Ultimately, as far as objectives are concerned, the statutes say that the member organizations are responsible for establishing their own objectives, and they are only obliged to inform the national council concerning their decisions, in which case, depending on whether “finances will allow it”, the national council could undertake the necessary measures to assure the success of the actions in question. But the finances never allowed it.

La Fédération des Syndicats et groupes corporatifs de France not only lacked a program. It also lacked, throughout its brief existence, a mode of organization which would have been capable of compensating for its structural defects. It was never able to create local or regional links among its member trade unions, links which, in direct contact with the trade unions which were in a good position to know and to formulate what was necessary in the matter of needs and resources for the livelihood of the local working class, would have enabled it to accomplish some of the objectives which had been entrusted to it by the Congress of Lyon. The Federation was consequently always disarmed before any major tasks, as well as before the reality of a weak central administrative office, which attempted to administer a nation without the help of any intermediary bodies or assemblies.

Finally, not even their congresses could ever contribute the least impulse for progress to the corporative organizations. On the one hand, each trade union body, due to its isolation and its lack of information about the services instituted by the other trade union bodies, was condemned, without thereby deserving the least reproach, to constantly reproducing the same demands and to constantly calling for the study of problems which had already been solved a hundred times. On the other hand, the members of the national councils (who, being in a position to obtain information concerning economic trends from correspondence received from the trade unions, should have been able to impress an impulse for renovation upon the corporative congresses and to make them receptive to the idea of development along associative lines), these same council members, we maintain, not having any confidence in the efficacy of trade union action, never bothered for even one minute to study the question of how to go about strengthening the trade unions. Finally, the Federation’s congresses, which were always held at the same location and at the same time as the political congresses of the Parti ouvrier français, and were, furthermore, presided over by the same leaders, had no other purpose than increasing the Party’s fame by giving the impression that the trade unions represented at the congresses were affiliated with the Party. Hence the fact that these annual confederal meetings were almost exclusively concerned with topics which figured in the program of the workers party as well as the fact that they limited their activities to confirming the simple resolutions which had been adopted by the party.

This was why the Fédération des Syndicats was condemned to dissolution. Two circumstances hastened its demise.

In the same year that the Federation was formed, the Bourse du Travail de Paris was also born.

The name, Bourse du Travail (literally, “labor exchange”), clearly reveals the character of this new institution. The Municipal Council had declared:3 “The trade union centers will always lead a precarious existence because their self-imposed limits will always keep them distant from most workers. This is why we need to have locals and offices which anyone can visit without the fear of having to make a sacrifice of time and money which they cannot afford. The permanent openness and availability of the meeting halls will allow the workers to carry on a more mature and precise discussion of the many questions involving industrial issues which bear upon their wages. The workers will have at their disposal all the means of information and correspondence, as well as all the elements contributed by statistics, an economic, industrial and commercial library, for orientation and clarification concerning the production trends in each industry, not only in France but in the whole world.”

In this way the Bourse du Travail, a meeting center for the workers organizations, obtained its first result by forging solid and permanent bonds between them, bonds whose absence had until then constituted an insuperable obstacle for their growth and effectiveness. Thanks to the Bourse du Travail, the trade unions were able to unite, first on the basis of similar trades in order to preserve and defend their professional interests, to study the specific resources of their industries, the length of the working day and the wage situation (should the working day be too long and the wages derisory), and to investigate the degree to which a reduction in the length of the working day would increase the value of its productive force. The new situation also allowed the trade unions to federate without regard to trade distinctions, to reveal the fundamental data of the problem of economics, to study the exchange mechanism, in short, to seek within the current social system the elements of a new system while at the same time avoiding the incoherent efforts which had previously been made and which had resulted in rendering the workers defenseless before the political, financial, and moral powers of capital.

The Bourse du Travail therefore conferred legitimacy upon the most brilliant hopes and no one could doubt that it had brought about an authentic revolution in the field of trade union economics, but what ambitions would not be buoyed by the appearance of Bourses du Travail in Beziers, Montpellier, Sette, Lyon, Marseilles, Saint-Etienne, Nîmes, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Toulon and Cholet?

Besides assuming responsibility for the fundamental service of job placement, all these Bourses du Travail established libraries, organized technical, scientific, economic and vocational classes, and provided aid to comrades who had to relocate to other towns. Their founding allowed the suppression of redundant services provided by the individual trade unions because of their isolation, which became superfluous with the appearance of joint administration and services. The Bourses helped coordinate the demands of the corporative groups, demands which had previously almost always been incoherent and at times perhaps also contradictory, and which had been put forward by those groups on the basis of flawed economic data. Within less than six years, every Bourse had assumed, within its locale, a mission whose scope, importance and very possibility had somehow escaped the attention of the Fédération des Syndicats.

The idea of federating these Bourses du Travail was inevitable. Actually, we must admit that it was more of a political than an economic initiative. It was the work of some members of the Paris Bourse du Travail who were also members of socialist groups which were opposed to the French Workers Party, who demonstrated their discontent over the fact that the trade union federation was in the hands of that Party and called for the creation of a competing organization which, based in Paris, could be used for their own purposes. The Paris Bourse du Travail sponsored the idea, presented it before the Saint-Etienne Congress on February 7, 1892, and carried the motion to create the Federation of the Bourses du Travail in France.

From that moment on, two central corporative organizations existed. But the differences in regard to their resources and their means of action were considerable. Recall that the Trade Union Federation suffered from two defects: first, it did not offer either a program or a federalist organization whose content could interest the trade unions; and second, it was a political machine, that is, it aspired to perform a function which would exclude from the corporative bodies the immense majority of the manual workers; furthermore, the trade unions, which attended the Federation’s congresses because they were the only congresses being held, seemed to completely forget about the existence of the Federation the rest of the year.

The Federation of the Bourses du Travail possessed all the elements needed for success. It involved local associations that combined the attraction of novelty, and the advantage of responding to a need which remained unsatisfied and which was addressed in a personal and direct way, with the strengthening of the trade unions and the promotion of economic study. As a consequence, these associations were not only able to rely on the support of the individual trade unions, because the Federal Committee was confident in having discovered in the local associations a fertile and renewable source of collaboration. In addition, each Bourse du Travail, by having at its disposal resources superior to those available to the local councils of the Trade Union Federation, and by prohibiting all political action, was obliged to carry out some initiatives on the economic terrain, however modest. For its part, the Federal Committee, in order to justify its own existence, had to share with all the trade union centers the results obtained by each. From that moment and as a result of emulation, the trade union associations which belonged to the new federation made obvious progress. In a situation like this, how could the Trade Union Federation avoid dissolution, unless it was to undergo a profound transformation?

Such a dissolution was inevitable: an even more serious factor than the rivalry discussed above delivered the deathblow. Convinced of the fact that after ten years they had not obtained the respect of the employers for either their rights or their interests, and skeptical of ever seeing their economic programs implemented by Parliament, the workers associations, upon reaching the limit of their development, tirelessly sought a means of action which, furnished with specifically economic characteristics, would confer a dynamic impulse to the whole range of workers efforts. Liberated, so to speak, from the politicians and invigorated by important institutions created by their own initiative, they aspired to become the agents of their own emancipation. The means that had been so stubbornly pursued suddenly appeared4 in September 1892 on the agenda of the Marseilles Congress of the Trade Union Federation.

A few days earlier (on September 4), the Bourses du Travail of Saint-Nazaire and Nantes had already successfully carried a motion at a congress in Tours, passing a resolution5 which proclaimed the necessity of the general strike as a means of revolutionary action, that is, a work stoppage in the greatest possible number of industries, and above all in the industries which are essential for society’s existence. It was conceived as a purely economic method, which excluded any collaboration with the parliamentary socialists, and which only made use of the efforts carried out on the trade union plane, and this was why the general strike necessarily corresponded with the secret desire of the corporative groups.

Citizen Briand discussed the Tours resolution at the Marseilles Congress and explained the incomparable advantages which the idea of the general strike offered, from the perspective of rejuvenating individual energies as well as organizational development. Seduced, as it were, the workers associations enthusiastically acclaimed a means of action which was adapted to their own principles.

The resolution constituted the most serious public display of the growing divergence between the tactics of the Workers Party and the tactics of the trade unions. Nonetheless, the French Workers Party, whose congress, as we mentioned above, took place wherever the Trade Union Federation’s Congress was held, did not grant it too much importance. Not being capable of admitting—although less than a year later they would be compelled to speak bitterly of the road taken by the trade unions—that the proletariat had judged that in the future any appeal to the public powers would be useless, and convinced that an ex cathedra warning would be sufficient to bring the temporarily strayed workers back into the fold, the Party limited itself to the pure and simple declaration that the idea of the general strike was utopian.

Both the political groups as well as the other corporative associations, however, avoided the question of how such an essential disagreement could have arisen in the first place. If, as the members of the French Workers Party maintained, the workers associations and the Trade Union Federation accepted not only their own corporative character, but also the political spirit of the Party, there would not have been the least doubt that, at the next congress (set for 1894 in Nantes), “the error committed at Marseilles will be admitted” and that means of action contrary to the principles of the “Party” would be abandoned. If, however, on the other hand, it was true that the Federation was animated by a new spirit, the Federation would hold to its resolution and then separate its destiny from that of the Party, or the Party would withdraw from the Federation. In any event, the association of the French workers had arrived at a decisive turning point in its career.

At approximately the same time, the Bourses du Travail meeting in Toulouse voted to organize a general congress of trade unions to be held in Paris in June of 1893. Delayed for several weeks by a conflict which had arisen between the government and those Parisian trade unions which refused to recognize the validity of the law of March 21, 1884, the congress did not open until the day after the Paris Bourse du Travail was shut down. The congress was cognizant of the importance and the exceptional seriousness of this act of force and the trade unions’ irritation with the government was so great that an enthusiasm even more extensive than that of the previous year welcomed the proposal that the general strike be included in the Congress’s agenda, and 24 delegates called for an immediate strike declaration.

Did this constitute definitive proof of the trade unions’ new course? Not entirely, because the congress’s vote could be considered to be a mere symptom of momentary rage, just as demonstrations could be the product of a temporary fever for revolt. This interpretation of the vote became all the more plausible when a contemporary manifesto calling on all Parisian trade unions to stage a mass walkout was signed even by the leading figures of the French Workers Party, who were nonetheless theoretically opposed to a general work stoppage.

Immediately after its adjournment, the Congress assigned the Federation of the Bourses du Travail the task of preparing a new congress for the following year. Since the Trade Union Federation had approved an identical resolution the year before, the deliberations of the two upcoming congresses could provide the proletariat with precise information concerning both the relative numerical significance of the two rival federations as well as the morale of the trade unions. The organizing process for these congresses itself allowed a kind of advance sounding-out of the trade unions. The Nantes Bourse du Travail, which considered two congresses completely superfluous and assessed the general sentiment as favorable to the idea of a unitary assembly, asked both federations for authorization to unite all the trade unions. The Federation of the Bourses du Travail granted their authorization without any difficulties, but, as expected, the Trade Union Federation obstinately rejected the proposal, formulating bitter recriminations against the “inevitable attempts underway to destroy the Federation”, even going so far as to accuse the Nantes committee of treason at the same time that it was trying to get the Saint-Nazaire Bourse du Travail to organize the Trade Union Federation’s Congress (which Saint-Nazaire refused to do). The Nantes Bourse du Travail remained committed to its proposal and took the bull by the horns and canvassed the trade unions. Since the latter approved of the project, the Trade Union Federation finally had to give its blessings to the initiative and accepted the “Sixth National Congress of French Trade Unions”.

It was a bitter setback, which presaged yet more difficult tests. The French Workers Party was well aware of this and this time it held its own congress prior to that of the corporative groups and repeated the views it had held on the subject of the general strike for the previous two years, hoping in this manner to influence the delegates to the corporative congress. It was a vain hope! Despite the bitter struggles waged for three days by the general staff of the Trade Union Federation, despite the councils of war held after every session by Guesde and Lafargue, on the one hand, and Delcluze, Fouilland, Salambier, Jean Coulet, Raymond Lavigne, etc., on the other, the latter representing the working class elements of the Workers Party at the corporative congress, despite the unspeakable denunciation of an anarchist delegate by Guesde and Lafargue, the politicians suffered an irremediable defeat. The congress made a clean break, rejecting the Trade Union Federation, the leadership of the Workers Party and parliamentary demands. The rupture with the political theory of emancipation was categorical, one could almost say brutal, with the result that the leaders of the Trade Union Federation did not take part in the final deliberations of the Congress … their sixth congress. They disappeared, taking with them a name worthy of a better fate, but now consigned to the annals of history. The Federation of Bourses du Travail survived as the sole representative organization.

  • 1Followers of J. Barberet, a sociologist who published Le Travail en France in seven volumes, each a monograph on separate professions, between 1886 and 1890.
  • 2See Les Congrès ouvriers, by León de Serilhac.
  • 3On November 5, 1886, according to Mesureur.
  • 4We insist on using these terms because, although the idea of the general strike was generally quite well known for some time, it had not been seriously propagandized among the working class, and the debates which took place in 1892 in Tours and Marseilles represented an authentic revelation for the trade union groups.
  • 5This resolution took the following form:


    “The powerful social organization at the disposal of the ruling class renders all attempts at total emancipation undertaken by the amicable means practiced by the social democracy over the last half century vain and impotent;

    “There is an opposition of interests between capital and wage labor which current legislation, which pretends to be liberal, has not been able to overcome;

    “After having issued numerous useless appeals to the public powers to obtain its right to exist, the socialist party has arrived at the certain conclusion that only a revolution will give us the economic freedom and the material well being which conform to the most basic principles of natural law;

    “The people have not conquered a single advantage through bloody revolutions, which have only benefited the agitators and the bourgeoisie;

    “In the presence, furthermore, of the military power put at the service of capital, an armed insurrection would merely offer the ruling classes a new opportunity to drown the workers’ demands in blood;

    “Among the peaceful and legal methods adopted without any consideration by the Workers Party for the achievement of its illegitimate aspirations, not even one of them seems to be capable of securing the economic transformation and assuring, without any possible reaction, the victory of the Fourth Estate;

    “The required method is the universal and simultaneous interruption of labor power, that is, the general strike, which, although limited to a relatively short period, would inevitably lead the Workers Party to achieve the victory of the demands formulated in its program;

    “Therefore, the Regional Workers Congress of the West, meeting in Tours on September 3-5, 1892, takes cognizance of the proposal concerning the general strike presented by citizen Fernand Pelloutier and declares that it is appropriate to send a delegation to a special organization of the French Workers Party, for the purpose of bringing before the International Congress in Zurich in 1893 a complete project for a universal strike.”

    The author of this proposal believes that it is useful to note that in 1894, that is, two years after the Tours Congress, some of its points were modified and that today certain paragraphs have been rejected.