1. The beginning of the “Rampant May” in Italy
In order to acquire the elements for comparison concerning the manner in which, taken as a whole, the French trade unions managed to maintain a significant degree of control over the May movement of 1968, we shall examine the case of Italy. We shall not summarize here the history of the very agitated years of 1968 and 1969, but we shall instead review certain aspects of the beginning of the year 1968 which may have attracted the attention of the French trade unions and influenced their attitude during the strike movement of May 1968.
Did the French trade union leaders pay attention to the events taking place in Italy? If they did, they would have understood the price that could be paid for losing sight of the concerns of the rank and file. In February 1968, the Italian trade unions signed a new labor contract with Pirelli. They triumphantly presented it to the workers, who were not at all satisfied. The agreement provided for an increase in wages, which had been almost frozen since 1964, but did not address other issues that would prove to be, during the course of the events of the following years, of crucial importance for employer-labor relations. Two points provoked strong protests from the workers. On the one hand, the agreement did not include a clause for the reduction of the burden of production bonuses, which the workers wanted to see standardized. On the other hand, the workers were furious because they were not consulted before the signing of the contract. On the same day it was signed, a pamphlet was distributed under the signature of “a group of workers” of the Bicocca factory: “We demand a democratic relation between the trade unions and the workers so that it will be the latter who can make the decisions about demands and the course of negotiations, through democratic rank and file modalities such as assemblies open to all the workers”.1
On that basis the Unitary Base Committee (CUB) would be formed in the next few weeks. Grisoni and Portelli2 summarize the demands set forth that spring by the CUB of Bicocca as follows: 1) wage and production bonus increases; 2) a reassessment of piecework rates; 3) re-categorization of all the workers in higher categories; 4) fixing the speed of the assembly lines at a rate determined by the workers; 5) job security and control over the job by the workers; 6) reduction of the workweek.
Another example of the lack of sensitivity of the trade unions is provided by the case of Valdagno in April 1968. After the signing of an agreement with the employer at Marzotto (textiles), the workers were not at all content and fought with the police for a whole day.
Thus, numerous CUBs would be formed, which relentlessly harassed the trade unions, which required two years in order to adapt to the new situation, recover and absorb the militancy of the CUBs for their own organizations. But before they could do this, we witnessed a profound challenge to the trade unions and their manner of operation. This is precisely what did not take place in France, except in a very marginal way. It is true that the French trade unions are more firmly entrenched in the enterprises than the Italian trade unions, where the employers’ deeply ingrained antipathy towards trade unionism facilitated the rise of the CUBs.
It would not be until 1969-1970 that the trade unions would win two victories that would reestablish their credibility. These were the metal workers agreement (December 1969)—which would be extended to various other industries—and the Labor Statute (May 1970). The first was based on wage increases, a reduction of the hours of labor, the reduction of the number of wage levels, and the acceptance of trade union rights in the enterprise. The second was a law that recognized and reinforced the powers of the trade unions, with regard to both the reactionary employers and the dissident groups. Most significantly, this law contained an Article 18 that protected the workers against gratuitous firings, an Article that the Berlusconi government tried to repeal in 2002.
2. The RATP Action Committee3
On May 22, three workers from RATP went to Censier. They were looking for students to help them form an action committee. One of them had “built” barricades with the students (he was a young worker), but the three workers were motivated by a desire to “do something”, which seemed to them to be impossible within the trade union organizations that “are just pimps”4 (the three workers were members “in good standing” of the trade union).
The action committee was created on May 23. The problems it faced were numerous, due to the fact that the 36,000 workers of RATP were extremely dispersed geographically: 22 bus garages, 17 maintenance facilities and 14 metro stations, not including substations. They decided to start by writing a pamphlet (which would be distributed on May 24 by the students) that called upon the comrades who would like to join an action committee to get involved. The pamphlet was moderate in tone: it did not address the problem of the trade unions.
Workers from various bus routes and commuter rail lines joined the action committee over the course of the following week (Balard, Ligne de Sceaux, Nation 2 and 6, Lebrun). Most of them had joined from their own initiative since they had never heard of our pamphlet (the pamphlet was generally confiscated by the CGT wherever it was distributed, since the trade union officials could easily guess what the pamphlet was intended to accomplish).
The principle discussions, which very debatable “tactical” considerations caused us to refrain from elaborating in our pamphlets, focused on the following problems:
• How to overcome the intransigent opposition with which the trade unions respond to any attempt at communication (between workers and students, etc.), in accordance with the old adage, “divide and conquer”?
• How to reveal the real nature of the strike that the trade unions, specialists in bargaining and the sale of the labor power of the proletariat, seek to by all means maintain within the limits of a handful of demands?
• How to organize solidarity with the strikers in a way that would not appear to be charity or a “spectacular gesture”?
• Analysis and denunciation of the role of the trade unions, whose HEIRARCHICAL form of organization condemns them to be nothing but instruments of power.
• How should the proletariat organize to take its fate into its own hands without delegating its powers to anyone? (See the rank and file committees of Rhône-Poulenc.)
Over the course of the week, our actions fell far short of the goals we set in our discussions, because our first concern, which took a long time to achieve any results, was how to multiply our contacts. So our committee, which set itself the goal of becoming a liaison committee, remained an action committee with thirty members, operating in a closed circuit.
Taking over from the students, the workers assumed the task of distributing the pamphlets in order to avoid the clashes that regularly took place between students and the trade union delegates who were concerned with preventing “any provocations”. For these same reasons, which were very debatable, the contents of our pamphlets did not address the themes we set for our discussions, but were focused instead on:
• Information: there is an action committee for RATP.
• The attempt to draw attention to scabs by making ironical comments about the “freedom to work”.5
• The rejection of derisory demands and the insistence on minimal demands (qualitative, not quantitative).
The Grenelle Agreements, the announcement of votes to be held at the depots and garages, and the reduction in the number of sites being picketed and the number of workers volunteering for picket duty, which augured an imminent return to work, led us to work with more determination. On June 4 we distributed a pamphlet in which we called for the continuation of the strike, written on the initiative of the workers at the commuter rail networks of Nation 2 and 6.6
Posted at the entrances to the stations, the watchdogs of the trade unions redoubled their vigilance: while they are absent, contacts are numerous, fruitful and fraternal, but when they return, everything falls apart: at the Hainault station, they accused two comrades of the Sceaux commuter rail line (one of them with twelve years of service behind him) of being agents provocateurs who had never worked for RATP and succeeded in getting the workers, who had been deceived by these lies, to throw them into the street. (A delicious detail: these comrades are, or rather WERE, members of the CGT.)
On the following day, some fifty workers showed up at the Bourse du Travail, Rue Charlot 15, in order to discover the results of the vote held by the RATP network and to get information about an intersyndical meeting that had just taken place there. A brawl ensued and they were denied entry (the CGT spared no efforts to spread calumnies, which are on the other hand mutually contradictory, and which generated an atmosphere that justified the action of the “manual workers” who stood guard at the door: we were in the pay of the United States, of the police, of the government, of the CFDT, etc.). We immediately set about writing several pamphlets that we distributed on that same night.
The first pamphlet denounced the reception given to the workers by the CGT and their thugs, the maneuvers undertaken to influence the result of the vote and the way the vote was rigged when those maneuvers proved insufficient, but above all the unfair use of the monopoly, possessed de facto by the trade unions, of the means of communication between the workers, thanks to which the trade unions made preparations to impose the return to work against the will of the majority of the workers.
The other pamphlets, signed by those who had decided to continue the strike despite the threats of the CGT (which had announced that as of June 67 at eight in the morning, it would no longer provide strike pay to any workers who remained on strike), called upon the comrades in every terminal and every station, to adopt similar resolutions: continue the strike.
On Thursday, June 6, despite THE ORDER issued by the trade unions, the strike continued in various sectors and regions. As this fact became publicized, the trade unions ordered their bigwigs to reestablish order in this intolerable situation. Despite the historical headline of L’humanigaro8 on the 6th (“Victorious, Unified Return to Work”), it quickly became known that the resumption of normal operations had encountered difficulties in Gonnesse, Ivry, Lilas, Croix-Nivert, Clichy, Montrouge, Lebrun, Nation 2 and 6, etc. Attempts to start new strikes multiplied, breaking out a little everywhere, and the workers had regrouped with a view to action.
With affairs proceeding in this manner, on Friday, June 7, some fifty comrades of the Croix-Nivert station held a meeting (at a bar, despite the proposal of a comrade from Lebrun to meet at Censier, because, influenced by their trade union delegates, many workers still refused to have any open contact with the “leftists and student provocateurs”). In the face of the anger and the bitterness of the questions and answers from “their” rank and file, two delegates of the CGT who had come to defend the shitty electoralist positions (as subsequent events would show) of their trade unions, decided, since they had realized that their positions had become indefensible, to withdraw on the pretext that the workers were anti-trade union (an attitude proper to the virtuous priest who, faced with blasphemy, covers his ears: “I prefer not to hear”). The workers were then free to go to Censier. The result of the discussion was: the convocation, via a pamphlet, of a general assembly of the workers of RATP to take place on the following day.
The pamphlet would be distributed throughout the morning of Saturday, June 8. The assembly took place; the workers of the Lilas station announced that they had just formed a workers committee (or rank and file committee, or workers council, or soviet, or labor council, etc.). Those present asserted that it was the same everywhere: when the workers, pressured by the trade unions, did not reluctantly vote for a return to work, the delegates, falsifying the results of the vote, issued THE ORDER to resume work in the name of the “unity of the working class in struggle”. (An example: Lebrun voted 80% in favor of continuing the strike, but due to a curious snafu, the CGT announced, in the other stations, that Lebrun voted 80% FOR THE RETURN TO WORK.) In these conditions it seemed possible to resume the strike, but there were not enough of us; we published another pamphlet calling for another general assembly to be held on Monday, June 10.
Monday, June 10: almost total success; at the assembly there are representatives from 11 stations, 9 commuter lines and 1 repair shop. All of them provide accounts of the conduct of the strike in their line or station: the facts are clearly convergent: it is the lack of contacts between the workers that has allowed the strikers to be deceived and this is what made the strike fail. It was decided to form a liaison committee, which would include two comrades from each work unit who had attended the assembly. But during the course of the debates that were focused on questions of the organization of workers in action committees that were to lead to the formation of rank and file committees, and while the comrades of the liaison committee had retired to a nearby house to write a pamphlet calling for this form of action, another tendency was manifested: some of the comrades, most of whom were young, declared that they were tired of “words” and demanded immediate action. They proposed to immediately resume the strike in some stations, to be carried out by the most determined comrades who should easily be able to convince the rest of the workers to join the strike. This tendency, which was not, however, incompatible with the other position, finally ended up victorious in the midst of a certain amount of confusion that could be held responsible for a double fiasco.
On the one hand, the organizational proposals, which were the fruit of the understanding of the real role of the trade unions, remained in the background when they could have led to positive results; on the other hand, the attempt to resume the strike was incapable of delivering such results, since, having been resolved in the midst of an atmosphere of enthusiasm by an assembly of 400 or 500 persons, many resolutions were incapable of standing the test of reality.
3. Report on the Current Situation Presented at the General Assembly at Censier on May 21, 19689
[…] Faced with the generalization of the struggle, the ruling class was capable of implementing two policies: the first is that of direct repression (reconquest of the occupied enterprises by armed force and arrest of the strikers). But in fact, this procedure did not seem plausible: the State apparatus is showing signs of decomposition that aggravate its inability to confront such a broad based movement at the same time and all at one stroke.
The second policy, which is more likely to succeed, consists in negotiating with the political leadership groups and above all with the trade union leaderships, which are in fact the only ones who are capable of bringing about an evacuation of the factories and an end to the strike.
To achieve this, the bourgeoisie will have to make concessions that would modify the structure of contemporary capitalism to one degree or another. Some of these concessions will be made to the trade union bureaucracies as such and as soon as possible (recognition of the trade union section in the enterprise, more responsibilities for the enterprise committee, and more posts for the minor chiefs of the trade unions in the administrative councils), in return for the role played in the deactivation of the current movement by the trade unions after having arrogated its official leadership to themselves.
But it is also true (as it was in 1936 and 1945) that they will have to respond to some of the workers’ demands. With regard to this issue the position of the French capitalists is a difficult one: in part due to the competition of foreign capital, but above all, because they need to continue to accumulate capital, which will be slowed in the short term by an increase in real wages.
Nonetheless, we are by no means saying that the current demands cannot be assimilated by modern capitalism. The latter will always be able to concede wage increases that it will recoup later (and, with respect to this issue, once again as in 1936), with inflation, devaluation, and the increase of productivity.
This policy will obviously be complemented by parliamentary and governmental initiatives. At this level, the bourgeoisie can avail itself of particularly ample possibilities. It will not hesitate, if necessary, to form a left wing government with the participation of the Communist Party. The experience of 1945 is most reassuring for it in this regard.
All these capitalist policies have even more possibilities of success when we consider the serious weaknesses exhibited by the current movement: except in some places like Sud-Aviation-Nantes, where the movement began, the strikers who are occupying the factories appear to be very few in number. Despite the very sparse information on this topic, we may state that nowhere have the workers elected a really democratic strike committee. The leadership of the strike seems to have been relegated to the hands of the local trade union bureaucrats. Furthermore, while the discontent with or at least the lack of confidence in the trade unions is evident, the majority of the workers do not have any idea of any other form of organization besides the party and the trade union.
However, although we should not succumb to a sanctimonious optimism, we must also take into account the positive characteristics of the ongoing movement: its spontaneous character, the determination shown by some of the workers, especially the young workers, and the continuous extension and spread of the strike, which has not undergone any retreats whatsoever.
On the other hand, we must take into account the fact that the only bureaucracy that is really capable of exercising any influence, that is, the Stalinist bureaucracy, is very weak. Its current policy of “the peaceful road to socialism” prevents it from assuming the revolutionary guise that had for so long been its strong suit. The disagreements between the bureaucratic countries prevent it from expressing the monolithic front that during its heyday had so impressed numerous workers. In addition, the recent repression in the countries of the East (the students in Warsaw, the Moscow trials, etc.) have not helped it to recover its lost prestige, not to speak of the repression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the memory of which is still fresh in the minds of many people.
To be more precise, we may propose that the apparatuses of the PC and, consequently, of the CGT, are apparatuses in crisis insofar as they have been devoted for many years to an attempt to transform themselves from Stalinist bureaucracies to bureaucracies of the classic social democratic type.
Currently, there is no certainty at all that big capital will be able to carry out its plan of breaking the movement. Although it is unfortunately likely that the strike will stagnate and decompose, it is quite possible that there will be disturbances when the trade union leaders want to try to make the workers go back to work and a more or less significant part of the strikers may prolong the strike and make it more combative.
The fact that the situation is not totally lost demands our intervention. […]
4. The Committee for Inter-Enterprise Liaisons. A Balance Sheet.
(Text originally published in Class Struggle, June 1969)
Contrary to what the convergent propaganda of the PCF and the bourgeoisie would have us believe, the occupation of the universities in May ’68 was not just a folkloric festival.
While the Sorbonne was abandoned to orators who were more concerned with dazzling their audience than with participating in an anonymous and often unrewarding action, while on all sides the eternal reformists expatiated on the role of the ideal university (whose only defect is not to have existed in a capitalist regime), on the third floor of the Censier building a committee for worker-student liaisons was formed whose main purpose was to support the striking workers.
In this committee, workers, mostly young, who discovered the political dimension of the movement and sought support against the paralyzing dictatorship of the trade union bonzes, joined with “leftists” of various tendencies, whether students or non-students, militants with many years of experience or people who had been recently motivated to take action.
These encounters led not only to discussions, which were themselves often very interesting. A frenetic activity animated the hallways of Censier and spread far beyond, towards the working class neighborhoods and the enterprises of the “red belt” of Paris.10 From the duplicating machines seized from the administration a continuous flow of pamphlets emerged that propagated all kinds of things, from revolutionary proclamations to simple demands of the workers who had, for the first time, the chance to freely express themselves. Delegations went to occupied factories, easily breaking the cordon sanitaire established by the Stalinist apparatus; which subsequently led to often tempestuous debates in which the bonzes—more accustomed to hitting people than to arguing with them—did not make a very good showing.
Not everything proceeded perfectly in this revolutionary Tower of Babel, however. Most of the participants had neither experience nor training in politics, and even the more or less hardened militants lost their footing in the biggest strike that capitalism had ever known up to this time.
Besides, it was not easy to rid oneself of the dregs accumulated by decades of Stalinism. One current, in a minority but still very loud, persisted in confusing the working class with the trade union apparatuses that had the effrontery to speak in its name. Some of these comrades were, furthermore, representatives of groups that had the pretension of “leading” the workers to revolution and which, not having done anything but drag along after the tail of the movement, only saw the activities at Censier as an occasion to look for new recruits.
But if the maneuvers of these backward disciples of Lenin occasionally succeeded in preventing action and even discussion, the main danger derived, in fact, from the anti-bureaucratic mystique that characterized the overwhelming majority of the student-worker liaison committee. Literally traumatized by the repressive role of the political and trade union apparatuses, ignorant or hardly aware of the realities of the class struggle, these comrades came to believe that all forms of organization were by nature bureaucratic. Any attempt to clearly formulate the objectives of the movement encountered indifference or open hostility. As a political organization, it took the form of a daily general assembly, in which hours and hours were lost in discussions without rhyme or reason, which would have bored the most indulgent listeners. Not to speak, in these conditions, of arriving at any kind of collective conclusion: voting on precise proposals would have been just as inconceivable as a striptease held in the town square by the novices of a convent.
The inevitable counterpart of this madcap spontaneity is that, somehow, decisions were made, but by minorities that acted in a more or less clandestine manner and who then presented the rest of the assembly with a fait accompli. Cliques were formed, more or less organized groups that monopolized the contacts with the more important enterprises (the most unfortunate case was that of Renault-Billancourt, where a cohesive group of micro-bureaucrats acted as a screen between the workers and the more principled “leftists”). It is true that, amidst this cacophony, the voice of the revolutionaries was sometimes heard; but it was, certainly, only by way of debatable methods.
It was only during the final phase of the strike, when the retreat had already begun, that the committee could really begin to make its influence felt. Abandoning the general assembly to its sterile chatter, the workers from about ten large enterprises (specifically, Rhône-Poulenc, Thomson-Houston, Nord-Aviation and Sud-Aviation) or important economic sectors (such as the postal service or RATP) formed, with political militants with whom they were in contact, the Inter-Enterprise Committee.
Meeting daily to evaluate the situation and to make democratic decisions about what action should be taken, the Committee performed a propaganda role that, despite having been undertaken too late in the strike, at least had the merit of clarity. Its pamphlets, distributed by the tens of thousands throughout the streets of Paris and at the gates of the factories, revealed the bureaucratic mechanism set in motion to suffocate the strike and called upon the workers to organize themselves at the rank and file level, following the example of the Rhône-Poulenc factory at Vitry. Until the end, the militants of the Inter-Enterprise Committee tried to oppose the cessation of the strike, or strove to get the workers to go back on strike, whether in their own enterprises or by helping their other comrades.
Once the strike was over and the university buildings were reoccupied by the police, the Committee decided to continue its activity, and met once a week. Despite the vacation season the meetings took place as planned, sometimes with even more than one hundred participants. But in the autumn, the signs of a crisis began to appear.
Once the illusions regarding an immediate resumption of the general strike had dissipated, the Committee faced the alternative of either disappearing, or else defining tasks and objectives that transcended the immediate situation. Unfortunately, most of the participants would prove to be incapable of dealing with such a situation.
The meetings revolved around the reports in which, on the pretext of bringing the other Committee members up to date, workers from different enterprises related, one after the other, that nothing of note was happening in their factories. Sometimes a discussion began, occasionally about an important theme of revolutionary theory, but it soon came to an end due to a lack of interest and of seriousness on the part of the participants. There is no doubt that the Committee contributed a certain amount of material aid to the militants in the enterprises, for the printing and distribution of pamphlets. But this activity did not in fact involve more than a minority of those who attended the meetings.
All the attempts on the part of the Inter-Enterprise Committee to elaborate a formulation of the political foundations of its action, and the definition of this action—for example, the publication of a bulletin, the organization of a series of discussions, etc.—ran into a veritable wall. However, the meetings continued to be held in an environment of increasing unease, the number of those who attended the meetings inexorably declined, and increasingly larger numbers of comrades posed the question of the usefulness of the Committee.
In one last gasp effort, towards the end of February, the Committee marshaled enough initiative to decide that, in mid-March, it would host a discussion concerning these basic problems on the basis of texts prepared by the participants themselves. But, on the day of the announced meeting, there was only one text, presented by the comrades grouped around The Class Struggle. The other comrades not only failed to make any proposals, but acted as if they had completely forgotten the decision that we had previously arrived at and, after a pathetic attempt to conduct the meeting in accordance with the usual practice (“in my enterprise, nothing is happening”) they purely and simply refused to talk. There was nothing left to do except to affirm the demise of the Committee during what was, effectively, its last meeting.
For their part, the comrades of The Class Struggle decided to take their text as the starting point for a platform on which their subsequent action would be based (the final draft of this text was soon completed). They also decided to reassume the name of “Group for Liaisons for Workers Action” (GLAT) under which some of them had been active—based on the same political positions that they currently held—during the years before May ’68.
The objective of GLAT was and still is the theoretical and practical definition of an anti-capitalist activity (and therefore anti-bureaucratic activity as well) that for us is identified with the organization of the workers at the rank and file level (rank and file committees, according to the terminology of May). Unlike the pseudo-revolutionaries who presented themselves as the future leadership of the working class, we think that the working class cannot be led in a revolutionary sense except by itself. Unlike the liquidationists of revolutionary organization, we think that this principle must be propagated systematically by militants organized for this purpose.
It seems clear to us, effectively, that the course of the general strike could have been modified in a relevant way if, from the very first days, an organization had intervened, even a tiny one, that did not seek to “lead” the movement, but to make as many workers as possible aware of the forms of struggle adopted by the most advanced part of the workers themselves—specifically, the rank and file committees of the Rhône-Poulenc factory at Vitry. Propaganda of this kind was carried out by militants from Censier, but with very limited means.
Intervening from the beginning and with more effective distribution, this organization might have been able to tip the balance at the decisive moment, a moment that might never recur.
Those who today refuse to learn any lessons from the fiasco of May, those who reject the organization of revolutionaries (not the organizations that say they are revolutionary, but those that are ready to fight for the power of the workers assemblies), bear a heavy responsibility towards the working class. No strategy confers the certainty of victory. But the strategy that consists of throwing away our weapons before the battle even begins does not even leave us the opportunity of escaping from an ignominious defeat.
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- 1Quoted by Yves Benot, L’Autre Italie, Paris, 1977, p. 107.
- 2Grisoni and Portelli, Luttes ouvrières en Italie de 1960 a 1976, Paris, 1976, p. 131.
- 3After the end of the strike, militants of the RATP action committee published a pamphlet. What follows is the text of the excerpt from this document quoted by Jacques Baynac in Mai retrouvé.
- 4When referring to the mainstream trade unions, the author uses the French word, retape, in an obvious play on words on RATP.
- 5This refers to the discourse in favor of the freedom to work, with which some thought to justify the “right” of the scab to take the place of the strikers at work, a right that the pickets attempted to constrain.
- 6This is where the strike began at RATP.
- 7This is an error: June 6 was a Thursday.
- 8A play on words that combines the names of L’Humanité, the daily newspaper of the PCF, and Le Figaro, the daily newspaper of the right wing whose politics are similar to the Spanish ABC.
- 9Excerpts published by Baynac, op. cit., p. 161 et seq.
- 10All the outer neighborhoods of the greater Paris region were, during this period, composed of industrial zones and neighborhoods inhabited by workers. There, the hegemony of the PCF was incontestable, on the municipal level as well.