Article about the strike and occupation of offices by IT workers in France, which was co-ordinated by directly democratic methods.
The situation at Schneider Electrics seems to us to be the most interesting struggle in France this autumn. Because up to now that have not been many collective and offensive conflicts in the IT sector so every experience is important. Because with the decision to occupy the office building the workers went beyond the limits of the bourgeois law. Because it was clear that they had to use their means of production and their knowledge of production as a means of strength against the company. Because they did not actually have their backs to the wall, it was not about immediate redundancies. Because the strike had a direct international effect. Because the strike and the occupation was initially not controlled by the union, but rather decisions were taken daily at a full assembly. Because the end clearly shows once again what the workers can expect from the union.
Schneider Electrics produce electronic components, from simple switches to complicated junction boxes. About 74,000 people work for Schneider worldwide. The strike was lead by the IT workers in Grenoble who play a variety of Admin functions for the company such as the intranet, the PC hotline, computer network maintenance etc. About two thirds of all Schneider’s IT workers in France work in Grenoble. The trigger for the strike was the decision by Schneider management to outsource the IT department to the company CapGemini. CapGemini already does some of the Schneider IT work - on both a contract and freelance basis. The decision to occupy the offices, and thereby have control over the actual servers, was also so that those workers could not so easily scab. Schneider Electric had signed a 10-year contract for over 1.6 billion Euros to outsource the whole Schneider European IT department to CapGemini. About 800 Schneider employees would move over to CapGemini, 400 of those in France. 500 people from subsidiary companies would also be affected. Other sources talk about 1,350 Schneider employees being directly affected in Europe.
Since June 2003 the employees that will be affected have waited for the results of the negotiations between management and the unions to find out about what conditions were being put forward for the shift to CapGemini.
Finally the answer came back: no guarantee of continued employment, worse work conditions, no compensation for those for whom the shift would mean extra costs and inconvenience and every worker would have 500 Euros a month less take-home pay. The financial situation of CapGemini also does not look so good: in the first half of 2004 they suffered 135 million Euros losses.
Some of the workers suspect that CapGemini got the contract largely because the executive director is a friend of President Chirac. One of the demands of the strike is to secure the work contracts for the ten years of the contact - something that does not seem to be the case with the deal as it stands.
Faced with this threat the employees decided on November 15 to begin an indefinite strike and occupation of the office building in Grenoble town centre. The unions asserted that about 80 percent of the French IT workers were taking part in the strike. This is a report we wrote at the time, after visiting the building:
“About 250 IT workers are occupying the main centre of the IT department and have shut down the server, in order to stop the work of any strike breaking home-work. There is Beaujolais in the morning, the atmosphere seems good, at 2pm every day there is the daily assembly. It is their first real strike and they say that before this they were more individualistic. The offices look out directly onto the World Trade Centre and the various other banks and glass boxes round about. One of the IT workers speaks German and another English. Neither are from the union but describe themselves as workers who struggle because they have to struggle. The say that about 60 percent of Schneider workers in France are on strike, or affected by the strike. They have heard from colleagues in Italy that the strike is also affecting the work there. Some of the production workers have given donations for the IT workers strike fund.
A few people go the other sites and branches to inform them about the strike. They’ve got an English translation of their leaflet and probably contact to Schneider sites in other countries. They are also in contact with some unionists at CapGemini who give them information. One guy said he thought management would not give in. The management was demanding an end to the occupation for new negotiations to take place, but the feeling was strong enough to stay in. In the strike kitchen it was discussed that the relocation of parts of the company to Paris was the first attack that they should have reacted to. They were also discussion what they should do about the bailiff that comes every morning and asks for the names of those within. They compared their situation to the conditions of textile workers in the region, when the textile industry was under attack some decades ago.”
During the strike there was a website discussion between the strikers and IT workers from other companies about the strike. (http://forums.munci.org/viewtopic.php?t=2026&view=previous&sid=93b1aced066109ed0945277a6aa38779)
Amongst other things it was reported that the company's internal mail system between Europe and the USA stopped working. Some more possible actions or measures were discussed, but it was also mentioned that the really effective means of struggle were often thwarted by the unionists, because they could be help personally legally responsible for the consequences of sabotage. Others said that sabotage actions were unnecessary because the strike itself was enough to stop the server and the hotline functioning. The company management let it be known in advance of the negotiations that the strike had not had a big technical impact on the running of the business.
The following information is from two articles in the daily newspaper “Liberation”. On 23 November there were further negotiations but without concrete results. The workers ‘gave up’ the building, which was a management demand for the negotiations. In the building were also other companies. The workers occupied a Schneider call centre in a suburb of Grenoble as an alternative place. The management cut off the phone lines.
The official CGT rep said that they are not “Vandals”, that they do not want to destroy the work equipment, that the best weapon is “passivity”. They had the possibility to paralyze the whole network of the company, but they didn’t do it. They simply didn’t work any more, the people could not phone up to find out their PC password when they forgot it, there were no new uploads of the anti-virus program etc. Normally the technical hotline gets about 1,500 calls a day from Schneider employees and customers. One striking worker said: “We don’t like the transfer of Schneider employees to a service society. At Schneider we come under the metal sector collective contract. Service, that sounds like precariatisation”. The average age of the IT workers at Schneider is about 45, the average length of employment about 18 years. The people talked about the problem that in the last few years one could take out a mortgage on a house with the wage, but these are not paid off and with the drop in wages it could become difficult to do so.
On 28 November a vote at an assembly to continue the strike was won by 107 out of 180. And this was despite the CFDT union, who had a majority in the company, announcing in the previous days that they were very “pessimistic” about the strike. The CFDT called for a second vote on the 29 November at which only 60 percent of the people voted to continue. As a consequence the CFDT withdrew their support for the strike, which really broke the strike. The strike ended 15 days after it began without any promises or commitments on the side of the management.