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Workers’ International News, September 1938


Deadlock in France


From Workers’ International News, Vol.1 No.9, September 1938, p.5-6.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The workers of France by means of their militant struggles in the sit-down strikes of two years ago wrested from the bosses the 40 hour week, the sliding scale of wages and paid holidays. Ever since then the efforts of the Popular Front Government and the governments supported by the Popular Front have been concentrated on nibbling at those gains. By means of appeals to patriotism, currency devaluation and, since Daladier came into power, a baffling series of decrees, the workers have been robbed of the greater part of their gains.

The favourite argument of the bosses against the 40-hour week, namely that it placed French industry at a disadvantage in competition with rivals, was exposed last May as fraudulent when the Daladier government announced that it was to inform the Secretary-General of the League of Nations that it did not propose to ratify the International Labour Conference Convention for a 40-hour week. By refusing to advocate the international 40-hour week, the government revealed unequivocally that its sole concern was to restore the old system for the benefit of French capitalism.

The way was prepared by the forerunners of the present regime. Blum and Chautemps cautiously and timidly tinkered at the 40-hour law, but did not dare to proceed openly because they knew that workers’ militancy which had erupted in the June strikes still smouldered beneath the surface.

On the fall of Blum’s government last April, Daladier became premier, preaching the gospel of “more work and less politics.” Less politics meant the continuation of the hypocritical “non-intervention” in Spain. More work meant a campaign against the 40-hour week. The Socialists headed by Blum supported Daladier and at their Royan conference endorsed his policy of treachery abroad and at home. Pointing to the series of crises in international affairs, Blum solemnly warned against creating a government crisis in France. Covered and supported by the Stalinists as well as the Socialists, Daladier carried out his offensive on workers’ conditions by a series of decrees amending the overtime regulations.

On May 20th, the Cabinet decided to substitute a 2,000 hour year for the 40-hour week. Four days later, it decreed the adding of 75 hours overtime to the workers’ year to make up for the time lost by holidays. By this manoeuvre, the paid holidays won by the workers in their strike struggles have been wrested back from them in the shape of overtime, and their working week increased. On the same day a decree was promulgated legalising unlimited overtime for workers in the armaments industry, whose 40-hour week has entirely vanished, a sacrifice to the profit-hunger of the armaments magnates.

This was followed up early last month with a decree that added another 75 hours overtime to the machine tool workers’ year, thus imposing upon them a 45-hour week, and bringing them nearer to the conditions imposed on the workers in the arms trade.

The final offensive was opened by Daladier in a broadcast speech on August 21st, when he demanded that the 10-hour week be made “elastic”. Nine days later the Council of Ministers authorised unlimited overtime in the “defence” industries and 100 extra hours to the year of workers in the rest of industry.

Amid the confusion of decrees the fact emerges that the French worker’s week has now been enlarged to 43½ hours. The 40-hour week has become history.

The onslaught has been carried out by passing off the added hours as “overtime”. That there is no need to exact overtime from the French workers is attested by the fact that the current official figure: for unemployment in France show an increase in the registered unemployed of nearly 10 per cent. Ignoring the growing army of unemployed, the French capitalists increase the hours of those who are at work. But there remains one last fortress them to capture.

Since the added hours are still nominally “overtime,” the bosses are legally compelled to pay for them, according to the arbitration agreements entered into with the unions, at rates varying from a time and a quarter to time and a half. They still possess the power to manipulate the currency, to devalue the franc yet again and so to reduce the real wages of the worker by forcing up the cost of living within the 5 per cent. limit allowed them before the sliding scale comes into operation. But rather than face the storm that must result from another franc devaluation, they prepare an attack on overtime rates of pay. Daladier is preparing a bill to cut overtime rates in the existing arbitration agreements to 10 per cent. instead of the 25 per cent. to 50 per cent. now obtaining. First the week is lengthened by adding “overtime”, and now the overtime is to be approximated to ordinary hours – and the 40-hour week obtained by the magnificent struggle and self-sacrificing solidarity of the French workers, is completely filched away.

The French Popular Front decided on August 26th not to allow the “dispute over the 40-hour week” to threaten their solidarity. In this way the “Socialists” and “Communists” encourage their capitalist partners in the Popular Front to complete the war on workers’ conditions. The Front Populaire came into existence as a strike-breaking conspiracy to sidetrack the French workers when they showed by occupying the factories that they were prepared to take the revolutionary path to solve their difficulties. The Front Populaire now completes its treacherous task. The “Socialists” and “Communists”, with much windy demagogy, hold the workers’ hands while the bosses rob them of the fruits of their sit-down strikes.

But the temper of the workers is slowly rising to a new crescendo. They will by no means submit passively to be plundered. In the forefront of then defensive struggle of the French workers stand Marseilles dockers, who clearly recognise the purport of the new “overtime” schemes. Lowest paid of all French dockers, they receive on the average only two-thirds of the wage earned by the dockers at Dunkirk or Sete, and besides this, count themselves lucky to get three days work in the week. They demanded increased wages, with higher rates, for Sunday work and nightwork. Their demands refused, they have conducted since the middle July, an overtime strike, refusing to work over the legal working day. The leadership of the Dockers unions contented themselves with pious declarations of solidarity with the strikers, who were left to carry on their struggle single-handed. To break their strike, the Daladier government sent negro troops unload ships, under the protection of armed mobile Guards.

The indignation of the dockers along the Mediterranean seafront at the utilisation of government troops and French sailors as strike-breakers threatened to precipitate a general strike throughout the Mediterranean ports and the dockers’ fight became the spearhead of the workers’ defensive struggle against the encroachments on the 40-hour week.

Once again Leon Blum applied the brakes, declaring that the Socialist party must support the government to the limit, “in view of the international situation.” The same old cry!

The government proposed a two-shift system, and it was announced that the strike was settled. The Marseilles strikers, grimly ignoring the new decree continued to work the old schedule.

Faced with this solid front, the government has made proposals for a final attempt at “conciliation” backing up its proposal with the threat of placing Marseilles under military authority.

The new crisis serves to rally the workers to a determined stand in protection of their hard-won gains. The enemy in front of them they see clearly. But a danger equally great threatens them from the traitors who stand in the ranks of the working class urging a “strategic retreat” in view of the international situation, in view of Hitler’s threats, in view of the attitude of the Radicals. This enemy, the Popular Front and the corrupt politicians who make it, they have only glimpsed. The developing crisis forces these gentlemen of the Front Populaire to come out into the open as advocates of “strategic” retreat and abandonment of material gains for the sake of the abstract fake unity of the Popular Front. No small part of the task of revolutionary socialists in France who are united under the banner of POI, is to hammer into the consciousness of workers the true role of the Popular Front traitors.

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