The Renault Strike of April and May 1947
First issued as a supplement to Lutte Ouvrière, No.143, May 1971 and published during the Renault strike of 1971
First published in English in Revolutionary History Vol.2 No.1, where there are other documents on the Renault strike of 1947.
The Renault strike in April and May 1947 was the first great manifestation of the French industrial proletariat after the Second World War. This strike was at last reviving the tradition of workers’ struggles: strikes had been outlawed during the war and the German occupation, then at the ‘Liberation’ the Communists had said they were the weapon of the trusts: now, after eight years of banishment, strikes were back and part of life again. The Renault strike was, in fact, the first of a series of struggles that were to affect all sectors of the economy. Besides – and this is just as important – this strike at the same time put an end to a political era: that of Communist participation in a bourgeois cabinet.
The explanation for the success, the importance, and the consequences of the Renault strike can be found in the exceptional political situation that prevailed just before it broke out: namely that there were Communist ministers in the government.
Part 1: Background to the strike
The fact that there were Communist ministers in an immediate post-war government may indeed seem somewhat surprising. This was not only a tribute paid to the Communist Party’s electoral influence. It was imposed by De Gaulle as early as 1944, both on the French bourgeoisie and on US imperialism. Having Communist ‘allies’ was one of the key elements in his independent policies. It provided him with the popular support without which he could not muster national unanimity in favour of his government or compel recognition from the United States.
This policy was actually made easier by the international situation. To prepare for the end of the war and for unrest that might occur then, the military alliance between the USA and the Soviet Union had developed into a vast counterrevolutionary alliance aiming to maintain order through military occupation in ‘liberated’ Europe. Although Communist participation in the government of a country belonging to the western zone of influence did not really please the USA, it did not in fact run counter to the international strategy officially supported by the USA.
As for the French Communist Party (PCF), it was experiencing exceptional times. It was in a position to reconcile openly its basically nationalist stand and its loyalty to Moscow. It could at the same time serve the Kremlin’s international politics and be ’reinstated’ in the French national community. It was therefore going to do its best to convince the French bourgeoisie that it was a genuine ‘government’ party, a responsible party that would act loyally within the framework of bourgeois ‘democracy’.
De Gaulle was to pay a tribute to the PCF in his Memoires (Volume III: Saved!):
The Communists certainly did day after day lavish their overstatements and invectives on us. However, they never made any insurrectional attempt. Better still: as long as I remained in power, there was not a single strike ...
As far as Thorez is concerned, while making every effort to boost Communist interests, he was on several occasions to serve public interests well. As soon as he was back in France, he helped disband the last remnants of the "patriotic militia" that some of his friends would maintain in renewed clandestinity. As far as the stern and severe rigidity of his party would allow, he opposed all attempts by Liberation Committees to overstep their authority and any violence that over-excited groups might try to perpetuate. The crowds of workers, and especially of miners, who listened to his harangues were constantly advised to work as hard as they could and to produce at all costs.
Although De Gaulle was already able in 1944 to rely on the PCF in order to try and consolidate a relative independence towards US imperialism, and although he rewarded this support with a few ministerial jobs and substantial advantages for the unions, the French bourgeoisie on the whole was still suspicious of ‘Communists’ and merely accepted them as a necessary and temporary evil. Their ties with Moscow made them all the more suspect as, once the critical immediate post-war period was over, and once order had been restored, the holy counter-revolutionary alliance between the USA and the Soviet Union became less useful and therefore started crumbling to pieces.
On 11 March 1947, in a speech that has remained famous, US President Harry Truman gave a new tone to international relationships by protesting against “coercion and methods used in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria”, and by making clear his intention to help “the free peoples presently resisting the manoeuvres of certain armed minorities or Communist pressures.”
The European Recovery Plan, or Marshall Plan, announced in Truman’s speech was actually going to speed up the evolution towards what was later called the Cold War. The Marshall Plan was already a topic of interest in France in March 1947. Indeed, larger and larger sections of the French bourgeoisie were looking to the US at the time. De Gaulle, the man of national independence in the face of US imperialism, had resigned in January 1946. His departure had changed very little in either the foreign or domestic policies of France. The tripartite alliance, namely the coalition of the PCF, the PS (Socialist Party) and the MRP (a centre party), that succeeded De Gaulle not only represented a ‘holy union’ of all the parties that defended bourgeois order and aimed to restore French capitalism, but also the latter’s intention to safeguard its independence by sticking to the same policies vis-a-vis the USA and the Soviet Union. In 1947, however, French capitalism was in a position to accept help from the Marshall Plan without running the risk of having to submit to US imperialism as if tied hand and foot. In fact, the renewed tension arising at the time between the East and the West could only prompt the French bourgeoisie to tighten its ties with the all-powerful USA.
In view of the new balance of power arising in the world, the presence of Communist ministers in the bourgeois government of a western country was becoming more and more anachronistic. In this sense, the idea of getting rid of the PCF ministers, although not yet on the agenda in April and May 1947, was already spelled out in the evolution of international relationships that was to lead to the East-West split of 1948. In a sense, the Renault strike was going to anticipate this evolution.
The domestic situation in France was difficult, especially for the workers. In order to set the capitalist economy back on its feet again, the bourgeois state did not hesitate to impoverish the whole population by unceasingly printing money. In a nutshell, inflation was galloping and the cost of living rose by 10 per cent or so every month!
As might have been expected, the government claimed to be pursuing stabilisation policies when it launched a freeze of prices and wages. In fact, the collective bargaining agreements that set minimum wages had fallen into disuse since the war. The government itself would decide on the minimum wage for all workers, including those in the private sector.
As for prices, they kept going up. During the war quotas had been placed on all goods and their prices fixed. Now, as they progressively came back onto the market, they had to be bought at black market prices. There was no control on prices; wages, however, were frozen, This was bound to yield some working class unrest. The unions, however, disapproved of this agitation and, for a while, succeeded in stifling it. One example will be enough.
On May Day in 1945, as the war was not yet over, since the armistice was to be signed on 8 May, the unions gave a clear picture of the orientation they intended to give to working class action. Production first, demands next. The May Day parade was a huge carnival with endless lines of carts representing workers on the job, striking anvils to the strains of the Marseillaise amidst a host of French flags. Strikes were condemned there as “the weapon of the trusts”. The CGT leaders claimed that “being five million-strong, the CGT will definitely impose a price freeze”. The Metro walls were covered with posters saying: “Let’s roll up our sleeves, and things will get even better”. Prices, however, kept going up.
At the end of January 1946 newspaper rotary printers walked out, thereby breaking union orders. They were slandered by the PCF, and their strike was sabotaged. In fact, L’Humanité, which, just after the end of the strike, would not stop at any libel to sling mud at it, even appeared for one day with a blank space: the rotary printers had decided to ‘censor’ one particularly scandalous article in the PCF’s daily.
A general election was planned for 2 June 1946. The PCF could feel the workers’ discontent and, in view of continuing rises in the cost of living, demanded 25 per cent pay hikes. In August 1946, after the election, prices were still spiralling, but wages remained almost completely frozen. The only concession that the Communist Minister of Labour, Ambroise Croizat, gained from the government, much to the employers’ pleasure, was that workers would be given a rise if they breached productivity ceilings.
In 1936, workers had won the assurance that production-based wages should not go beyond a certain ceiling, to prevent their over-exploitation through piecework and bonuses. “Smash productivity ceilings, work harder, and you’ll earn more”; such was the request that a ‘Communist’ Minister of Labour was putting to the workers. As the cost of living was rising continuously, workers could but accept working harder, especially since CGT officials effectively replaced foremen in their jobs.
At Renault the ceiling, which was at 116 per cent, soon reached 120 per cent, then 125, then 130, 140, 150 per cent and even more. (A few years later, the management itself was arbitrarily to bring the ceiling down to 145 per cent, in spite of protests on the part of CGT leaders, since such practices yielded catastrophic increases in industrial injuries.)
As prices kept spiralling faster and faster, discontent was building up. Sporadic strikes broke out. In August 1946, in the middle of the summer holidays, under the leadership of anarchist-oriented union members of the Force Ouvrière tendency in Bordeaux, a postal strike broke out; and the postmen elected an independent union strike committee.
The CGT was then forced to do something about demanding pay rises, while at the same time claiming that prices should be frozen and “regretting” that the government should have allowed unjustified defreezing of prices (!) The CGT advocated fixing a minimum survival wage.
On 22 May 1946, just before the election, L’Humanité editor Roger Cogniot had recounted that in the budget discussion for 1947 Jacques Duclos had asked that a survival wage be fixed at 84,000F per year, that is 7,000F per month.
In an article in L’Humanité on 27 December 1946 Benoit Frachon brought up the idea of a minimum survival wage again. He explained:
The scrupulous work carried out by this commission (the Confederal Economic Commission of the CGT) led to a preliminary evaluation: 103,800F per year. Following a request by the Confederal Board, and in order to take into account the country’s general situation, the Commission made new calculations with a view to establishing a workers’ budget, and to fixing the floor below which it was impossible to go without endangering workers’ health and production capacity [my emphasis]. This study yielded the figure of 84,000F a year.
At the beginning of January 1947 the government decreed a five per cent price drop. As could be expected, no provisions were made to control this price drop, which in any case was taking place after a number of far more substantial rises, which were not planned to be revoked.
In an article published in L’Humanité on 7 January, Benoit Fraction welcomed the government’s decision, but maintained his proposal for a minimum survival wage at 7,000F, justifying it in the following way:
In 1938 the hourly wage of a metalworker in the Paris area was 8.06F. The government’s decisions last August raised it to 25F (this being the minimum legal wage). The CGT demands would take this figure to 7000F, 200 x 35F, the coefficient being thus 4.34. The official figures for the cost of living index, taking the same period in 1938 as the base (= 100), yield 857.99 for October this year.
As can be seen, the figures put forward by the CGT were not the least outrageous: they advocated pay rises amounting to no more than 50 per cent of the official increase of the cost of living index.
On the other hand, the CGT accepted making calculations on a 200 hours per month base, that is 48 hours a week: this amounted officially to forfeiting the 40-hour week; this forfeiture was justified by the requirements of what the government and the unions called ‘the production effort’! But these were only proposals put forward to the government by the CGT. Not surprisingly, nothing was planned to carry them out.
Renault was nationalised or, more accurately, turned into a state-owned company (Regie nationale) in 1945. The company was from then on to become a trump card for the state, and was used as a model and a guide for the government’s political and economic orientations; but at the same time it was also becoming a trump card for the Stalinists.
At the time, the CGT was almost the only union at Renault. A few white-collar workers were CFTC members and some executives were CGC affiliates, but neither union had any influence to speak of. Most Christian militants were CGT not CFTC members. So the word ‘union’ above all referred to the CGT. Through the CGT, the PCF applied itself to promote within ’Plant Committees’ and their ‘Joint Production Committees’ its pro-governmental policies, which amounted to imposing on the workers the sacrifices required to get the capitalist economy back on its feet again.
The example was not set exclusively at the Regie Renault. The mines and the state-owned railway company (SNCF) were no doubt the sectors in which the policies of the government-involved Stalinists were enforced most firmly. Renault, however, had a specific part to play: its nationalised works could serve as a model for the private sector.
On the factory floor, foremen had lost most of their authority: they had compromised themselves during the war, under the supervision of their boss, Louis Renault, who made no mystery of his desire to collaborate with the German occupying forces. It was therefore the Stalinist shop stewards who undertook the task of sweating the workers, and they showed no qualms about it. They were the ones who urged workers to increase productivity as if they had thought that Stakhanovism was the order of the day.
They were the ones who denounced workers for squandering electricity (controlled by the Communist Minister of Industrial Production, Marcel Paul) when they left an electric bulb on for a few wasteful minutes. They were the ones who denounced some workers as thieves and had them sacked from the plant for being so audacious as to eat two meals instead of one in the canteen subsidised by the Plant Committee. When foremen seemed reluctant to deal with workers who did not breach productivity ceilings, Stalinist shop stewards were there to deal harshly with the ‘saboteurs’ of national production. It would, in fact, be impossible to quote all the deeds that turned them into screws worse than ‘Old Renault’s’ rather ill-famed foremen.
In such a poisonous atmosphere, which so totally contradicted the hopes born with the ‘Liberation’, definite signs of discontent started cropping up as early as the end of 1946.
At Department No.6 there developed a small current that was hostile to the Stalinists. This current was led by workers of the Communist Union (UC), a Trotskyist group publishing La lutte de classe (Class Struggle), This was not the first time that the UC was developing an activity within the walls of the Renault citadel. In 1945 one militant had already started activity in the foundry shops. But when he produced a leaflet protesting against shorter rations in the canteen, union bureaucrats had taken him straight to the management and he was immediately sacked.
We must say that at the time only a very small number of revolutionary militants dared to contest the ‘Stalinist monopoly’ in the working class, either inside the works or at its gates. A member of the PCI (Internationalist Communist Party, at that time the French section of the Fourth International) had tried, around the same period, to start work in the Renault factory, but he had very soon given up.
The problem was that, in the opinion of the PCI, “one should not clash head-on with the Stalinists” because, they claimed, the Stalinists were “the representatives of the working class”. Similarly, probably in order to avoid a head-on clash with the Stalinists, PCI comrades would never turn up to sell their newspaper, La Verité, at the works gates. UC comrades, on the other hand, would regularly turn up and hand out leaflets or sell their paper, and just as regularly they would be attacked by Stalinist thugs.
The workers’ reactions were favourable to the revolutionary militants; very few, however, dared to side openly with them and defend them, as they were conscious of the pressures they would have to face back in the plant. Those who did dare had to fight hard and face being victimised.
At the end of 1946 discontent was building up among the workers, and the CGT had failed to obtain any concessions to compensate for rising prices. It therefore tried to unearth a device in order to demand pay rises, and launched the idea of a ‘progressive production bonus’ (prime progressive de production: PPP). At the beginning of January 1947 the CGT announced the ‘first success’. It had obtained a progressive production bonus amounting to 2F an hour for a coefficient of 100, backdated to 1 September 1946 .This bonus, far from contenting the workers, infuriated them.
At the Collas shops (Departments 6 and 18) a militant of the Union Communiste had initiated the organisation of a small revolutionary group. Not all workers in this group were Trotskyists. But all wanted to fight so that things might change. They were against capitalism, but they did not accept the ‘Communist’ label; on the contrary, for them ‘Communism’ was identified with the PCF, which made them roll up their sleeves, and whose leading militants in the plant were behaving like screws.
Part 2: Preparing for action
They started an agitation campaign against the progressive production bonus: being hierarchy-linked, the bonus gave less to production workers than to those producing nothing. At Department No 6 (1,200 workers), they got up a petition that gathered 850 names, in spite of the hostility and obstruction displayed by the CGT leaders. On 15 February 1947, they published the first issue of a bulletin entitled La voix des travailleurs de chez Renault (Renault Workers’ Voice).
On the same day the local union called a meeting to elect its representatives to a ‘production conference’. The problem of the bonus and how it would be shared out was not even mentioned. The workers who had got up the petition invited all workers to go to the meeting. Here is the text of their call:
To Comrades in Departments 6 and 18
Our local union is calling a meeting to elect representatives for a production conference. But it provides no answer to our petition about the bonus.
We know that the union delegates want to stifle our protest. Because they fear they might have to give explanations in connection with the bonus, they want to prevent non-union members attending.
We shall not be stifled or silenced by their bureaucratic methods.
Let’s all be in the canteen tonight, members and non-members, to demand equal bonuses for all.
Workers of the Collas shops
Whereas union meetings used to be deserted, on that day over a hundred workers turned up.
The CGT officials had anticipated the event, and placed militants at the doors who barred them to non-members, as well as to members whose subscriptions needed updating. It should be said that at the time nearly all workers were ‘union members’, since it was made almost compulsory by the union bureaucracy. Fees were collected and union papers were sold openly in the shops, and anyone refusing them was soon spotted. Nevertheless, for some time now a number of workers had been boycotting the fees.
The workers who had got up the petition then pointed out that being behind with one’s stamps, especially if the lag was under three months, could not be considered as disaffiliation. And since they formed the more numerous group, they pushed their way into the canteen where the meeting was to be held.
After the reading of a report on the ‘production conference’, several workers stood up to talk against the production bonus. All of a sudden the General Secretary of the union jumped up and shouted furiously: “It seems that some here will not let the CGT speak,” (the CGT being himself, not the membership).
“It seems that some are indulging in demagogy ...”
Hearing the word ‘demagogy’ one worker stood up and said: “We understand all right. The meeting is over.” He then left, followed by the entire audience, except for 13 faithful followers of the union apparatus!
After this incident, as our comrade had rightfully said, we had understood. We had understood that if we wanted to achieve something, it would have to be without the unions, and even against them.
The comrades gathering around the Renault Workers’ Voice went on carrying out their activity. They published their bulletin every fortnight and called meetings where 10, 12 or 15 people turned up. Their audience grew. Soon these meetings attracted members of the MFA (Mouvement Français pour 1’Abondance, French Abundance Movement), an economy-oriented movement that mainly included lower-level supervisors in its membership; they also attracted Anarchists, CNT Unionists, Bordigists and PCI Trotskyists. The audience grew to 50 or 60 people; but the meetings took place in tremendous confusion, since everyone wanted his or her viewpoint to prevail.
The MFA criticised pay rises since they led nowhere. But since prices were going up, and they could do nothing about it, they finally resolved to support the proposal that wages be raised. The PCI (Trotskyists) insisted again and again that the meetings be called ‘Struggle Committees’, in order to have them obey a common discipline with regard to the aims as well as the organisation of the action itself. The CNT Anarchists discussed the “gregarious instincts of the masses”. They had no objectives: “What is needed is a strike, then we’ll see what to do.” As regards the Bordigists, they divided into two tendencies. One tendency thought that the important point was to work on ‘theoretical’ issues, and wait until the workers themselves were ready to start the struggle (under their leadership no doubt). The other tendency was in favour of immediate action to overthrow the rule of the bourgeoisie, and replace it by workers’ power, but without the dictatorship of any party. Such a climate was hardly favourable to any positive action.
The comrades of the Renault Workers’ Voice replied to those of the PCI that such meetings could not bear the label ‘Struggle Committee’, nor could they act as if they were one. Here is in substance what they said:
We are comrades originating in various tendencies, with different political educations, and therefore our ideas and stands differ. We cannot hope to reconcile our views here. What we must do is work at organising our fellow workers. We have a right to try and influence them with our own convictions, but it is our duty to fall in line with the decisions they make collectively.
‘Committees’ are instruments in the struggles fought by the working class. They are made up of representatives elected by the workers and revokable by them any time, whose role is to apply the decisions made by the majority of the workers.
Our task is to help the workers set up committees, not to appoint ourselves as "struggle committees".
Because there was no control by the mass of the workers, the comrades of the Renault Workers’ Voice therefore suggested that an end be put to discussions that could only be sterile. They proposed that the audience decide on two objectives:
- In the face of rising prices, in the face of government policies, and of the complicity of the organisations claiming to represent the working class, a proposal should be put forward that workers demand a 10F pay rise on the basic rate.
- Since only a strike could bring this demand to a more positive conclusion, agitation for a strike should be made.
In fact, the comrades of the Renault Workers’ Voice were the only ones agitating for a strike in their bulletin. The CNT issued stickers with the word ‘Strike’ printed in larger and larger type – but without any explanation.
This agitation could develop in a climate that was all the more favourable as, for some time, in the face of rising prices, spontaneous reactions had been taking place in various sectors of the plant, although they had always been checked and thwarted by the CGT’s Stalinist apparatus.
Here is what Pierre Bois wrote in this connection in an article entitled The Rising of the Strike published in La Révolution Prolétarienne:
For several weeks there had been various actions in the plant, which were all rooted in demands for pay rises. Within a year production went up by 150 per cent (66.5 cars in December 1945 to 166 cars in November 1946). However, our wages have only risen by 22.5 per cent. In the meantime the official price index went up by about 60 to 80 per cent.
On the Ile Seguin, workers walked out over a bonus problem. At the maintenance shops, workers walked out to demand productivity-based wages. At the mould and foundry shops, workers went on strike for a week. Unfortunately, they did nothing for others to hear about their action, because they thought that “on their own they stood a better chance to get what they wanted”. After a week’s strike they got a 4F pay rise for all except the lowest category of skilled workers.
The artillery department also had its strike. Turners were the first to walk out, on Thursday 27 February, after a timekeepers’ raid. The other workers in the sector stood together with them, and a common demand was put forward for a 10F hourly pay rise and that the firing up of machines be paid at a hundred per cent rate. These demands amounted to getting rid of productivity-oriented work. Under CGT pressure workers went back to work. In the end they did not get anything, except a readjustment of the productivity bonus, which means an extra 40 centimes an hour.
In the Collas sector, shop number 5 (quenching) walked out and got a 2F pay rise. At shop number 17 (moulds), workers, almost all of them skilled, had been demanding pay rises for three months. Since they had had no answer, they spontaneously went on strike.
In another sector, workers are setting up a petition for union representatives to be re-elected; the results of the election ran as follows: 121 abstentions, 42 void votes (with ballot papers bearing clear comments on union bureaucrats), 172 votes for the CGT delegate and 32 for the CFTC delegate.
In the Collas sector, workers are circulating a petition against the bad allocation of the production bonus. Other sectors are following this manifestation of anger but are coming up against systematic opposition on the part of union officials.
Shop number 31, in the Collas sector, which had stopped work spontaneously to back up shop number 5, was unable to muster support from the rest of the department and had its impetus thwarted by union delegates. As can be seen, for several weeks agitation had been building up. Everywhere workers wanted to launch efficient action, but everywhere there was systematic sabotage on the part of union officials and complete lack of coordination and leadership.
In the middle of March 1947 the workers of shop No.5 (quenching and moulds) walked out over a demand for a 2F hourly pay rise. Workers of nearby Department 6, who published Renault Workers’ Voice (but were not officially known as such, since any legal ‘proof’ would have been enough for them to be sacked), formed a delegation and paid a visit to the strikers at shop No.5. The delegate there, a sectarian Stalinist, who was as strong as he was loud-mouthed, told them to go to hell. Not only did he not need the help offered by the workers from Department 6, but moreover he did not want them to jeopardise his action by joining in.
The comrades from Department 6 certainly expected exactly this on the part of this individual. However, it raised a problem: what should we do? If we went on strike, the CGT Stalinists would yell that we were sabotaging ‘their strike’, on the other hand, if we were to do something, we certainly should do it while others were already fighting.
Very quickly the workers decided to go on strike. There were approximately 100 strikers out of 1,200 workers of Department 6 and the 1,800 workers of the Collas sector (6 and 18). 100 was much too weak a figure for the strike to be launched.
All strikers then went to other shops in order to ask other workers to meet in the hall so as to decide all together whether the strike should go on. Approximately half the Department, that is 500 to 600 workers, came to the meeting and stopped their machines. But while the meeting was being held, the delegates, who had been meeting as well and had heard what was going on, hurried back, switched the machines on again and started a campaign of slander, denigration and demoralisation.
“You’ll never get anything by going on strike”, they said in substance. “The management are waiting for just that to call the police in, and a strike can last for a month, perhaps more – you’ll be starving – you are allowing adventurers and former collaborators to mislead you,” etc., etc. Workers were not very sensitive to this kind of argument. But they did know that they had the management and the government against them; they felt the struggle was going to be beyond their strength if, above all, they had to fight the union as well.
The movement stepped back. The engines started running again. The workers went back to work. Seeing how things were crumbling, the comrades who had called the meeting put an end to it, admitting their failure and proposing that a better organisation be set up next time.
The comrades of the Renault Workers’ Voice were in no way disheartened, and they pursued their action. At the beginning of April they circulated a petition demanding a 10F rise on the basic rate. Wherever it could be circulated, this petition was signed by a large majority of the workers.
In order for the petitions to reach the management, they had to be collected and taken there by the delegates. Seeing how successful the petitioners were, the latter did not dare to refuse, but they did sabotage their part of the job. In one place they exerted pressure on the workers to prevent lists of names from being passed round; elsewhere they collected the petitions and the latter ... disappeared.
Nobody fostered any illusions as to the value of the petitions; but workers signed them first of all because they were a way of expressing their discontent, and also of making it known that they agreed with pay rises not based on productivity. They also signed because they were a means of testing the delegates, of checking to what extent they would dare to stand up against the workers’ will. Finally, many wanted their signatures to convey their disapproval of the delegates’ attitudes or even feelings of hostility which they were rather pleased they could express.
People talked about the 10F raise, they talked about striking. For sure, the issues of the Renault Workers’ Voice aroused some agitation, the petitions were circulating, there were memories of the March attempt; but the situation did not seem to be coming to a head. Some workers showed impatience: “So when are we starting this bloody strike? ...” But others were sceptical.
In one of their meetings, the workers publishing the Renault Workers’ Voice decided to launch some action. On Thursday 17 April 1947, they organised a meeting at lunchtime just outside the canteen. Obviously, shift workers could not attend. But most of the other workers were there. The speaker climbed on a window sill of a building just outside the canteen. He explained the situation to the workers: “Prices are going up. Wages are frozen stiff. What we want is an extra 10F on the basic rate.”
In fact he had not dreamt up this figure. It was the figure that the General Secretary of the CGT, Benoit Frachon, had put forward, and the figure adopted by the Confederal Committee:
What we want is to win on this claim. And in fact there is no other way than striking. The CGT officials are against the strike: so we’ll have to fight without them, and perhaps to fight them.
The speaker disproved the arguments put forward by the delegates during the aborted March strike.
We are told we’re going to starve. We’ve been starving for five years already. We’re told the government will have tear gas bombs shot at us as on 30 November 1938. For five years we’ve had to face other things than tear gas bombs! Those bombs did not only make your eyes cry: they blew your house to pieces and you with it. Sometimes we’re led to wonder whether those who claim membership of the ‘Shot Martyrs’ Party’ or claim to be "Resistance Heroes" saw what was going on during those five years of war.
The speaker spoke frankly about the difficulties of the struggle: there would be hardships, blows, perhaps, and if they failed, dismissals. But at the same time he reminded the audience of the much more terrible sufferings that “we’ve been enduring recently for interests that weren’t ours.”
In spite of genuine difficulties we’re jolly well capable of organising a struggle and winning this struggle. And those who’re trying to dishearten us by claiming that we’re not capable of this either despise us, or have interests diverging from ours, or both.
The speaker ended his speech by calling the workers to action. First he proposed that the principle of a 10F raise on the basic rate by voted on. All hands went up, except for 30 of them, obstinate Stalinists. Then he proposed forming a Strike Committee and asked for volunteers. The friends of the Renault Workers’ Voice raised their hands. Others did too. The candidates climbed on the improvised platform and the speaker asked the audience to ratify their candidacy by a vote. The audience expected the strike to start immediately. The speaker, however, told them that the newly elected Strike Committee would first take the claim to the management. From then on, this Committee was appointed to act in their name. It would do so. But right then workers were to go back to work.
As soon as the meeting was over, the Strike Committee went to see the department management, who started making difficulties by claiming that the members of the Strike Committee were not ‘legal’ representatives of the workers.
The representatives of the Strike Committee pointed out that they had been elected not on the basis of bourgeois legislation, but by the workers themselves. Refusing any discussion with the Strike Committee would amount to snubbing the workers, who would not fail to draw conclusions as to the situation.
The department chief then changed his defence line. He himself could not decide on a 10F hourly pay rise on the basic rate. He would talk to management about it. The Strike Committee granted him 48 hours to get an answer from the management, and reminded him that the principle of a strike had been adopted.
Obviously the department chair was not at all impressed. After the meeting he had expected a strike to start. Given the hostility of union delegates, such action could not be serious. But it is always annoying for a chief to have to deal with industrial action. This time it seemed that the whole affair had a happy end: just a few immature braggarts coming to see him. Workers had gone back to work. For him this was the main point.
The Strike Committee met several times in order to determine the best conditions for launching the strike. First it sought information on what was in stock. Through storemen they heard that gearwheel stocks were low. It so happened that gearwheels were made by Department 6.
Members of the Strike Committee were inexperienced unskilled workers who knew little about the way the plant was operated. They had to make sure how to cut power supplies centrally for the department under adequate security conditions. But they knew no-one there.
Would the people giving the information be on their side? “If they are PCF members they are most likely to squeal. On the other hand, is their information any good? Are they qualified to give it?”
The workers on the Strike Committee knew how to turn cranks and how to press buttons, but fiddling with 5,000 volt wires, or operating valves dispatching compressed air or steam made them a little nervous. They had to be careful. Indeed, they knew that the slightest mistake would be seized on by the Stalinists and blown out of all proportion to demonstrate how incompetent these ‘adventurers’ were.
When they went back to see the department chief, he naturally had no answer from the management. Action was on the agenda. But there were two problems. First, Thursday was pay day; second, on that day an election was to be held to appoint the representatives of the workers on the board of the Caisses de Securité Sociale (National Health Service), a newly-created body.
In order to launch a strike with a real chance of success, it was advisable to wait until the workers had their pay packets in their pockets since this meant securing a fortnight’s money. On the other hand it was undesirable to launch a strike before the election of the workers’ representatives on the National Health Service Board.
The Strike Committee knew too well that CGT and PCF officials would not fail to use such a decision in order to try and demonstrate that the aims of the ‘Anarcho-Hitlero-Trotskyists’ (to use their own words) were merely to sabotage the election to the Board of the National Health Service in order to do harm to the CGT.
Waiting until the following Monday, however, meant running the risk of seeing the present impetus decline. There was nothing left but the Friday. It meant that the action might be interrupted by the weekend. But on the other hand it made it possible to check the scope of the strike on the first day and withdraw at little cost if the action turned out to be a failure.
On Wednesday 23 April the Strike Committee organised a meeting to give a negative account of the negotiations with the management. Here is an account of this meeting as written by a witness and published in La lutte de classe, the paper of the Union Communiste (Trotskyist) of which the leader of the Strike Committee, Pierre Bois, was a member:
At 12.30, when I arrived, the sidewalk (which is at least eight yards wide) was crowded with workers who were discussing, in small groups of 10 or 12, while groups of workers coming out of the canteen kept joining the crowd. All conversations ran on the same topic: what was going to happen next. The word "strike" was used again and again.
A leaflet circulated from hand to hand in the morning had told us that the Strike Committee, elected in the previous general assembly by 350 votes against eight, had insisted on calling us to a meeting in order to let us know what negotiations had taken place with the management.
Since an appointed time should be respected, at 12.30 prompt, one comrade, already on the window sill, started talking.
In the first row of the audience, which was much bigger than before, stood almost all the workers of both departments not working in shifts, that is about 700 workers, and they exchanged meaningful glances; their faces were rather happy, but their minds were tense.
The comrade explained briefly and clearly the failure of the negotiations; not much of a surprise. And, before an audience of heedful workers, he demonstrated that striking was the only means left to obtain satisfaction.
Amidst cheers of approval coming from everywhere in the audience, he explained that the strike coming up would be a most serious struggle, and that it would have to be fought with determination until the end: “It will not mean playing the accordion or twiddling your thumbs until heaven-sent results turn up. We’ll have to organise to make our action known in all factories, we’ll have to organise a picket line and, if needed, we’ll organise the defence of the plant’s gates.”
His explanation anticipated some objections that could have been raised concerning the money that would be lost in the strike and the ever-possible intervention of the police: he said they would demand that strike days be paid normally: “As for the tear gas the police might be using, for over six years we have been bombed away and no-one ever said anything about it. We have constantly been made to tighten our belts and accept sacrifices imposed on us by the bourgeoisie so that it might defend its riches. Why shouldn’t we find today the strength and courage to make a few sacrifices for ourselves?”
The workers shouted and yelled their approval of these words. When the vote took place, the comrade asked the workers to vote on a strike as a means to be resorted to very rapidly. While only a few voted against the motion, most workers voted for it.
At that moment, the CGT representative, literally pushed by his friends, who had cleared the way for him, stepped forward to explain his point of view, as the comrade had just asked him to do by inviting those who disagreed to say what they thought. In spite of a relatively calm atmosphere, the workers being interested to know his objections, he could not help being told by one worker: “As you can see, here at least, democracy exists.”
Climbing on the window sill, speaking in a low voice and not knowing exactly what to say, the representative started explaining to the workers the “real situation as far as wages are concerned”; unfortunately for him he went on to talk about a delegation that had gone to see Lefaucheux (the demand being that wages be equal at Renault and at Citroen and that the measure be backdated) who, by the way, he said, was nowhere to be found. Obviously workers were sick of delegations, and no sooner had he uttered his last words than his voice was overcome by more or less expressive exclamations: “We’ve had enough of these delegations!” “When do you think you’ll stop taking us for a ride?” “Enough with your delegation, now what we need is action.” I, myself, added: “Equal pay with Citroen? But they’re starving there as well!”
Cutting his speech short, the representative called on the workers to remain calm and warned them against demagogues: this passage was as much jeered as the delegations had been. After which he had to climb down to leave his place to a 30 year old worker who climbed on the window sill to explain in a few words what he thought of delegates and delegations.
Comrades, over the past few months we have been kept waiting for pay rises that were always due to come tomorrow. The same thing happened in February, and we were told that Lefaucheux’s absence was responsible for the failure of our demands. The same thing happened again yesterday: he was not there. And the delegates left, as usual. This can’t last any longer. When shall we stop allowing them to take us for rides? Now what we need is action, not chitchat!
Completing the ideas expressed by this speaker, the first comrade spoke about the minimum survival wage, which had been put forward by the CGT in November and was to have been applied as a backdated measure as well: “But the CGT”, he said, “capitulated on the minimum survival wage, and no further mention of either the minimum survival wage or its backdated effect has ever been made by the CGT since. How can we now believe people who capitulated in this way? What proof do we have that they will not capitulate in exactly the same way tomorrow with their delegation?”
Once this incident brought the debate to an adequate conclusion, the comrade then asked to end the meeting, that the workers express by another vote their confidence in the Strike Committee so that it: be entitled to launch the strike at the right moment. The vast majority that voted to show its confidence in the Strike Committee was the same as in the previous votes. But the ‘against’ votes fell to eight. When the majority was voting, a worker who was next to the representative shouted in his ear: “Can you see them? Can you see how many support action? Get an eyeful!”
Thus the workers had once again voted in favour of the 10F raise on the basic rate. Again they had voted for the strike, and in greater numbers, since on that day even shift workers left their jobs to come to the meeting. In fact, the number of participants had doubled since 17 April. Again workers had re-elected the Strike Committee, enlarged by a few new members. Moreover, since they considered that the management was responsible for the strike, they claimed for the payment of the strike hours.
Bois concluded the meeting, asking the workers to go back to work again and wait for the Strike Committee’s decisions. He reminded them that the strike had been decided on, but that it would start only when the Strike Committee deemed it most fit.
Some workers started growing impatient, or being ironical: “They’re just as bad as the others, they want to do nothing,” or else, “they’re chickening out of it.” PCF and CGT members were laughing up their sleeves. As far as they were concerned, they were dealing with mere beginners.
The meeting took place on the Wednesday, and the members of the Strike Committee knew that they had to wait until after pay day and the election to the Board of the National Health Service, that is until Friday. They were not displeased to see that some were not taking them seriously, for they also wanted to benefit from the effect of surprise; and in fact they were rather pleased with the good trick they were going to play (so they hoped) on those who believed they were phonies.
On the same Wednesday the Strike Committee met in the evening, after work, since, all being unskilled workers, none of them had any official mandate. They met in a basement. In a room just above them, a PCF cell was holding a meeting, which prompted one Strike Committee member to say: “If they knew what we’re doing, they would again say we’re doing underground work!”
Pierre Bois reminded the members of the Strike Committee why Friday had finally been chosen, and asked all members on the Strike Committee to swear that they would keep our intentions secret. The slightest indiscretion would be regarded as treachery and treated as such, but the members of the Strike Committee were sufficiently aware of the importance of their part and of their responsibilities not to indulge in any indiscretion.
The Strike Committee decided to launch the strike on the Friday morning. The Strike Committee was composed of 11 members. Pickets had to be set up at all the gates from six o’clock in the morning as well as at some key points in the plant: the power station, the transformer, etc.
Fifty workers were needed for the pickets. But it was necessary to keep the operation secret in order to benefit from the effect of surprise. This was possible with 11 people who felt they had a responsibility because they had been elected by their comrades. Telling 50 people no doubt meant running a risk. The Strike Committee therefore made the following decisions: the strike would be launched on Friday 25 April. But only Strike Committee members should know about it. Under no circumstances were they to make this decision known to anyone else.
Each Strike Committee member was to recruit five workers and ask them to come on the Friday morning at six o’clock. They were to tell them that there was going to be a rehearsal for the strike. The workers asked to come to this so-called rehearsal were to be asked not to tell that they would be coming on that precise day.
On Thursday 24 April nothing special happened. The workers got their pay slips; the representatives on the National Health Service Board were elected. Some people talked about the strike, naturally, but it seemed hard to believe that it would take place.