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Terence Phelan

French Worker Grow Restive Under
Deepening Crisis; Strikes Break Out

Militancy Checked by “Loyal” CGT Bureaucrats

(September 1938)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 36, 3 September 1938, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

PARIS, August 18. – Under the calm of the August vacations, premonitory rumblings presage an uneasy autumn. Just prior to the opening of the disquieting German maneuvers, the franc reached the lowest point permitted under its new stabilization. The weakness of its subsequent recovery, coupled with the visit of Morgenthau, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, suggests the possibility of another devaluation, but even more the probability of France’s first trying some special form of exchange control.

After the boastful self-congratulations of French imperialism on the success of its first pre-war war-loan, it is significant that after three whole weeks there have not been issued any figures whatsoever on the public acceptance of the second, the National Defense Bonds. French capitalism continues to be sick. And whoever has not temporarily escaped to the forgetfulness of vacationing is nervous. No sooner is the Nippon-Soviet incident settled than Italy closes its French frontier. Just when lenient judges had freed the last of the C.S.A.R., 140 tubes of cheddite are found in a Cagoulard’s garden near Clermont-Ferrand. And though wholesale price indices soften slightly, the retail cost of living inexorably rises.

Marseilles labor, always militant, now increasingly active, holds attention on the strike front. After 24 days, the strike of the metal workers, sabotaged by its own national federation in the C.G.T. went down to bitter and angry defeat. But no sooner had the bosses permitted themselves a little too-public gloating than the strike burst out again. A temporary truce and resumption of work was arranged on August 17, but the situation smolders angrily.

Dock Workers Strike

Meanwhile the dock workers become an increasingly irritating thorn in the bosses’ sides. Demanding 64 francs a day instead of 55½ (the franc is quoted this week at 2.73 cents), the dockers refused to work any supplemntary hours beyond the statutory 40 unless they were given good overtime percentages above the regular hourly rate, and enforced their demandjs by direct action. Now the shipping company bosses are about the most reactionary in France, demonstrably behind two important fascist factions, the C.S.A.R. and de la Rocque’s P.S.P. They have unleashed a furious campaign against the dockers. First they demanded that the government as it had threatened to do in the Paris transport strike, declare a state of emergency and call the dockers (who are army reservists) to the colors for strike duty; then, under threat of the army penalties for mutiny and desertion, make them work the boats and break their own strike.

[Since this was written, Senegalese troops were used last week-end to move cargo that the Marseilles dock workers refused to handle after they had worked their 40-hour week. – Ed.]

When the government showed it was afraid to do this, the shipowners started a wild agitation in Algeria among the fruit and vegetable growers, some of whose shipments have been partly spoiled in the port of Marseilles by the dockers’ refusal to break the 40 hours. Mediators sent by the French capitalist state have, on not very plausible technicalities, decided invariably against the workers. But worst of all, the C.G.T., the national labor federation, is doing absolutely nothing to help this strike of one of its own unions, and the trade-union bureaucrats have to date succeeded in holding back the other

Marseilles workers from any solidarizing action with the dockers. No accident, but policy, this sabotage by the C.G.T. of the strikes of its own component organizations is deeply significant. The Marseilles struggle looks to be long-drawn-out, a war of attrition (though at present writing the Marseillais may succeed in getting a general strike of stevedores in all French Mediterranean ports). And, with the sabotaging attitude of the C.G.T. tops, the prognosis is not very favorable. The situation should be underlined, however, as symptomatic of the situation of French labor today: a basic militancy, kept carefully localized and canalized by the trade-union bureaucracy, and sabotaged if it gets out of hand.

Teachers Show Militancy

The other side of the picture is more cheering. Preparatory to the annual convention of the C.G.T. in November, its component federations are holding each its own. Among these the pacesetter has always been the teachers’ union, outstanding for being almost unanimously representative of the teachers of France (110,000 members out of 130,000 teachers). This union has just held (August 3-6), at Nantes, an exciting congress. The directing majority under Delmas, straight syndicalist rather than political, submitted a majority general report smashingly condemning Popular Frontism as a sell-out and a failure, frankly telling the Stalinist party to keep its tyrannical hands off the teachers’ union, and demanding militant action in the autumn for the demands of the teachers and all the other government functionaries.

This program the Stalinists, swallowing their rage as best they might, had to support with all their weight, because the minority program, put forward by the revolutionary left under Valliere, went ten times as far in the same direction, and the serious danger of its passage had conditioned the leftness of the majority resolutions. The vote, 862 to 238, with 38 abstentions, gives some idea of the leavening force of the revolutionary left. Finance-capital’s organ, Le Temps, which has lately been getting more and more jittery about labor, rushed out a front-page editorial, raving about ‘a state within a state,’ hinted treason, and generally acted hysterical. But more was to come.

Jouhaux Booed

The next day, following the enthusiastic singing of The International, Jouhaux, the William Green of France, attempted to address the convention. Half the delegates and all the audience (over a thousand non-delegate teachers) whistled and booed him into silence. It was necessary to clear the hall and severely warn the delegates before Jouhaux could purr his hurt and honeyed words to the still sullen and often angrily interrupting congress. (One may imagine the embarrassment of the Stalinists, who hope by giving Jouhaux a post in their international trade-union organization to get as a swap high posts for themselves in the C.G.T..)

The teachers’ convention is as significant as the Marseilles dockers’ struggle. If the other C.G.T. union congresses, taking this keynote, will renew the class-struggle militancy they had in 1936, the November Convention of the C.G.T. will relaunch French labor on that revolutionary path from which the will-o’-the-wisp of Popular Frontism lured it so tragically away.

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Last updated: 13 September 2015