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.
The Renault Strike of April and May 1947
Part 3: The strike
On Friday 25 April the first workers arriving at 6.15 to start work at 6.30 found a picket at the gates that was handing out a very brief leaflet. It was not an ordinary leaflet. It was an order issued by the Strike Committee. This order was given in the name of the workers who had appointed the Strike Committee for this:
‘Order to Strike
The Strike Committee, which is composed of the following comrades:
Quatrain, Bois, Merlin, Leveque – Workshop 31;
and was democratically elected by the majority of the workers at the general meeting held on 23 April 1947, and was appointed to launch the fight for a 10F pay rise, is now calling for a strike among all workers in Departments 6 and 18 on Friday 25 April at 6.30 in the morning.
The demands are as follows:
1. A 10F hourly pay rise on the basic rate;
2. Payment of strike hours.
The Strike Committee would like to warn the workers against defeatist individuals who do not hesitate to claim that we shall not win. These people are so much afraid of our victory that they have already been using grassing and police-like manoeuvres in attempts to shatter the authority of the Committee members.
The Strike Committee is asking workers on strike to conform strictly to the instructions given by the Committee.
In the fight that we are starting today, each worker will have a specific task. We must be disciplined and determined. What everyone of us does every day for the boss, we should be capable of doing for ourselves.
Such is the price of victory.
All united in our action. We shall win our just claims.
25 April 1947
On arriving the workers read the strike call. Most kept their ordinary clothes on and waited for the non-shift workers to arrive at 7.30, and then for the meeting to be held at 8.00. Some were sceptical. They were finding it difficult to get rid of their habits. These went to the cloakroom, put on their overalls and then slowly walked to their machines.
At 6.30 in the morning at the end of April, it is pretty dark still. So they tried to switch on the light and ... well! There was no light! They pressed the button to start their machines. Nothing. This time they realised that this was a real strike. Those who had believed in the strike from the start, and had kept their town clothes on, came to watch them with mocking looks, asking:
So? Didn’t you read the leaflet? Don’t you know what "strike" means? You’d better get changed. Electricity isn’t likely to come back soon. Look!
At the back of the workshop, where there was a transformer with a label reading ‘5,000 volt power, danger’ the security grid had been removed, the lever was down, the power had been cut off and a 10-man picket was standing there. At one point, a supervisor, who had just arrived and could not believe his eyes, went up to the picket:
You cut off the power. You must put it back on again immediately. Some of the security devices can’t work without power; you’re going to blow up the whole place!
Unruffled, one picket retorted:
Don’t worry old man, everything’s safe; if you’re in a blue funk, why don’t you just go back to your old woman and hit the sack?
At the gates, the pickets were leafleting the strike call to all workers. Most of them would go up to the platform, where they were invited to join the meeting. Some, so very happy to see that it was ’working’, went to celebrate the event with a drink at the cafe outside the workshops.
At 8.00 the meeting started in the hall. P. Bois explained again the reasons for the strike. He explained to the strikers why the Strike Committee had had to launch the strike on the Friday: “Now action has started. It’ll last until we’ve won!”
One last time he asked the workers to confirm their decision and make it known: “If we are weaklings, it is still time to step back. Otherwise, let’s go ahead!”
For this last vote P. Bois asked the workers of the department who supported the strike to move to his left. A large majority among the workers moved to his left. Those against the strike were to move to his right. The union representatives and a few PCF members were left standing on their own to his right. Abstentions were to move to the bottom of the room. All white blouses and a few grey ones moved towards the other end of the room. The vote was positive. The strike was there for good.
The general secretary of the union, Plaisance, who had come to attend the meeting, asked to be allowed to speak. He disapproved of the strike, he said, but, being a responsible CGT militant, he had taken part in the vote (there were smiles among the audience) and he would respect the workers’ decisions. Then a delegation was formed to take the workers’ demand for a 10F pay rise on the basic rate to the general management. Plaisance, general secretary of the CGT, and a few union representatives, joined the delegation.
The members of the delegation, all workers from the Collas sector, were astounded to see how naturally the union representatives found their way around the offices, how they smiled to big shots and shook hands with them. They really seemed at home in these surroundings. However familiar the union representatives may have been with the place and the people in it, when the delegation reached the office of President Director General Lefaucheux, nobody was there to meet us. We were told that Mr Lefaucheux was in Cameroun.
We were received by the Staff Director and a few other big shots who could do nothing until Mr Lefaucheux was back. The meeting was therefore soon over. Pierre Bois then said to Staff Director Le Garrec, who was asking the members of the delegation to go back to work and wait for the President Director General’s return:
We can only note that you have limited powers. We have warned you. If Mr Lefaucheux wants the plant to go back to work, he’d better hurry back and give us this 10F pay rise on the basic rate.
At Departments 6 and 18 the Strike Committee was getting organised. It took possession of an office. It centralised information and issued orders. A few workers seemed to be spending most of their time celebrating at a nearby cafe. The Strike Committee decided that no worker would be allowed to go out unless he had an exit permit signed by the Committee. Instructions were given to the pickets, who applied them scrupulously.
The Committee was rather flexible. Exit permits were in fact easy to get, unless you seemed to be getting tight. The latter case did not occur too often, and most workers agreed with the measure. They were proud of their strike and did not want it to be spoiled by the excesses of a few individuals who had lost control over themselves. Everything went well and without clashes.
In addition, at the Strike Committee’s request, groups of workers had organised and were going round the plant, calling on other workers to strike as well. Whole shops stopped work. But CGT militants and representatives would start the engines again and exhort the workers not to be drawn into the strike.
Tremendous confusion arose from this situation. In some shops workers stopped work, went back to work, and stopped again. Only at Departments 6 and 18 was the strike complete. The shops were closed, the trucks that had to pass through the sector to go from one shop to another were prevented from going any further.
Shop number 5 (cementation and quenching), the very one that had struck on its own one month earlier under the leadership of a staunch Stalinist, was the only shop that went on working normally. The strikers of Departments 6 and 18 let them go on working. Since all doors had been locked, they would sooner or later run short of parts and either join the strike or merely stop working. Already the women workers in that shop, who had to work under unbearable conditions, were showing interest in the strike.
At one point the Staff Director came round to the Department to ask the leader of the Strike Committee to let the trucks through. As he was getting a negative answer, he threatened him:
“You are taking considerable risks. This is hampering the right to work.”
“I am sorry to say that you are hampering the right to strike, but if you feel like asking the workers to sabotage their strike, please yourself.”
“If you put it this way, you certainly come off best.”
And the gentleman left the premises.
At noon, on the Place Nationale, Plaisance, the CGT general secretary, addressed the workers: “This morning a gang of Anarcho-Hitlero-Trotskyists tried to blow up the plant.” Indignant protest was voiced by those who knew what he was talking about. Those who did not expressed their surprise.
This first strike day ended with two visits. Plaisance, general secretary of the CGT, who, the same morning, had told the Collas workers that although he did not agree with the strike he would follow the workers’ decisions, had to face violent reproach for his attitude at lunchtime, when he had claimed that a group of ‘Anarcho-Hitlero-Trotskyist rowdies’ had attempted to blow up the plant.
He was violently taken to task by some workers, and tried to justify his words by claiming that “in 1936 ‘blowing up a plant’ meant going on strike. Look, comrades, don’t you remember?” What an old hypocritical scab! He was to leave the shop to the boos of the workers, especially of the women workers.
Staff Director Le Garrec also paid us a visit, to see how we were getting on and to try and influence the workers. It should be mentioned that Le Garrec had joined the PCF after the ‘Liberation’, no doubt to strengthen his authority over the staff in these difficult times, following the example set by President Director General Lefaucheux, who had also become President of the France-USSR Association.
A Spanish worker, who had taken part in the uprising of Asturian miners in 1934 and then fought in Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War, and who was on the Strike Committee, then addressed Le Garrec vehemently:
“Sir, yesterday you were the boss here, tomorrow the police may rule the place, but today we are ruling the plant. You have nothing to do here.”
Totally taken aback, the Staff Director retorted: “I will not discuss with foreigners.” Which brought him the following answer back:
“Sir, if one person here is a ‘foreigner’, then it’s got to be yourself. Here we’re all workers; the only bourgeois here, the only ‘foreigner’ is yourself because you’re not part of the same class. Workers do not recognise countries, only classes. Go on, just be off!”
This was a good lesson in internationalism given to a ‘Communist’ Director!
On the Saturday and the Sunday the striking shops were occupied by a few pickets, but nothing of importance happened. The decisions were to be made public on the following Monday. The Strike Committee was getting ready for it. On the Monday morning it issued a leaflet in which it asked all workers in the plant to join the Collas workers already on strike. It called all workers to a rally on the Place Nationale at 12.30.
Groups of strikers went to the gates of the plant to hand out the leaflets. But in many sectors they were attacked by PCF militants. And this made them furious. “Not only are they against the strike, they even beat us up now!”
All morning the strikers of the Collas sector prepared for the 12.30 rally. They knew that the PCF and the CGT were likely to come in great numbers, with cars bearing loud-hailers, in order to sabotage the rally. They made their own megaphones with cardboard and sheet metal. The Strike Committee decided that if the CGT and PCF came with loud-hailer cars that masked the voice of the speakers, the rally would be held inside the plant.
Around 11 o’clock, the Collas strikers scattered around the shops to call workers to the rally (only the pickets stayed at their tasks). As had been the case on the previous Friday, work stopped, started again, and then stopped again. At 12.30, groups of people were proceeding towards the Place Nationale, which was already crowded. On the street there were four cars with loud-hailers: two belonging to the unions, one to L’Humanite, and a fourth, much more powerful one.
Pierre Bois, who was leading the march, started getting in touch with the groups that had been going round the plant:
“Here they are, they’ve brought heavy artillery with them, we’ll have to hold the rally inside the plant.”
Suddenly one comrade came up to us.
“What’s on? Why did you stop?”
“Haven’t you noticed? We’ll have to stay inside with all these loud-hailers: no one’s going to hear us!”
“Stop it! The loudest is ours! The Young Socialists are holding their Congress. This morning they came to see us. We asked them if they knew where we could find a car with a loud-hailer. They agreed to let us have theirs for free! Come on out, the Communists are green with anger!”
Indeed, we were able to hold our rally. Our loud-hailer was more powerful than the other three put together. At the end of the rally, we went to Factory O about one mile away. When we arrived there they stopped work.
When we got back to Collas, the office of the Strike Committee was overflowing with dozens of delegations. Some workers were coming on their own, others were coming on behalf of their shops, others had been elected and represented whole departments. That evening over 10,000 workers had gone on strike.
On the following day, Tuesday 29 April, there were 12,000 strikers in the morning. Then the CGT attempted a manoeuvre. It called a stoppage between 11 and 12 o’clock to support their own demands. This fooled no one. Those who were not already on strike stopped work at 11.00, but did not go back to work at 12.00. From then on the whole plant was on strike.
In the afternoon, over 2,000 Collas strikers demonstrated in front of the Head Offices. Lefaucheux was not in. He was at the Ministry. When he came back in the evening, with a much smaller number of demonstrators still there, he refused to meet the Strike Committee. He even tried to sound tough: “In the Resistance they called me Commander Gildas”, thereby conveying that no one would influence him.
The next day, the Central Strike Committee that had formed round the Collas Strike Committee called for a general strike in the whole plant. In fact the general strike had already started on the Tuesday, but the General Strike Committee, by issuing this call on behalf of the numerous delegations that had appointed its 105 members, wanted to take on a leading position in the strike movement.
The CGT printed a slanderous leaflet announcing a rally on that evening in the square Henri Barbusse. Then it finally decided to hold the rally on the Ile Seguin in order to take the situation in hand again.
In the meantime, the Central Strike Committee was meeting. But suddenly someone came to tell them that CGT commandos were ‘sweeping away’ the picket line. The Central Strike Committee then interrupted its session, and went to the Ile Seguin. There it failed to be allowed to speak in the CGT rally.
On their way back, edgy members of the CGT threatened to liquidate members of the Strike Committee by throwing them into the Seine; some workers intervened and finally the situation cooled down.
In the evening the Stalinists organised to turn out the Collas strikers who were occupying their department. Defence then got organised as well: boxes of bolts, gearwheels, compressed air to spray acid, etc. When they heard that the Collas strikers were ready to defend themselves, the CGT people gave up their plans.
On May Day the CGT parade marched from Republique to Concorde. The Strike Committee printed 100,000 copies of a leaflet to be handed out along the route taken by the march. This leaflet, which called for a general strike, was printed at the Enterprises de Presse Réaumur, and the printers gave up their pay for printing the leaflet as a sign of solidarity.
Along the May Day march there were numerous clashes, some of them violent, between the CGT teams of stewards and the strikers, who had been joined by Young Socialists.
On 2 May, the Strike Committee sent delegations to the gates of numerous plants to call on the workers to join the struggle. Everywhere they encountered sympathy on the part of workers, who, in a number of cases, decided to go on strike too. But very often PCF thugs sparked off fights and work started again. This is what happened at Citron’s Balard plant and at the Snecma Kellerman plant.
Inside the plant the CGT intensified its slanderous campaign. It organised a referendum for or against going on with the strike, warning the workers at the same time that the solution of the conflict in fact depended on a government decision.
Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History
21,286 workers took part in the vote:
The CGT bowed to the workers’ decision, but went on with its disparaging campaign. The Strike Committee was informed via employees working in the offices that people in ‘good positions’ could arrange a meeting with the Labour Minister Daniel Meyer. Since they wanted to seize every opportunity to settle the conflict, the Strike Committee sent a delegation to see a certain Mr Gallienne.
Very quickly the delegation members realised that they were discussing with a former right hand of Louis Renault’s, who would have liked to manoeuvre the Strike Committee into an anti-nationalisation operation. They immediately stopped any discussion with him.
On 8 May the Strike Committee obtained an appointment with MRP deputy Beugniez, President of the Labour Committee at the Assembles Nationale. This gentleman was in fact interested in checking whether the CFTC could benefit from any anti-CGT elements involved in the conflict. We told him what’s what: he was very much disappointed to see how determined we were.
On Friday 9 May the CGT issued a leaflet in which it announced that the management had granted 3F per hour on the production bonus. On this basis it was calling workers back to work.
By 12,075 votes against 6,866, the workers voted to go back to work. But at the Collas shops, where the strike had originated, a large majority of the workers were in favour of going on fighting.
On Monday 12 May work was supposed to start again. But the Strike Committee believed that if the strike was to end it should do so in an orderly manner, as it had started. It therefore called on all workers to a meeting at 8 o’clock in the morning that day. But the workers were not ready to capitulate. The leader of the Strike Committee, Pierre Bois, explained that:
If we were not able to make the management give in over the essential demand for a 10F rise on the basic rate while the whole plant was on strike, it would be unrealistic to hope for a victory by pursuing the fight in one sector only. However, we cannot accept a defeat.
He suggested continuing the strike until we obtained the payment of the strike hours.
The employee welfare officer came to try and dishearten the strikers by talking about the problems in connection with “impeding the liberty to work”. To no avail. The workers voted by a large majority for the proposal put forward by the leader of the Strike Committee.
Solidarity was organised. On the Monday, 50,000F were collected by workers in other sectors of the plant, who, though they had resumed work, thereby made it clear that they were in no way hostile to the Collas strikers.
The CGT intensified its campaign of slander and denigration, using the words ‘edgy’ and ‘dividers’ to refer to the strikers, and demanding that the Minister of Labour, Daniel Meyer, take steps to make the plant work.
The Collas shops, however, did not work, which paralysed the rest of the plant and worried the management. The latter made it known to the Strike Committee that they were ready to receive a delegation from the Strike Committee if it included “regularly elected representatives”. The Strike Committee accepted this offer.
Of course it meant that the management were trying to keep up appearances by receiving the Strike Committee unofficially. But everyone understood this juridical trick and no one saw any compromise in being accompanied by representatives who had always opposed the strike.
As to the union representatives, they did not seem to mind this compromise with the ‘Hitlero-Trotskyists’ on the Strike Committee either. Those flunkeys were only too happy with the honour bestowed on them by the boss’s request that they hold his door for these ‘edgy strikers’.
The President Director General started his speech by warning the strikers against the dangers of a prolonged conflict: dangers for the enterprise, for its nationalisation, for the workers themselves. Pierre Bois pointed out that in the present situation such dangers could easily be averted if the management agreed to pay strike hours. Pierre Lefaucheux then tried to use sentimental arguments:
“I know, Monsieur Bois, that if you tell your comrades to go back to work they will do so; and I am asking you to do this.”
Bois jumped on hearing those words:
“Are you asking me to betray my comrades? There’s no point in discussing any further.”
“Do not get angry, I didn’t meant to offend you.”
“This is just what you did. But if you believe that the workers are ready to capitulate, you can go and see for yourself.”
This in fact was a gamble. Bois thought that Lefaucheux would shy away from the proposal.
“All right. I’ll talk to them.”
“OK, we’ll tell them that you’re coming to see them.”
The members of the Strike Committee left, followed by Lefaucheux and his executives. Some comrades rushed ahead to prepare a platform for the director: the greasy platform of a truck. Once they had reached the department, Bois climbed on the improvised platform first and called the workers. Addressing Lefaucheux in front of the assembled workers, he said:
Sir, you are here in a striking sector: as the leader of the Strike Committee it is my duty to welcome you and introduce you to my comrades.
Comrades, this is Monsieur Lefaucheux who is coming here to ask you to sabotage your strike with your own hands. He does not want to pay for the strike hours, but he would like you to go back to work. He’s been claiming that you didn’t really want to go on with the strike, and that if you didn’t go back to work it was due to my influence on you. I offered him to come and try to influence you the other way round. This is what he is going to try and achieve. Sir, you may speak.
Lefaucheux had gone livid. “This isn’t really fair play, is it?” he said. Then he delivered his speech amidst icy silence. When he had finished the workers escorted him back, each one of them asking for the 10F and normal pay for the strike hours.
Part 4: The management gives in
On Friday 16 May the management, ‘in order to create a climate favouring production’, offered to give 1,600F for going back to work and an advance of 900F for all (this advance was in fact never taken back). This amounted to giving satisfaction in a disguised manner to the Strike Committee’s demand for the payment of strike hours.
On this basis, on Monday 19 May, one final general assembly was held by the strikers and then the Strike Committee proposed that workers go back to work. After another meeting and a vote all workers went back to work.
The workers of the Collas sector did not feel defeated. They had started before the others, stopped after the others, and, owing to their tenacity, they had obtained the unofficial payment of strike hours for all.
All workers had been on strike from 29 April until 5 May, that is eight working days. The wages of an unskilled worker were approximately 7,000F a month (i.e. 20 working days); the workers went back to work with 2,500F as a payment for strike hours. Most workers in the plant in fact did not lose a cent in the strike.
At the Collas shop, workers had been on strike from 25 April until 16 May, that is 15 working days. As for them, they had, therefore, lost some money in the process, but it was partly compensated for by the money raised to support the strike.
The Collas workers were not disappointed at all. They had organised their strike themselves. In spite of CGT hostility they had held the fort. They had even won. Of course, whether people liked it or not, the 3F on the production bonus was one thing they had won as well. They had obtained money for the strike hours This was not a victory, but it was a success. And one of the Collas workers felt proud indeed when he told us what another worker had said to him:
“All the same, it’s thanks to you, the gearwheel guys, that we got the 1,600 Francs and the 900 Francs.”
But the Collas workers were also happy and proud because they had overcome pressures. Both those exerted by the supervisors and by the bureaucrats. For them the sector was a small Republic where freedom and democracy prevailed. “In our sector, we have no chiefs, we all take part in the decisions made”, one worker said proudly. They were proud of their strike because they were truly taking part in it.
Every morning and several times each day there was a general assembly where they decided what was to be done. First the pickets, then the delegations to the other shops in the plant during the first week, then to other plants as well during the second week.
And then there was solidarity. Groups would leave in the morning and visit shopkeepers or go to the gates of other plants with the badge of the Strike Committee and sealed trunks. Not that anyone feared that some strikers might put the money they had raised into their own pockets, but the workers wanted things to be ‘straight’. In the evening they would count the money. Delegations from other plants also brought back moral as well as financial support.
Everything was written down and posted at the Strike Committee’s office. Everything was distributed equitably at the end of the strike, since the workers had been able to live on their pay packet for the whole time that the strike lasted. Remember that the Strike Committee had been careful to launch the strike the day after pay day.
As regards the CGT, things went differently. Money was coming in as well, from collections, as well as gifts from unions. One day the CGT announced that the strikers could get one kilo of cod and one kilo of lentils! There was much talk among the Collas workers about the CGT’s lentils and cod. The CGT had also asked workers in need to write down their names.
There was a row when the leader of the Strike Committee said one day at a general assembly: “Those who had their names down for CGT help won’t be kept waiting long.” It so happened that, thanks to the team in charge of cleaning the shops, we had laid our hands on the list of those who had registered for help ... it was at the bottom of a wastepaper basket.
These are small details for sure, but they do show the difference between an action organised by the workers themselves and one organised in a bureaucratic way.
After denouncing violently the ‘irresponsible’ men composing the ‘agitators’ committee’ who had carried on the strike in spite of its call to go back to work, the CGT now claimed – as might have been expected – that it had obtained the latest concessions made by the management. It made no bones about writing that the ‘local union’ had won the 1,600F for all by “pursuing its action” (which action?). It went on to say “this victory was won by our delegation after two more hours of discussion in the office of the Labour Minister D Meyer and in the presence of the management.”
Two hours of discussion led by the CGT, or one extra week of strike led by the Collas workers? The authors of this leaflet had not shrunk from writing the most blatant and ridiculous lies.
They had become experts at fabricating after-the-fact truths. But they benefited from the enormous organisational powers of the CGT and had at their disposal considerable propaganda means. In fact this leaflet gave a good picture of what the attitude of the CGT had been throughout the strike.
As we saw, the CGT first stood up firmly and brutally against the strike. But later on it shrewdly altered its policies as often as needed, in order to avoid being outflanked. When it realised it would not be able to crush the determination of the Collas sector, it endeavoured to isolate it politically and materially. Its slanderous campaign became worse at the very time when the CGT was taking part in the strike. Through these complementary tactics the union leadership was in fact pursuing a single aim: taking over the initiative and the leadership of the movement by restricting the influence of the Strike Committee to the Collas sector, which had turned out to be unmanageable. And as we saw this was not an easy task. First the CGT thought it would reach its aims by calling a one-hour strike throughout the plant. But then the workers refused to go back to work at the end of the official strike. And when on Wednesday 30 April, the Strike Committee launched its call for a general strike in the whole plant, being confronted with the success of this call the CGT had to organise a secret vote. On Friday 2 May, once the strike had been ratified, the CGT was in a leading position in the Renault strike; and it frantically multiplied meetings with the management and the Labour Ministry so that an acceptable compromise could be found.
It appears clearly that, seeing that it could not channel workers’ discontent at Renault, the CGT decided in the evening of 2 May to take the lead of the movement in order to control it better. Such tactics have now become traditional, but in 1947 it was the result of a political choice. This choice was made by the PCF for all the political consequences that, as the PCF was well aware, would not fail to arise from it. But it was a fundamental choice which reveals accurately the contradictory nature and the policies of the French Communist Party.
The PCF had been in the government since 1944. In the last ministerial reshuffle (22 January 1947), the new President of the Republic, Vincent Auriol, a Socialist, had asked Ramadier, another Socialist, to form a new Cabinet. The PCF had obtained unprecedented jobs: Maurice Thorez, a State Minister, was Vice Premier; François Billoux got the much coveted job of Defence Minister and, of course, Ambroise Croizat kept the Ministry of Labour and National Health Service. Another Communist, Georges Marrane, was appointed Health Minister, and Charles Tillon this time got the job of Minister of Reconstruction and Urbanism.
These ministers were tied by government solidarity. That meant that they could not vote against the government, or else they would be fired. In many instances the PCF had to stand up respectfully in its press against government policies in order to spare its working class base; but it found expedients so as to go on participating in the Cabinet while claiming some divergences with the policies adopted. Thus, on the Indochina War issue, the ‘Communist’ ministers cast votes of confidence in the government while the 183 ‘Communist’ deputies abstained. Similarly, on 16 April 1947, when the Prime Minister asked that parliamentary immunity be removed for three deputies from Madagascar who were regarded as the leaders of the uprising that had started on 29 March, the Communist ministers left the Cabinet meeting in order not to have to take a stand.
Nevertheless, these demonstrations that were agreed on beforehand and accepted a priori by the government partners of the PCF did not raise the question of whether they should go on participating in the government.
But the Renault strike was a quite different case.
As early as 30 April, when the strike had not yet officially been voted on at Renault, while 20,000 workers were already on strike, following the instructions of the Strike Committee, the PCPs Political Bureau denounced “the refusal equitably to re-adjust the workers’ wages” and Maurice Thorez announced in the Cabinet meeting that the PCF was disassociating itself from the price and wage freeze policies enforced by the government.
This was the beginning of the ‘crisis’. Ramadier, the Prime Minister, pretended to believe that the PCF would seize the opportunity of the May Day parade to organise trouble! He then placed inconspicuous security forces around the Elysee and various ministries. He sent instructions to military commanders for “an alert plan preparation” and called back to Paris Edouard Herriot, the President of the Chamber of Deputies, who was sick, to replace President Auriol, who was away.
This ostentatious demonstration of panic is to be understood in the light of Ramadier’s decision to get rid of the Communist ministers. In fact, to achieve the split from the Communists he decided to have the matter debated in the Assemblée Nationale in order to compel the dissenting ministers to express their stand clearly in a public vote.
On Friday 2 May, following a scenario agreed on in advance, a Socialist deputy challenged the government (at Ramadier’s suggestion) on the problem of wages and prices. The vote of confidence was set for 4 May, and yielded 360 votes for and 186 against. The Communist ministers, just like the other Communist deputies, had voted against the government.
On that very evening, Ramadier asked the Communist ministers to resign. They refused. Ramadier then immediately withdrew the powers he had granted them. And the Journal Officiel dated 5 May recorded the decree reshuffling the Cabinet in the following terms:
The functions of Messrs Maurice Thorez, Minister of State, Vice-Prime Minister, Franqois Billoux, Defence Minister, Ambroise Croizat, Minister of Labour and National Health Service, Charles Tillon, Minister of Reconstruction and Urbanism, are considered to be terminated following the vote that they cast in the Assembles Nationals on 4 May 1947.
The fifth Communist Minister, Georges Marrane, Health Minister, was not dismissed because he had not taken part in the vote, since he was not a deputy. He resigned on the same day. The tripartite alliance was over.
Part 5: Conclusion
The Renault strike of April and May 1947 was an important event on several grounds. First, because through this strike workers restored their connections with the tradition wrought in past struggle, by rediscovering strike action as a class weapon. Secondly, because the Renault strike gave a renewed and tremendous impetus to the working class movement. As Pierre Monatte wrote: “Renault opened the lockgates and a wave of strikes swept through France.” After May 1947, numerous plants were to go on strike in their turn; they were followed by the railwaymen and, a few months later, by the miners. Finally, politically speaking, it was the direct cause of the end of the Communist participation in the government that had struggled along since the ‘Liberation’: with De Gaulle first and then through the Tripartite Alliance. Last, but not least, this strike, launched and organised by revolutionary militants relying on the combativeness of the workers against the management, the state and union leaderships, showed that militants could contest the PCF’s de facto monopoly on the working class in one of its working class strongholds, and that they were the only ones defending the real interests of the working class in the short term as well as in the long term.
The departure of the PCF ministers from the tripartite government is not a minor event. Even if the international situation was bound, sooner or later, to trigger this departure, it is nevertheless important that in April 1947 it was their choice if they broke up the coalition, and they did so on a national issue, this issue being the relationship between the PCF and the working class. This relationship being difficult and contradictory.
Like all reformist organisations whose fundamental rô1e is to defend the interests of the bourgeoisie within the working class movement, the PCF is subjected to two types of antagonistic pressures in its everyday political activity, that of its base and of the working class on the one hand, that of the bourgeoisie on the other hand. More often than not this contradiction will find a solution in ‘reasonable’ protest policies that enable workers’ discontent to express itself without jeopardising either the normal functioning of the capitalist system or the political domination of the bourgeoisie. When working class pressure becomes stronger, however, when it gets impossible to channel workers’ discontent and restrict it to limited actions under bureaucratic control, the space for the reformist bureaucracy to manoeuvre becomes even narrower.
Depending on the degree of combativeness of the working class, depending on the more or less severe threat that it carries for the social order, these organisations are compelled to go hand in hand with the workers, at least to a certain extent, and even precede them in order not to lose all their credit among them. This is what happened in May 1968. This will trigger a split with the bourgeoisie, albeit a rather limited one, mainly tactical and temporary, and comprising a whole range of degrees according to the social crisis at hand, but never reaching a definitive split. On the contrary, even. Indeed, when the working class goes as far as threatening directly the rule of the bourgeoisie, as far as setting up its own fighting organs or power structures, then, history constantly provides proof of this, reformist organisations will overtly choose to side with the bourgeoisie and oppose the workers relentlessly.
This has not yet happened in France. However powerful strike actions may have been, they never led workers to set up their own autonomous leadership to lead the struggle, and the PCF has always been in a position to bring a strike to an end. But it is nevertheless true that the PCF can launch a strike, even a general strike; this has been proved several times since 1947, be it only in May 1968.
In 1947, when compelled to choose between its participation in the government, that is, its much-desired integration into bourgeois political life, and its support for the strikes that were starting to develop, it chose the latter. Why?
Because the PCF, being suspect in the eyes of the French bourgeoisie because of its links with the Soviet Union, has only one trump card to force the bourgeoisie to recognise it: its influence on the French working class. Losing this influence means losing its only trump card. It means following in the steps of the SFIO, which is now little more than the ghost of a workers’ party. The PCF will not accept this unless a fundamental crisis occurs, that is in a directly pre-revolutionary period.
Such was not the case in May 1947, nor was it the case in May 1968. And the PCF could, even if it meant discrediting itself somewhat in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, side publicly with the strikers.
This political choice was obviously meant to strengthen and reassert its ascendancy over the working class movement; even so, it was obvious that this policy of the PCF involved open and very violent attacks on the ‘irresponsible leftists’ (the latter word was not yet fashionable in 1947) that had launched the strike, while the PCF itself was spreading and supporting this very strike. Reading the CGT leaflets distributed at Renault is indeed rather revealing. The same kind of literature was to be found again in May 1968. It is again to be found in May 1971, in the present Renault struggle. “Never will the PCF allow anyone to outflank it on its left”, Duclos is rumoured to have declared in front of the Assemblée Nationale. In any case this is the policy that it has been pursuing since, and this explains its hatred for ‘the leftists’.
But also, and the PCF is fully aware of this, this is its weak point: by pursuing a nationalist, reformist, inefficient and demoralising policy decided from day to day, the PCF is certainly likely to be criticised on its left. The respectful opposition to which it restricts itself, both politically and in its demands for the working class, is void of either efficiency or prospects. And when workers want to defend their standards of living or their security, they have to do so ‘in spite o’ the ‘Communists’ or even ‘against’ them. In this respect as well, the Renault strike that took place in April and May 1947 is full of lessons. The CGT certainly talked about defending wages, but it did not do a thing to carry the slightest demand through. The action of the militants of the Union Communiste at Renault was to bring this contradiction into broad daylight by starting a struggle, by materialising the contradiction between the mass of the workers and the policies of concerted inertia pursued by the union.
And the Renault strike of April and May 1947 showed what could be done in such a case. Certainly the divorce between the working class and the PCF was not complete, except perhaps at the Collas shops. The revolutionaries who led the struggle were not numerous enough, they were too young and too obscure to lead the experiment any further than what was achieved at Renault. But their merit was to show concretely, through a correct policy and practice and in a struggle that had national consequences, the path to be followed, the work to be done, and the prospects that were really open for revolutionaries accepting a tussle with the PCF within the working class.
These prospects still exist. They are even more obvious now. The PCF no longer is in the government, but the braking role played by the CGT and the PCF is becoming more and more obvious for ever larger numbers of workers. This consciousness is still dim, since plants are lacking in revolutionary militants who might materialise it. The role of the revolutionary vanguard today is to make up as quickly as possible for this situation. This is the task that the militants of Lutte Ouvrière have set themselves, and that they try to achieve every day. Thereby they feel they are pursuing the work initiated by the militants of the Union Communiste, work that gave rise in 1947 to the first great strike of the post-war period.