Workers direct democracy in France
Source Loren Goldner
Date 00/11/18/00:36

Wednesday, November 08, 2000

An Exceptional Struggle in France

This is an article I greatly reduced and translated for Impact (Youngstown)
on a recent workers' struggle in northern France. Anyone can do with it
what they wish. Loren

153 French Workers Find A Way To Make Themselves Heard

(The following is the translation of a drastic abridgement/ summary of a
much longer article appearing in the Summer 2000 issue of the
French-language journal Echanges.)

Givet is a town of 8,000 on the Belgian border in northern France. The area
was largely dominated by steel and textiles until the plant closings and
restructurings of the 1970's, when it became an ex-industrial wasteland.
22% of the local population is unemployed. The Cellatex plant, where the
following struggle took place, was founded in 1903 and produced one of the
first synthetic fibres. In the early 1950's, it had 700 employees; by July
2000, this number had been downsized to 153, one-third of them women. The
factory had been acquired by the multinational chemical firm Rhône-Poulenc,
but after 1991 it was sold to a series of new owners. The last owner, an
Austrian firm, acquired it to loot its assets.

Since 1991, the successive owners had used the usual threats to close the
plant in order to freeze wages, cut overtime pay, and to impose early
retirements and work on Saturdays and holidays. By spring 2000, there had
been months of useless negotiations to avoid a closing. The workers had put
up with all this in part because four generations in Givet had worked there,
grandparents alongside grandchildren. Still, the plant was old, full of
toxic materials, and had never been seriously "modernized". Having accepted
so many cuts to preserve a factory inseparable from the life of the town,
the workers exploded in rage when the final closing was announced. As one
of them said, "We have been completely forgotten in this boom".

As late as June 30, 2000, talks to save the plant continued, but on July 5,
a local court declared Celatex bankrupt. "We were thrown out like so much
garbage", said one worker. Upon hearing of the bankrupcty, a 41-year old
woman worker said "I didn't hesitate for a second. I'm so angry I'll blow
up the plant..". The workers knew exactly where their weapons were, having
worked with them for years. The European Union had classified Cellatex as
an environmentally high risk plant, having 50,000 liters of sulfuric acid
and other highly toxic and flammable materials. It had occurred to no one
that such "good and docile" workers would turn these materials to such use,
and the local notables had taken no security precautions against such an
action. (During the steel plant closings of the late 1970's, some workers
in the region had in fact burned down one company office.)

By 8:30 PM on July 5, the Cellatex workers had occupied the plant, (In the
first days, there was a total media blackout, making it difficult to
precisely reconstruct events). All workers signed a statement saying they
would blow up the plant unless production was resumed or they received
guarantees of far better severance packages and retraining than were
required by law. The action was outside the control of all union
bureaucracies, and until July 10 the workers made a bonfire of various
products and materials in front of the plant. The offices were stripped,
all computers disappeared, and the plant gate was soldered shut. A leaflet
signed "the hard core of Cellatex" threatened to dump the sulfuric acid into
the Meuse river. A court bankruptcy officer, a local official from the
labor department and a local member of Parliament were forcibly held
overnight in the plant.

At a local meeting of government officials, union bureaucrats and various
city councils to solve the crisis, several workers poured gasoline on the
floor and brandished their cigarette lighters, setting off total panic.
Local authorities evacuated the entire area within a 500-meter radius of the
factory. Those evacuated apparently showed no hostility toward the workers.
When talks resumed to discuss the main demand of 150,000 francs (ca.
$20,000) per worker on top of normal unemployment benefits, the evacuation
was ended.

There was apparently a split in the work force between the "hards" and the
"moderates", though not much is known about it. But the unions met a solid
front of hostility. "The union leaders are politicians completely dominated
by their parties." said one former delegate. " We can't trust them...
There is a total divide between workers struggling for survival and the
future of their children, and the union leaders who still "negotiate" all by
themselves." The authorities adopted a waiting strategy of wearing the
workers down, for months if necessary, a strategy that had worked many times
in the past. But with Cellatex, they had miscalculated. When they proposed
moving the most dangerous chemicals for "security" reasons, one worker
replied: "If these chemicals are moved, the negotiations will end minutes
later. As long as I don't get my security, they won't get theirs." Outside
meetings of local notables, Cellatex workers demonstrated outside with
banners reading "We'll go all the way...boom boom..."

On July 12, 5,000 liters of sulfuric acid, symbolically dyed red, were
dumped into a creek leading to the Meuse. Firemen under police protection
stopped it from reaching the river, but the workers threatened to continue
releasing 10,000 liters every two hours, a threat never carried out. (The
factory had a solid reputation as a polluter, putting 5,000 liters a week of
sulfate derivatives into the river.) One CGT official phoned the factory
and demanded the workers "stop desperate actions". The action did, however,
result in renewed negotiations in Paris. It also broke through the media
blackout on the Cellatex struggle, throughout Europe. The government
strategy was to divide the "hards" and "moderates", who continued violent
debates inside the factory.

The workers kept up the pressure inside and outside the factory, tossing
chemicals into large fires in front of the factory gates and setting off
small demonstrative explosions for the media. Hundreds of cops massed
nearby, out of sight of the factory. On July 19, new terms were proposed to
the workers, and were accepted unanimously. Each worker received 1) a
special indemnity of 80,000 francs (they had initially demanded 150,000, and
been offered 36,000). 2) a monthly supplement to unemployment insurance so
that all workers with more than 6 months in the factory would receive their
full salary for two years 3) special advantages for retraining. The
agreement also established a body to oversee the execution of the agreement
(and also to prevent any renewal of the struggle by workers who had "taken
precautions"). The minister of labor rendered homage to the unions and
local politicians.

In the aftermath, the message of Cellatex to workers throughout France was:
"struggle pays". In endless commentary about it, however, what came through
from all economic, political and trade-union leaders was the fear of seeing
such struggles break out anew, with unforseeable consequences. All the
sociologists were mobilized. Some said that Cellatex "was the cause of all
those who do not see themselves in the claptrap about the Internet
revolution, the blossoming economy and shortening unemployment lines." In
fact, in the two weeks following the Cellatex agreement, similar struggles
broke out in a number of French workplaces.

Some ministers spoke of "terrorism" and "ecoterrorism". In other plants,
surveillance of "dangerous materials" was tightened, and various forms of
trade-union, political and administrative intervention were updated. The
dialectic of class struggle, however, is like a jack-in-the-box, always
breaking out in new forms while the experts try to nail down the old ones.


Readers with a knowledge of French can obtain the full article from
Echanges, BP 241, 75866 Paris Cedex 18, France.

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