The Struggle at Peugeot in France

August 25, 2013

When the management of the PSA Peugeot Citroën group announced, in early July 2012, that it was eliminating 8,000 jobs and closing the Aulnay plant near Paris (3,000 employees) in 2014, it caused a shock wave, well beyond the workers in the automotive sector. The Peugeots, the largest shareholders of PSA, are one of the richest families in France. The anger and anxiety provoked by these announcements, which also anticipated layoffs at the PSA plants in Rennes and in Sevelnord, could have been the spark for a larger movement, the beginning of a working-class counter-offensive. Jean-Pierre Mercier, the CGT[1] union representative of Aulnay, reflected this state of mind when he made a strong statement, echoed by the media, and generally much appreciated: “They declared war on us. We will make war on them!” Since Mercier is also one of the spokesmen of the Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvriere (LO)[2] this raised even more hopes for a political offensive going beyond the framework of the factory.

At Aulnay itself, however, Mercier and the CGT team, which included other LO activists, explained that it would be a mistake to wear themselves out by starting an immediate strike. The struggle, in their view, should be conceived as “a marathon, not a sprint.” The upshot, after a general assembly elected a committee to prepare the struggle, was that the CGT-Aulnay was, in July, more concerned with establishing unity with the SIA,[3] the company union, than in quickly testing the determination and combativeness of the workers by proposing a strike of 1–2 days. All arguments put forward revolved around saving the Aulnay plant, with the help of workers in other factories, and not in building an overall movement with general demands. Mercier and his friends also said they could save Aulnay by “producing a small car,” a strange “industrial” argument coming from self-styled “revolutionary” activists.

The outbreak of the “war” was thus postponed until after the August 2012 holidays, both giving PSA time to organize its strategy and allowing the Hollande government[4] to wash its hands of the matter, while at the same time letting the PSA Aulnay workers not expect too much from the struggle, or even to start looking for work elsewhere.

But in September, the “war,” i.e., the strike, was no longer on the agenda. The CGT-LO activists explained that it was not possible to launch an effective struggle with less than a thousand employees. At a meeting celebrating one hundred years of PSA in Sochaux, an LO militant from CGT-Aulnay declared that, henceforth, striking would be playing into the hands of the bosses, remarks casting a chill over the audience.

In October, however, an opportunity arose to really launch a major movement, one involving workers from other factories and from other combative sectors, making it clear that the problem of Aulnay was everyone’s problem, i.e., of all those currently undergoing or threatened by redundancy schemes and competitiveness plans. But the CGT-Aulnay turned its back on this perspective. It refused to participate in a broadly based annual disruption, by militant trade unionists and auto workers, of the highly-publicized International Motor Show in Paris. Significantly, when Philippe Poutou, NPA[5] candidate in the presidential elections and CGT delegate at the Ford factory near Bordeaux, wanted to speak at a rally in Aulnay after participating in the auto show action, Mercier and friends objected.

Nevertheless, the idea of joint action at the auto show was so popular among trade union members and in particular among CGT militants at different PSA, Renault, and Goodyear factories that the CGT Aulnay was obliged to join it later, on the morning of October 9. But it did so while working to put the brakes on the mobilization, which by that time involved 2,500 people. Mercier and his comrades even tried to stop angry workers who wanted to enter the Auto Show and confront the CRS.[6] One Goodyear demonstrator made his displeasure known to an LO militant in a very direct way. Following this raucous mobilization, a spontaneous and dynamic procession of several hundred workers crossed Paris to link up withh a demonstration of all of the major unions planned for that afternoon.

Without going into further details, the LO militants at PSA systematically pursued a policy of isolating the Aulnay factory and refusing to coordinate combative groupings in the various factories and industries around the country.But once the risk of a wider, overall struggle had faded away, the CGT-LO militants could indulge in resolute language calling for a “major struggle.” In fact, everything began to be focused mainly on negotiations with the PSA, with many stoppages in different workshops at the Aulnay factory, and timely interventions by a few dozen workers at some other auto plants, actions that were always welcomed by their colleagues.

Since negotiations with the Peugeot bosses and government officials in late October, November and December were going nowhere, the workers at PSA Aulnay bit the bullet and and struck on January 16, 2013. There was some damage to company property and angry slogans were painted on the walls. The strikers initially numbered about 500 out of a total of approximately 3,000 employees. It was a wildcat strike, but soon the CGT (LO) jumped in and took the lead. (Though they had not called the strike!) This very small strike lasted four months. The suspension of the strike was voted at a general assembly on May 17, and work resumed on May 21.

During these four months, a lot of pressure was put on the strikers by 200 managers who were permanently moblized in the workshops. The strikers were tacitly supported by the non-strikers, so that very few cars were produced in this period. The militant core of strikers had fallen to two hundred people by April.

The militants multiplied actions outside the factory (even though in the previous fall, Mercier, from LO, had repeatedly said that minority actions outside the factory did not make sense). The workers invaded various locales and disrupted various official meetings (including a meeting between the MEDEF[7] and a Council of the SP[8]). Actions at other plants by some dozens of strikers (e.g., at PSA Saint-Ouen and at Renault-Cleon) were well received, without of course fundamentally changing the balance of power.

Financial solidarity worked very well, with contributions coming from all over France. All told 800,000 euros were collected, which made it possible to give each striker 1,000 euros on three different occasions and which kept up their morale and their determination.

The agreement ending the strike canceled all penalties (especially dismissal procedures against four union delegates) and allowed those workers willing to leave in the near future to receive at least 60,000 euros (with up to 100,000 euros for those with seniority). Eight-hundred fifty employees immediately requested dismissal with maximum compensation, because those who want to stay are likely to get much less later (a minimum of €40,000). What was won is roughly what has been won in other movements of this kind, centered on one site and enjoying a certain solidarity.

Another strategy could have been attempted and implemented in September and October 2012 (the coordination of struggle, making possible its spread), but from the moment that Mercier and his comrades gave priority to a highly delineated struggle…at the negotiating table…we can say that, fortunately, by January of this year the strikers had had enough and finally just managed to save what was still possible within the framework of a single plant and two hundred strikers. Within this four-month movement, which could no longer be spread, LO thus probably did everything necessary so that the movement, which it had helped to restrain, got everything it could get from PSA, and salvaged in part the morale of the workers at the factory.

That said, the Aulnay plant will close on December 31, 2013, and the management of PSA will achieve what it wanted: the elimination of 11,200 jobs (3,000 at Aulnay and 1,400 at the plant in Rennes) and an open door for its “competitiveness plan” at the group level, which will result in a sharp deterioration of working conditions, hours and wages. Note that during the first months of 2013, the government and the MEDEF succeeded in passing a national agreement (ANI) signed by the CFDT, CFTC and CGC and weakly opposed by the leaders of the CGT and FO[9]; nonetheless, locally, some groups from the CGT and Solidaires (SUD) and were very active in fighting and denouncing this agreement, which will lead to a large step backwards in the working conditions and existence of the working class in France.

  1. [1]Conféderation Génerale du Travail, greatly reduced from its former influence when it was more or less the official union of the French Communist Party, but still one of the more “left”-leaning unions in France.
  2. [2]LO is the biggest and most blue-collar oriented of the French Trotskyist groups.
  3. [3]Syndicat Indépendant de l’Automobile.
  4. [4]Francois Hollande of the French Socialist Party, barely center-left, hapless figure elected in 2012.
  5. [5]Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, a declining hodge-podge of ex-Trotskyists, ecologists, etc., cobbled together for electoral purposes and undermined by factions. For more on the NPA, see Y.C.’s “Letter from France” in Insurgent Notes, no. 5.
  6. [6]Corps Républicain de Sureté, the elite national anti-riot police.
  7. [7]The French national employers association.
  8. [8]The French Socialist Party, currently in power.
  9. [9]The CFDT, CFTC, CGC, FO and SUD are other small French unions. Less than 10 percent of the French work force is unionized, but some union contracts still play a “flagship” role for other non-unionized sectors.

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