The events of 1968: In the factories too
May 1968. Students construct barricades, the youth shake up an “old school”. France too stuck in its ways for its taste and, we often forget, 13 million salaried employees stop working all at once in order to obtain salary increases and better working conditions. In La Rochelle, the university wasn’t there yet, but they also had a “May ’68”, as this former tool and die maker tells us. At the time he was 24 years old. He responds to Florence Maitre.
-My name is Michel, Michel Guitton and in 1968, I was the CGT union secretary at what in those days was called Brissonneau et Lotz and which today is called Alsthom. At that time, in 1968, there must have been about 1200… 1300 salaried employees. Already, in 1968, we had led industrial action over pay and buying power at the beginning of the year, in January and February. And “1968” came through to us because we heard the news about the student movement, and we said to ourselves: “You see, they, too, want to live better, in a better world, to be rid of this continual pressure, etc.” We recognised each other, I would say, instinctively. We didn’t have a thorough analysis of what all the students’ demands were, but we recognised each other instinctively through these struggles and these demonstrations for a better life, so we were very very aware of what was going on.
So, it began when? When and how here in La Rochelle?
-Well, in La Rochelle, it was a movement came fairly rapidly in the metalworking industry, beginning notably with the large demonstration on May 13th. So it began, we’ll say, in the first fortnight in May and it continued, as far as we were concerned, until the first fortnight in June because the metalworking industry, which was quite boisterous in terms of industrial relations, was to a certain extent punished since they told us: “There was Grenelle, full stop (U.S.: “period”), and there will be nothing more than Grenelle.” And we, we were orphans in terms of two demands on which there hadn’t been progress. These were the reduction of working hours, the 48 hour working week, the legal working week that is to say, there was also overtime, which made for a lot of work; and retirement at age 60; on these issues we had obtained nothing.
You said, you had other strikes, this was a very active sector, but there was something special at that moment in ’68…
-Yes, it was indeed a larger movement. Quite fortunately, there was not only Alsthom! Our shipyard friends were very active as well, the chemicals industry workers, the civil servants, etc. A wide range of working professions got involved in the strike… The sailors! The sailors, etc… We had a port, at the time much more active than today, a fishing port but also a commercial port. There were 400 dock workers at La Rochelle. There are less than 80, I believe, now. Therefore, all of this created a very distinctive environment: at the same time a calm that was rather remarkable, when you bear in mind how little traffic was circulating, and at the same time, extraordinary peaks of activity where you’d find some ten thousand people in Verdun Square. So therefore, it was a city, La Rochelle, that was very alive and at the same time very quiet when the large gatherings of industrial demonstrations were over. It’s true that the city knew moments of calm sometimes rather extraordinary compared with today.
Were there people who reacted badly to these things, who came to tell you: “You would do better to go to work!” I don’t know, things like that. Were you confronted with situations like that?
-Of course, like everywhere. For example, there were picket lines that at one time or another could be attacked by rocks or petanque balls being thrown at them, by those whom we called and still call today, people from the extreme right. It never went very far, but there were some little moments like that which were a bit heated. There was an anti-strike demonstration from people claiming to be Gaullists who got together in La Rochelle at Verdun Square with a demonstration that was more symbolic than anything else, and that we went to see out of curiosity. So, there was some name-calling, but nothing much, nothing much; all the more so because we’d recognise someone who was a shopkeeper in our neighbourhood, someone else who was… “Hey, well, I didn’t know that he would have been here.” Well, it was never very cruel. On the other hand, there was sometimes much more tension tied to routine questions, for example, fuel. It was at the labour exchange (unemployment office) that they gave out fuel vouchers for those who were most in need of them, and notably of course, people from the health services, for essential services mainly. It was rather amusing, it was rather amusing…it was a sort of…power. We mustn’t say that because it wouldn’t be fair. We never looked to have any special power, but the responsibility of providing a minimum to the people of La Rochelle… It was rather amusing to see that and then, well, the atmosphere as a whole was nevertheless rather serene, I’d say. La Rochelle did not experience any serious incidents. It experienced some exchanges that were a bit heated but no major incident.
Did you talk about… Did you talk among yourselves about the events which took place in Paris? I’m thinking of course about the student movement.
-It’s true that there was somewhat of a gap between some student demands, some of their rallying calls, some gatherings like that at Charléty or others when they talked of self-management, of new forms of management, things like that, which for salaried employees weren’t necessarily the most pressing issues. The working class went out on strike in masses in ’68 for a better life, in terms of its daily bread, that is say, to have more money, in terms of working hours, of retirement, etc. So, we were accused of being too “bread and butter” by some leaders in the student world. They came to see us at the gates of our workplaces, or even to distribute pamphlets which described us as “too concerned with bread and butter issues” and that we would do better to be concerned with self-management or co-management than with what we were doing. So, well, there were differences. It rather pleased us to see the youth getting active and then acting in such a way that they would have a better life than we had or than our parents had been able to have. That’s what’s happened until today, when unfortunately, we have rather a movement in the opposite direction.
What view do you take on the current situation? We see the high school students in the streets, we’re making reference all the time to ’68, etc. Okay, there will not necessarily be another May ’68, but do you sometimes sense things that indeed make you think about what preceded this movement?
-Absolutely. We’re in a situation where all of the elements are in place for the largest social strata to move into action. In ’68 we had an accumulation of factors, which I mentioned earlier: low wages, 48 hours, hourly pay and not monthly, etc. Well, today there are a certain number of situations, which are not necessarily the same but which prepare the ground for it: job insecurity, underemployment, low wages. There are far too many people who are paid minimum wage. And with the minimum wage today, you certainly can’t claim to be in the jet set when you live on the minimum wage. There is a decline in the social welfare system which, currently, is one of the hot topics as well, etc. Just like before ’68, General De Gaulle’s order had mobilised people in an extraordinary way on social welfare issues. When you see all that’s happening around the banks today, that adds tension, discontentment, even anger. There are today really, yes, the objective conditions, as one would say in a scholarly manner, for there to be a large movement. I was hearing this morning the same thing on the radio about illegal immigrant workers going on strike. I am really telling you that illegal immigrant workers are going on strike. It’s extraordinary, unbelievable. People whose objective is to survive, but in hiding, since you mustn’t know who they are, all of a sudden, take centre stage. It’s an extraordinary example of a situation that’s in overflow.
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