The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

France:
Auto Workers Strike at Peugeot-Citroën

Apr 15, 2007

The following is a translation of a speech delivered at the end of a six-week strike at the Peugeot-Citroën auto plant in Aulnay, France by Philippe Julien, one of the leaders of the strike. It was reprinted in a booklet published by Lutte Ouvrière, the French Trotskyist group.

As workers in this country are aware, the problems workers face are wider than can be addressed at only one plant. But in this strike workers at one plant did begin a fight, which not only had influence on workers in many other workplaces, but also can be a preparation for future fights. Workers in this country might find it interesting to know that during the six weeks of the strike, the strikers at Peugeot-Citroën marched through their own plant almost every day when it was working, talking to those workers who felt they couldn’t join the strike, something not at all ordinary in workplaces. The strikers also, during those six weeks, carried out activities to make their strike widely known – caravanning to other Citroën factories, to other auto factories, and to workplaces of many other industries. They also organized a demonstration in the streets of Paris, and others in front of various government offices, or the office of the temporary agency that had fired the temps who took part in the strike.

On Wednesday, April 11, after six weeks on strike, we went back to work at the Citroën factory in Aulnay, near Paris. We went inside all together and marched from area to area, holding a banner in front of us with our demands written on it. We wanted a raise of 300 euros more a month, we wanted 700 temporary workers to be hired as permanent workers, and we wanted the 600 workers in the plant who were older than 55 to be eligible to retire now.

We went back with our heads held high. Peugeot-Citroën is one of the most powerful private employers in France, and we were proud of having held it in check for six weeks. We 500 strikers were proud of having made basic demands we knew corresponded with those of many workers in France.

One of our three main demands was pay. Because of the bosses’ game of temporary status, nearly 30% of the workers at the Aulnay plant earn the equivalent of the minimum wage. Even with bonuses, when the temporary agencies pay them, the pay is hardly above 1,000 euros per month (around $1,300). For young people permanently hired here, the take-home pay is 1,200 euros. This doesn’t stop management from pretending that the lowest take-home pay is 1,500 euros – which is a lie.

That lie wouldn’t fly among the workers here, but it is designed to look good to anyone on the outside. Peugeot-Citroën had free access to Le Monde so they could say things like this and explain that if the 300 euro raise was put in place, the company would go bankrupt. But Le Monde was very careful not to open its columns to workers on strike.

We could have replied that Peugeot-Citroën accumulated nine billion euros after taxes in profits in the last few years. Peugeot-Citroën spent 2.5 billion euros to buy back its own stock and cancel it in order to drive up the price of outstanding shares. The principal beneficiary of this operation was the Peugeot family itself. Yes, Peugeot-Citroën is doing very well. Its sales have risen constantly for over 10 years, as has its balance sheet.

The strike broke out spontaneously on March 28 on one of the lines in the Assembly department, following the news that the workers at Magnetto had won their demands.

Magnetto runs the stamping shop, which used to belong to Peugeot-Citroën. The Magnetto workers had had enough of their low pay and the pressures on them. They went on strike. After four days, they won a raise of 128 euros per month, five more vacation days including the so-called “Solidarity Day,” and the hiring on permanent status of 10 of the 40 temporary workers in the shop. This victory set fire to the powder at Citroën because, suddenly, getting a sizeable raise became possible.

Ten or so Assembly workers who read the CGT union handout explaining the Magnetto workers’ gains, decided to strike. The handout was distributed at 2:30, and the strike started at 3:00!

Very quickly, these 10 workers were followed by others. By 6 o’clock the lines in Assembly were stopped. Night shift joined the strike spontaneously, without the line ever starting up again. The following morning, day shift in turn joined the strike. In this way, the whole plant was shut down.

The strike basically affected the 3,000 production workers in the plant. The number of active strikers fluctuated around 500. But counting those who only struck the first day or those who participated in some of the later work stoppages inside, we can say that 1,000 workers participated in the strike, if only briefly. This remained a minority but nonetheless represented the profound discontent here. For the first time in this factory, 20 team leaders joined the strike movement, as did 60 temporary workers.

The strike settled in very quickly. We quickly regained the reflexes we had acquired in March 2005 during our one-week strike. Without difficulty, we decided to break the rhythm of the three shifts so that all the strikers could meet together during the daytime, carrying on one and the same strike.

We elected a strike committee of 100 workers to lead the strike. Throughout the strike, all decisions were discussed in this committee, which met twice a day for at least an hour each time. This was a real laboratory for ideas. A worker later called the room where the committee met “the strike school.”

The strike committee’s proposals were adopted by the general meeting of all the strikers which met after each strike committee meeting.

Everything was discussed, from the smallest decision to the most important ones. For example, a worker proposed to put out a striker card to be stamped each morning in the name of the strike committee; 557 cards were distributed.

We published a daily “strike journal,” of which 26 issues came out. This journal was widely distributed, read and liked by most of the workers, even among the non-strikers. Even one of the guards liked it and complimented us on it. Also, we sent the journal by internet to all union locals at all Peugeot Citroën plants.

The strike committee enabled us to organize the strike in a united way and to reply blow by blow to management’s policies. Management obviously used all the bosses’ usual anti-strike weapons.

This made many strikers, as well as non-strikers, say that the strike was well organized and that we knew how to avoid the provocations management tried to throw our way.

Management restored production – bit by bit and somehow or other, because most skilled workers refused to replace the strikers. So did the temporary workers, despite the bonuses management offered. The bosses even offered 80 euros cash in hand to the temporary workers to switch jobs and do the strikers’ work.

So management was forced to put some of the bosses to work and appeal to new temporary workers hired to break the strike. We counter-attacked, going to the court at Bobigny, which, on March 26, found Citroën had violated the law.

Management recruited workers from other plants belonging to Citroën. Many refused. Those who accepted got a bonus of 700 euros, as well as hotel and living expenses paid, on condition they not return home on weekends. And for good reason! Management was afraid they would not come back.

The goal was to attack the strikers’ morale by making us think everything was working normally and that the strike was accomplishing nothing.

This provoked discussions among strikers. We knew that things were not working normally, and would not so long as we stayed on strike. Management lost 20,000 cars, meaning around a 300 million euro loss.

All along, management organized hundreds of lower-level supervisors into groups of five who attempted to provoke the strikers and then accuse them of blocking the assembly lines. And they tried to start fights between strikers and non-strikers, and between strikers and management. The supervisors were surrounded by guards who wrote reports. Management hired six of them full-time.

We discussed all of this, as well as the letters we got threatening disciplinary actions. Some of these letters were ridiculous. For example, one striker got a warning letter for tooting on a trumpet! True, a boss’s ear was right nearby.

We also faced the accusation that the strike was political. The argument supporting this accusation was that the strike was led by a strike committee!

Management also noted the visits by presidential candidates: Arlette Laguiller, Olivier Besancenot, then Marie-George Buffet, José Bové. Even SégolPne Royal came to meet the workers on strike – but without her blue-white-and-red flag.

Management also threatened to close the plant if the strike continued.

But none of these actions lowered the morale of the strikers. On the contrary, our determination grew from week to week. Every Monday, management hoped the strike was withering away. In response, all the strikers wanted to show up in the greatest numbers on Mondays!

All through the strike, we addressed the whole workforce and asked them to join us. Some did. And to measure the others’ sentiments toward the strike, we asked them to sign a petition. Close to 1,300 non-strikers signed it. This clearly showed the popularity of our movement. They also participated in two work stoppages in support of the strike, and during our collection they gave 6,000 euros as a sign of solidarity. Yesterday, 100 of them bought tickets for our solidarity party.

But we also addressed workers at other workplaces.

First of all, Peugeot Citroën. The second day of the strike, 150 strikers went to Gefco, a hauler for the company in Surveilliers. The workers there also went on strike over wages and stayed out for three weeks.

Another day, 300 of us went to the Citroën plant in Saint-Ouen to distribute a flier. Management locked the workers into the plant. It was impossible to meet them. But after a few minutes, one of the factory doors miraculously opened and our flier distribution became a demonstration inside the Saint-Ouen plant.

Again, 400 of us strikers distributed a flier and spoke at the gates of the Peugeot factory in Poissy. We were well received, and this even led to a work stoppage inside the factory.

Beyond Peugeot Citroën, we went to 50 factories, from Renault in Rueil and in Guyancourt to Snecma in Villaroche and Genevilliers, stopping by the railroad workshops, some tax offices of the 93rd district, not to mention the municipal workers we talked to in various towns. Each time our goal was to make our strike known, to popularize our demands, and to take collections for solidarity. By Friday we had 130,000 euros in the strike fund.

But solidarity was not limited to financial support for the strikers.

Within the company, work stoppages took place inside almost all the factories. All together, these work stoppages involved over 1,000 workers. At the factory in Trémery, it was the first time there had been a work stoppage.

Also there were strikes over pay by automobile industry sub-contractors. Gefco in Surveilliers had a three week strike. Lear in Lagny-le-Sec had a four day strike. And because Lear makes seats, the cars which continued to be made in the Aulnay plant were assembled without seats! Lajous, a supplier near CompiPgne, had a two day strike. The workers there won 45 euros. And there was a strike at Siedoubs, which makes seats for the Peugeot plant at Sochaux.

We went to see other workers on strike over pay, such as the workers at Sita, some of whom told us, “We were just talking about you this morning. Your strike is an example.” The next week of strike, we organized public speeches and a flier distribution at the Saint-Lazare train station with the Clear Channel strikers.

We spent six weeks popularizing the demands of a 300 euro pay raise, permanent hiring of temporary workers, and retirement at 55 years old.

It is true that we were not able to force management to give in to our demands. With 500 strikers, the relationship of forces was insufficient for that. When we realized the strike wouldn’t spread to many more workers, we understood we didn’t have the forces to impose our demands on Citroën. But we continued to raise these demands because they were legitimate, not only for us, but for other workers as well.

Despite everything, management had to concede on demands which may seem minor, but which counted morally and materially.

Above all, on the punishment and firings management had wanted to carry out. The constant provocations by its loyal guards came to nothing since, in the protocol ending the strike, management had to agree not to carry out any disciplinary action.

And management had to concede on the demands that were minor compared to our main demands, but which all the same represented a setback for management. We got everyone a 50% reduction in what we pay for public transportation, lower fees at the company’s cafeteria, a limit on Saturdays worked per year, and payment for Saturdays, which now will be paid instead of disappearing into the flexible time bank.

Management paid us for four and a half days we were on strike.

Last, we got a bonus of 125 euros for all 4,500 workers at Peugeot Citroën Aulnay, strikers and non-strikers, which management called a “social cohesion bonus!”

The icing on the cake: the Saturday we returned to the job had been scheduled as a work day. We objected to management that we had organized a strikers’ party starting at 2 p.m. the same Saturday. Management agreed to let all workers go at 1:30, one hour earlier than usual, so that those who wanted could come to our party.

But apart from material gains, it was above all a moral victory which nobody can take away from us.

In this strike, we surely made ourselves respected. Above all, for six weeks we built solid ties among all the strikers; we stood shoulder to shoulder in a fight. We learned to organize ourselves. And that is a down-payment for the future, in future strikes but also useful every day inside the plant. We have a collective force that the company will have to face.

We had scarcely returned to work when some work stoppages took place in response to unacceptable behavior by supervisors. For example, one boss gave out sandwiches only to the workers who had not been on strike. The strikers objected right away, got the sandwiches, and returned them to the boss!

By way of conclusion, I want to read a passage from the second-to-last issue of our strike journal: “The strength of our strike is not that it was able to defeat management right now. The strength is the echo it found among more and more workers, not only at Peugeot-Citroën but in the nation. The problems we raised – wages, temporary status, retirement – are not limited to Citroën at Aulnay nor to this one company. They are vital preoccupations for millions of workers in this country. Each additional day of strike, thousands more people agreed with us. Agreed with our demands. Agreed that the bosses had the means to meet our demands, but also agreed that the only way to win our demands is by striking.”

And I will end with one of the slogans emphasized by the strikers: “Today we are here, tomorrow, we continue!”