Letter to Freedom about the Carmaux strike, Agnes Henry

Dear Comrades,

The Carmaux Strike, as a strike, is, as all the world knows, at an end. Reséguier, the employer, has succeeded in securing the services of the men he required, and has rejected 330, to whom he objects and are still unemployed.

On the other hand, he has not succeeded in crushing their Union, which was his object in forcing the strike, while it (the strike) has been the means of calling forth an enthusiastic manifestation of solidarity on the part of all the Socialists of France. That in itself is a gain in the development of Socialism, but that is not all. Where the politicians have failed, the non-political revolutionary Socialists have come not merely, as we trust, to the rescue of the Carmaux glass-blowers, but to effect a far grander, because more far-reaching purpose.

The French trade unions are composed of real Revolutionary Socialists and they would not support a mere co-operative glassworks. They are opposed to political influence and dictation, and they have learned the futility, for Socialist ends, of merely co-operative concerns. They have, however, set themselves the arduous task of erecting a Workingmen’s Glassworks, which is to belong to the whole body of French Socialist workmen, under the direction of a committee of 45 members of various unions, and the profits of which are to go to the benefit of the Socialist propaganda on purely economic lines.

Never yet has such a Communistic effort, on so large a scale, been attempted in the Socialist movement. Such an example, too, when once successfully carried out, will certainly be followed, and will strike a death-blow at all political Socialism.

There are two methods adopted for collecting the necessary capital: by the sale of tickets at 2d. each (which give the right to all who buy them to attend all meetings and all entertainment free, which may be held on behalf of the factory), and by lottery subscriptions of articles to be drawn for on 30th June next at Paris, or of money towards such articles.

The tickets at 2d. are sent post free in packets of 50. Could not our propagandists speak and collect in their meetings towards buying the tickets and gve entertainments to which the said tickets would give admission? In short, could not our English comrades immediately start a movement of assistance and, at the same time, of propaganda? I trust they will do so, and do it speedily.

Fraternally yours,

A. Henry.

Discussions with Women on Strike, by Ito Noe

Discussions with Women on Strike
Ito Noe
1920

1.
Twelve days after the start of the strike and eight days after the first meeting with the capitalists, I looked up the women who work at the Sanshûsha company in Matsumoto Hall in Kanda.

“Many of you must must be face with different and particular issues than men are, but the fact that you have proven your solidarity for so long…”, I said, straight after the salutations

“But no, although we are all appointed to different positions to the best of our ability, a few of us have gone back to work yesterday. There is no excuse for this.” “Oh yes, I have also already heard of this. Since the strike has lasted for over two weeks now, we can well understand this. A shame they didn’t haves more perseverance, isn’t it? How many women went to work?” “It must be three. If they had waited until today, the terms for today’s meeting might have been more favourable. Our whole effort has not paid at all yet! They have way too little steadfastness.”

The resolution of the printers of the morning paper had confirmed me that, because of the treason of these people, the capitalists had suddenly become inflexible. I could already imagine the result of today’s meeting. Now I found no words supporting this in the discussions with these women which seemed not to know anything about this.
Although the willingness existed at first for this strike to endure the hardships a month or more, it happened that a few didn’t last more than two weeks and went back to work without condition. An honest conversation between two colleagues developed about why these few didn’t say it openly, if they were in a day or two in unbearable distress, although people could have helped them somehow – even if all also suffered – if these things were only expressed. They also talked about the fact that the influence from one or two traitors could be altogether immensely great on this great strike.

I picked up, along with all the others, two big rice dumplings covered in bamboo leaves and ate. While I felt a familiarity which moved me to tears, I took part in the circle of discussion until the evening.

2.
Naturally, the stories were not completely surprising for me. Some of it I had already read and already heard. Part of it I could also imagine from my own experiences.

But although I had long known this, it moved me very deeply to have these discussions with people who had experienced it in reality and felt it so bitterly. While I listen to the tales of these women about their normal work conditions and other things, the feeling overwhelmed me that the demands of the strike for shorter work hours and a pay increase did not simply constitute a way to make production more effective1, which part of the capitalists find to their taste, or that they come from the men’s side who join for education and leisure time, but rather that the requirements attack especially strongly the truly insoluble needs of these women. It emerges from the comments of these women that, although the factory law2 thankfully give women and children special attention as protected workers, it guaranteed them no protection, that the capitalists mainly used it at the time of wage increases not to raise the wages of single female workers.

They let the women work the long time of twelve hours between dirty, cracked planks. They cannot sit down but must stand up the whole time. They don’t pay any mind to the particular body characteristics of women. They let them carry heavy loads and climb up stairs, exactly in te same way if they are pregnant or if they have another condition; no consideration will be taken if she suffers injuries because of it.

Although the work alone seems horrible because of the dust-filled air in the factory, it sent shivers down my spine, as I discovered in these discussions that they let them work so hard and destroys their health so in cold blood as well.

3.
The women also told the following:
“Early it would be seen as usual to be working from seven in the morning till over eleven at night. We hardly came back home before midnight. If we imagine how things were then we are happy about the twelve hour day today. At that time, we had never thought in dreams about a day of rest every Sunday. It seemed inevitable that the wages would not be raised for two or three years by one sen (1/100 of a yen). We were truly urged to work, and treated as badly as they wished. But we accepted this in silence. When we think about it, it seems incredible that our bodies could withstand this. We can’t imagine something as beautiful as an eight-hour day or a six-hour day, but if it became reality, the twelve-hour days for which we are now so thankful would seem most awful.”
This is the truth. Most of these women must work double: at home and in the factory.

Young unmarried women too, who must carry out next to no housework, work twelve hours at the factory and need around two hours for commute. From the ten hours at home, they are left with, after you take out two hours for the meal or for getting dressed, only eight hours; if they come back at night and after the meal talk to their family members and have a bath, that’s another two or three hours gone. Because they are so tired, they can do nothing very tiring outside, for example, learn something. If a competent young woman does only one hour of needlework, she reduces her sleeping time to something like four or five hours. Can she recuperate thus completely from her tiredness after a day of work? But now the women who are charged with responsibilities as wives or mothers, in this so tightly allocated time, look after their husbands or children. The preparation of meals, the care for all the utensils, the reflection on the household’s money, the washing of clothes in cold or hot water and other plans – all of this she must deal with, on top of the daily wash of the dirty children’s stuff. All of these worries they can’t in any way give to someone else, even if someone helps them. In order to perform adequately, their limited sleep is reduced and they must give up their rare days off.

Understandably, civilisation offers us different methods and facilities to shorten usual housework. The working class is however too poor to make use of them. Thanks to this civilisation, the strange phenomenon is produced that the most idle women have more time at their disposal, while the women who have the most things to do are driven to terrible overtime.

4.
“Work in the factory is a real poison for our health. I am still quite strong, but when I get a bit sick and the doctor examines me, he recognises straight away, without me saying anything, that I am working in the factory. If we are just a bit unreasonable, something happens immediately. This is horrible! Sometimes I notice that I no longer have news from a woman with whom I have been working; then when I hear about them, they are ether sick or dead. We don’t know how many people have lost their health in the factory. It was also the case for our older sisters,” says a woman, who was sitting next to me, in a serious tone, while she pointed at a friend next to her.
5.
I stayed that day and the following days a while with the workers. Although these women found themselves in the sad situation where their urgent demands were dismissed by the capitalists with a hard hand, they didn’t see the future as gloomy. How brave is their common resolve to reach for themselves, with their own hands, without a doubt, a reform of their work conditions all around! I would like here to express the cheerful anticipation that surely in the near future the day will come when the tremendous self-confidence of these women, who rely on almost nothing and educate themselves, will cast a new bright light on working women.

The Sugar Breakers: Notes from a woman on strike, by Séverine

The Sugar Breakers: Notes from a woman on strike
Séverine
1897

To François Coppée
To be on strike without having ever been an industrial worker can seem, at first sight, quite paradoxical. But if I haven’t got a taste of a factory, it is because of the bosses who haven’t hired me the day before yesterday.

I wished to know, technically, the cause and the goal of this strike; to know, through experience rather than hearsay, the bitterness, the harsh realities of this job, the name of which amused Paris; to realise, at last, the sum of endurance, tiredness, which a creature has to provide in order to earn just enough not to die – and start again the next day!

To go there as a “lady”, even as a friend, notebook and pencil in hands, a reporter among reporters, was to risk knowing maybe less than them; in any case, not to be able to do more, to remain parked in the same circle of evolution, in the same order of ideas.

The work of a journalist is, unfortunately, an official position, in such cases; which, without decreasing its interest, often makes it sterile. Whatever the rank of the informer in their professional hierarchy, it is known, it has to be told – hence, inferior. The two opposite sides only tell them what they wish to tell them; only let them see what they wish to let them see.

While the ideal thing would be to be ignored, anonymous, so much like anybody that no-one would suspect you; so mixed into the crowd, so close to its heart that they can truly feel it beat, only by putting their hand on their own chest… a flow incorporated into the Ocean, a sigh mixed in the great breath of humankind!

For labour issues, especially, this seems useful in my opinion. To describe workers’ lives is not enough – you must live it, in order truly to appreciate all its injustice and all its horrors. Then, we know what we are talking about; we are truly the echo of what we heard, the reflection of what we saw; we are soaked to the bone in pity and revolt!

To pretend, even with the best intentions, the most talent in the world, will only ever give this impression of honesty which an uncultured being sometimes obtains when they reproduce barbarously what they witnessed or took part in.

There is no need to spend years, months, weeks, to this study, to this neighbourhood, to this trial, as long as there is no question of studying the subtleties of the job, to become apt to deserve our wage – or, like in Russia, to catechise ignorant souls.

Our workers know how to think without a master; and the iniquities they suffer are so obvious (and, alas, so monotonous) that only a few hours suffice, for whom knows how to see them and hear them, to record them.

This is what I did. For almost a day, among these poor girls, dressed like them, I wandered under the scrutiny of the cops in front of the deserted factory, in the dreary comradeship of unusual idleness. I stopped at their stages; I heard their demands freely formulated; I went into the factories, saw the work of those who were submissive – who had too many children or were too hungry! – and that is why I can now tell you, in full knowledge, what this strike is about, and how much sympathy and interest it deserves.

First of all, the word is misleading: We shouldn’t say “breaker” but “organiser”, since the task consists in layering, in cardboard or wooden boxes, the sugar cut into stronger or less strong morsels, according to their number. In this way, the sugar for the cafés are 50, while the bis, cut into cubes, is especially reserved for use in the Midi. Only the refuse, the powder and shards, sold by weight, does not need to be aligned.
[…]
In ordder to understand what the “cassoir” is, you must imagine a big, very long table, around a metre wide, with parallel drain, like the lines of a music score in relief for blind people. It is between these rails that the sugar is going to go past – as an ingot before the knives, then as morsels – which the six organisers, in a continuous, unceasing, mechanical movement too, pick up a line, turn around, put it in the box placed behind them on some sort of wooden bench; they turn back, start again, forever, eternally, from seven in the morning to six in the evening, without rest, without ever sitting down, apart from ten minutes of break and an hour for lunch.
For example, they circulate. When their box is full, they must carry them to the scales, placed, at Mr. Sommier’s place for example, 20 or 25 metres away. The average number of journeys per day is 40. Pregnant women, young girls carry up to a thousand kilos. Many are injured; the hardiest lose on average two to three days per fortnight, because of faintness, exhaustion, stiffness, aches in their sides, problems with their pregnancy or their puberty.

I am only speaking here of the physical effort of it, because you need to read, as I just did, in medical books, to know which diseases are linked to this unfortunate lot.
They have no more nails, no more teeth; the first were used to the flesh by the handling of the sugar; the latter lost their enamel, fell, broke because of the dust which comes out – this dust which burn their eyelids, their throats; which makes their voices coarse; causes stomach infections, tuberculosis – suffering always, and an early death!
How much do they earn? They used to get 60 centimes per 100 kilos, that is, depending on their courage, from 3 fr. 25 to 4 fr per day. They have been told, almost a fortnight ago: “You will now only receive 50 centimes for 100 kilos. Competition is too harsh; take it or leave it.”
They left; they got out, preferring to starve completely, and quickly, than to slowly die from this. Because this meant a 10 centimes decrease per day – and you realise what 10 centimes a day mean in a workers’ household?
They tried a general strike. The workers from the Lebaudy, Lucas, and François companies first followed the movement started by the Sommier refinery. Then they grew wary… went back. Only the workers from Lucas’s place, men and women, sacrifice 15 centimes a day to support the Sommier’s strikers. But there are less than twenty of them – and there are over 140 people on strike!
A little help arrived, from here and there, sent by plebeian solidarity, or the compassion of some people who were moved by so much distress and so much bravery. They were able to distribute 30 centimes a day; and families of five, six people lived with this on bread and water – but still not giving up!

I went to meet with them on Monday, at dawn, at the top of the rue de Flandre. The day before, three delegates had come to find me, to tell me what I wrote earlier; and as I had mentioned my idea to spend a day there, to get hired if possible, they were enthusiastic at this prospect, if slightly sceptical as to its implementation.
However the “secretary”, Hélène Milani, a tall blond woman with confident eyes, a gallant air, had told me: “See you tomorrow!” But she had added: “You will never manage, Madame,” which had upset me. I am not a wimp, and what I want, I get.
Therefore, there I was, showing up at one of their homes, at the given time. In a second, I took off my gloves, veil, hat, coat, and there I am bare headed, hairs pulled-back – ha, this damn hair! How they rebel! – in a cloth petticoat and blouse, an apron around my waist, a basket in hand, so similar to any of them that they start gushing about it, amused.
We walked down the rue de Flandre, up unto the great building of the Sommier refinery, to see whether they are hiring. I will sneak into the group of renegades, even if I get a bit “pushed around” by the strikers I came to defend.
The street is full of policemen, in and out of uniform. I am only afraid of Granger, the member of parliament for this part of Paris, who is there, with Lhermitte, from the Trade Union Hall, and my colleague Degay, from La Marseillaise. The three of them came because, the other day, the police had been really brutal, and, in case of a repeat offence, Granger would show his credentials.
If they recognised me, maybe they could not contain a sign of surprise, and my cover which should let me come and go as I wish to talk with my friends would be blown.
Gatherings are banned; if there are more than three of us and we are standing still, a policeman intervenes. And as I am lingering in front of the factory gates, observing every brick of it, contemplating the doorman in his pretty, blue uniform with its metal buttons, looking like a grunt, with his terrible white moustache, who seems rather flattered by my examination, a cop gently pushes me:
“On you go, honey! Move away! You shouldn’t stay here.”
I obtemperate and take refuge, with many others, at “our” office, located opposite, at number 122 at the wine seller’s which is called “Let’s go to Charles’s”.
I go to Charles’s. We walk to the bar, where a few workers and many snitches are having a drink, and we meet at the back, in a sort of modest hall lit from above, half dancing-room, half palm game court… like a century ago! Only, thank goodness, no-one is giving a speech; we are simply discussing, without sentences, what would be the best thing to do in our common interest.
The fact that I am new does not alert them – one of the delegates, Mrs. Gasse, vouched for me – and I observe once more, with inexpressible emotion, how much naïve goodness, sweetness, resolve these despised, exploited people have (among its women especially). No, or very few, angered words, only melancholy to see how hard it is to agree on things, and, despite everything, the hope to achieve it.
“We weren’t demanding anything; only to be given back what they took from us… Mr. Sommier is not bad, he will agree: he is so rich!… How boring it is not to work, when you’re not used to it!”
It is true, they are like bodies without souls, these good workers, although, between ther fingers, a bone hook crochets some wool. On a small table, there is an inkwell, some paper, a wooden box, a registrar. From time to time, a striker shows up, signs, gets her 30 centimes – then leaves clutching at them, like a drowning man holds onto a branch! She does not stop, does not talk, runs… people are waiting for her for their food!
These poor emaciated faces, with pale lips, with almost no pink at all In the palor of their flesh; the poor baggy eyes, poor creatures!
One of them, in a corner, has opened her camisole to offer her breast to a child who looks like an old man with such a wrinkly skin and a waxy countenance!
And the meagre breast appears, the speaking weapon of all this race, who is hungry before they have teeth, who is hungry once they have fallen out – who is hungry always!

One of my guides comes to pick me up:
“At lunchtime, François’s place is going to hire people, rue Ricquer. Are you coming with?”

I get up and follow her.

At François’s, for this ten minutes’ break, the staff escapes in a roar. Most of them are young (others being dead or retired), many are dressed in petticoats and camisoles, with light, flowery fabrics, a handkerchief tied around their heads, pointy corners flying in the wind on their hair iced with sugar. At first sight, it is almost pretty, under this clear September sunlight, like a flight of grisettes at the Porcherons.
But the illusion ceases in front of the broken smiles, the parched lips, the narrow shoulders, the sunken throats, the dry little coughs which break out all around. Whet had made these cheeks look red was the fire from a fever. As the droplets of sweat dry on the cheeks, the redness disappears from the cheeks. There they are pale like old dolls…
We have sneaked into the courtyard.
“There you go, here’s the Vésinet,” my friend tells me.
It is a dark cellar in which machines, human shapes, can vaguely be recognised.
“What is this?”
“That’s where we work, but come above it, it’s better.”
Indeed, above a few steps, the room is well-lit, at least. But there’s still this same crushing heat, same steam, same sugar dust, which asphyxiates you, suffocates you…
There are some “cassoirs” there; and the other one gives me a lessons on how it works, on what I would have had to do.
“The only thing is,” she says, “in the evening, your fingers would have pissed blood.”
She indicates me with a glance the women’s hands, rolled in towels, bandages, cuts of linen.
Here comes the foreman. Shyly, she addresses him, asks him her request. Looking away, but very politely, he answers:
“I have enough people for today. Come back tomorrow at six, you will be hired.”
I put the employment book borrowed for the occasion from my stepsister, and we leave, across the courtyard, meeting the workers who are coming back.
At the gate, a striking woman, come to watch for defections, calls out to me:
“You lazy cow!”
Certainly not.

All I have left to do is to attempt to get into Mr. Sommier’s, to catch a glimpse of the building.

“There’s only one way: you have to bring a litre to Barthélémy!”
I don’t mind giving Barthélémy a litre, but I would have to know how.
“Here. Barthélémy is a basin carrier at the refinery, under the place where we usually work. Bassin carriers never come out; they are brought what they need from outside, until three. My man took him his lunch, but we can still bring him a litre.”
“How would I do that?”
“You go under the doorman’s nose without talking to him, walk straight across the courtyard, down a few steps, and there, in the cellar, you’ll find the basin carriers. Then you shout “Hey! Barthélémy!” And you will have seen how hard their job is, too, and how hot it is down there!”
As soon as she said this, I went; the plan was executed step by step. I sneaked past the caretaker, and, presto, stumbled down into the cellar. At the entrance, I almost fainted, because of how high the temperature was. Men in cloth trousers, bare chested, their breasts and stomachs protected by some kind of currier’s apron walk past in a line, with a huge copper container in their arms, which they empty, one after the other, in the machine where the loaf moulds are. It is the molten sugar they are carrying; you must see their bored gestures, when they have versed their charge and go get another one in their metal vases! And these foolish painters who insist on painting the Danaids, while these flesh and blood creatures here give such a spectacle of art, superb and pitiful!
All around, like a huge bombshell factory, the moulds are lined up one against the other, pointing downwards.
However, I daren’t shout “Hey! Barthélémy!”. I inquire instead.
“Don’t know him!” the first one answers.
“Wait a minute…” another one says “But it’s Jughead!”
“Hey! Jughead!” repeats the whole floor in a single voice.
A tall curly haired boy, with a good natured air emerges from the depths.
“Who is calling for me?”
“It’s you girl who’s bringing you a litre.”
“That’s not my girl, but I’ll take the litre anyway.”
I handed it to him with a smile:
“It’s from Eulalie!”
“Tell her I thank her. And you too, miss.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Barthélémy.”
As I left, I wandered a bit. I look at the beautiful layout of the factory, I calculate what source of wealth these buildings, these machines, this powerful organisation of Capital represent.
And I suddenly think back of a visit I paid, a long time ago, to the Vaux-Fouquet castle, this royal residence of a royal superintendent, and which Mr. Sommier now owns. I think of the statues in the bowers, of the freshness of the undergrowth, of the marvellous shade, of all this well-being, all this luxury, all these pleasures as an art collector, turning these ruins in such a home.
Those poor girls are right; people cannot be merciless with such satisfactions in this world.
Outside, the delegates meet me.
“We just went on the last delegation to the boss. Even to split the difference, and give us 55 centimes, he won’t hear of it.”
One of them is crying:
“What’s wrong with you?”
“He was cold as ice… He spoke to us so harshly!”
“And what is the reason for this refusal?”
“Mr. Sommier said like this that ha cannot, that he can’t afford it.”

On the destitution of your master, cry, nymphs of Vaux! It makes many more cry, this poverty which shrinks salaries and moves into palaces; which makes so many young children, old mothers, exhausted women, slowly die in one of our neighbourhoods.

The Clerks’ Strike in Paris, Maximilienne Biais

The Clerks’ Strike in Paris
Maximilienne Biais
1909

The strike of the clerks of Le Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville manifested, from the start, a character so peculiar that no-one could fail to notice it, least of all the management of this commerce establishment. One of the bosses, Mr. Ruel, venting in interviews which were widely publicised by the press, said amongst other things:

“Agitation was created and maintained by the union of shop assistants affiliated to the Confédération Générale du Travail, which has its headquarters at the Bourse du travail (…) The two members of the unions, who had showed up to impose us the CGT’s conditions (…) By refusing to bow down to the CGT’s orders, we are not following our own interests… In so acting, we are defending the interests of every shop-owner in general who are threatened by the revolutionaries of the rue Grange-aux-Belles.”1

On a technical point, at least, Mr. Ruel is wrong, since to be precise there is not at this time any Paris union of clerks which would be fully confederated. But it is true, however, that the conflict between the employees and the management of the Bazar developed along the usual methods of the CGT: a sudden mobilisation of the employees, an unannounced desertion of the shops by the employees, the organisation of meetings in which everyone was called to exercise shared control and shared responsibility in the way the movement would go, a call to every invited union to show their take part in every effort made by the employees, demonstrations which, far from limiting themselves to closed rooms, spilled onto the streets and invade the workplace transformed into a place of strike, solidarity fund raising, communist soup kitchens, etc. and, most importantly, the good humour of people who do not feel isolated in an unfair fight as if they were fighting alone and for themselves; this is revolutionary syndicalist agitation, direct action in all its might.

How did the shop assistant corporation, until now so peaceful and grey, suddenly join such a clear notion of class struggle? This story is the story of the Paris shop assistants’ union itself.

The clerks’ union, under its current form, has only existed since earlier this year. But, at the time, it had just been constituted from the merging of two groups which had long been involved in industrial action: Shop assistants’ union of the department of the Seine, and the rue de Saintonge fraction of the Union Chamber of the Paris region shop assistants, the So assistants’ union, half-confederated by the affiliation to the Seine Unions’ Union and which had its offices at the Bourse du travail, from its creation, was entirely convinced by direct action, but it was stronger in energy of its militants than in their numbers. It is considering this group that syndicalist militants used to say that shop assistants might maybe provide a few active militants, but was unable to get from its mass any serious number of union members.

And indeed the members of the Union Chamber, half-confederated by its affiliation to the National federation of shop assistant, and located rue de la Reynie, joined this organisation for about the same reasons as people join mutual aid groups. An unemployment fund, conceived in order to capitalise some reserves, allowed each member individually to accommodate best the dangers of a still precarious personal situation. The administrative board, changed by said fund into the wardens of a treasury, ended up considering any attempt at collective action for a general demand as a danger for the reserves, threatened to be dried up by mass unemployment which could follow such a movement. Therefore we could say, without even exaggerating the paradox, that the Union Chamber, “inactive and annuitant”2, constituted for Paris commerce the best guarantee against any syndicalist contamination of the staff. However, as waterproof as the wall established by the Union Chamber between the staff and the rest of the proletariat seemed to be, syndicalist ideas had filtered and appeared under the usual form of disagreements where too superficial or too cunning minds said they could only see conflicts of personalities. A break followed, and a large contingent of the best militants emigrated from the rue de Saintonge, where, after having briefly constituted their own group, they started a process of integration with the shop assistants’ union.

Nothing says better the character of this fusion than the words themselves exchanged during the first negotiation committee:

“We are here”, said one of the delegates of the Saintonge fraction, “to escape the dictatorship of a few leaders of the Union Chamber and their moderatism.”
“From what you’re saying”, the union delegates replied, “it seems that you are leaving an organisation which has faded away for want of enough syndicalist forces. We have only one thing in mind. In the Seine department, there is no strength to fight the bosses: all of our union thinks we need to constitute this force…
We bring you our statutes, our situation in the Unions’ Union of the Seine, our years of struggle, our habits of propaganda, join us with you numbers…
We offer you a merging without condition, a prelude to a general merging of the shop assistants’ employees which will ensure the necessary unity of action to make our professional interests triumph…”3

Once the merging was effective, a short period of adaptation followed, which both sides had anticipated, in the functioning and the perfecting of the new Shop assistants’ union of the Paris region. When the needs of a common effort had not yet established the unity of method without which administrative unity is nothing, it seemed that there had to be within the union two tendencies, one more reformist, the other more revolutionary. These two tendencies opposed each other on the administrative board and neutralised to some extent the action of the administrators, all equally trying nor to put too much pressure brutally on a starting organisation. That is why the union itself, as a whole, by a decision of all its members, called to a general assembly at the date of last March 17, was invited to discuss the rules of action which they wished their board to follow. The result of the debate was a vote, almost unanimously, of the following agenda:
“The members of the Shop assistant’s union in the Paris region, meeting in a general assembly;
Considering that the intervention of the government can only be in favour of the bourgeois class whose interests they serve;
Acknowledging that only DIRECT ACTION, ACTION DIRECTLY EXERCISED AGAINST THE BOSSES, that is, can be useful and efficient.”

Such a clear agenda on March 17th marked the beginning of syndicalist agitation which developed into the strike at Le Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville. First of all, the union acted on itself by the wisest of decisions. The representatives of the rue Saintonge comrades had made the union tolerate the provisional preservation of the principle of an unemployment fund for which even its mandated defenders were hardly sympathetic: “a simple transition tactic” they told the members of the former union “which we ourselves want to soon modify in a way on which we will collaborate with you.”

The general assembly of July 15 deemed that membership recruitment should be made on a different basis that some possible feeble financial help. The unemployment fund disappeared. The principle of indemnities to union members was maintained, and ensured in other, less dangerous ways. The financial idea of the union was that although it can be useful and even necessary sometimes to constitute some reserve in ordinary times, this reserve has no other aim than to be spent during a struggle.

The first outside action of the union took place at La Samaritaine, where the concerted refusal of all the beef steaks served for lunch and the unanimous demand for soft-boiled eggs had the food regime immediately changed. Soon afterwards, at the Bank, the employees obtained the Saturday afternoon off during the holiday period, and the managers of large financial establishments, trying to get ahead of demands, invited their employees to fill a notebook with their desiderata. And new members kept flowing in. In less than six months, the Union of Clerks had doubled its membership: a sure proof that this profession had already largely gone beyond mutualism in which the influence from the Union Chamber would have tried to keep it. This is how the vitality of this new Union and its past success pushed the employees of Le Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville to ask it to take a new campaign in hand, which was going to be imposed on them by the boss’s ill will.

Earlier this year already, the union had organised, at the Bourse du travail, a few meetings aimed at getting the closing times of Le Bazar lowered. But the young organisation, which hadn’t yet been clarified by the March 17 direct action agenda, had concentrated on favouring this movement without leading it and had thought it had to accept, in a spirit of concord, that its members send a petition to the management who declared not wanting to hear anything about the union. That was how a result had been had, but, as management noted, “for a trial period”. The event seemed altogether like a nice gesture from the management.

In January, it pleased the Bazar’s management to lower the closing time in January. In November, it pleased them to move them back to the old hours. It was normal, as it was a favour granted by superiors to their subordinates and not a convention agreed between equals, one side strong of their position as capitalists, the other strong of the union duly qualified to represent them. We know what happened next: the decision of the Bazar’s bosses was disclosed to their employees, with an announcement that it would be effective on November 2nd; some delegates from the Union went to meet with Mr. Ruel, who claimed that his commercial situation no longer allowed him to maintain the concession made in January; a call by the Unions’ Union of the Seine to the whole Parisian working-class to invite them to support the demonstrations against the Bazar’s management by its employees; the attempt at intimidation by Mr. Ruel who threatened to sack on the spot anyone who would leave their aisle before the prescribed time; and suddenly the mass of demonstrators flowing into the department stores, the employees leaving their aisles to go to the Bourse du travail and deliberate, the Bazar precipitously closing before the prescribed time; the next day, revocation notices were given to the best part of the staff, and in response there was an immediate declaration of strike.

What a tone of anticipated triumph Mr. Ruel first used to announce the press that the strike was in all only effective for a tenth of his employees. He already thought he was master of the situation, refused the proposal of arbitration by the 4th district Justice of the Peace, under the pretence that the insufficient proportion of strikers did not allow him to consider that there was between him and his employees “a disagreement of a collective nature”4, and soon after he hinted at some indeterminate date when a few measures of clemency towards some leaders could be discussed…5And that was all they could hope to achieve from their movement if the strikers had only used the conciliatory measures cherished by the weakest among them.

But the strikers trusted their union forces, they relied on the union not only to strengthen the resistance, but to push for an offensive, and from this fact alone, Le Bazar was forced to close every evening long before the time desired by the management and even long before the time demanded by the employees, and this will have lasted for as long as the strikers wished.

The most important result from this strike and the most unexpected result for the employees themselves was this demonstration by the deed that the direct action method offers shop assistants not only the usual advantages we already knew about, but specific advantages unknown to industrial workers.

Industry managers, when circumstances do not allow him to remedy the strikers’ defection by hiring random people, can generally, without much damages, stop production. They own stocks which can be used immediately to answer urgent orders. Agreements with similar factories will allow them to keep their procurement related to the predicted needs of ordinary sales. From part of their clients, bulk buyers who are just as hostile as they are to workers’ demands and up for anything to see them fail, they will be granted delays to fill their orders. Not to mention the cases when, not knowing what to do with an excess of production, the strike seems like a good occasion not to have to take the responsibility of a lock-out.

For commerce establishments, especially in retail, suddenly to replace a high proportion of employees by newcomers would create such problems that closing down a shop would not sound worse. Closing the shop, stopping sales, even for a short time is the most impossible thing. At least, as long as province remained dependent on Paris and ensured an important part of the sales, there was some possibility to delay expeditions. But nowadays, department stores are being built everywhere, Paris mostly sells to Paris, and not being able to reach everyday customers, isn’t it sending these customers somewhere else, to the department store on the other side of the street? Will they come back? Suppose they do. They would find goods from before the crisis, withered, old, outdated, and leave hastily, for good this time.

And let’s note that without going to the extreme measure of a strike, the simple project of a hostile demonstration in a department store, if enough publicity is made about its preparation, will have the effect of driving away, on that day at least, a mass of customers, who might be quite indifferent to the fate of the employees who serve them, but who wish to avoid the demonstration. There are also customers hostile by definition to the bosses’ class: those who agglomerate in the union groups and who would naturally follow an indication to boycott this or that store. Fears from part of the customer-base and the hostility of another, two risks which are both contradictory and complementary; Le Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville will have learnt the hard way what it costs to provoke them.

And that’s not all. Because workers, how brilliant as they might be, hardly gets a chance to understand the complexity of the inner workings of factory production. Some parts of technical organisation are beyond them and the “proletarians” of a special order who, with their titles as engineers, deal with them, do not feel the purely theoretical solidarity that their situation as wage workers establishes with other workers. Also, the conditions on the buyers’ market for raw materials and the market for distribution of factory products are factors that capitalist production prefer to keep a mystery to the workers.

There’s nothing like this in commerce. There, nothings separates both operations, sales and procurement are actually so intertwined that by doing one, the clerk gets some experience in the other, and by the sole effect of progressive experience, the smallest seller could normally become aisle manager, whose main function is as a buyer.

Nothing is more telling about this issue than the special issue of The Clerks’ Tribune, which the union printed especially during the strike and which was entirely written by the strikers themselves.

“You are claiming,” they tell Mr. Ruel, “that your profits have slumped because your store did not saty open after a certain hour. These are the proofs to the contrary. Your sales were going down even before for general reasons linked to the creation of provincial department stores. “novelty” articles are especially hit with the fashion of flat dresses renovated of the Empire style, which use little fabric. Others are also hit by the commercial setback; they parry with the continuous perfecting of their methods. You are stuck in a rut and lagging behind your competitors. You have made some disproportionate buys, you have cumbered yourself with an awkward assortment, some categories of commodities, not put on sale on time, have become unsaleable, here is a list of objects which sell for a good price and easily and which can be found everywhere but in your store. Whereas, for everyone else, business is business, you procure your goods, for personal reasons, from this or that person, who, sure to be able to move their wares, whatever they are, doesn’t bother to perfect them… And this does not exist uniformly throughout your store, but only where the inability of the top managerial staff runs free… As a boss, you do not know your job, customers leave you, you can’t see any other remedy than opening later, an unfair competition process actually vis a vis similar stores and by which your commercial ineptitude is publicised. We do not like, as employees, to bear the brunt of your mistake, and our interests, in this case, is also your customers’ interest and, therefore, your own interest. Leave the technical management of the Bazar to those who are able and keep to your job as a shareholder which is not at stake for the moment.”

This is what concluded the employees of Le Bazar, and whoever read the special issue of The Clerks’ Tribune is forced, by the evidence of accumulated facts, to draw the same conclusion. So Mr. Ruel’s business practices are now discredited, and he is forced, for the greatest profit of his store, to change his ways. What industrial workers’ strike would have offered such a spectacle?

Indubitably, it happens that CGT militants, used, by their function, to the notion of general realities, take back from a visit to comrades on strike some substantial analyses of a particular industry. But, there, it is the comrades on strike themselves who were immediately able to uncover the whole functioning of a large department store.

We can immediately see the consequences of such an example and what new state of mind it will create among the clerk profession. While the large-scale conditions of industrial production make workers feel like they are far away from the time to “fight for the abolition of wages and bosses”6, this time seems to any clerk who envisions the large-scale commercial organisation like very near and, so to speak, within reach.

These are lessons of experience which were well worth a direct action strike, no doubt.

Is that to say that the Bazar strike was, in every way, a model strike and the prototype of any future syndicalist action among clerks? Looking into the detail of its daily development, we can see, to be honest, a few mistakes.

It is annoying that the individual zeal of a few militants almost introduced in the conflict some interventions of a more political than economic nature and of a more than disputable character… How could we not also regret that the movement seemed, at first, to lose its purely professional basis which rallied everyone and get complicated with a religious issue which spread even among the friendly press7 and was very close to dividing the staff between themselves… We must also mention the action of those who, although they came to vote the strike, didn’t do it, and severely condemn this behavious, although it is explainable from comrades who, too recently in contact with the syndicalist spirit of discipline were doubting themselves because they didn’t trust others enough.

All of this is nothing else than the dead weight of former mistakes practised at the Union Chamber, And it would hardly be worthy to mention if there weren’t more to say about the responsibility of this organisation, which was at most mitigated by its later course correction. Because if the Union Chamber disapproved, as normal, of a movement which which was not leading and which was using methods for which it has no sympathies, if it had the right to advise or not to advise its members, how could it believe that between the November 2nd demonstration and the declaration of strike the next day in the evening, while a hundred comrades were already notified of their dismissal, it could make public in the press8 its disapproval of what had happened and what was to follow?

What was the point of all this? If some militants could have felt, at the start, a bit at a loss, the needs of the starting conflict quickly put them back on the right track. Direct action, in the end, gave back energy even to these who first thought it was an inconvenient. It is not only previously non-unionised employees that the strike at the Bazar made flow in to join the clerks’ union in mass. Let down by their organisation, weren’t there also a significant number of Union Chamber members who simply joined the ranks of the only active organisation?

Therefore the Clerks’ Union of the Paris region now presents itself to the members of this trade like their usual centre of syndicalist organisation and action. (…)

Midinettes on strike, by May Picqueray

Midinettes on strike

May Picqueray

The small hands, the midinettes, these small bees of the great fashion houses, from where the masterpieces worn by artists and ladies of the Paris and international bourgeoisie come, these young girls who you can meet in squares or at the Tuileries, at lunchtime, sharing their meagre meals with the birds, their friends, are very badly paid, live on very little, dress with almost nothing, but always with taste. The midinettes are known in all of Paris for their laughter, their chicness, and their small artists’ hands.

But there’s a down-side to this. Today, they are on strike. They can no longer manage. Bosses who exploit them shamelessly don’t want to hear anything about granting them a pay increase. So, they take to the streets.

There is a meeting this afternoon at the trade union hall, near République. Our friends Margot, Marie, Mado Ferré are on strike. Thérèse and I decide, in solidarity, to join them, to bring them our support. The room is packed. Girls and women follow one another on the platform, they explain the situation in couture: whether it is in workshops or in rooms, they are exploited all the same. They will not give up, a delegation is chosen to start negotiations with the bosses’ union.

When they leave, it is like sparrows taking flight. They laugh, hail one another. Surprise: we can see several hundred guys from the building industry and road workers who have stopped work to bring their moral and material support to the midinettes. That’s great! They are cheered and even kissed. It is decided to go demonstrate in front of the great fashion houses, and then on the Champs Elysées. He guys give their arms to the girls, and the picturesque and joyous march is ready to flow onto the Grands Boulevards. Suddenly, a squadron of republican guards shows up on the République square, surrounding open carriages. Poincaré1 sits in the front carriage. The rest of the government in the other ones.
“It is Poincaré, you know, ‘the man who laughs in cemeteries’…”
He is simply here to inaugurate a very strange exhibition on the République square. In some sheds, machines have been set up in which we could see photographic sights of life in the tranches, the transport of the wounded, the dead lying on the battlefields, and all the horrors of war. And, on top of this, the Paris public had to pay to see that…

We are at the edge of the pavement, ready to join the march, Poincaré gets off, waving at the crowd who came to salute him. All of a sudden, Mado leaves us, walks towards him, raises her hand and shouts at his face: “Bastard! You came to see your dead!” Immediately she is seized by the guard and handed to the police who rushed to the scene (and so are we as we didn’t want to leave her); there we are embarked for the police station, mistreated and pushed into a corner like thieves, then interrogated by the commissar who gives us such an earful!…

We are thrown into cells and kept overnight. We weren’t proud! What was to become of us? Fortunately this “attentat” was not taken seriously. There was probably an order not to talk about it to the press, in other words to stifle the case.

We got off lightly, but we were furious we had missed the march on the Champs Elysées.