Ian Birchall reviews Opening the Gates: The Lip Affair, 1968-1981.
The struggle by French workers at the Lip watch factory in Besançon in the 1970s now seems very remote, and is probably little known, even though there are several books and a couple of films devoted to it. So Donald Reid’s book, carefully documented with a mass of detail, is to be welcomed for reminding us of an enthralling page from working-class history.
The story begins in the aftermath of the events of May 1968. These remain a subject of debate. In a recent book (May Made Me, Pluto, London, 2018), based on a fascinating collection of interviews with participants, Mitchell Abidor argues that the desire for radical social change was mainly confined to the student milieu, and that most workers had purely economic goals. He makes a strong case, but the argument seems to me a bit static. Even if workers were initially motivated by wage demands, the development of factory occupations (even if often passive and bureaucratically organised) opened up new perspectives for challenging the very structures of society.
The aftermath of May ’68 coincided with another major turning-point; the early seventies saw the end of the trente glorieuses – the thirty glorious years of the post-war boom and full employment. The Lip factory, with around 1200 employees producing high quality watches, had a high level of organisation and confidence. When a male and a female worker on a late shift were caught ‘making out’ and threatened with dismissal, workers downed tools and they kept their jobs. A woman responded to sexual harassment by hitting the offender on the head with a waste-basket; following a work stoppage she was moved to a new position but not sacked.
In 1973 Lip faced bankruptcy and redundancies. The workers responded, not by pleading for jobs, but by asserting that the factory was theirs, the product of their toil and skill. They occupied the factory, briefly holding members of management hostage, and expropriated the stock of watches, hiding them securely. (Some watches were concealed by friendly priests who hid them in churches and rectories.)
This opened a period of remarkable working-class creativity. Operating on the borders of legality the Lip workers raised money by selling the appropriated watches, at the same time as making extensive propaganda for their cause. Thus a decision was taken “to sell all watches at… 42 per cent discount and the next day cars with loudspeakers drove through Besançon spreading the news”. The leftist PSU (United Socialist Party) mobilised to sell watches nationwide, with “a catalogue that it sent to militants in all departments with instructions to make it available to unions, works councils and other interested groups”. The main union, the CFDT, had already broken with traditional practice by holding regular discussions with workers including non-union members. Once the occupation started General Assemblies were held daily, with an average of nearly half the employees attending. Workers produced a mural display of media coverage and then a daily bulletin of ‘counter-news’. One sociologist described it as a “vacation from alienated life”. But it was not, as Charles Piaget, the effective leading militant in the action, unwisely claimed, “the beginning of a socialist society”.
This in turn shook up the existing hierarchies inside the factory. Whereas previously workers had been confined to their own bit of the factory, now they visited each other’s workplaces. One woman striker reported: “Now, there is not a workshop or an office in which you don’t know someone.” The workers replaced the restaurant run by an outside contractor, and produced “comparable meals at significantly lower prices”; moreover, the restaurant became “a site of discussions, of quarrels, and of camaraderie”.
In particular it meant big changes for the women workers. Around half the employees were women, many of them unskilled, working in heat and noise with their hands in oil all day. Often they had the double burden of domestic responsibilities and they tended not to speak in meetings. But by trying to change the world they started to change themselves, and the role of women changed rapidly. Women with no previous experience travelled around France speaking at public meetings.
There was no clear political leadership to the action. Several of those involved were left Catholics, including Piaget. But there was also a certain Maoist influence, although often this reflected what people imagined had happened in the Cultural Revolution rather than any real appreciation of what was going on in China.
There were two main unions, the Communist Party-controlled CGT and the CFDT, a former Catholic union now secularised. The CGT tended to be suspicious of notions of workers’ control and self-management (or ‘autogestión’); as CGT leader Georges Séguy argued: “It is as absurd to believe that workers can do without foremen as to believe that children can do without teachers and the ill without doctors.” The CFDT was more flexible, and the majority of Lip militants belonged to it.
The various groups of the far left, still strong in the wake of May ’68, all backed the Lip workers, but none of them had any significant influence or had an effective strategy to propose. In 1974, when the death of Pompidou precipitated an unexpected presidential election, various left groups came together to approach Piaget and ask him to stand as “candidate of the struggles”, though in the end nothing came of it. (The only group that did not participate was Lutte Ouvrière, which was unwilling to sacrifice its own presidential campaign, which it saw as a party-building exercise.)
In March 1974 the first stage of the struggle came to an end. The factory was reopened under new ownership. Eventually all former workers were rehired. But in April 1976 the firm went bankrupt again.
A second occupation ensued; again watches, and some watchmaking machines, were expropriated and hidden. But it was now clear that things could not go on like this. As Piaget noted, it was “almost as hard to return to legality as it was to leave it”. For a while things continued on a half and half basis, with legal propaganda accompanied by illegal concealment of watches. Thus “workers boarded the Besançon-Paris train and spent the fifteen minutes before they were chased off explaining their cause to the passengers and gluing ‘LIP WILL LIVE’ posters on the cars”.
The eventual solution was the formation of a cooperative. But this was only a partial solution. The cooperative continued to exist within the capitalist market. In 1973 Piaget had rejected the idea of a workers’ cooperative, saying “an island of greenery in a capitalist sea is impossible”. Now it became clear the cooperative could only survive on the basis of the enforcement of traditional labour discipline. In March 1978 “100 workers had deductions in their pay for cutting work hours; the next month, some thirty workers with repeated absences were again denied a portion of their pay”. Inevitable? Justifiable?? Perhaps. But how different from the old management?
Yet what alternative was there? There was no solution within the framework of a single enterprise. Hence more and more on the left looked to the perspective of a left government. Mitterrand had made an alliance with the Communist Party – the ‘Common Programme’ – in order to more effectively screw the Communists. The new government elected in 1981 had nothing to offer Lip. The final bankruptcy came in 1987; by now there were just ninety-five employees.
As unemployment began to rise, the occupation tactic had been widely copied in France. Between July 1974 and July 1975 there were around two hundred factory occupations across the country. Some twenty of these were ‘productive strikes’, where workers continued production and sold the goods. It was a period of experiment and imagination; yet in the end it was in vain – nothing could bring back the trente glorieuses. There were occupations in Britain too, with mixed results (see John Deason, “Redundancy, Closures and the Sit-in Tactic”). Indeed the 1971 ‘work-in’ at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders was one of the inspirations for the Lip struggle.
The lessons of the story are not cheerful. Marxists can fluently explain that such struggles cannot succeed in isolation without a fundamental change in the social order – which is not a whole lot of use at a time when such change looks very remote indeed. Yet the energy, imagination and creativity of the Lip workers should not be forgotten. As historian Pierre Rosanvallon put it, it was the “recognition of another possible”; the story of their struggle is a reminder of what workers have been capable of and may again surprise us with.
Opening the Gates: The Lip Affair 1968-1981, by Donald Reid, is published by Verso.
Many of Ian Birchall’s writings can be found on his website grimanddim.org