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From Cellatex to Moulinex: Burst Up of an Open Social Violence

www.wildcat-www.de/en/zirkular/61/z61e_mou.htm writes

For two generations French workers have been used to the
transfer of economic activities - mainly industrial factories -
from the main towns (especially from Paris industrial suburbs)
towards the country. For a time it was a very profitable for
companies: the mechanisation of agriculture "liberated" quite a
lot of farm workers (in 1945 more than 30% of the population
was living from agriculture and not even 10% 20 years later -
5% today). Wages were lower (then legally) up to 30% less
than in Paris; small towns, local administrations and the state
gave copious incentives. These companies could speculate
with the freed urban land and they could also engage a new
manpower easier to exploit for a while; even if the conditions of
work and wages were not that good, they often were better than
the farm work, for these country people not used to industrial
work; even more important, these workers and their families
could stay close to their birth-place. These economic transfers
did not raise resistance because in the main towns deserted by
industries it was then easy to find another job, the
unemployment rate being very low.

It is important to consider the point that for medium country
factories having been built in the '50s, often the only factory,
and job possibilities in that area; the closure would be a local
catastrophe, not only for the workers, but for the
subcontractors and for most part of the population (distribution
and administrative sectors). We also have to consider that
most of the French people in general are very reluctant to
move, not only because they cling to their birth-place but even
in general. What reinforces this resistance to any moving is the
fact that most of these country workers, thinking after decades
this local industry would be perennial, manage to get their
individual house and garden, a kind of relative comfort, which
also means the regular repayment of debts, implying a regular
wage. The closure of the local factory in a region where there
is often no other industries or in de-industrialised regions
means far more than the lost of a job and constitutes a rather
explosive mixture pushed by complex reactions against such a
painful transformation of the life of the concerned workers.

The evolution of capitalism which provided local work to farm
workers fired from the mechanised farms in relocated
industries was already the consequence of world competition.
The same possibilities offered by underdeveloped countries,
and the low cost of all kinds of expanded means of transport,
compels the same companies to look for other relocations all
over the world. They could not escape the consequence of the
industrial development of third world countries able to flow
cheap goods to more developed countries: either they have to
look abroad for cheaper manpower or they have to invest
heavily in new machinery. It was often an impossible situation
for capitalists: they could not impose on their workers the
conditions of production used in poor countries because of
both work regulations and workers resistance, it would often be
very difficult to invest in new machinery (and sometimes
impossible because of the competitive prices) because of this
they also came under the grasp of banks and/or merged with
more wealthy companies. One way or the other, solutions in
capitalist terms means what is called restructuring, e.g.
redundancy and the closure of the less productive or less
improvable factories; this also could means bankruptcy and the
total closure of all factories. Anyway, the workers were totally
submitted to the capitalist imperatives. Facing such a situation,
the workers try to defend their conditions of work and standard
of living, even more fiercely in the circumstances described
above. It is not by chance that all threats of recourse to
violence or of violence in industrial conflicts have happened in
remote or very depressed industrial locations.

Another point has to be pointed to explain a new phenomenon
in the evolution of the methods of struggle in class conflicts is
the concomitant evolution of mentalities amongst country
people who were traditionally rather conservative; it was part of
the ideas behind re-locations to employ docile and respectful
workers coming from agriculture traditions. This situation was
particularly evident in the western part of France where most of
the Moulinex factories were located. As national and local
politicians claimed to have had a role in these smooth industrial
and economic activities transfers and in the guarantee of some
social benefits - mainly the possibility to stay in their own area,
there was a persistent belief in the possibility of the political and
labour system influencing the economic evolution. But little by
little this belief was eroded by the many attempts to adapt the
process of production to the world economic pressure, which
meant the progressive loss of benefits, harder conditions of
work and finally different marginal cuts in the staff (early
retirement, use of temporary or part time workers, not replacing
workers leaving, etc.) and a growing feeling of insecurity. All the
explanations referring to the building of Europe or to the world
trade were understood as an external unavoidable evil against
which any political or union power were powerless. So, the
concrete experience showed that all the former possibilities of
mediation in the economic activity and its social consequences
were totally useless. Most of these workers at the centre of this
economic turmoil were compelled to fight to the bitter end.

It is what a rank and file woman Moulinex worker expressed
with her simple words: "For the presidential election, I will not
vote. I will send back my polling card barred with red writing
úMoulinex. Anyway nothing could go ahead like that. After us,
some other workers will follow us. One day we will have an
explosion. If such eventual events could get a comparison, May
68 events will look like a joke." This sounds not like a threat, but
rather like a statement about a situation not at all exceptional in
France for several years and accelerated in a recent period.
We can think that this kind of open violence started in July
2000 in the Cellatex textile factory in a remote part of the north
of France: it was for most part the role of the media, which had
ignored quite a lot of other similar facts having happened
before, and which were obliged to reflect the sudden concern
of the ruling class and of its auxiliaries faced with this sudden
burst of industrial violence. But, in the previous years either
spontaneously, or more or less reluctantly organised by the
unions, the workers reactions against factory closures or
restructuring and the following redundancies implied a certain
degree of violence (factory or office sit in, official building
occupations, pickets to prevent the removal of machinery or
goods, locking up of managers or of the political responsible,
blockades of railways or motorways, disruptions of factory
councils, companies boards or of mediation team meetings,
etc.). Even contained by the unions, sometimes organised by
them with selected workers as a preventive measure,
sometimes spontaneous but quickly controlled, all these actions
reveal that the usual legal means of struggle were powerless
against the economic consequences of the world trade in a
free market generally advocated. The pressure of such a level
of violence was aimed at compelling the company, the local and
national authorities, the state to "do something" either against
the closure or for better benefits in case of redundancies
(more money, better conditions of retraining, new employment
in other companies).

If during a former period such possibilities with the help of the
state could work, little by little, it becomes more difficult as the
economic crisis was rising up again to offer a convenient
solution to these factory workers. As most of them had been
often obliged in the past to reluctantly agree with the conditions
imposed by the "social plans" mentioned above, the threat of a
definite closure amongst purposely spread rumours of
bankruptcy, amongst a perpetual uncertainty, caused a rising
discontent easily turning to a more radical violence. The end of
this workers fight, as they know through all this procrastination
aimed at weakening their combativeness, was not against an
"unavoidable" closure but to get more redundancy money. As
with Cellatex workers, the Moulinex workers of one of the
condemned factory threaten to blow up the factory with the
slogan: "Du fric ou boum" ("Money or Bang").

In France, usually, a redundant worker can get from his
employer an indemnity fixed in the collective work agreement.
We can sum up this legal right as follow:

nothing for temporary, part time, seasonal workers or
permanent workers with less than two years or seniority

1/10 of the monthly wage for each year of work after two
years of seniority

1/15 of the monthly wage above this 1/10 after 10 years of

some collective agreement could bring more than these
legal indemnities.

Because the Cellatex workers, after the threat to blow up the
factory in July 2000, got 80.000 F besides these legal
indemnities, for all the workers not considering their status, this
amount (about one year of a minimal wage) becomes - illegally
- the standard of the claims for redundant workers. Since
Cellatex, in about one year more than ten small factories used
the same threat to get more redundancy money and promises
about retraining and new jobs. The last one of this series was
another textile factory near Lille (spinning mill Mossley at
Hellemes, 123 workers) where part of the factory was burnt
down and where workers started to burn material in the streets.
After 71 days of struggle and a sit in the factory they got about
the same as Cellatex workers one year before.

If the situation at Moulinex was more or less the same as in
these examples, it was also more complicated and more
important. The more recent conflicts about "restructuring" and
factory closures in large companies were dealt with either
inside the trust (for instance the multinational Danone closing
some biscuit factories Lu), or through State intervention to
guarantee new employment (for instance in the air company
AOM - Air Liberté) or with a total buying by another company (all
department store of Marks and Spencer in France bought by
Galeries Lafayette with promise of reemployment of
everybody). So we can see the difference in the treatment of
closures according the size of the company and the possibility
of containing the struggle in the frame of legality as long as
there is some kind of a solution for workers to escape
redundancies, although they could be obliged to accept some
reduction of their previous working conditions.

Moulinex was not as small company but neither was it a
multinational. At first a family company started more than 70
years ago, having grown during the thirty years of capitalist
prosperity after the '50s to become the main leader in home
appliances and kitchen equipment in France. This firm used the
possibilities we have mentioned to locate its factories in the
country and most of them were in the west of France, precisely
a very conservative area with a background of catholic
influence. There were discussions in the capitalist and union
milieu incriminating the family company for not having been able
to modernise early enough to face the world competition,
mainly of Asian production; even if Moulinex recently had
subsidiaries in the USA (Krups), in Mexico (Vistar), in Spain
and in Egypt, the core of its activity was in France in terms of
production and of dominant market. On the other hand, as this
competition needed more capital, meaning borrowing from the
banks, and also meant being obliged to comply with the orders
of the financial milieu. It was at first various restructuring and
finally in 2000 a merging with a sister company Brandt, a
subsidiary of an Italian holding El.FI, the fourth European group
of home appliance (the Novicelli brothers) which held 74% of
the capital of the group Moulinex-Brandt. Apparently, the
situation of the group was not catastrophic: from April to
December 2000 the total turnover grew by 5,5% on the
previous year; but this figure dissimulates a distortion between
the turnover in France dropping by 6,7% as the turnover
abroad increased of 18%; in 2001 this tendency was
reinforced as more recently the prospects of selling in the USA
were rather dull; so the share holders mainly interested in
global profits considered that Moulinex was the black sheep in
its multinational and need a drastic restructuring.

Moulinex workers already alerted by previous "social plans"
and by the merging with Brandt were left for seven months in
the uncomfortable situation knowing that there will be some
unavoidable restructuring but left totally ignorant as to the scale
of this. On the 25 of April, the Moulinex-Brandt new group
proposeed a total regrouping of the 16 French factories
(11,000 workers on a total of 22,000 European workers) with
the definite closure of three factories, two most important ones
in Normandy and one in the North of France:

Alençon (Orne), 1,100 workers making small home
appliance, production partly transferred (flatiron) to Mexico;

Cormelles le Royal (Calvados), 1,100 workers making
microwave ovens, production totally stopped accused of
loosing too much money;

Lesquin (Nord), 700 workers making fridges, production
transferred to Poland.

The workers in the factories to be closed went immediately on
strike occupying the factories leaving the unions no choice but
to refuse this restructuring plan. From the holidays on the 21 of
July all the factories have a chaotic production and some of
them Alençon, Bayeux, Cormelles and Falaise, all in Normandy
are often totally closed. With the end of the holidays on the 22
of August, the situation was not better for the company even
though the unions tried to control the struggle with for instance
the call for a 2 hours strike on the 25 of August. Soon, the
movement escaped their attempts to regulate: during the night
of the 29 of August, in Alençon factory, the night shift start the
occupation and erected barricades at the gates. The
occupation started again in most of the factories which were
blocked at a standstill.

The group Moulinex-Brandt answer, with the refusal of the
Italian owner to put more money in the restructuring, is to go for
bankruptcy on the 8 of September with the judiciary designation
of a receiver. Some will incriminate the banks for having
refused a new loan but apparently the responsibility was shared
not only between the real owners and the financial milieu but
certainly with other people interested in the disbanding of the
group in order to get a dominant position in this industry. Of
course the workers were left alone, with the unions and the
local authorities trying to present alternative plans to keep all
the factories working, all more or less shaky mainly because
they have no power at all, mainly because they could not raise
money to implement them and also they were certainly going
against more important financial concerns. What were the
possibilities of workers action in factories supposed to be
closed, all of them if the bankruptcy was definite? On the 10 of
September, all occupations stopped as the rumour was spread
of the selling of the factories, totally or in retail, if the workers
stayed quiet so as not to discourage an eventual owner. It was
of course the real aim of the operation, stopping the
occupation, puzzling the workers in hopeless speculations
because they have no means to judge the situation (and even
the union kept pretending to play a role in this tragicomedy).

So, from this 10 September for more than one month all the
factories were supposed to work normally but most of the time
running either with period of management stoppage or with a
reduced production; the unemployed workers could get the
money paid by the employer for technical rest. They were
persuaded to stop any disturbing actions except the traditional
demonstrations called and controlled by the unions. And they
regularly "informed" the workers of the ups and downs of the
running negotiations to find a new boss. After many proposals,
finally the receiver agreed about a take over of the Moulinex
part of the group by SEB, its main French competitor and the
disbanding of Brandt staying in the El.Fi holding. This
announcement on the 23 of October reveals that more or less
SEB was more interested by the Moulinex subsidiary abroad
mainly in order to penetrate the North and South American
markets, already having several factories in France making the
same products as Moulinex. For the Moulinex workers the
restructuring plan which had provoked the sudden burst of
strike on the 27 of April was more or less the same to be
implemented by the new owner. The two main factories of
Alençon and Cormelles le Royal would be definitively closed
and the other ones would have some cuts in the staff.

The Moulinex workers had lost six
months of struggles and had been
cheated in order to break their
combativeness. Now they have only
one possibility as they can't stop the
disbanding of the group and the
closure of these factories. So,
similarly to Cellatex, they have to fight to get more redundancy
money and better retraining and reemployment. Immediately
after the announcement of the deal, the two factories of
Cormelles and Alençon were occupied and totally blocked. The
claim is what the Cellatex workers had got: 80,000 on to of the
legal rights common to all workers. As the discussions and
unions actions went nowhere for twenty days, the workers of
Cormelles le Royal spontaneously started something similar to
the Cellatex fight. As the CFDT union is very dominant at
Alençon, we can suppose that this union kept a tight control
that the occupation stayed within the legal limits. Cormelles
went far beyond these limits. On the 13 of November, the part
of the workers of Cormelles le Royal, one of the factory to be
definitively closed (1,1000 workers) who had already occupied
the factory, piled up at some strategic points inside quite a lot
of inflammable products (gas canisters, petrol, other
chemicals, etc..) and put on the front of the gate the claim "Du
fric ou Boum". As a proof of their good will, exactly what the
Cellatex had done in pouring some sulphuric acid in a stream
or as the Mossley workers in burning down part of the factory,
these Moulinex workers burnt down part of the factory building.
Of course, this action was strongly condemned by the social
democratic minister of the "affaires sociales". But at the same
time, a poll amongst the population gave 90% of support to the
Moulinex workers action.

Nobody tried to stop them as the discussions were going on
with the authorities to try to settle "the problem". The difference
in the method of struggle can be seen in the fact that the police
stayed quiet in front of Cormelles factory but, at the same time,
prevented the workers of Alençon factory, called by the
dominating union CFDT, invading the head quarter of the boss
union MEDEF in Paris with the repressive action of the special
cops who injured some of the demonstrators. Anyway, the
Cormelles action accelerated the outcome of the dispute. In
order to prevent the extension to other factories, the solution
was found in one week. But, as usual this solution was taken in
order to divide the workers in a slightly different manner from
Cellatex. This last "social plan", agreed by all the unions but the
CFDT union, allowed SEB, the new owner of Moulinex, to get
rid of 3,700 workers out of 5,600 with the definite closure of
Alençon and Cormelles and drastic cuts of staff in the other
factories. The workers had to evacuate all the occupied
factories and resume production. The amount of extra
indemnities was not the same for all workers but different
according to the seniority from 30,000 F up to 80,000. As this
"social plan" had to be voted by the workers, this first division of
the workers was completed by a vote organised factory by
factory. So, the result of the vote was more or less known in
advance. As the CFDT union had refused to sign the "social
plan" because of its dominant position in the Alençon factory,
the workers in this factory refused the plan but they could not
do anything, as they did not think to go beyond the legal limits
and evacuate the factory, as all the other Moulinex factories
had accepted this plan.

Entirely coincidental, these Moulinex
threats occurred just at the same time
as the terrorist actions against the
New York World Trade Centre. But
nobody talk of "terrorism" about these
workers actions. Again, as for
Cellatex, some comments in all kinds
of milieu talked about luddites and luddism, more or less
considering it as a fight against technology and the use of
technique. The luddite fight was not at all ideological: it was
class struggle against the exploiters, selectively using the
destruction of machinery in order to get better wages and
better conditions of work, the destruction targeted only at
bosses refusing to implement these better conditions. The
current of violence which is bursting up in France for more than
one year now, is very similar to this past action of the luddites
only in the specific case of factory closure in order to get more
money but had nothing to do with the ideology some try to stick
on it. It is that, and only that, a mean of struggle, more radical
and of course more efficient than the usual legal means, the
only ones supported by the unions.

Of course, it would be completely wrong to consider these
actions as some kind of a revolutionary move. Of course the
recourse to this violent method of struggle has a meaning. But
if it jumps over certain mediations and breaks with the
traditional way advocated by the unions, these mediators are
still recognised as able to discuss and fix the conditions for a
solution of the conflict; if these mediators had to bring back the
agreement they have fixed with all the capitalist representatives
and to submit it to the vote of the workers, they have anyway,
as we can see at Moulinex, there is still the possibility of
manipulation in order to prevent any extention of the radical
method of struggle. The words of a woman Moulinex worker
quoted above show that this possibility of extension is not a

We have to place all these events in the dialectical process,
particularly in the relation between labour and capital. On the
economic side of the conflict and considering what the
capitalist system (companies and governments) has to pay for
the solution of its actual problems beyond what it considers as
tolerable for the rate of profit, the fact it was obliged by class
struggle to pour out money in order to maintain the social
peace has to be seen as a brake on the permanent attempts to
stop the decline of this rate of profit. The persistent and
recurrent pressure to "get more" is not of course a death for
the capitalist system but underlines some weakness in its
functioning. Class struggle is still here and as strong as ever.

It is not however, a reason to crow. If without doubt, in the limits
we have just talked of, this violence can be considered as a
manifestation of the workers autonomy, it is, as far it remains in
these limits, part of the dialectical process between the workers
action and the capitalist constant repression. This repression
comes from the unions using their legal power to manipulate. If
they still fail to keep the struggle within legal limits, then the
police intervene with violence until the struggle is within these
limits and unions can resume their function. This repression is
not only used against specific actions but is organised at a
more general and less specific level in order to cope with a
global struggle. On one hand, if this action would have gone
beyond a threat even with some token examples and had
spread locally, regionally or in other factories or in solidarity
actions, the repression would have shown its ugly face; of
course with the risk of degenerating into a larger movement,
what the repressive forces tried evidently to avoid in evading a
too direct repression. On the other hand, as the first line of
repression against the autonomous tendencies, the unions
can, as they have done in the past, "organise" some pretended
autonomous action to keep the control of the movement (as
they did in the 1995 strikes in France). In this respect, the
"new" unions built in France apparently "against" the traditional
unions can play a crucial role in channelling the autonomy
towards another kind of legality. Anyway, in this dialectical
process, it is somewhat difficult to separate what is autonomy
of what is not autonomy: we have only to consider that
something is moving under the pressure of class struggle
escaping the previous forms in which the capitalist system tried
to determine the exploitation of work.

H.S. 11/2001"