ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Effervescence sociale à Grenoble
by Marie-José Sirach
Translated Wednesday 18 March 2009, by
The Grenoble area, at the centre of the old province of Dauphiné, is up in arms in preparation for the general strike called on March 19th by all trade unions, and on an ambitious platform.
As the region is hit by factory closures, re-structuring, and temporary lay-offs, the spirit of resistance is running high.
From our special correspondent in Grenoble
Back in 1968, there was more than the Winter Olympics: André Malraux, then Minister for Culture, took advantage of the Games fervour to inaugurate both the Maison de la Culture (a cultural centre) and the Musée Dauphinois. Those were the times when culture was set at the pinnacle of the ambition of emancipation handed down by the Résistance. The Maison de la Culture (now enlarged and re-named MC2) has since become one of the major centres of artistic creation. The Musée Dauphinois is perched on the steep foothill of the Chartreuse mountains, against which the town has been built on the right bank of the Isère river. In what was once a convent, the Musée hosts remarkable exhibitions: one of the current shows is devoted to the working class in its diversity: “The condition of workers in the Isère département from the 17th to the 21st century”.
Do workers belong in the museum then? Do they survive only in the collective memory as a pale, sepia-coloured, remote memory? A stroll round this exhibition brings ample proof to the contrary: this is far from being a mausoleum to the glory of the past. Words have changed of course: workers are now called “operators”; they do not join factories (sorry, “companies”) for life, but more often than not on fixed-term, or temporary contracts. But the hierarchy is still the same, maybe only the colour of overalls has changed: they used to be grey; today, they are white.
The map of the area’s industrial sites testifies to its rich economic activity. But how many have since disappeared? Quite a lot. And yet, if the mines have closed down, if the last paper-mill in the Grésivaudan valley farther upstream closed in September 2008, the département still boasts quite a few productive centres. Two thirds of the top hundred firms with payrolls of 50 and above in and around Grenoble are industrial firms or subcontractors to industrial firms. Company workers represent 28.1% of all salaried workers in the area, followed by employees (23.9%), executives and the intellectual professions (20%). Artisans, shop-keepers and company bosses represent only 0.5% of the population according to official figures for 2008 and 2009. Salaries are of course conversely proportional: that only stands to reason.
The crisis serves as an all-purpose pretext.
Figures before the crisis show some stability as concerns turnover in the main industries. Turnover is about the same as it was in 2006 or 2007. Yet, since January, restructuring has been in the air, with some workers being temporarily laid-off, short-term contracts not renewed, and workers kept on the alert, wondering whose turn it is going to be next. Patrick Varela, general secretary of the CGT local union says that between January 29 and March 19 “the anxiety and anger have grown,” but that the repeated announcements of further lay-offs “do not necessarily go to fuel mobilization.” Jean-Pierre Gilquin, his FO counterpart, says about the same thing as he evokes “a spate of redundancy schemes”, yet adds that “all the ingredients are there for the March
19 strike to be a success.”
Between these two dates, the CGT leader confirms that “social mobilization has not stalled. The protest movement has not let up steam.” But seeing all the uses to which, in the present situation, the pretext of the crisis is put, he says he is concerned about “the success of the next decisive unitary day of action, namely the March 19 strike, as “it is no easy thing to come out on strike when one’s wages have been cut by 20%.” The FO leader considers that “this crisis is a long-term crisis, like no other crisis before, the kind we know nothing about. This crisis is going to be a long process and I don’t see how you can expect workers to be out in the streets all the time. One has to take their potential capacity to take action into account.”
Mobilization is likely to affect extremely varied sectors.
On January 29th, 70,000 people turned out to demonstrate in the département. Mobilization on March 19th is likely to be as widespread as on January 29th: “Workers in companies with no unions call to ask how to go about it,” the trade–unionist says. He is infuriated by the way the MEDEF (the French employers’ association) and the government, but especially the MEDEF, just will not hear the protests. “To them, the crisis is an easy pretext,” a godsend to pass off restructuring schemes that had been drafted before. “Take Caterpillar: in 2008 they announced a 17% rise in their dividends and in the same breath they announced the plant was to close down, with a loss of 733 jobs.”
Marie-Laurence Moros, head of the local Teachers’ Federation (FSU) says not a day goes by but nursery schools teachers or university lecturers take action. Last Wednesday, two demonstrations took place in town, a torch-light procession marched down the Bastille hill, not to mention the headmasters and mistresses’ protest against the pupils’ data-base in which information about school-children from their youngest age will be stored for life. And then there is the unceasing activity of RESF, a network that helps foreign families with no documents whose children they have in their classes.
So teachers are really worked up, “to say the least, on the questions of wages, jobs and union rights.” Between January 29th and March 19th, they have kept showing their discontent. “Between a rather traditional form of action (traditional is by no means to be taken here in a derogatory sense) and the actions that we carry out every day, I see no contradiction, far from it. Novel forms of resistance are resorted to. But what is especially encouraging is the unity between the various confederations. Unity is the key to the success of those days of action. All the unions are present, active, and despite attempts at division, their unity is real enough and all of the unions have stood very firm on the extent of our demands and requirements.
Back at the Musée Dauphinois, one can read in the leaflet given to all visitors that the exhibition “shows how this is a living memory. It is out of the question to bury workers too soon; which does not mean that we should not reflect on the place of work in our society.” The question is quite relevant indeed: what is the value of work?