ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: L’État oublie les mineurs de 1948
by LAURENT MOULOUD
Translated Tuesday 19 July 2016, by
In 2014 these dispossessed strikers, unjustly fired back in 1948, were promised compensation. But that compensation has yet to materialize.
Norbert is one of the miners who was dispossessed after the large-scale strikes of 1948. He is among the last to have lived through that era of incredible governmental violence towards those in the coal mines. He was slandered, fired from his job, and imprisoned. He and his colleagues spoke out, demanding justice, but for years their pleas were ignored. This Friday afternoon, Norbert will try once more. He will join trade unionists, French Communist Party officials, and miners’ children at a press conference in Grenay (a city in the Pas-de-Calais region) to hold the French government accountable and remind officials of their promises that have yet to be fulfilled.
Sixty-eight ears later, hundreds of workers are still waiting for a pardon.
The miners of the 1948 strikes have been fighting for sixty-eight years to obtain a pardon; hundreds of workers whose lives were destroyed just because they wanted to defend their rights. Their story begins three years after World War II. Miners played an essential role in the post-war reconstruction effort. 80% of France’s energy came from coal, and coal miners "battled" in the mines, working double-time to get the country back on its feet. In exchange, and also in recognition of their role in the resistance against occupying Nazi forces, the miners were promised protected employment status and a guaranteed income. However, in 1948, Robert Lacoste, Minister of Industry and Commerce, decided to rescind those rights by decree.
The reaction was immediate: the first strike broke out on October 4th, endorsed by 90% of voters in a referendum organized by the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT). Nearly 300,000 miners stopped working. The movement affected the entire country, and caused a vicious backlash. After the withdrawal of the Communist ministers and in the context of the burgeoning Cold War, those in power were blinded by fears of an uprising led by Moscow and the "Communist CGT," so called by Jules Moch, Minister of the Interior and a socialist. 80,000 soldiers and riot police were requisitioned and stationed just a few kilometers from the coalfields. “François Mitterand, who was then Secretary of State for Presidency of Council, even brought up the fact that by law troops were permitted to fire on striking workers once the ’required warnings’ had been issued," states Raymond Frackowiak, General Secretary of the CGT Miners Union of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.
The results were brutal: A 56-day strike, with six miners killed and thousands more arrested. A total of 1,342 miners, including 700 in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, were given prison sentences for "interference with the freedom to work." Over 3,000 were fired, including 117 CGT delegates. Their lives fell apart. They were given two days to vacate the collieries, losing in the process their salaries, heated homes and medical coverage. The other miners were instructed not to house them. Other companies in the region were pressured not to employ them. They were left with neither work nor hope. Some were taken in by family members. Others, branded as they were, had to live in makeshift shelters or leave the region. These war heroes, their bodies wracked by lung disease, were now seen as enemies of the nation. Some of them had been resistance fighters, communists, deportees, members of the FFI (French Forces of the Interior), and even decorated soldiers who were now stripped of all honors.
Decades passed. Often, the victims of this injustice hid the story, even from their own children. They watched in disgust as pardons were granted to the OAS members involved in the Generals’ Uprising. Nothing was done for them. In 1981 an amnesty law was passed, but it did not grant them official recognition of their losses or reconstruct their stolen livelihoods. In 1998, the CGT Federation of Miners reopened the file and began a long legal battle. In January of 2011, at the appeals court in Versailles, 17 miners were awarded 30,000 euros as compensation for "illegal, discriminatory and violent termination of employment. “But the decision was contested by Charbonnages de France in appeals court.
In 2014, their hopes were raised again. Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira formally recognized the government’s responsibility in the affair and "the discriminatory and abusive character of the damages inflicted in response to the strikes. “An amendment to the 2015 finance law was passed, granting fired miners or their heirs an allocation of 30,000 euros, with an additional 5,000 euros granted to their children, and requiring the inclusion of the 1948 strikes in school textbooks.
But this first step does not go nearly far enough."30,000 euros is only 5% of what it should be," says Norbert Gilmez. “I estimate that some of us suffered up to 300,000 euros’ worth of damages." Since then, other miners’ cases have been added to the initial 30. “At this point there are 227 cases waiting to be processed," says Raymond Frackowiak. But despite its written commitments, the government still has not acted. “Ever since Jean-Jacques Urvoas arrived at the Place Vendôme, there has been no further contact," states the union representative. He is worried, but still ready to fight.
Norbert Gilmez can’t help seeing the similarities. “Back then, socialists were already using the word "terrorism" when they talked about the CGT, and they had no qualms about using violence to break up our movement," the 94-year old explains, his voice steady despite his age. It’s shocking sometimes to see the way history repeats itself. As today’s government attempts to stifle the movement against the El Khomri law and discredit the unions, memories of other strikers oppressed by socialist power come to mind.