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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: « Une forteresse dans le bagne de Citroën »

by Lénaïg Bredoux

A Workers’ Fortress in the Citroën Penal Colony

Translated Thursday 19 April 2007, by Gene Zbikowski

Automobile Industry. After a 29-day strike, the workers at the Peugeot-Citroën factory in Aulnay-sous-Bois voted to resume work, ending a labor dispute that has become emblematic in the presidential election campaign.

This had not happened since 1982. In the past 25 years, the Peugeot-Citroën factory in Aulnay-sous-Bois, in the French département of Seine-Saint-Denis, had not experienced such a tough labor dispute. The strike demanding a 300-euro raise lasted for 29 days. It was an exemplary strike in its impact, its organization and its length, which the strikers ended on 10 April voting for a resumption of work.

Led by a strike committee and backed from the beginning by the CFTC, CFDT, CGT, SUD and UNSA trade unions, the labor dispute was popularized at the factory by a daily newspaper and sustained by many young workers, many of whom are from the surrounding working-class neighborhoods. There were many actions outside the Citroën factory walls, demonstrations at Roissy, in front of the Saint-Lazare train station in Paris, and two steps away from the Champs-Elysées at the doors of the PSA company offices. “They are an example for us,” explained the workers at Clear Channel, responsible for putting up election campaign posters, and the sanitation workers of SITA Ile-de-France. “They put the question of low wages at the heart of the daily news.”

“The lack of wages in March hurt” At a time when public opinion polls show that the voters’ main worries are purchasing power and employment, the Citroën workers’ strike quickly found a sympathetic response a few weeks before the first round of the presidential election. Five left-wing candidates, Olivier Besancenot, Arlette Laguiller, Marie-George Buffet, José Bové, and Ségolène Royal, came to support the strikers. The right wing clearly showed its hostility to the labor dispute and denounced the 20000 euro subsidy for the strikers passed by the Seine-Saint-Denis département’s general council.

In the afternoon on 10 April, a final negotiating session was held between the trade union organizations and the automaker to finalize a protocol ending the labor dispute. “Management did not concede anything on the main demands,” summed up Jean-Pierre Mercier, deputy central trade union delegate for the CGT trade union. Indeed, the text provides for a 125-euro bonus for the workers who agree to come in to work on Saturday to catch up the production shortfall (which is estimated at 12,000 C2 and C3 cars), a 50% decrease in the price of a bus transport card and a 50 euro cent fall in the price of a meal at the canteen, and payment of temporary workers, no longer on the 15th but on the 1st of the month. Moreover, in addition to the promise to pay wages for two strike days and to maintain the 2.5 days of paid holiday in March, management has committed to not sanctioning any of the strikers.

A trade union member blurted out “Crumbs." Two general assemblies were held at the factory, with sometimes emotional discussions about whether or not to go back to work. “Out of pride, out of principle, I don’t feel like abandoning the strike,” explained, for example, Kamel Kana, a member of the SUD trade union. “We held out for a month, and for me, it’s a failure.” Some workers wanted to hold out until the support gala to be held on 14 April. Others felt that management would not give in another inch and repeated that, despite the popularity of the strike in the factory, the number of strikers had declined slightly in the preceding days (around 300 strikers continuing the strike). “March’s wages hurt,” according to one worker. “Some people only got 300 euros for the month.”

Learning to struggle together. “We knew from the beginning that management would not grant 300 euros to just 400 strikers. We know they won’t grant anything on wages, not even one euro, except if thousands of other workers join us." said the strike newspaper. But, despite the strikes at Mulhouse and at Sochaux, the strike did not spread to the other Peugeot-Citroën factories. Kamel: “And that, when management kept telling us that wages were decided at the level of the whole group.” But, as the strike newspaper hammered home, “the strength of our strike does not lie in what we will be able to grab from management in the short run. Our strike’s strength is in the response that it gets from larger and larger numbers of workers.”

The scales are tipped in favor of the CGT trade union at the factory, which is the biggest trade union in Aulnay, “The fact that the workers have learned to struggle together, to strike, to counter management’s attacks and to finance their strike, all that is worth its weight in gold,” said Jean-Pierre Mercier. “Young workers, for the most part, lifted up their heads, they got up on their feet. And that is going to completely change the atmosphere in the factory.”

“Management will be forced to take that into account in the future,” added Philippe Julien, the secretary of the CGT trade union. “We have succeeded in building a workers fortress inside the Citroën penal colony. Here, there will be a pre-March 2007 and a post-March 2007.”

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