Try putting 13 little pins in 13 little holes 60 times an hour, eight hours a day. Spot-weld 67 steel plates an hour, then find yourself one day facing a new assembly-line needing 110 an hour. Fit 100 coils to 100 cars every hour; tighten seven bolts three times a minute. Do your work in noise ‘at the safety limit’, in a fine mist of oil, solvent and metal dust. Negotiate for the right to take a piss—or relieve yourself furtively behind a big press so that you don’t break the rhythm and lose your bonus. Speed up to gain the time to blow your nose or get a bit of grit out of your eye. Bolt your sandwich sitting in a pool of grease because the canteen is 10 minutes away and you’ve only got 40 for your lunch-break. As you cross the factory threshold, lose the freedom of opinion, the freedom of speech, the right to meet and associate supposedly guaranteed under the constitution. Obey without arguing, suffer punishment without the right of appeal, get the worst jobs if the manager doesn’t like your face. Try being an assembly-line worker.
Wonder each morning how you’re going to hold out until the evening, each
The French bosses were still asking this question 10 months ago when a particularly sharp emergency changed their minds for them. This happened in May 1971. The major issue at that time was generally thought to be the question of retirement at 60; for many workers, however, those in their twenties and thirties, retirement seemed as remote as the day of judgement. ‘If we have to go on like this for 40 years’, they were saying, ‘we may as well drop dead right now.’ These workers had already made themselves heard at the Batignolles, Ferodo and Moulinex factories, and at the Polymécanique works at Pantin. But these were small or isolated concerns. It was only in May, when the assembly-line workers at Le Mans came out on strike, that the bosses began to get really worried; Renault on strike could start a forest fire. This was now an extremely serious business.
It later emerged that this five-week strike traumatized the bosses as much as May 1968. The fear of another May was such that country-wide emergency measures were taken. At one point, cgt squads came from outside to help their outnumbered comrades prevent the occupation of Renault-Billancourt. The strengthening of security services, the methodical hunting down of militants, the now-familiar sackings on the slightest protest, all originated in this long, botched strike. The Renault management will never be the same again and neither will the rest of the bosses.
How long can one run a factory by repression and intimidation, in fact? What is the value of work carried out by someone with a supervisor breathing down his neck, under threat of punishment or arbitrary harassment? What does this barrack-room atmosphere cost in terms of spoilt parts, discreet sabotage, disabling accidents, breakages, daily disturbances, growing difficulty in replacing the workers who leave? What is to become of an industrial country which has to look as far afield as southern Africa for its manpower because its own citizens, even the unemployed, reject imprisonment in its factories?
Today the cnpf (the French employers’ federation) is having to face all these questions. Since the May 1971 revolt at Le Mans it has felt that its hold on the working class is slipping, that May ’68 was no accident and the bosses’ control mechanisms are really disintegrating. Repression only escalates the conflict without solving the problem; if you persist in that direction, it isn’t long before you can only maintain ‘order’ in the
This is why, last autumn, the cnpf sent fact-finding missions all over the world to study possible solutions. Is it possible to reconcile workers with the nature of their work? Are despotic management methods really necessary? Is the fragmentation and hierarchization of tasks indispensable in this day and age? Could the jobs performed by assembly-line workers be done away with and replaced by more interesting ones, thus reconciling control by the bosses with the introduction into the workshops of the principles of 1789? The cnpf study group wrote in its report on ‘The Problem of the Assembly-line Worker’: ‘This problem is both vast and difficult. We believe that it is inescapable.’ Fontanet, the Minister of Labour, expressed much the same opinion.