From an article by historian Jean-Louis Robert:
Despite the military confrontation devaluing struggles in the « rear », many movements of a pacifist type led to the rise of new forms of radicalism.
Within a few days in 1914, mobilisation depleted the ranks of workers’ organisations. Everywhere the « union sacrée » [sacred union, presumed national consensus for the war effort] took over. But from 1917-1918 a social movement, both significant and unprecedented, broke out in France. Significant, because the level of strikes in 1917 and 1918 exceeded those from 1906 to 1910, a fact made still more noteworthy considering they were in a state of war. Unprecedented because struggles by new segments of the working class came to the fore, and because the forms of those struggles were also new. This article will look at two cases : the « midinettes’ » strike of 1917and the metalworkers’ (« métallos « ) strike, 1918, both in Paris.
The midinettes’ strike has to be located in a wider context, first and foremost that of the notable increase in women’s employment. And this « féminisation » of work was accompanied by a feminisation of strikes. During the war women were involved in as many strikes as men, in fact in more in some years, as in 1917. Suddenly they were there in the front line of struggle, leading active, often victorious strikes, more concerned with demands than with politics. This struggle was generally also spontaneous, which was certainly the case with the midinettes’ movement of 1917. On 11th May, a few days after the spectacular failure of the Chemin des Dames offensive, the [haute couture, up-market] dress-makers went on strike for « the English week » [Saturday afternoons off]. They were to be seen on 15th May « in serried ranks » in the rue de la Paix and rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré. There were no unions involved when this started. But there was another unusual feature, which was that those wartime strikes ran up against the State, which could not ignore them, and the whole trend of wartime government policy was to put into effect forms of social control in which the unions would have their set place. So if the unions were absent at the start of the strike, they were present when it came to negotiations, which ended by achieving perceptible successes. And the strikers joined the ranks of organised labour.
The second strike to be considered is that of the 100,000 metalworkers in the war factories in May 1918. Let’s have a quick look back at the context here too. Within a few months, industrial mobilisation established a system of war factories where there was massive weapons production with hitherto unprecedented speed-up of work. It was the First World War that saw the earliest bastions of industry, first of all being Renault Billancourt with as many as 20,000 workers. In those factories, new work practices developed, and a new labour force (unskilled) appeared. At the same time the state took control of the labour force, aiming to install new forms of social relations with, for example the creation of workshop delegates [shop stewards, more or less] at the end of 1917. But these factories soon also became the seed-beds for new developments in radicalisation of struggle, and of pacifism too – which in France had never been revolutionary defeatism. This is what the 1918 movement, kicking off on the morning of 13th May at the instigation of delegates from Renault, signified. The strike was basically an assertion of pacifism, demonstrated in opposition to moves to re-assign the young men eligible for call-up from the factories to the front.* And from then on the metalworkers of Paris became the spearhead; they provided the majority in subsequent strikes (instead of the building workers, as before 1914), bringing in their own forms of struggle such as factory occupation – already frequent in 1918 – and building a dynamic and determined trade unionism [syndicalisme].
At the same time those two conflicts had uneven effects on unionism. It must never be forgotten that the war was on and that the primary sacrifice was at the front: hundreds of thousands killed, wounded, mutilated, gassed, with smashed faces, driven mad, losing their memory. Everything is viewed through this prism that creates a latent opposition between the front and the rear (all seen as dodgers on a cushy number). Women first and foremost. This is Péricat, one of the leading revolutionaries and a future founding member of the French CP, yelling at workers on 16th December 1917 « Go and see them in the suburbs, covered in furs, with boots up to their knees! In the cinema, in the theatre, women all laughing, having a good time. French women have no guts. They’re neither mothers nor wives nor fiancées ». Like a war of the sexes. And the women who joined the trades union for a time in 1917 very soon left. The problem with the metalworkers was the same: those workers assigned to the rear were certainly on strike for peace, but were also suspected of defending their privilege [of being in a reserved occupation]. So they were not qualified, at least during the war, to claim any vanguard role.
So, social history can never be reduced to the simple black-and-white contrasts that people sometimes attribute to it. Like life no doubt.
*[At an earlier stage conscripts had been withdrawn from combat to work in mines and war industries].
[About Mutineers, see previous post]