1936

Popular Front Factory Occupations

1936 saw a dramatic rise in working class confidence

By 1930 the growing advance of Taylorist management in France’s larger workplaces against the backdrop of the 1919 48-hour week law meant that their workers’ annual hours had fallen to about 2,300, a reduction echoed elsewhere in Europe. Working time then, however, dropped dramatically and uniquely in France by another 400 hours a year between 1935 and 1937.

This was the result of a wave of mass factory occupations, that were legitimated by the Matignon agreements and the Law of June 24 1936. What was significant about this reduction was that while it reflected the temporary weakening of the hold of French employers, it was essentially politically-driven rather than the outcome of  worker demands.

Election, Factory occupations, Matignon agreement, Blum Popular Front Government – in progress

The factory occupations that followed the 1936 Popular Front election victory initially called upon local mayors to arbitrate the reinstatements of workers fired for striking on the May Day that fell between the two rounds of elections. Other workers then used the same defensive tactic (to prevent non-strikers from working) over wages.

Factories occupying – in progress

As the movement spread occupying workers began first to call for trade union rights and the recognition of shop stewards and, less frequently, for two weeks’ paid holiday and, even more rarely, for the 40-hour week. The reduction of the working week without loss of pay, however, had been included in the Popular Front’s 1936 election programme.

What difference did the factory occupations make?

The reformist CGT leader, Jouhaux, had campaigned vainly for years for a 40-hour week agreement, and in 1935 a measure proposing two weeks’ annual paid holiday was brought before the Senate. But these were not major rallying issues for French workers devastated by the loss of 1.3 million industrial jobs between 1931 and 1936. Between 1919 and 1935 only 1.3% of single-issue strikes and 13.1% of multi-issue strikes recorded in France concerned a shorter working week.

When faced with employers who, even as thousands of their factories were being occupied, still refused to negotiate with the unions, the new prime minister Léon Blum saw the opportunity to go considerably further than had the 1919 Law in reinforcing the collective bargaining machinery that had been increasingly ignored since the mid-1920s by the employers. 

The 1936 Law gave the Minister of Labour powers to convene ‘joint commissions’ of ‘the most representative’ of employers’ associations and trade unions in a regional or national ‘branch’ of any industry to negotiate collective agreements. It reintroduced a First World War procedure whereby the Minister could order all the employers in the branch to comply with the agreements – whether or not they had participated in them – if their workers were trade union members.

And it prescribed a minimum substantive content (the 40 hours, two weeks’ paid leave, minimum wages for different job classifications and periods of notice) and minimum procedures (recognising workers’ rights to trade union membership, the election of workplace delegates). Labour inspectors were, however, also granted powers to make exemptions, powers that were used more and more frequently as the slow economic growth from 1937 was blamed by the employers on the 40-hour week.

The law of June 24 1936 was the most important pre-Second World War advance in state intervention on wage formation. It specified that the collective agreements negotiated should lay down minimum wages for each level of worker in the sector and included the possibility that the agreements reached between the negotiating parties could be extended by Ministerial order to all firms within the particular industry or region. It thus created a state mechanism for generalizing standard minimum rates for all workers.

Feminism

Women ready to fight at a barricade in the Rochechouart district in May 1871

From 1791 French feminists argued for their natural rights. In the 1830s and 1840s many women campaigned for equality and the vote. Many saw the 1871 Commune as a route to equality and fought on the barricades. In 1909 a French women’s suffrage movement was established. France’s senate rejects giving women the vote in 1922 , 1935 and 1936. The vote was finally given by the 1945 Fourth Republic constitution. In 1975 women win the right to have an abortion. In 2017 French women’s average wage was still 24% less than men’s, and their pensions are 42% lower.

Marthe Bigot

1878-1962, Montargis (Loiret)

Teacher, feminist, and anti-war activist during World War I. Founder member of the Communist Party, which she left in 1926. A campaigner for female suffrage, she organised women’s candidacies at elections, taking up a pre-war tradition, and in March 1922 presented her own “symbolic candidacy” in the Paris municipal elections; unable to hold her own meetings she demanded speaking rights at those of other candidates, and despite being ineligible as a woman came third in the vote.