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Trade union challenges

Trade union challenges

The working population

Although those employed in craft industries and manufacturing represented only 42% of the population between 1895 and 1904, they were responsible for 61% of production. This came about at the cost of a military-like organization of labor and the creation of restrictive hierarchies; production quotas began to be put in place in firms that employed hundreds of workers (449 companies in the mining sector, 711 in the metal industry). However, in 1906, half of the industrial labor force was employed in companies of less than five workers, which explains the low rate of trade union membership (750,000, compared with more than two million in Great Britain).

Workers' struggles

Workers' struggles were frequently punctuated by strikes: in 1906, there were 1,309 such strikes involving 438,500 strikers. Small local revolts testified to continual misery, others were the explosions of long-denied hopes (G. Adam). A number of conflicts ended with industrial towns in a virtual state of siege; army conscripts were called upon since there were no forces specialized in keeping order. The strikes mainly concerned northern France, where textile workers modeled themselves on the discipline of the miners, who in 1902 organized the first general strike to demand an eight-hour working day and the right to retire after twenty-five years of service. It was only in 1906 that a law concerning worker retirement was adopted-a prelude to the nomination on 25 October of the first Minister of Labor and Prévoyance Sociale, René Viviani, an independent socialist.

Crackdowns and consequences

In the north and southwest, the harsh of working conditions and the manner in which their demands were suppressed strengthened the socialist and trade union militants. Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx's son-in-law-who had been jailed for having incited workers to demand an eight-hour working day-was elected deputy from Lille in the wake of the massacre at Fourmies. In this mining town, nine people, including two children, were killed on 1 May 1891, when troops fired on a demonstration. At Carmaux, a three-month strike, triggered by the sacking of a mine worker who refused to give up his position as mayor, ended in the election of Jean Jaurès as deputy from the Tarn. Following the Courrières mine disaster, in which 1,100 miner workers died, the 40,000 miners in northern France went on strike for two months. Various crises continued to shake the country.


Strike at Saint-Ouen, 1908

Hussars blocking the path of strikers

Arrest of a militant worker