The May movement permitted many to discover what a restraining force the trade unions represent. For, if spontaneity sufficed to lift the movement to great heights, it was not enough to keep it there, especially since the fight took on a sharp character only in exceptional cases. People became conscious of the function of unions in the modern world: to participate in the administration of the labor force in the interest of society as it is, that is to say, to submit a certain number of demands to a series of specialized bargaining sessions, all while trying to reinforce their position within the apparatus of domination (any differences between union centrals turning solely on modes of realizing this last objective). But the unions could not function, thus did they not receive the passive approval of the majority of workers; in other words, the strength of the unions has produced only the weakness and the division of the workers.
When we see these powerful organizations, with hundreds of thousands of members, with a machinery run and guided by teams of experienced professionals, come to shabby results, the first reaction is to reproach them for their lack of effectiveness (an ineffectiveness evident in France; the American union bosses are often gangsters or legal professionals but are at least they are relatively effective negotiators). After this, they are often accused of corruption, even of treason, and the means which comes to mind to remedy this situation is apparently simple: create another organization, this time pure and tough. To which the old union leadership responds, with some justification, that this would further accentuate working-class divisions. We can add to this that for a century the history of the labor movement has shown that these “new” organizations are destined either to get lost in sectarian behavior and wither on the vine, or, if they escape that fate, to model themselves on the old forms (as the evolution of various sections of the communist movement has demonstrated.) Clearly, it’s a dead end.
On the other hand, why are the workers the only ones who don’t talk about workers’ control? Do they feel it doesn’t concern them? On the contrary: in their actions, they already utilize spontaneous forms of organization and struggle which move in this direction. Moreover, in their mentality and daily attitudes, in resisting orders, in criticizing the managers who directly issue these orders, workers are in effect contesting the principle and practice of hierarchical control, the very basis of the capitalist system of management. But just as in daily life this confrontation remains at a very individualized level, likewise the first stages of collective action do not take on a general character. Beyond the spontaneous reactions which sometimes go quite far, there remains, as we have seen, a passive acquiescence to norms considered unbreakable. Thus, when a CFDT union militant, opposing the creation of a worker-elected struggle committee in the Assurances générales de France (AFG: A large insurance company), declared before its 3,000 employees, “I am for it, but it can’t be done … perhaps in 50 or 100 years,” no one reacted. These same AGF employees, when called upon to declare their support for the committee in a referendum connected with the recovery or not of pay for strike hours, gave practically no response. And no one dreamed of reacting to arguments like, “Employees in the same department will never come to an understanding with each other,” even after an extraordinary strike!
It is the capitalist mode of production which continually secretes such passive reactions among nearly all of those who live within it. The established order seems natural by virtue of the consciousness which it in some spontaneous way engenders, according to which appearances correspond to reality, everyone receiving more or less a fair share of the social product and finding his or her own proper place. Of course, there are many variants of this consciousness, but eventually everyone repeats the phrases and ideas heard thousands of times since childhood, in the family, in school, at work, and outside of work: respect for authority, the cult of leadership, worship of expertise—and the dogma that one’s rank in the hierarchy naturally reflects a level of competence sanctioned in general by a diploma.
During the days of May and June, this thick blindfold began to crack, but the crack was neither deep nor lasting—at least at first glance. The basic reason for this was stated in the course of another great social crisis: “No proletariat in the world can from one day to the next reduce to smoke the traces of a century of slavery” (Rosa Luxemburg). And only the revival of the movement, with greater determination, can overthrow, from top to bottom, the mentality of the exploited masses.
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