How Oil Workers and Environmentalists United in Struggle

Nathaniel Flakin

April 4, 2021

Interview with Adrien Cornet, a leader of the strike at the Total refinery in Grandpuits, France

On January 4, refinery workers in Grandpuits, France, went on strike against the giant oil and gas multinational Total. The self-organized strike lasted more than 45 days. It built an alliance with multiple sectors of society and sent a radical message amid struggles against layoffs in France. In an interview with Paul Morao of Révolution Permanente, union leader Adrien Cornet reviews the results of this exemplary struggle and its prospects. The interview has been slightly adapted for English-language readers.

In what context did the Total workers decide to go on strike?

Total’s objective in recent years has been to close its refineries in France. It has found ways to refine elsewhere: in Dubai, India, China, and with plans for Africa. The objective is twofold: to refine as close as possible to the crude oil deposits, but also to do so in countries where working conditions are worse and environmental standards are lower. Disastrous consequences have resulted, such as the forced displacement of entire populations in Uganda.

Even though oil refining fulfills important needs in the region around Paris, and it is very profitable, Total’s refinery in Grandpuits was put on the list to be closed. In 2018 a lack of structural maintenance led the pipeline to burst, which accelerated Total’s plan. The company refused to invest the several hundred million needed for repairs and decided to shut down the refinery. The pipeline finally collapsed in September 2020, as we had been expecting for several months.

The strike began on January 4. Very quickly — even more so than other struggles we’ve seen in the last period — the question of jobs emerged as the defining issue. Tell us about that.

Total very quickly decided to put forward its “zero oil” strategy, which raised the number of planned job cuts at the refinery to 700, which included 500 subcontractors. A plan like that obviously poses profound problems in the region’s most rural area, where, if there’s no refinery, workers’ best perspective is a minimum-wage job. This immediately became the issue for workers, because many of us had experienced precariousness and minimum-wage jobs before hiring on at Total.

We knew the strike would go forward, because we have a culture of struggle, and the CGT trade union confederation organizes most workers on the site. But the question remained: Would workers be satisfied with a fight over losing their jobs but with better severance conditions? Or would we fight to save our jobs? There was some skepticism on the latter, which was also fed by the CFDT and Force Ouvrière, the two other trade union confederations at Grandpuits. It’s understandable that guys are so worried about whether they’ll have enough to support their families tomorrow and want reassurances. But it’s not a matter of “individualism.” So we worked to convince them of the demand to defend jobs, that a fight on that front was not only a question of safety and working conditions but also a matter of concern for others, for the next generations that will find themselves facing precarious employment in the region if the refinery closes.

That perspective took hold, and the anger quickly crystallized around the issue of jobs. When, in mid-December, Total launched the first degassing effort — the operation needed to prepare for dismantling the site — 80 of us occupied the refinery’s administration building and declared that nothing could go forward without our say. That worked, and we had a 48-hour walkout. The determination shown against Total by the workers forced management to back down, and they postponed the degassing until January 4. Then, on that day, the strike began on very clear terms: we would not pick up our tools until our jobs were secured.

Right from the start, we’ve had incredible levels of participation in the strike. Some shifts have been at 100 percent, but more generally we’ve had between 80 and 100 percent of production workers out. We’ve also managed to get non–shift workers to walk off the job during the day from maintenance, security, logistics, and so on. These workers are not typically part of strike actions, which gives you a sense of the action’s scale.

From the beginning, the workers organized themselves in a sovereign general assembly and strike committee. That kind of self-organization is rare in the French labor movement. Why was this done, and why has it been so important?

Right from the start, we felt we weren’t going to be able to handle this strike on our own. My own feelings about self-organization come from the fact that I am also a Trotskyist militant, part of the Revolutionary Communist Current within the New Anticapitalist Party, the NPA. Self-organization is part of our political perspective. I’ve seen the failure of the union bureaucracy and its losing strategies, and self-organization is the best antidote for that — a way for strikers to take charge of their own struggles. Self-organization was also decisive in holding together the alliance among the different union organizations at Grandpuits, because some of them wanted to agree to the severance package — what in France is called a “social plan” — from the get-go. For instance, we succeeded in getting Force Ouvrière to submit to the decisions of the strikers’ general assembly, as the CGT was doing.

Having this power in their own hands gave the strikers a lot of strength to hold on. Anytime the strike wasn’t going well, we’d hold a general assembly and make decisions together. In addition, we created a strike committee as a way to be closer to the rank and file. It had elected delegates from each shift and each union confederation who agreed to submit to the decisions of the General Assembly. The aim was to have a more executive body that could think through the movement on a daily basis. We can’t have a general assembly every day — it’s unwieldy, takes time, not everyone is on site all the time, and it’s hard to get around. A strike committee, implanted in all the layers of the refinery, allows a space for a smaller group of people to think through the media strategy, legal strategy, and the relationship of forces within the plant — but always people who have been delegated, who have a mandate from the strikers. They discuss things in their part of the workplace, and then we all discuss together. Obviously, those delegates are subject to being recalled by the workers who elected them. So when workers on one line said there was a problem, we told them: hold another election. If your delegate isn’t consulting you enough, revoke him! This state of mind — “the strike to the strikers” — allowed workers with no union mandate or even any prior strike experience to take control of their struggle, make decisions, and play a leading role. As a result, they’ve emerged as real active strike militants.

We had a strike committee meeting almost every day to discuss the actions, how our comrades were feeling about things, the situation in the plant, and the safety work we had decided to carry out. Because of the specific nature of a refinery on strike, we are obliged to continue to be present on the site to ensure the site’s safety, that of the workers, and the population in the vicinity of the plant. So we took it upon ourselves to discuss and decide what could come into the refinery and what could go out. We also had plenty of political debates over how to think about the strike, how to deal with an uneven level of radicalism, health issues, who we might invite to our general assemblies, how and when to involve sectors of workers beyond the refinery, and so on.

Photo: O Phil des Contrastes

Your strike made an alliance with the environmental movement and garnered broad support for the struggle more generally. How did you achieve that, especially since the connection isn’t so straightforward?

From the start, we considered a broad united-front strategy around the fight for jobs and the environment, against Total’s “greenwashing.” Total’s strategy had two components: one, it said there would be no layoffs, which is obviously false; two, it claimed it was good for the environment. The best way to take apart the argument was to ask people in the know. We spoke with comrades at La Mède, a refinery that went through a layoff plan a few years ago, and they put us in touch with Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace last October. They were very excited about the campaign and the idea of fighting together against Total. It is an unlikely alliance, but it gave our strike incredible power.

Among ourselves, we have developed this whole reflection on how we conceive of the environmental transition. Should it be in the hands of the multinational corporations or the workers? We developed an argument that if we, the workers, had control of the factory, we would pollute less because we wouldn’t be concerned only with profits because our families live next door, we swim in the local rivers, our children play in the parks, and so on. At the same time, we recognized that all this is hinged on the issue of jobs, of how young people tomorrow will fill the fridge. Once we have solved the problem of having an income, we can address the end of the world. And for both, the solution is us — the worker. It’s not because we are smarter than others, but because we have know-how, we make tools work in our hands, and if we’re in control, we’ll run things not based on the requirements for turning a profit but with the objective of meeting society’s needs and taking care of the environment, since that concerns mainly us, our families, our children. That’s the very opposite of Patrick Pouyanné, Total’s CEO, whose only concern is that his profit machine never stops.

When we explain it this way, it goes without saying.

More generally, this obviously raises the question of capitalism. In the latest book by the French economist Frédéric Lordon, he often repeats “it’s capitalism or us.” Revolution is a necessity today to protect people and workers by establishing a system in which work is organized to respond to meet the needs of and take care of the workers and the planet. This revolution will have to be international, because the capitalist system is international. This perspective has hegemonic potential because it touches every layer of society, especially the youth, who have mobilized around climate issues and who are increasingly affected by precariousness in the context of a capitalist crisis that is wreaking havoc in France and throughout the world. It also affects the “middle class” that thinks it is protected from social issues and precariousness, but is worried about the end of the world. When we pose this question, we touch all layers of society — except, of course, the bourgeoisie, which has interests that are contradictory to ours and which wants to see this system continue.

How did this perspective contribute to the strike?

It allowed us to create alliances with the left-wing populist party La France Insoumise, Europe Ecology–the Greens, workers from other companies such as railway and subway workers, comrades from the Nogent nuclear power plant, teachers, students, and even arts workers who in January erected a tent in the parking lot of a big company on the French benchmark stock index CAC 40, where the actress Audrey Vernon came and performed her latest show in solidarity. They organized what was the first cultural performance with an audience since the beginning of quarantine. It was unprecedented! All this was possible because people saw that Grandpuits posed a fundamental question: saving jobs to save the workers of today and tomorrow and also to save the planet.

We also got lots of material support. Our strike fund raised more than 100,000 euros, with lots of donations from various political and trade union organizations, and also from many workers who gave individually through our online fund or who came to the picket line to give us not only financial support but also to strengthen our morale.

The picket line became a meeting place for refinery workers to exchange ideas with workers from other sectors, as well as with young revolutionary activists, notably from the NPA’s youth group NPA Jeunes. They joined the picket line to help us out, give us strength, and make signs with us. Art students came and decorated our helmets and parkas. It was so strengthening. Workers knew that they had come to support us, even from long distances, and it was heartwarming to see young people who understood that their fate, especially in the midst of this capitalist crisis, is linked to that of the workers who have risen up. To all that I have to add the international support we received from workers in Brazil and Argentina.

The response to the strike was also revealing. Jobs are being cut everywhere. Bridgestone cut more than 800 jobs and closed a site. But there was less movement around these conflicts because the workers chose not to strike and did not deploy a strategy of workers’ hegemony to alter the relationship of forces. We used that strength and succeeded in turning Total’s entire argument on its head. It shows we were right to fight!

You also built this movement with other Total refineries in France through the CGT’s Total Coordinating Committee, and you even organized the strike committee to visit other refineries. Could you say more about that experience?

From the outset, it was essential for us that our struggle be supported by all Total refinery workers. Within the CGT’s Total Coordinating Committee, we were able to talk with comrades who had already experienced situations similar to ours, and that helped strengthen our ties enormously. Even before the strike began, last October, we invited workers from other refineries to visit Grandpuits and share their experiences with social plans. This was important in convincing the workers of the need to build a balance of power. We went to different sites to talk about our struggle and encourage support for us, and other refinery workers joined our picket line on many occasions — including from La Mède, Feyzin, and elsewhere. This was how we built the 48-hour strike in all the Total refineries that was a success on February 3 and 4.

It was also central for us to be in contact with everyone fighting job cuts. France is in a situation of deep capitalist crisis, with thousands and thousands of layoffs. The refinery workers understood very quickly that what was happening to us in Grandpuits was no exception. The strike committee had a discussion, and we agreed that it would be fundamental for us to explore every possibility for broadening the strike, to coordinate and go and discuss with other sectors being affected by layoffs, and convince them we should all fight together through strikes against the job cuts. This is why we quickly linked up with workers at the multinational travel and tourism company TUI and demonstrated together on January 23, as well as with workers from industrial companies like SKF, Verallia, the Gardanne power station, Toray, L’Equipe, the pharmaceutical firm Sanofi, and the Paris-North SNCF national railway, and were able to build a contingent of striking sectors at the head of a multisector demonstration on February 4. This solidarity across professions and industries, and the efforts to link the sectors fighting to save jobs, were fundamental.

We also saw the emergence in the strike of a women’s commission, another rare experience in strikes. What does that say about the Grandpuits conflict?

This group of women came together spontaneously thanks to the wives of two refinery workers. They saw their husbands full of worries but also fighting, and wanted to be a part of a fight the considered noble. They often said they were doing it for their children, and even for the environment.

At the beginning, the idea was really to say: What can I do to put myself at the service of the fight? Make food, make the picket line more comfortable, organize convivial moments on Sundays for children and families. But this quickly evolved, and there began to be political debates within the group of women on the question of radicalizing the strike. Some of these women became full-fledged strike militants, helping think through strategy and hold the movement together. Their contribution was decisive. When you fight, your entire family is fighting. The struggle is a constant. So if you decide for some macho reason to keep your wife uninvolved because you’re supposedly “protecting” her, it creates tensions. It’s counterproductive. In contrast, we saw how proud they were to fight alongside us. It galvanized them.

Where did that come from? First of all, it was spontaneous. It’s obviously linked to that culture of struggle I was talking about. When you’re in the refining industry, you go through so much struggle that there’s no way you don’t take it home with you. But this women’s commission is also an expression of the depth of the conflict. And it obviously wouldn’t have emerged if the strike hadn’t had this radical and hegemonic content. More broadly, it reminds us of the extent to which all workers are aware that society is sick, that the minority that governs us in the service of the big bosses is leading us to disaster. The pandemic has revealed a lot of this. These discussions are not trivial in people’s minds, in their families. It all points to the divergence of class interests in society, which people experience concretely every day. An ongoing strike makes clear these contradictions and how they make us feel. It is like a consciousness accelerator.

You spoke of spontaneity. Given your mention of Trotskyism earlier, how do you articulate this question of spontaneity and that of the role of the organization, both union and political?

From my experiences of class struggle, we see just how impressive the collective intelligence of workers in struggle is when they rise up. Spontaneity is a great breeding ground for collective intelligence. It allows workers to become aware of things on their own. Underlying that, the importance of political organization in a conflict is to propose a direction, to coordinate the various branches in each layer of the company, and to think through strategy in common with the strikers, while using experiences to avoid making the same mistakes of the past.

All this thrives on spontaneity because sometimes there are workers around who are less thoughtful, conservative, or just lack awareness. When spontaneity and organization feed each other, it creates an unprecedented chemistry for the struggle, an explosion of collective intelligence that happens at that moment.

At the same time, even if the workers know their tools and know their region, they still need a way to express themselves. Without an organization and militants who convey a culture of self-organization, we would deprive ourselves of that spontaneity. We would restrict it, block it. Instead, we had to outflank the trade union leaderships throughout, go past them, so we could take the reins of our own struggle.

Beyond that, there is the need to have a revolutionary political current with a strategy and to resist all the pressures — like when the bosses are going to give us crumbs, when we are hit by fatigue, pessimism, and skepticism, and we feel pushed to take immediately whatever is offered. Political organization is very powerful in that it gives a perspective that makes people aware of the history of the workers’ movement, that in our history we have been capable of great things — even going as far as seizing the means of production from the bosses. In a long, difficult conflict like the one at Grandpuits, that is something we can almost touch with our fingers. We can see the strength of the workers through the strike and the self-organization.

We spoke about the enormous contributions of this fight. But the strike ended without the workers’ having won all your demands. What would you say about the end of the struggle, not only its limitations but also its achievements?

The last general assembly was on February 12, three days after the last meeting of the Social and Economic Committee, which is supposed to represent all the employees and was discussing the social plan. That was a major media and political event, and we organized a large rally at La Défense, the huge business district just outside the Paris city limits, that showed our alliance with the environmentalists. There were lots of political figures, supporters, and others present. The problem is that February 9 was perceived as sealing the entire social plan. There were a lot of doubts among the strikers, who were asking what the point was of fighting if after 45 days we hadn’t managed to bring Total to its knees.

In reality, it was the moment when we had the most media exposure, and we could have continued our actions and strengthened the movement. That would also have taken management by surprise — they were expecting the strike to end with the conclusion of the information-consultation procedure for the layoff plan, within the framework of the employee representative bodies. That would be important to account for in other fights against layoffs: never stick exclusively to the framework that management imposes. The workers must establish their own agenda to shape the relationship of forces.

The result was that the February 12 General Assembly suddenly became extremely tense. There was a big push by Force Ouvrière in favor of signing the accompanying measures, which is equivalent to ending the strike and accepting the job cuts and the entire social plan. All the nonstrikers showed up as well to pressure for signing the accompanying measures. The strike committee, along with the CGT, advocated for refusing to sign and continuing the strike, but the general assembly decided to sign and halt the strike. It came down to a two-vote margin. After 45 days, doubt and skepticism had taken over.

One of the main lessons of this battle is how essential it is to make it clear all along that nothing is impossible. In the end, we won back 13 jobs, and we also won some relatively important accompanying measures, particularly that workers could retire at age 55 and get their pensions.

For me, though, the most important gains are the class gains. In a period of crisis, when job losses are expanding, choosing to go on strike allowed us to demonstrate that we can impose our own relationship of forces on the front lines of the CAC 40 and hurt them. We showed the public that workers are right on all counts. Of course, imposing a counter-narrative was not guaranteed, especially given that the mainstream media are in Total’s pocket. We also showed that Total’s plan was bad for the environment, that we risked becoming tomorrow’s Lubrizol both socially and ecologically, and that when workers unite and rise up, they manage to think through all of society’s problems.1Translator’s Note: In 2019 there was a major accident at the Rouen site of Lubrizol, which makes specialty chemicals. The explosions and fire required the evacuation of abutting neighborhoods and school closures in nearby municipalities, and later led to restrictions on eating food products exposed to the emissions and soot.

It has been an incredible experience, and a demonstration to all those who believe that the issue is just to get checks without erecting the barricades. People with that strategy will see a check for a year or two, but then what? When the Grandpuits refinery workers stood up, they managed to organize themselves, impose their own relationship of forces, win back some jobs, but also ask profound questions about society — questions that are the basis for the struggles to come.

Within Total, we have made people aware of the profound utility of taking up the environmental transition head-on, devising a real program in the hands of the workers, and of not letting the bosses scrap the refineries one after the other so they can go set up in Africa or the Middle East and pollute even more at a lower cost. Our approach has reached many workers at different sites, and we are certain that we carried out a correct strategy. Comrades from one of the biggest unions in the refining industry have told us how unconvinced they were about our alliance strategy at the beginning, but today they are certain it is the right thing to do. The strike committee has also had a great impact on the workers and convinced them of the need for rank-and-file organizing, for workers to have control over the strike. This has shaken things up within the National Federation of Chemical Industries (FNIC) union confederation, and it is still being discussed today because not everyone agrees. But for us it is a fundamental question. Finally, the third profound achievement of this struggle was that we saw the need to think through a legal and media strategy that would be in the hands of revolutionaries. The workers have been very affected by Révolution Permanente’s coverage, as well as the Facebook page “Refinery in Struggle,” as well as by the offensive legal strategy.

A comrade asked me not long ago whether this struggle was really a defeat. I don’t think so. It lays a foundation for our entire class. Of course the comparisons are limited, but I think of the Paris Commune. It is one of the greatest defeats of the working class, with 30,000 dead, and yet the gains and what our class learned from it are unprecedented in history. A strike is not only about withdrawing one’s labor power. It also frees up time to think and to accumulate strength and experience for the battles to come.

And in terms of medium-term perspectives?

We continue to fight within Total. As far as Grandpuits is concerned, the Regional Department of Enterprises, Competition, Consumer Affairs, Labor, and Employment (DIRECCTE) has not yet given its opinion, but the director clearly told us that they were going to sign the social plan. It was very interesting, because his speech clearly demonstrated two things. First, as he said, “The law is not fair. Since the year 2000 the law authorizes, based on precedent, laying off employees even while the company is making profits. So the law is applied.” In other words, he was explaining that the law is designed to serve the bosses and that the institutions of the state are at their service. You could say it’s as old as Lenin’s The State and Revolution, but when you live it in real time, it is carved into your flesh. And it raises questions about struggles that rely on the courts as a way to cancel the social plan. We know the extent to which a company such as Total, about which the philosopher and essayist Alain Deneault has written so well, can afford to buy legal decisions and even laws. The bourgeoisie has unparalleled means to establish its authority and power. Only one thing matters: the relationship of forces.

Even so, we also intend to lead the legal fight. We want to show just how serious the environmental safety risks are at the site, and to oblige the court to take responsibility. We also continue to work with environmental activists and the Total Coordinating Committee. We want to participate in a project that creates jobs and that will also lay the foundation for how we can think about the entire refining process in the future. More broadly, this battle is being waged on an international scale. Recently, for example, it was important for us denounce the current situation in Myanmar, where Total has a long history of collaboration with the very military that is repressing the population resisting its coup.

First published in French on March 29 in Révolution Permanente.

Translation by Scott Cooper


1 Translator’s Note: In 2019 there was a major accident at the Rouen site of Lubrizol, which makes specialty chemicals. The explosions and fire required the evacuation of abutting neighborhoods and school closures in nearby municipalities, and later led to restrictions on eating food products exposed to the emissions and soot.
Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.