“Sooner or Later, We Bite Back”: French Aeronautics Workers Protest to Shut Down Nonessential Production

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Though France will soon hit the peak of the coronavirus crisis, companies such as Airbus are still requiring their subcontracted workers to show up to work. In this interview, Gaëtan Gracia, a militant worker with one of Airbus’ subcontractors, talks about the state of the aeronautics industry in France and prospects for the working class.

Photo: Airbus.com

Even as France approaches the peak of its coronavirus pandemic, French aerospace company Airbus has required its subcontracted workers to show up on the shop floor. In the following interview, Marina Garrisi speaks with Gaëtan Gracia, a worker for Ateliers de la Haute-Garonne (AHG), one of Airbus’s subcontractors. Discussing what could herald the revival of the workers’ movement in the French aeronautics industry, Gracia analyzes the sector and tells the story of building a combative union in a company whose workers have abstained from struggle for more than 40 years.

As we speak, some 20 unions in the aeronautics industry have signed a joint communiqué opposing the resumption of work in nonessential factories. Would you review the situation and your approach?

From the very first government statements calling for home confinement in the current health crisis, there was a contradiction expressed in the aeronautics industry, as well as in clearly “nonessential” sectors. Aeronautics workers couldn’t understand why as many people as possible were strongly encouraged to stay home, including by closing down certain sectors of activity, while they themselves were forced to go to work and produce goods that are of no urgent use in confronting the pandemic. This contradiction turned to anger, and this anger was expressed in exercising our collective right of withdrawal1 and even some walkouts. In some factories, the bosses pulled the rug out from under the feet of this dynamic by shutting down themselves, as a measure both to prevent strong opposition from rising up and also because the part-time work scheme and various aid measures announced by the government helped them take such steps. In the aeronautics sector, many factories began to close on March 17 and the days immediately after that.

After employers in the sector demonstrated their initial fears, Airbus management took matters into its own hands and dictated a strategy to its subcontractors. It can be summed up as follows: first, shut down the company — as a sort of preventive lockout. These closures were then to give way to quick reopening, beginning on March 23, including of companies with relatively few employees where the Social and Economic Committees (CSEs)2 had voted for a longer closure, and often at first on a voluntary basis. From the employers’ perspective, this would help keep collective protests from breaking out and give the bosses a chance to bring back employees little by little, in dribs and drabs. The risk in the strategy, though, is the timing. If the reopening is too abrupt, if the bosses try to bring in too many people, especially before the pandemic peaks, the bosses expose themselves to resistance, including potentially explosive resistance that would go beyond the “typical” framework of union protests. The bosses have clearly understood the danger of “awakening the rank and file,” especially after more than a year of the Yellow Vest movement — still fresh in people’s minds — and after more than three months of struggle and strike against France’s pension reform. The March 25 strike in Italy is indicative.

This employers’ offensive is an example of their level of organization, homogeneity, and strategic thinking when it comes to controlling their workers. Faced with this, we couldn’t be satisfied simply defending ourselves factory by factory.

At AHG, safety conditions were far from being met, and management refused to let even our most vulnerable coworkers go home! So we fought a battle to shut down the factory. Some unions and individual workers in the aeronautics industry then contacted us to find out how to defend themselves and to try to coordinate. When we learned of the intent to reopen Airbus, we said to ourselves that we should try to coordinate as many unions in the sector as possible — both to defend ourselves, at first by opposing the reopening of nonessential factories, but also by challenging the bosses and the government on the fact, for instance, that tens of thousands of masks are being used in the aeronautics sector when it’s crucial that they be given to health care workers who desperately need them. So we had an urgent Skype meeting on March 26 with about 20 unions in the sector, and that very evening we came up with our first joint declaration.

The strength of this communiqué, apart from our intransigence on the question of reopening factories, is the breadth of unions from the sector’s major companies that signed it. It is a first step in coordinating the different activist nuclei and giving visibility to the fight, which is very promising for the future. We already know that beyond the health crisis the bosses are trying to make us pay for the coming economic crisis, so an initiative like this is an important element for the future struggle.

Your local union has taken a stand to say that workers would be happy to return to work as long as production is used to address the ongoing health crisis. What would that mean concretely?

We’ve seen that in certain sectors, particularly in the automobile industry, there’s talk of reorienting part of production to build ventilators — although in France it should be noted that PSA and Renault deflect this and want to “build cars” at any cost. Likewise, if we’re truly “at war,” as Macron says, then why isn’t production organized accordingly? History shows that when the capitalists are at war with each other, they’re able to modify all their production to produce armaments — even if it requires profound changes. For example, the aeronautics industry developed during World War I in the southwest of France because the government wanted to produce planes and weapons “far from the front.” The company I work for, moreover, was established in 1915 to manufacture machine guns and only later converted to riveting.

To come back to the news, we know that healthcare workers are short on equipment because of the shattering of the public health service. We know that ventilators are not very difficult to manufacture. Knowing the technological capabilities that this leading sector of French industry boasts, it’s clear that it’s perfectly fine to pose the question of converting production! In aeronautics, we know how to machine parts to one-hundredth of a millimeter or even a micron — how could we not figure out how to make ventilators?

This isn’t just a French problem. I’ve heard several reports about Mali, for example, that estimate the country has only one to 40 ventilators. If the virus starts to spread in countries with so little infrastructure, it’s going to be a massacre! While our great powers are plundering Africa’s resources, we workers would be proud to make respirators for them, too.

Our bosses don’t give a damn about all this. It’s up to us to fight for this reorientation of production, and more globally to impose our solutions to the crisis. For example, the aeronautics industry urgently needs to give its hundreds of thousands of masks to healthcare workers, rather than using them so we can return to work! And where workplaces have begun to reopen, we must fight to ensure that the workers themselves control health measures. We can’t place any trust in the bosses, who’ve lied, maneuvered, and even hidden cases of the virus to try to keep things running. At AHG, we demand a “control committee” of elected CSE representatives and any employee who wants to participate. This committee would have access to all the information management has, all the transparency of management, and above all the right to veto health measures.

As I was saying, our fight is first and foremost to shut down all nonessential factories and to convert to producing things that meet people’s needs during this crisis. But this issue of a control committee with a veto over safety measures is essential for us. It’s an important fight to keep our lives and those of our loved ones out of the hands of those whose first concern is their profits.

The aeronautics sector globally was largely spared from the last major series of class struggle outbursts in 2016, 2018, the Yellow Vests movement, and the December protests against the pension reform. Why do you think that is?

This is the culmination of an employer strategy of conflict containment, which has historically been extremely harsh. The ancestor of Airbus — Sud Aviation, then Aérospatiale — was the precursor, beginning in the late 1960s, of a management approach aimed at destroying the CGT union and, in Toulouse, at strengthening Force Ouvrière (FO) as a pro-management “company union.” Maurice Papon, who became head of Sud Aviation in 1969, initiated this policy. He brought his experience working with the Renseignements Généraux3 and helping suppress the FLN militants fighting for Algeria’s independence from France. He turned Sud Aviation’s Marignane factory into a veritable laboratory, destroying the CGT in only a few years through psychological harassment, rolling back gains, espionage, bringing in the mafia, and so on.

From this history, there remains a rather similar approach to management in which foremen are chosen more for their ideological alignment with management than for their skills, and they are trained along these lines. Add to this the slowdown strategy — it takes 18 months of temporary employment before regular hiring and even three years before having an employment contract — and supervisors have plenty of time to “spot” workers who are less controllable, less in the desired mold.

With subcontractors, things are more uneven. Sometimes they’ll have more or less the same dominating approach — such as at Groupe Latécoère, where the FO was historically in the majority up to 2016 — but with less of a material basis to pull it off. Other companies, especially smaller ones, don’t even need the restraints and deviations an FO union can represent. They’re just tougher and more repressive. This is the well-known case for all those companies that didn’t want to exceed the threshold of 50 employees so they could avoid having Works Councils.

This long tradition of restraints since the post-1968 period combines the sector’s relative economic prosperity — it was, for example, largely insulated from the 2008 economic crisis. We often speak of full order books for Airbus and Boeing planes.

Can you tell us more about the economic situation in the sector?

Aeronautics is one of the French bourgeoisie’s most strategic sectors, both in terms of its economic weight and the profits it generates, and because it plays a part in French industry’s “influence” vis-à-vis its European and global competitors. It is often spoken of as the sector that remained sheltered from the 2008 economic crisis, and that is partly true. After a slight drop in aircraft orders in 2009 — because a global recession means lower passenger forecasts and thus fewer orders — they picked up again in 2010. I’m talking about civil aviation. Military, business aviation, and helicopters are a little less dynamic, even though military budgets have tended to increase worldwide in recent years. From an economic point of view, the sector has had record sales every year since the 2010 recovery, and good profits — Airbus profits in 2015 were 2.7 billion euros, which is 6 percent growth.

I think we can even talk about excess profits, since there is a duopoly situation with Boeing and Airbus, and smaller companies in Brazil, Canada, Russia, and China have not been in a position to compete until today. Since its privatization in the 2000s, however, the French aeronautics industry has been facing a contradiction between the short-term vision of its shareholders, who want to be paid those infamous 10 percent dividends Airbus now aims for, and the sector’s long design and production cycles.

Even though orders for planes are currently strong, it seems like a bubble. For example, when we hear Airbus executives say they’re counting on the development of the middle classes in “emerging countries” so that by the year 2033, 66 percent of the world’s population will be traveling by plane compared to 22 percent today, it is an “optimistic” conception from their perspective, and one that seems erroneous to me. This is even truer today, given the global situation and the economic depression that’s going to follow after the health crisis. As the aeronautics industry bosses themselves concede, the question is more about when the tipping point will be reached rather than “if” it will. In such a scenario, we’ll have a huge productive apparatus built to produce very large quantities but that will end up being underutilized, which means we’ll face a significant wave of layoffs and plant closures. The sector’s capitalists are particularly concerned about a potentially massive “cancellation” of orders from Asia, for example, which accounts for 40 percent of orders over the next 20 years, especially from Southeast Asia.

Finally, there’s the matter of supplies. Before the aeronautics industry, like industry in general, was disrupted by the global health crisis and the economic recession, it was the main problem facing Airbus and Boeing. Competition has increasingly become about price and supplies, a shift from the historical focus on quality. For these two dimensions, throughput and prices, the big question Airbus and Boeing are asking themselves is whether the supply chain — meaning their subcontractors — can be counted on.

What does this imply in terms of the relationship between principals and subcontractors?

Concretely, clients are pressuring subcontractors to increase production rates and reduce prices, which in turn is falling on the workers of at these companies. It’s a relationship increasingly inspired by the automotive sector. Subcontractors play a central role in this sector — they produce some 60 percent of the principals’ end products — and the trend is to outsource a large part of production. Boeing is 80 percent subcontracted. The major aircraft manufacturers are moving away from manufacturing to refocus on design, assembly, and sales. These principals are pushing their subcontractors to relocate to reduce their costs, even in important areas such as airframes (Latécoère is a recent example).

Conversely, at the client, this situation creates the basis for developing a layer of workers who benefit from a slightly more favorable material situation. Salaries and career advancement prospects of an Airbus employee are often better than those who work for subcontractors: Airbus employees have access to many advantages via their Works Councils and so on. These conditions also lead to less combativeness or anger, and create favorable terrain for developing a company union, such as FO at Airbus. But in the subcontractor companies, the situation is more difficult. Often, there is no union and no tradition of unions. These workers are more exploited and therefore potentially more explosive, less “controlled.” I see this as the weakest link in the chain of managing this sector.

Can you tell us about your experience at AHG? When did you start there and what was the situation in the company at the time?

I was hired in December 2016 at AHG. I’m trained as a lathe operator, and I work on tooling, which means I make the tools the other workshops need.

AHG, with about 250 employees, is the world’s leader in aeronautical rivets and also makes aeronautical screws. These are the fasteners used in assembling an aircraft. It has quite a history in the region, going back to 1915. In 1962, the company moved to its current location, in a small industrial area of Flourens on the outskirts of Toulouse. The Auriol family owns the company; they’ve been passing on the capital from generation to generation for more than a hundred years.

AHG’s management is known in the sector for being rather tough and for shafting its workers when it comes to pay. The managerial strategy has long been like the one from the 1970s I described, but without the “partner union” aspect we’ve seen at Airbus with FO. There hasn’t been a strike since the 1970s, and the response then was pure repression: one by one, all the initiators were let go, and, most importantly, the company split into several smaller companies with fewer than 50 employees to avoid having to hold elections for employee representatives, as was required by law. Nevertheless, it became a matter of economics to have a relationship with Airbus, which was seeking stronger suppliers, if I understand correctly, and so the company finally had to recognize its Economic and Social Unit and organize elections back in September 2016. That meant having a Works Council — although “nonunionized.” The company immediately issued a warning to the newly elected employee representatives: “Watch out! Don’t demand salary increases or anything else. You’ll get nothing!”

How do you build a union under such conditions?

The first year, before my employment was “official,” there was almost nothing I could do. It was only once I was hired on a permanent contract that I could start building the union. First it was sort of “on the down low,” starting with a few guys I really trusted, and then gradually with a dozen or so coworkers. We’d talk among ourselves, very carefully. No one was supposed to know what we were preparing: apart from me, no one knew who all the others were, to avoid bringing everyone down in case of mistakes or betrayals — which ended up happening later, by the way. These precautions made it possible to go a year without anyone knowing about it, and I must say that even though we had no union experience of this type we all understood the need for discretion. Our plan was to continue like that until the next election for employee representatives, which were to take place in September 2019, and then present our CGT union list at the last moment. We had to take the company by surprise to prevent it from putting together a competing list.

But as we know, the working class doesn’t wait for the ready-made plans of the militants. Anger often explodes where and when it’s not expected. And that’s what happened. The repressive atmosphere and the collective unease crossed a threshold when the company issued new procedural rules — the old one was from 1983 — along with a policy of systematic policing to enforce them. Some temporary workers were made examples and fired to spread fear. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a warning from management to a coworker who had “not met” his targets. This was a coworker with 13 years at the company, respected by the other workers, and went to one of the elected members of the Executive Committee to tell him what had happened. That committee member, who wasn’t used to the way the committee worked, began to go around the workshops talking about revolt, strikes, and so on. He awakened forces he didn’t even know existed: a very large majority in the factory began to talk about a strike, saying “something has to be done.”

While there hadn’t been a strike or even a union for more than 40 years, management was suddenly faced with widespread insubordination. Virtually all the workers were ready to strike! The worst thing for me, who had been trying to organize my co-workers for a long time, was it happened to be a week that I was out sick with a back problem. So I had to organize remotely at first, before I could participate directly when I returned to the factory. Of course, the risk — as with any explosion of protest — was that it would backslide, deflate, disperse without achieving its goal. Management, meanwhile, was trying to buy time.

The first thing we had to do was convince our coworkers that this was going to have to be an all-out battle. To combat divisions between different workshops and groups, we set out to build a consciousness of unity, of getting everyone to discuss: the “hottest” workers and those who were more afraid alike. This terrified management. We managed to bring together more than 60 coworkers in several general assemblies at lunchtime, of about 80 available at that time. The initial consensus was tremendous anger over having been stepped on too many times, that “it was too much!”

The bosses tried to take advantage of the fact that we didn’t yet have a clear set of demands to hijack the struggle by giving up some secondary things. For example, while we were railing about penalties and low wages, management and the FO steward (who was the only member of FO at the time) proudly announced that we had been granted a pétanque court!4 Some members of the Executive Committee even tried to push this idea that we should recognize the “effort” made by management, but we held our ground.

We wanted a wage increase, improved working conditions, and an end to arbitrary penalties. After trying a bunch of different maneuvers, and faced with our growing mobilization — we had approved a strike call at the general assembly just before organizing our first walkout! — management finally decided it needed to give up a lot more before there was an actual strike. They announced a 10 percent wage increase for everyone. It was a real victory, especially for AHG.

We claimed this victory in early December 2018 as the result of our first collective mobilization in the factory, while all the bosses clumsily insisted it had “nothing to do with the struggle.” Above all, we wanted to show the correctness of our position and the value of having a combative union. We had taken advantage of the struggle to bring the union forward publicly. In the course of the struggle, it officially came out of the shadows with my appointment as RSS5 and, in parallel, with the beginning of the Yellow Vests movement. It was risky because the bosses were going to try to make us pay for rising up, but it was an opportunity to build a union in the “heat” of this first bout of arm wrestling. We emerged with about 15 active members and a real union section that we were able to consolidate later during our first employee representative elections, when we won a majority.

What was management’s reaction?

First of all, a lot of nervousness. They tried different pressures on us, but our level of preparation and the support we had in the sheet metal shop surprised them. That was the result of all the preparatory work they hadn’t suspected. They tried for a while to put the brakes on our CGT section. Then, as I remember very well, they made a sudden change in strategy. Knowing that with the new Macron regulations the next CSE elections would take place sooner than expected, and seeing that they couldn’t hold us back, they decided to help develop a competing union — relying on the FO shop steward, who was very close to management. But in the end we were very successful with four of our six people elected against a slate running from among old members of the Works Council who had been devoted almost exclusively to social welfare and in that sense prompted the development of our union. Today, many of those guys realize that we are fighting to defend them as well, as some told me in the recent battle to shut down the factory during the health crisis.

What lessons have you learned from this experience?

Patience is revolutionary! We can never foresee when the spontaneity and strength of our class will be unleashed. Even when you prepare, you are surprised. But in these situations, and even when you are surprised, if militants have prepared ourselves to put forth a perspectives that convinces lots of people and if we can prove ourselves in practice, it is possible to win. Even in a tough factory, even when you start from scratch, even when it seems “impossible.” Workers never accept being treated like animals forever. Sooner or later, we bite back.

For me, the important thing is to see how we can connect each of our partial advances to a long-term goal. Not to fall into “pure unionism,” focusing only on dealing with everyday or individual problems. For example, without this initial experience that gave birth to our union, we would certainly not have succeeded in closing the plant last week. Now I hope that this first collective initiative and the coordination of unions across the aeronautics sector is a sign of future joint victories!

First published on March 28 in French in Révolution Permanente Dimanche.

Translation: Scott Cooper

Notes   [ + ]

1. Translator’s note: The French Labor Code gives workers the “right of withdrawal” — meaning they can cease working in any situation they consider  a serious and imminent danger to their life or health.
2. Translator’s note: Comités Social et Economique were mandated by the Macron government’s reforms to replace employee delegates and Works Councils and Health and Safety committees in smaller enterprises (11 to 50 workers). The government’s aim was to change the relationship between employers and employees to provide businesses with greater flexibility and certainty — that is, to subordinate worker participation in their workplaces more to the bosses’ agenda.
3. Translator’s note: The Direction Centrale des Renseignments Généraux, Central Directorate of General Intelligence, the intelligence service of the French police at the time.
4. Translator’s note: Pétanque is a French lawn-bowling game.
5. Translator’s note: Under the French Labor Code, a représentant de la section syndicale (RSS) is a union’s representative in a company or division with fewer than 50 employees.
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