LIP (company) - An Experience in Workers' Self-management (1973-74)

An Experience in Workers' Self-management (1973-74)

A large demonstration of 12,000 persons in the average-size town of Besançon, took place on June 15, 1973. Three days later, a general assembly of the workers decided to continue production of watches, under the workers' control, to insure "survival wages." The LIP struggle was thereafter popularized with the slogan C'est possible: on fabrique, on vend, on se paie! (It is possible: we make them, we sell them, we pay ourselves!).

The CGT-CFDT union alliance (intersyndicale) now asked the Cahiers de Mai magazine to assist them in making a newspaper dedicated to the strike. Named Lip-Unité (Lip-Unity), this newspaper would help popularize the movement. To be able to restart production at the factory, this time without an employer, they sold the watches that they had seized. In six weeks, they made the equivalent of half the revenue of a normal year. Michel Rocard, then national secretary of the PSU, took part in the sale of the watches.

"The question of women was a revolution inside the revolution," Piaget declared later. The clock factory had a majority of female workers, especially among semi-skilled workers (OS, ouvrier spécialisé) working on the assembly line.

The national leadership of the CGT union now tried to take control, calling meetings during the day against the workers' will. Finally, a large part of the members of the CGT moved to the CFDT, and the CGT decided to let them go. Despite these tensions with the leadership of the CGT, Charles Piaget later declared that the "Communists remained essential.".

Pierre Messmer's Minister of Industrial Development, Jean Charbonnel, a historic figure of left-wing Gaullism, named Henri Giraud as mediator of the conflict. The government then proposed a new plan, which included the firing of 159 employees (or 180, out of a total of 1,200.) On August 3, 1973, the workers refused this offer. Negotiations between the trade-unions, the Action Committee and the mediator Giraud started again on August 11. Four days later, the garde mobile (a military unit) occupied the factory and expelled the workers. The military remained until February 1974.

After this violent occupation, many firms of Besançon and of the region decided to go on strike, and workers rushed to the LIP factory to fight the military forces. Union leaders tried to intercede to prevent any confrontation, but the government proceeded to order arrests, which led to court convictions in the following days.

On September 29, 1973, there was a national protest at Besançon; 100,000 persons demonstrated under pouring rain. The protest was nicknamed the marche des 100,000 (March of 100,000). Chérêque of the CFDT disapproved of this demonstration, fearing that the police would be provoked. An old farmer then went to see Michel Rocard and told him that he had heard, during a family meeting, a member of the special police forces boast that he had thrown Molotov cocktails and burned more cars than the May '68 demonstrators. Rocard decided to send a letter to the organizers of the demonstration, warning them. The demonstration was non-violent.

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