Short essay on the rise of labour movement in France


The rise of labour movement in France also coincides with her industrialization, in the thirties and forties of the nineteenth century. Before that also there existed compagnonnage a form of workmen’s combination, which took care of the interest of workers, but they could not be effective in the modern industrial conditions. Gradually they were placed by Societies de resistance or fighting trade unions.

These societies organized a series of strikes in the thirties, which were often accompanied by bloodshed, and involved employment of military. It may be observed that in the eighteenth century the trade unions operated in defiance of law and workmen’s combinations were looked with great suspicion. In 1791 a law was passed which pronounced the workmen’s associations as illegal. Napoleon’s code also contained elaborate provisions against intimidation and violence.

Though there were sufficient legal provisions against workmen’s combination these laws were not strictly enforced. As a result trade unionism continued to make steady progress. Some combinations escaped the purview of law by disguising themselves as friendly societies.


Labour Movement in France entered a new phase in 1864 when legal ban on French trade unionism was lifted and workmen were permitted to form combinations and conduct strikes. However these combinations were to be spontaneous and temporary and permanent associations of workmen could not be formed.

In 1868 the government announced that it would not lake any action against workmen’s syndicates, despite their technical illegality and thus adopted a tolerant attitude towards trade unionism. In 1884 the government accorded full recognition to trade unions.

Labour Movement in France suffered a set back under Third Republic. A number of trade unions were dissolved and membership of trade unions considerably dropped. It was feared that trade union movement may ultimately collapse. However, the trade union movement was rescued by Barbaret, a Republican journalist.

Under encouragement from government he resuscitated the dying unions and directed their activities in peaceful channels. In 1876 he organized a labour congress at Paris. But soon thereafter the leadership of the movement slipped out of his hands and passed on to the Socialists who adopted an alliance with the Socialist Party, which proved suicidal for the trade union movement and it began to lose ground. Ultimately the French industrial and political labour


The next important stage in the development of labour movement in France was the formation of Bourses du travail, a peculiar French institu­tion, which is a combination of labour exchange and a trades council.

The bourse is located in a building where most of the local trade unions have their headquarters and hold their meetings. It maintains an office where unemployed workmen are put in touch with employers. It provides educa­tional and other facilities to workmen and actively supports them when they are on strike. The bourse was essentially an industrial organization with no political links. The first bourse was founded in 1887 at Paris and before the end of century hundreds of bourses had been established.

In the meanwhile, the trade unions in France began to show tendencies for formation of federation. In 1886 the National Federation of Syndicates was formed. In 1888 the National Federation decided to go on a general strike which led to withdrawal of Guesdists. In 1895 the National Federa­tion was dissolved and replaced by Confederation General du Travail. The Confederation asserted that the chief industries of France should be run in the interest of workers by the trade union themselves.

It advocated general strike and even sabotage for the attainment of its objective. Thus its objectives were quite similar to Federation des Bourses, and no wonder ultimately these two bodies merged themselves to form an enlarged organization which retained the same of Confederation General du Travail.


With the dawn of the twentieth century the French Labour Movement came under the influence of the Syndicalists. It favoured complete demo­lition of the existing organization and construction of a new social order. However, the Syndicalists did not spell out the new social order. They simply asserted that a general strike should be organised and all work stopped, which would bring the employers to their knees.

However, actu­ally it could not organize such a general strike. It merely organized strikes, in certain areas which did not meet with uniform success. For example in 1909 it organized a post office strike which was brought to an end by the government by introducing soldiers to do the work. Ultimately the govern­ment decided that state employees shall not have the right to strike.

Dur­ing the World War I again the C.G.T. tried to organize a number of strikes but these were ill-organized and failed to make any impact. In 1920 the C.G.T. organized another general strike but it also failed. This gave a serious set back to the prestige of C.G.T. and its membership sharply declined. The government even launched proceedings against C.G.T. for launching ‘political strikes’ and following an adverse verdict the C.G.T. was dissolved.

After some time the organization was revived after purging it of the extremist policy. On the other hand, the extremist elements formed the Confederation General du Travail Unitaire (C.G.T.U.) and affiliated themselves with the Moscow International.


In 1922 the Communist elements in the C.G.T. left and formed union and federations of their own which were ready to rush into disputes for propaganda purposes even when there were very little prospect of victory. Thereafter the C.G.T. once again began to advocate earlier policies of collective bargaining, shorter hours, better wage contracts, friendly society benefits and social insurance law.

As the condition of labour in France was much worse than the condition of labour in Britain and Germany, it had lot to do. But it could not achieve much due to conditions of eco­nomic depression, the presence of strong Fascist elements in France, the resurgence of Germany on France’s border and development in Italy and- Spain. In the face of these developments, C.G.T. and the Communists again joined hands and formed a Popular Front in co-operation with the Socialist and Communist Parties.

The Front swept the polls at the general election of 1936 and proceeded to fulfill its pledges. It introduced forty- hour week with no reduction in pay, granted several extra holidays with pay, increased wages, enforced collective bargaining, Nationalized Bank of France, and even prepared plans for the nationalization of armament in­dustry. These reforms proved quite harmful for France. The reduction of working hours led to decline in French production. Even nationalization of banks proved highly destructive for the economy. All this greatly handi­capped France in meeting the challenge of Second World War.

According to Birnie the labour movement in France differs from la­bour movement in other European countries in two respects. First, the French unions are small in size and financially weak. Generally, the trade unions have a membership of about 200 and the subscriptions are very low and paid irregularly.


One writer had rightly observed, “the French work­man would rather support a resolution by raising his hand, above his head than by putting it in to his pocket.” Secondly, only a small portion of the working-class joins the trade unions and their strength is much smaller than the trade unions in Britain or Germany. On account of these weaknesses the trade union movement in France could not make effective achievements.

Labour movement in Germany. The Labour Movement started in Germany rather late because Germany embarked upon the path of industrialization only towards the close of the nineteenth century. The earliest traces of labour movement in Germany are found in the sixties of the nineteenth century. Prior to that the workmen combinations were treated as illegal, but in 1869 a statute was passed which granted the workmen the right to combine.

However, this law did not cover the agricultural labourers, seamen and domestic servants. Even the other workers enjoyed only limited freedom because their right to hold public meetings and form associations was greatly restricted by the various laws existing in different states. The trade unionism in Germany suffered a serious set back in 1878 when Bismarck in his bid to crush the socialist movement declared the unions as illegal. This ban continued till 1890.

In short the trade unionism in Germany continued to work in an unsatisfactory manner till the formation of democratic union. Most of these members were highly skilled and belonged to metal and engineering trades.

The third category of unions were Christian Unions. They were pro­moted by Bishop Ketteler in the seventies of nineteenth century to provide the Catholic working men in industrial organization which could save them from injury, to their morals which could result from their association with anti-clerical liberals or socialists. In fact this category of unions can very well be described as a compromise between ecclesiastical and economic organizations. As regards their programme and methods they were more close to the liberals.

They regarded the existing social and economic order as necessary and expedient, even though they demanded greater share for the working classes in the regulation of this system. They did not see any antagonism between the masters and workers and favoured a peaceful industrial policy. In course of time, some of the Christian unions turned more aggressive and organized strikes in co-operation with the socialist unions. No wonder after 1914 the distinction between the socialist and the Christian unions tended to disappear.

In addition to the above three categories of trade unions there existed certain minor groups in Germany which have been described as ‘free labour unions’. These were promoted and subsidized by the employers to ensure that the workers did not resort to strike under any circumstances.

Such unions were mainly promoted in the engineering trade. Again cer­tain unions had been formed on racial basis viz. Polish unions in the colliery and iron districts of Rhenish Westphalia.

A notable feature of the trade unions in Germany before 1914 was that though there were very few trade unions in the country their member­ship was quite large. For example in 1912 there were only 400 trade unions in Germany as against 1000 trade unions in England, even though the strength of members in the two countries was almost identical.

This tendency of concentration was specially present amongst the socialist unions. In all there were only 47 socialist unions which had a membership of 21/? million members. For example one socialist union of metal­workers had a membership of 550,000.

The second important feature of trade unionism in Germany was the slow progress of the method of collective bargaining. This slow progress, according to Birnie was due to two reasons. Firstly, the disinclination of German employers, especially that section of the united in cartels, to recognize or negotiate with the workmen’s combination. Secondly, the teaching of the doctrinaire Marxians concerning the futility of trade union action.

Tiirdly, most of the trade unions in Germany were composed of pre­dominantly permanent members who paid high dues and assessment; were disciplined to strike and received cash benefits which were not available to members of trade unions in England or America.

In the post World War I period the prestige of the trade unions in Germany was greatly enhanced on account of the positive role played by them in tackling the labour problems during the war. In 1918, the revolu­tionary government issued an order by which the trade unions were recognized as the accredited representatives of workers.

The Act also provided legal force to the collective agreements made by the unions with the employers. Certain other concessions were also made which included universal eight hour day, and institution of work councils in all industrial establishments. All this greatly enhanced the prestige of the trade unions and their membership considerably increased. For example, in 1920 the membership of the trade unions in Germany stood at over, 9,000,000 as against 3,000,000 in 1913.

Under the new Weimar constitution labor’s right and position was further protected. The state came to look upon collective bargaining as the best assurance of public welfare. It offered to mediate if no progress could be made between the employers and the trade unions. The employers were encouraged to discuss with the work councils (consisting of elected representatives of employees) matter relating to accident prevention, health, pension funds, working conditions and well as matters relating to unfair dismissal.

The government set up district councils and Central Economic Council to advise the government on industrial matters and to undertake Bills dealing with social and economic matters. The constitu­tion also provided for public control of industry. As a result of all these changes the labour movement in Germany attained a position of power and responsibility.

In the post World War I period collective bargaining also made con­siderable progress. This is clear from the fact that in 1919 three-fourths of all wages and salaries were determined either by voluntary agreements or by the decisions of mediators.

As the mediators generally gave more favorable decisions than the unions could extract through negotiations with the employers, the employers resorted to labour saving devices which led to unemployment. Criticism on government mounted from all quarter but it failed to deal with the problem. This was exploited by Hitler to capture power.

The assumption of power by Hilter gave a serious set back to labour movement in Germany. He asserted trade union leaders, seized their property and destroyed the unions. The freedom of association as well as right to strike or lockout was taken away and the machinery of collective bargaining was demolished. It set up a Labour Front to handle all labour affairs. It regulated wages and hours.The Labour “Front allowed the old shop councils to continue but Filled them with party nominees.

It also set up Social Honour Courts’ to punish employers who exploited their employees and to bring to book those workers who resorted to agitation. It also took a number of steps to further the interests of workers viz. provi­sion of facilities for leisure, recreation and vacations; and introduced social insurance schemes which were financed through worker’s contribu­tions. The government tried to tackle the problem of unemployment by starting relief works, conscription and re-armament.

As a result of various measures adopted by the government, 1938, Germany was confronted with the problem of labour scarcity and was forced to resort to universal labour conscription. The men were tied down to their jobs and could be moved wherever their services were needed. The working hours were increased from eight to ten hours a day. The restriction of working hours did not exist in the munitions industry. In short under the Nazis the labour movement lost its independent character and it became a part of the Nazi labour front.

Labour Movement in Other Countries. After examining the growth of labour movement in Britain, France and Germany, it shall be desirable to have a brief idea about the development of labour movement in other countries of the continent. Due to paucity of space we shall deal with the development of labour movement in these countries only in brief.

Italy. The labour movement in Italy started towards the close of the nineteenth century and gained in considerable strength by 1914. Its de­velopment in Italy is closely connected with the development of socialism in that country. Broadly speaking there were three types of trade unions in Italy in 1914-the neutral or socialist unions; the catholic unions; and the syndicalist unions.

The neutral or socialist unions of Italy were united in a provincial organization in 1906, which later on became a part of the General Italian Federation of Labour. These unions admitted men and women on equal terms and tried to work for improvement of living condi­tions of the labour; it provided education to members and even granted invalidity and unemployment insurance.

The Catholic organization existed mainly as isolated societies. The Syndicalist unions greatly resembled the Syndicalist associations of France. They believed in the principle of class war and opposed parliamentary action. They were against co-operation with employers and advocated liberal use of general strike, boycott and sabotage to achieve their objective. This type of unions greatly thrived in Italy before 1914 and there were about 100,000 members of this creed. This number further increased during the war.

After the war labour movement in Italy received a fresh impetus. The high prices, unemployed ex-soldiers, land hunger, and dissatisfaction over Italy’s share of the spoils of victory fomented unrest in the country and workers evicted owners from their factories. In the country districts es­tates were seized.

The communists considerably enhanced their member­ship. The prevailing discontent was fully exploited by Mussolini and his Fascist party. He encouraged food riots and stay-in-strikes to bring social unheaval; the lands were transferred to the peasants and factories to the workers.

By 1921 Fascism took a swing from the left to right and Mussolini projected himself as champion of order, property and country against socialists and internationalism. He organized a march to Rome in late 1922 and managed to capture power. After assumption of power he brought all labour organizations under heel. In 1927 he enunciated the Charter of Labour which asserted that all individual and class interests must be subordinated to the national welfare, solidarity and unity. The state claimed its right to control all forces of production in the interest of the nation. Under Fascists private enterprise was accepted as the most efficacious way to get work done but labour of the entrepreneur was regarded as social duty.

Both the employers and employees were free to organize. But there was to be only one union in each industry or profes­sion and it bargained with the employers association for that occupation. The agreements concluded between the two were binding on the whole industry. Strikes and lockouts were made penal offences.

The disputes which could not be settled through discussions were referred to the Labour Court and its decisions was binding on both the parties. Thus the state extended its control over both capital and labour and the wage earn­ers and employers alike enjoyed little peace, plenty of freedom.

Russia. In Russia no labour movement could develop under the au­thoritarian rule of the Czars and a very weak trade unionism existed in Russia on the eve of the Revolution of 1917. After the revolution the workers took charge of factories and evicted the managers. They set-up elected committees or councils in all industries and workshops and estab­lished workers control over them on the syndicalist pattern.

Workers were promised labour laws superior to those of the capitalist world. But with the destruction of capitalism the production also considerably declined. Therefore, the state resorted to conscription of labour and tied the labour to its job. Membership of unions was made compulsory and all strikes were forbidden. The management of industries was left in the hands of union and party officials.

With the adoption of a new economic policy in 1921 the unions were assigned two-fold duty. Firstly, they were expected to protect the cultural, living and economic interests of the members and stimulate the workers to increase production. Secondly, greater importance was attached to imple­mentation of the five-year plans rather than education, recreation or pro­tection of the members from exploitation. In other words, the unions were treated as permanent collaborators of the state in the drive for the fulfillment of the production objectives of the plans.

During the first few years after the Revolution the communist leaders adopted the principle of equal reward to all workers and advocated the principle ‘to each according to his needs’. However, after sometime this practice was abandoned and the practice of piece work rates with bonus for those who did more than a prescribed amount of work were adopted.

In 1931 Stalin introduced wages proportionate to skill, character and quantity of work. The principle of premium bonus became the keystone of Soviet wage policy. Apart from material incentives, honours, decora­tions and awards were granted to outstanding individual producers or groups.

In other words, a sort of competition started for greater production amongst various factories to increase production. In this the trade unions played an important role. During this period they did not make any bid to protect the interests of workers and the principle of collective bargaining virtually became defunct.

The wages and hours of work were determined by the state as a part of the general plan for the whole economy and the trade unions merely required to see that those conditions were carried out. They could not determine, criticize or oppose these conditions. In short we can say that labour movement did not develop in Soviet Union on the pattern of other western countries, instead it assumed a new form and operated strictly under the care of the state.

Austria. In Austria also the development of labour movement was somewhat delayed. The first attempt to organize the employers and the employees in common gilds was made in 1859 when the Austrian Indus­trial Code was passed. However, this attempt proved to be a failure. In 1869 the workers rose in revolt in Vienna and won from the government the limited right of independent industrial combination.

Within next few years socialistic trade unionism acquired permanent fooling in the country. Numerous trade unions appeared in Austria before First World War. Most of these unions were confined to the industrial and populous provinces of Moravia, Bohemia and Lower Austria. These unions were organized at the local, district as well as central level.

Switzerland. In Switzerland also an effective labour movement could not develop because of the peculiar social and industrial conditions pre­vailing in the country. In Switzerland the factory workers generally com­bined with industry a certain amount of agriculture and there were no sharp differences between the rich and the poor.

As a result there was very little tension between the capital and the labour. This naturally ham­pered the development of an effective labour movement. The first labour organization Grutliverein was organized in Geneva in 1838 which set up its branches throughout the country by 1914. This organization tried to pro­mote political and socialistic objectives rather than industrial ends. No wonder the Grutliverein was merged with the Swiss Social Democratic Party in 1888.

Thus we find that labour movement did not develop simultaneously in various countries of Europe, nor did it follow the same pattern of develop­ment. The nature of the labour movements in various countries was dictated by the pattern of their industrialization, the prevailing social and economic conditions in the country as well as the ideology of the leaders which were at the helm of affairs.

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