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When France’s Railworkers Got Ideas Above Their Station

Railworkers have been decisive in the resistance to Emmanuel Macron’s dismantling of the French welfare state. These workers’ strength owes to their ability to bring traffic to a standstill — but also to a culture of solidarity built across decades of militant workplace activism.

Railway workers in France. (Wikimedia Commons)

On the fifth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, railway worker Pierre Semard, a future leader of the French Communist Party, took part in an international delegation to Moscow. Arriving by train, he found “a town as alive as the working-class districts of Paris, with busy shop windows, resplendent with light.” Semard’s account, published in the Tribune des Cheminots, the newspaper of the railway workers’ union, relates how “a crowd of ideas clashed in my mind” as his train crossed the Russian border.

This essay is drily described by historian and academic Thomas Beaumont as “probably one of the only Communist travelogues to include details of the locomotive at the head of the train to Russia.” In Fellow Travellers, Beaumont sets out to demonstrate that the activities of Communist trade unionists on the French railways between the wars would profoundly shape the course of both left-wing politics and railway industrial relations in the country throughout the twentieth century. Drawing on a number of academic studies — many in the French language — as well as first-person accounts from key participants, Beaumont relates the real experience and impact of a key group of workers in a time of mass mobilization and ideological conflict.

Ideological Conflict

By the turn of the twentieth century, railway workers in societies across the globe were developing a powerful sense of collective identity. Railway operation steadily developed into an enclosed world, mysterious to outsiders in its practices and rapidly developing jargon. And the propensity of accidents and cowboy employment practices proved fertile ground for union recruitment in Britain and mainland Europe alike.

In France, as in many societies, railway workers to this day maintain a major role in the organized working class. When unions mounted an all-out strike against President Macron’s liberalization of the French railways in 2018, General Confederation of Labour (CGT) official David Gobé described the cheminots as the “locomotive of the social movement” in France. “[Macron] wanted to attack us to make an example of us,” Gobé said on a solidarity visit to the British railway union RMT’s conference in Edinburgh. “He wanted our scalp. It’s a trophy.”

As Fellow Travellers details, the cheminots’ collective identity would be both a boon and a hindrance to Communist organizing on the railways. Beaumont’s description of the status of cheminots during the First World War, occupying “an ambiguous ‘grey zone’ between the military and civilian worlds,” provides a foretaste of the tensions ahead. Recalled from the trenches as key industrial workers, they were labeled embusqués (shirkers). Yet at work on the railways, they were subject to military discipline. Cheminots were banned from holding union meetings, and managers punished workers for minor offenses such as failure to use military forms of address.

While bosses used the threat of front-line military service as a tactic of control, unions sought to leverage workers’ loyalty and sacrifice in pushing back against restrictions. They were successful in overturning the total ban on union activity. In May 1917 both cheminots and cheminotes — women workers drafted in to fill roles vacated by soldiers — went on strike for a higher cost-of-living allowance, again with some success. It was also in this year that a national federation of railway workers was created for the first time, with nationalization of the network as its central demand.

By 1918, Europe’s railways were shattered, but their workforces emboldened. In Britain, the 1919 railway strike led to wartime pay being maintained, and entrenched the principle of national collective bargaining. In France’s new Fédération des Cheminots, rank-and-file officials Lucien Midol and Gaston Monmousseau formed a rival power base to general secretary Marcel Bidegaray. Their minoritaire faction came to prominence at the time of a short wildcat strike in 1919. Midol had railed against the “treason” of the Socialist Party in supporting the war in 1914, but thereafter pragmatically focused on union activity rather than agitating against the war.

The minoritaires mobilized a nationwide strike in February 1920, which led to the railway companies agreeing to the federation’s demands. Monmousseau unseated Bidegaray as federation leader, but the subsequent all-out strike called by the new leadership in May 1920 resulted in a heavy defeat, largely thanks to the arrest of key leaders and a botched solidarity initiative.

Eighteen thousand striking railway workers were sacked, and many militants dropped out. This was followed by a spate of suicides. There would be no further significant strike action on the French railways until the fall of the Popular Front government in 1938. But despair also led to anger — not just at bosses, but also at moderate union leaders. The 1920 strikes were followed by splits in both the Fédération and the CGT union confederation, with Communists and syndicalists forming the FNCU rail union and the rival CGTU union center.

Much of Beaumont’s subsequent narrative is dedicated to charting the rivalry between the far left and the moderates, before the CGT reunified in 1936. The density of CGTU unitaires was much higher on the railways than in other parts of the economy, where Communists lost their footholds in line with falling party membership. Beaumont is keen to stress that membership figures for the time are “not infallible,” but he does a skillful job of cross-referencing them with police reports. What is certain, however, is that the cheminots made up a large section of the CGTU, in both numbers and influence. They were also a major force in the Communist Party, which was reorganized around this time into factory cells.

Third Period

Party adherents naturally sought to steer the union in the successive lines of the Communist International during this period. Beaumont’s repetitive and exhaustive writing style often leaves the narrative faltering, but his exploration of how cheminots responded to the Comintern’s 1928 “class against class” doctrine is compelling nonetheless.As Beaumont notes, the history books have largely recorded negative verdicts on this Third Period Communism, in which parties spurned alliances with social democrats and pursued mass working-class radicalization. But Communist cheminots carefully adapted the doctrine to the material realities of their industry.Having been somewhat uncomfortable with the previous united front strategy, cheminot leaders had already practiced a more class-conscious approach. After the Left was narrowly defeated in the Fédération des Cheminots leadership election in 1919, Midol had called for his faction to engage more closely with the demands of the rank and file, and push the union leadership hard on these issues.Quoting Midol’s argument that the minoritaires’ propaganda “has not yet lifted the cheminots from their sense of professional pride,” Beaumont emphasizes the importance of identity in this debate. Later on, the author explores how management “mobilised the idea of the cheminots as an apolitical professional community in an attempt to attenuate class divisions in the industry.” Communists saw the narrative of professional commitment as one which kept cheminots as, in Midol’s words, “auxiliaries of the bourgeoisie.”Beaumont also considers how Communists developed an alternative “sense of cheminot identity that stood in contradistinction to the company appeals to loyalty.” Militant trade unionists created a culture of workers anonymously denouncing their bosses in the pages of the FNCU’s Tribune and the Communist Party newspaper L’Humanité. Beaumont does not, however, interrogate the extent to which both narratives are tied to the nature, indeed the myth, of the railway itself and its proven ability throughout history and across continents to bring people together — whether workers, passengers, or enthusiasts.

In 1928, the FNCU ended its boycott of the railway safety committees and easily outpolled the more moderate CGT in the elections. Though some party officials saw this as in conflict with the new line, Communist cheminots instead argued it amounted to taking the class struggle “even into the heart of the bourgeois organisation itself.”

The committees, Beaumont says, were framed as “confrontational spaces between management and workforce.” By demonstrating their support through election results, the CGTU successfully fought off the government’s attempts to de-recognize their union.

Mass membership proved a dilemma throughout the interwar period. Moderates believed it could “multiply the weight that the CGT’s voice could carry in the corridors of power” but were concerned that “inexperienced new recruits” might prove a fertile recruiting ground for the Left. Militants, meanwhile, were concerned about the new recruits’ lack of political commitment. But a bigger curb on cheminots’ industrial activity in this period was perhaps the high turnover in the workforce and the ability of management to sack agitators or transfer them to other locations.

Popular Front

Cheminots were largely absent from the mass industrial action which brought about the Popular Front government in 1936, but Beaumont counters that they still played a major role in solidarity with Republican Spain and the experiment in industrial democracy in 1936–38. Railway workers would have been crucial to the general strike to defend the Popular Front’s social advances on November 30, 1938, but brutal state repression left them, in Beaumont’s view, with no choice but to report for work.

The passages on the final years covered by this study make for bleak reading, as France’s establishment used the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact as a pretext for crushing French Communists, before themselves joining a political collaboration with Germany. But the lesson of workers creating their own industrial identity independent of management, through trial, error, and improvement, would live on.

Railway workers across the globe continue to fight many of the same battles as those waged in 1920s and 1930s France, such as over safety and staffing levels. They face increasingly aggressive union-bashing and increasingly sophisticated internal communications campaigns from management. It’s a relief that they can match this with the strongest of sectoral solidarity, but perhaps it’s no wonder.