After the mobilizations, what meaning to give to work?


The debates around the pension reform bill have led to important discussions on the difficulty, the inequalities of women and men, the employment of seniors, as well as on work: its content and its meaning, beyond the questionable term "valuable".

Work thus seems to have returned to the center of trade union action and the new dynamics that we observe for several days and which could increase during the March 7 mobilization day.

Beyond mobilization, the very meaning of what work represents could experience a turning point, after decades of labor and union protests.

A break with labor history

Throughout the industrial era, work in France was at the heart of the conflict between the labor movement and the masters of organizations. The most qualified workers brought their creativity, a know-how they carried a proud conscience. The latter were the heirs of the tradesmen, who, before the Taylorism, were the only ones able to do what they did, like craftsmen. The bosses were then perceived as useless intermediaries between themselves and the market.

The unskilled workers, for their part, were bearers of a proletarian consciousness, they brought their labor power. Those called the specialized workers (OS) were the heirs of laborers, whose tasks were purely physical. The transition to Taylorism meant alienation and maximum exploitation for them.

Strikes in the Renault factories, 1947, INA.

The labor movement has never been so powerful as in the large Taylorized companies, of which the Renault factories were the symbol for several years. Alain Touraine had shown it since the 60s, and we had confirmation together in a large research published in 1984.

Replace a broken tile, save the job

Workers' consciousness has long led various struggles – obtaining better wages, trying to influence legislation so that it is more favorable to workers, saving jobs, finding work for an unemployed comrade.

From this perspective, a good trade unionist knew how to ensure the feedback of modest and very localized demands, such as demanding and obtaining the replacement of a broken tile in the locker room, but also asserting a high level of project, embodying the workers' desire to direct the 'historicity.

The Worker's Dinner. Oil on canvas by Francesco Sardà Ladico (1877-1912). Exhibited at the National Art Museum of Catalonia, Barcelona
The Worker's Dinner. Oil on canvas by Francesco Sardà Ladico (1877-1912). Exhibited at the National Art Museum of Catalonia, Barcelona. Francesco Sardà Ladico/Wikimedia

What founded this conviction was the work done, a conviction that goes back to the very beginnings of the workers' movement, which we find in the direct action unionism.

Labor policy aims

Work was as inseparable from daily improvements as it was from political aims. These culminated in the prospect of the workers or their representatives appropriating state power, whether convulsively, through revolution, through the general strike, at the heart of early XNUMXth century anarcho-syndicalism, or through long-term, social-democratic action.

Work, from the workshop or the office to the state, was the basis of a high-level collective action project, with its hopes, its utopias, and its forms of organization, starting with the unions. The central figure of the industrial worker embodied that action by which, Marx said, the proletariat by "liberating“will liberate society as a whole. This is why other actors claimed to be part of his struggle, which gave meaning to their own action – peasants, teachers, for example.

Demonstration of the workers of the SNIAS (aerospace) (1974)
Demonstration of the workers of the SNIAS (aerospace) (1974). Wikimedia

This historic period is behind us, especially as the new mobilizations feminists, ethics, anti-racism, or on climate change and the environment seem distant from those who put work at the center, which may have helped to put this issue into perspective in the struggles.

And this, all the more so since the 80s, the trade unionism has weakened as various studies indicate this showing a decline in the number of union members, including in the civil service.

New disputes

While societal demands sometimes include other work-related issues, we also see that new forms of protest are emerging, related to income, standard of living, at the end of the month. The latter are carried by actors who do not claim much of the work itself and who are far from the traditional spaces where the latter feeds the trade union action.

Thus the "yellow vests" were distant from the world of business and ignored the unions, their claims could not in their eyes be carried by them, if only because of their weakness or their absence in many sectors which had strongly aroused the mobilization of roundabouts.

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All sorts of figures now embody social injustice and the hardship of work – the supermarket cashier, the delivery man, the nursing assistant, the garbage collector, etc. A large proportion of them are also poorly unionized due to a new system precarious jobs directly related to platform capitalism.

This has been underlined with the pandemic. For others, sometimes also the same ones, the problem is not so much exploitation as recognition, which was at the heart of the investigation of a collective inquiry. Requests for recognition are individual, carried by a disappointed or abused subjectivity but do not for all that become the source of a collective protest that can rise to utopias or plans to seize state power.

Work, a gateway to broader issues

The unions that today reject the government's pension reform do not claim to lead society, they do not target state power in the name of their contribution through work. If they continue to give it meaning, to see in it a path to possible self-realization, it is now as encapsulated in larger issues. Work is no longer, for many, only one element of an existence which also includes family, friends, leisure, holidays, but also commitments, associative or otherwise. If it remains, for some, a source of emancipation, liberation, self-realization, for others it is above all painful, boring, without interest or associated with the worst images of exploitation.

Demonstration for the defense of pensions on January 31, 2023. Jeanne Menjoulet / Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

And if telework allows a better articulation of personal life and work, it also weakens the socialization brought by interpersonal relations in the company or the administration. It should also be remembered that remote work is prohibited for those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and confinement. put on the front line. Today, those who are mobilizing for pensions also want to take advantage of this free time, more than they dream of "singing tomorrows" and political power.

If it is no longer possible to make work the sole heart of major social mobilizations, it is not for all that possible to reject it as nonsense or even to make it a secondary issue.

It remains inseparable from the social bond in a society where it also stems from other themes - global warming, ethics on questions of life and death, relations between generations, equality of women and men, etc The strong mobilization against the pension reform project bears witness to this.

Michael Wieviorka, Sociologist, Historical authors The Conversation France

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.


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