Holiness and Health
Published in Labour Worker 1 February 1965 under the name Curtis McNally.
The French working-class movement has long been weakened by the three-way split into Catholic, Communist and Social-Democrat trade unions. This is one of the primary reasons why only about 21/2 million French workers are organised in any union. An interesting development in the situation occurred in November, when an extraordinary congress of the CFTC (French Confederation of Christian Workers – the Catholic Union) decided to end the Confederation’s formal links with the Catholic Church – and to change the name of the body to “French Democratic Confederation of Labour.” (CFDT) Since the CFDT remains affiliated to the International Federation of Christian Trade Unions, and Eugène Descamps, former General Secretary of the CFTC, becomes General Secretary of the CFDT, the significance of the change should not be overestimated.
Reaction in the French labour movement has been varied. The PSU, with typical naivety, has welcomed the change, and congratulates the CFDT on its faith in “democratic planning”; and even the anarcho-syndicalist Révolution prolétarienne views the change optimistically. The Communist CGT, however, has dismissed the move as meaningless; and perhaps the most penetrating comment has come from André Bergeron (General Secretary of Force Ouvrière), who relates the change to a growing tendency of Catholicism to use “front organisations”, nominally not associated with the Church – a tendency connected with the ecumenical turn taken by the Vatican Councils. The Secretary of the MSUD (Committee for a United and Democratic Trade Union Movement) was sceptical whether the change would mean much.
Nonetheless, the fact that one confederation of trade unions has, nominally at least, renounced its attachment to an ideology, may lead more rank-and-file members to ask whether ALL unions should not put workers’ interests before ideology.
And while union leaders manoeuvre and cavort, what of the French workers? We are indebted to the French workers’ monthly Pouvoir Ouvrier for the following facts. 70 per cent of steelworkers do not live to reach retirement age (65). In 1963 there were 1700 cases of mental illness among postal workers, compared with 639 in 1955. In 1951 in the Nord and Pas de Calais coalfields there were 3072 officially confirmed cases of silicosis; in 1962, with the number of underground workers reduced by over a quarter, there were 4,048 cases. A thousand French miners a year die of silicosis.
The sick, maimed and widowed will judge Stalinists, Catholics and Social-Democrats alike by one criterion – their ability to fight for better conditions now.