How Peugeot Killed Philippe
Published in Socialist Worker 8 March 1980.
On 8 February Philippe Marchau, a revolutionary socialist shop steward at the Peugeot factory in Sochaux in Eastern France, killed himself.
His death was not just a personal tragedy; it is also a grim warning for those Chrysler-Talbot workers in Britain whose factories are now owned by Peugeot-Citroën.
Peugeot-Citroën, The Economist sneeringly told its readers last summer, is ‘a group, as its British employees should perhaps be reminded, that is not famous in its own country for being told by trade unions where to get off.’
Indeed, Peugeot’s European success has been built on its ability to crush union organisation.
In June 1968 a worker was shot dead on a picket line at the Peugeot Sochaux factory.
Militants are ruthlessly weeded out. The management are now developing a filing system where every worker will be given scores from one to five for such features as punctuality, initiative, assiduity, sociability, etc.
Peugeot has done so well out of trampling on its workers that, having bought up Chrysler’s European plants, it is now doing a deal with Chrysler US, which is in financial difficulties.
Success like this is bought at a price and it is the likes of Philippe Marchau who pay that price.
Philippe came to work at Sochaux in 1976, when he was twenty-two. He took a job on the assembly-line in the body plant and became a member of the CGT, France’s biggest union.
He was also a member of the LCR, the French section of the Fourth International.
He rapidly became known as a militant and in 1977 was elected as a workers’ delegate (more or less the same as a shop steward).
In the Spring of 1977 he helped to lead a strike which won a wage increase – a small one it is true, but even small victories are few and far between at Peugeot.
French law makes it very difficult for management to sack workers’ delegates. So instead the management embarked on a systematic campaign of harassment against Philippe.
He was subjected to constant insults and bullying. He was suspended on several occasions, for a total of 16 days.
And he received 62 warning letters from the management.
The ‘offences’ he was charged with often verged on the grotesque. On one occasion he had carried a notebook on the breast-pocket of his overalls so that the letters CGT were visible; when told to remove it he refused.
Philippe was dedicated, courageous, but sensitive. The endless harassment eventually broke him.
He had already decided not to stand for re-election as a delegate. This, he knew, would mean the sack; moreover, Peugeot would ensure that he was blacklisted throughout the region. In despair at this prospect he killed himself.
A delighted foreman broke the news to Philippe’s workmates with the words: ‘The bloody nuisance has done himself in’.
But the management’s responsibility was quickly clear to everyone. The CGT issued a leaflet accusing the management of having caused Philippe’s death.
Philippe’s fellow-workers decided to stop work for five minutes on the day of the funeral, despite management threats that they would lose a fortnight’s bonus – up to £60.
Philippe Marchau’s death is a vivid lesson on what happens when a ruthless management succeed in destroying shop-floor organisation.
If that lesson is learned, then Philippe’s death will have served the cause to which he devoted his short life.