The valleys of industry: from trading to salaried work
by Claude Didry
The region surrounding Lyon and the valleys of St Etienne are areas where the first threads of capitalism were developed, where economic activities were first presented in the form of goods produced in the homes of workers, in response to orders from merchants and traders. And so the Canuts in Lyon wove the thread that traders provided them with, in the traditional houses of the Croix Rousse area. In their workshops, around their looms, acquired on the back of heavy sacrifices, frequently in debt to silk-makers who sold the final product, the Canuts worked side by side with their wives, their children and one or two journeymen who would work there for a time before striking out on their own. Corporative organization gradually fell under the control of merchants who had left the profession in order to dedicate themselves to trading full time. Strikes frequently occurred, with the goal of raising the prices of finished fabric. Faced with a protesting workforce, merchants and traders extended their field of action, encouraging the practice of home weaving in the surrounding territories.
One can observe this configuration in Saint Etienne in the case of ribbon and lace makers who wove long fabrics (unlike the Canuts) at home, selling their products to traders. Here too, weaving spread throughout the neighboring countryside, the cities and villages, like Saint-Didier in Velay, where one finds a boulevard des Passementiers, like the rue des Passementiers in Saint-Etienne and the street with the same name in Saint-Chamond. Passementier is the French word for lace-maker.
This organization of the activity of weaving was accompanied by a very strong institutional dynamic of innovation, beginning with the establishment of the first industrial tribunal in Lyon in 1806, in the wake of Napoleon’s passage along the sacred imperial road to Rome, in 1805. The industrial tribunal had the goal of regulating the frequent disputes between the weavers and traders, or their foremen, concerning the quality of cloth, with this leading to a negotiation of the final price that was paid to the weaver, based on a reference price set by the cost of materials. To the extent that quality claims usually began with an accusation made by the weaver about the quality of the raw materials, furnished by the traders, the raw material – the thread – was submitted to prior expertise in the premises in Saint Etienne where, even today, one can find the “condition des soies”, or the “condition of silks”.
This story played out in highly colorful places, but it also set out routes of protest. Lyon is known for the Canut uprisings of 1831 and 1834, with the cortege descending the slopes of the Croix Rousse, massed behind a black flag on which was written : “live to work, or die fighting”. The ribbon making trade of the Saint Etienne region was also marked by significant social conflicts, where two antagonisms intersected: between the ribbon makers and traders around prices on one hand, and between ribbon makers and their workers on the other, in particular around a refusal to bargain, and a demand for what was known as the “English week”, in other words a limited work week.
In order to understand this history, we need to look back at the world of work in the wake of the Revolution, which led to the consolidation of a peasantry of landowners, establishing a France which would be principally rural for a very long time. It led, at the same time, to the suppression of corporations, that is to say to a disciplinary law adapted to each profession, establishing the basis for a common law for all French people, the civil code. This organized relationships of production around the “renting of work”. Defined by articles 1779-1799, the “renting of work” sets the conditions under which one commits to doing something for another, generally a worker for an entrepreneur, considering that a worker paid by the piece is also an entrepreneur in his own activity (art. 1799). No salaried status then, like the relationship between an employee and an employer, but a kind of cascading subcontracting, notably within the framework of a production spread throughout the countryside, that was done in home workshops. One should not then overestimate the mechanization of production activities, with talk of “industrial revolutions”.
This brings us to the banks of rivers where production is often located, in order to take advantage of hydraulic energy or, in the case of metallurgy, the quality of the water for the purposes of making steel. The traces of these industries can be found throughout the valleys of the Gier, the Ondaine and the Semène. This adventure in steel making provided the region with one of its most important historical figures, Pierre-Frédéric Dorian, an engineer originally from Doubs, who was very attached to the ideas of Charles Fourier, great socialist utopian of the 1830’s, who dreamed of organizing “phalensters”, small communities founded on the division of a labor rendered attractive and on the principle that it took charge of all aspects of working life. Pierre-Frédéric Dorian studied at the Saint-Etiene School of Mines, creating a first scythe factory in the valley of la Rochetaillée. Then business expanded in the context of the firm Dorian Holtzer Jackson, with the construction of the “La Gerbe” factory at Pont-Salomon on the banks of the Semène, which forged scythes. Worker’s accommodation, a wash house, a school, a library, a church to respect the Catholic faith of the workers. Dorian went on to become a nationally renowned politician, Minister for Public Works in 1870 for the government that emerged from the overthrowing of Napoleon 3, dividing his time between Unieux and Paris when he passed away in 1873.
Zola would visit the Parisian salon of his daughter Alice, using the factories of Dorian in Unieux as a models for his novel, Travail (Work), published in 1901. However in 1902, the factory at Pont-Salomon found itself in the headlines. In effect, the Court of cassation declared the factory Director, Binachon, distant successor of Dorian, responsible for the presence of a minor in the establishment in breach of the law of December 27th, 1982 which forbade women and children to work nights. The director of the factory, also mayor of the town, defended himself by placing responsibility for this breach on one of his workers, parent of the aforementioned child, who was presented during the trial as a “hired laborer”, a worker paid by the piece, free to employ whomever he wished.
The minor saga of the region completes the picture, with the exploitation of the mines being marked by the activity of trading, with workers being paid by the piece, and the existence of a certain number of experiences of “mines for miners”, like that of Rive-de-Gier in the 1880’s. One of the most significant moments was the arrival of Jean Jaures in Saint-Etienne in 1900, to arbitrate a large strike by the miners, which occurred at the same time as a strike by the local ribbon makers.
As we travel through space and time, we are required to stop for a moment in Saint-Chamond, in the France of the 1930’s, that had become used to worker’s rights and social insurance, and to the rational organization of work in munitions factories relaunched full time in order to tackle the arrival of Hitler to power in 1933. The forges of la Marine and Homécourt manufactured ship gun turrets, a very delicate activity requiring a highly skilled workforce. The strike of November 1935 was declared in the face of management bullying, and displayed innovative forms of protest, with workers occupying the premises, in a movement that brought together the Catholics of the CFTC and the communists of the fédération unitaire des métaux. The conflict was arbitrated by the mayor, Antoine Pinay, with the workers emerging victorious, the first victory in quite some time, which announced the sweeping changes made by the Front Populaire, with strike action helping to gain the implementation of the 40 hour work week, paid holidays and collective branch conventions in May and June of 1936.
Little remains of these industrial jewels which decorated the region of the Loire, even though certain of them have been given a second existence. Thuasne stretched its ribbon all the way to the field of medicine and high-tech. Looking closely, one finds companies which continue to work with metal, weapons makers who continue to make rifles, even though the French army has deserted the FAMAS for weapons that are made in Germany. Should one change with the times, allowing Deliveroo and Uber to become the natural outlets for the young inhabitants of towns that have witnessed the flight of industry and mineworkers? Should one consider a new way of life, extending the architectural ambitions of Eugène Claudius-Petit in Firminy in an unexpected and provocative manner, shifting the town towards this industrial utopia that was advocated by Pierre-Frédéric Dorian a century before? This is the paradox of the newer technologies which conform to a liberal world, where Adolphe Thiers has discovered new political friends who are all committed to defending micro-entrepreneurs. Didn’t he deplore the attempt, in 1848, to abolish trading that can be seen today in the companies that gravitate around Uber: “But here is a sure means by which the meritorious craftsman may attain the proposed result, may become a master without capital, and without the inconveniences attached to a collective enterprise; this means is piece-work or marchandage, which the new friends of the workmen have abolished”. Nevertheless, does the return of trading, in the form of workers who have simply become “entrepreneurs of themselves” allow any room for collective innovations such as the TGV, electric cars, the societal projects which made way for the architectural works of the Corbusier in Firminy, through which he announced a new way of living, a new way of life.
translated by Derek Byrne
Claude Didry is a sociologist and research supervisor at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. His research field is the changing work patterns and notably the 19th century pratices. He is the author of L’Institution du travail. Droit et salariat dans l’Histoire (2016, La Dispute).