The last hours of the Thirty Glorious Years

A reference work on the Lip affair looks back on this pivotal event, which marks the end of worker insubordination and the beginning of a new era, hit by crisis and mass unemployment.

“What strength, what meaning can we draw from defeat? » (p. 486). This is how Donald Reid, professor of history specializing in the French labor movement at the University of North Carolina, concludes by wondering about the “Lip affair”. Of remarkable archival, documentary and thematic richness (Hélène Chuquet’s translation deserves to be praised), the work aims to return to this. This is a challenge, as the subject has given rise to both activist and scholarly work (sometimes both together). The author, let us say it straight away, presents here a work intended to be a reference, as the historian Patrick Fridenson indicates in the introduction.

A specific context

But first, what is “the Lip affair”? Donald Reid shows that it arises from the conjunction of a triple context, ranging from the most global to the local. First of all, the watch industry still constituted, in the 1960s, an environment with strong specificities (diversity and hierarchy of a very complex working world, integration of production, dense network of economic actors). These began to be called into question with the rise of new foreign players, and the revolution of quartz watches from the end of the 1960s. Then, the Lip factory cannot be understood without the specificities of its historical director , Fred Lipman, now Fred Lip (1905-1996). A descendant of the company’s founders in 1867, a resistance fighter, marked by a family tragedy (he was unable to save his parents, deported and murdered at Auschwitz), he was a colorful leader from the Liberation to 1971. Paternalistic (minimum wage known as “mini-Lip”, proactive social policy), he was also willingly authoritarian, in particular with executives (p.50-51). Fred Lip mixed visionary innovations (investment in R&D, internal promotion, ultra-modern factory, effective marketing linked to Publicis) and conflicts (with the employers for whom he had a frank detestation, mass distribution, local elites), creating a strong “Lip” identity. Finally, the working world of the Palente factory, opened in 1962, was also specific. Recruited locally, of great cultural homogeneity, it is strongly imbued with Catholicism (often linked to Catholic Worker Action, or CO) both egalitarian, community-based and respectful of the individual. Jean Raguenès, Dominican and factory worker, goes so far as to compare the Lip workers to the “people of Israel” fleeing Egypt. This employee is as attached to the company as they are sometimes in conflict with “the boss”. Above all, a “driving core” (p. 433) is constituted by the mechanical workshop, where highly qualified male workers like the activist CFDT (And PSU) Charles Piaget, are at the origin of the union and protest action.

In this triply original context, the Lip company (which, this is sometimes overlooked, also works in the military, electronics and medical fields) undergoes the violent changes in the watch market in the 1960s. Historically selling through the network of “Watchmakers-Jewelers”, it missed out on the rise of mass distribution and other points of sale. Globalization gives rise to less expensive players, who outsource certain aspects of production. Finally, the “quartz revolution” tends to weaken certain aspects of the traditional watch industry. In 1967, the Swiss company ASUAG (current Swatch), via France éveils HER, enters the capital of Lip, whose “watch” branch is financially in crisis. In 1971, Fred Lip arrived, his replacement Jacques Saintesprit quickly resigning in April 1973.

“We produce, we sell, we pay ourselves”

However, Lip’s employees have changed in the meantime. The 1960s saw the rise of sections CFDT-Lip and (more relatively) CGT-Lip, who work in great intelligence, especially since they share the same Catholic culture. May 68 saw a movement of unprecedented magnitude, particularly among women and BONE, against the finicky and sometimes abusive hierarchy (sexual harassment, cronyism, humiliation). Stealing a briefcase from the company’s directors in April 1973, an employee discovered a massive layoff plan and dismantling of the company. This is the start of the occupation of the Palente factory, which constitutes the best-known moment of the “Lip affair”.

Donald Reid strongly underlines the specificities of this social movement which took place from April 1973 to January 1974, while recalling that it took place in a context of factory occupations (300 between 1974 and 1975, p. 370 -371). The first is the establishment, notably at the initiative of Jean Raguenès, of an “action committee” (THAT), which, apart from the unions, controlled their action, and a general assembly (AG), which brought together all employees. THAT And AG were the tools of direct workers’ democracy, which promoted those forgotten by union action. Above all, women, long confined to employmentBONE, with silent and repetitive tasks, played a determining role. Activists like Fatima Demougeot, Noëlle Dartevelle (CGT-Lip) or Georgette Plantin stood out alongside the male leaders of the CFDT-Lip. The workers, helped by activists PSU, created a “women’s group”, active from March to December 1974. In June 1973, the administrators were sequestered, and the stocks of watches were taken and hidden with the expulsion from the factory. They served as a tool of pressure, a means of financing and relaunching uncontrolled production, and a symbol of the “Lip”.

The author notes how Palente’s experience fascinates the intellectual world (like Benny Levy, Maurice Clavel and Jean-Paul Sartre). The occupied Palente factory became a place of visit for union activists, politicians and associations from the French and foreign left, but also for journalists, filmmakers and academics, who came to train as well as to help the social movement. On July 11, 1973, the strikers launched Lip Unity, a publication distributed throughout France. Donald Reid also shows – and this is a fascinating contribution of the work – that this movement provoked the rejection of a part of French society. The trade union organizations at the national level were reluctant: the CGT, frightened to see the occupied factory become a magnet for “leftists”, urged his section to return to more union action. The federation of CFDT to which the Lip section was attached was directed by Jacques Chérèque, equally reluctant. The conservative shift of the Gaullist majority since 1968 was accentuated, isolating those like Jean Charbonnel who saw the Lip affair as an opportunity for the “participation” dear to de Gaulle. Local employers did not want to save what they perceived as a hotbed of protest. The administration was not left out. The prefect spoke in 1977 of the “virulence” of the “Lip microbe” for the national and local social fabric (p. 405).

A Janus event?

The rejection by employees of a business recovery plan on October 12, 1973, in reality prepared the way for the end of the experiment. This refusal makes the “Lips” real pests for national and local authorities – the socialist town hall of Besançon itself showing itself to be reserved during the 1970s. Franche-Comté employers openly discriminated against employees or former employees of Lip. In 1974, helped by the networks of the second left, and bosses close to social Catholicism, Claude Neuwschander, formerly of Publicis, took the head of the SEHEM (new company name). He was pushed out in April 1976. Financially in difficulty, arousing the distrust of investors, the company then experienced a new occupation, this time with greater police repression. Far from the optimism of 1973, it was now a question of saving what could be saved: in addition to a new seizure of the stock of watches, employees tried to create cooperatives in 1977, which were not legally recognized given the situation. In February 1979, the cooperative’s board of directors, hoping to mollify the public authorities and investors, proposed three lists of employees, A, B, C (p. 412-413). The last, overrepresenting women and BONE, would now be fired. In November 1979, theAGtorn, voted in favor of these conditions: a year later, the Lip cooperative was recognized, it leaving the Palente site in 1981.

What can we learn from a work as rich as it is engaging – the author making no secret of his sympathy for his subject? According to him, the Lip affair constitutes a triple watershed, a “bridge (…) between the Trente Glorieuses and the long period of crisis and unemployment” (p. 257). It ends a period during which social movements benefited from job security and strong unionism. Likewise, it marks the end of the era of “worker insubordination” according to the beautiful expression of Xavier Vigna. Finally, it constitutes the swan song of left-wing Catholicism, which had been the matrix of the experience, doubly dried up by dechristianization and the turning point in the papacy of John Paul. II from 1978. Janus event, “the Lip affair” opened up new militant sensibilities destined to rise (place of women in organizations, direct democracy, respect for minorities). At the same time, it closes the door to the major protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s and opens the door to the fights, often lost, against mass layoffs, factory closures and deindustrialization.