Chapter 4 - Chronicle of the bourses du travail

Chapter 4

Chronicle of the Bourses du Travail

Although they were formed only quite recently the Bourses du Travail of the working class constitute the most advanced and definitive application of the council groups idea and the solidarity which the International had given the proletariat thirty years earlier.

The political idea of the Bourses du Travail is over a century old, dating to March 2, 1790, when a report by DeCorcelles (which is now impossible to find) promoted such a program. Submitted for examination by the department of public works, his proposal disappeared, as usual, into the national archives, where so many excellent projects lie buried. For fifty years the phrase Bourse du Travail disappeared from our vocabulary. In 1845, De Molinari, the editor-in-chief of the Journal des Economistes, rediscovered—or perhaps reconceived—the idea of a working class Bourse du Travail, based on the model outlined by DeCorcelles, and further elaborated it in his famous work1 that brought it to the attention of the Parisian popular associations and employers. Why did neither accept his idea? Perhaps, in the eyes of the employers, it seemed to be capable of endangering the business owner’s right to unilaterally and exclusively establish wage levels? And, for their part, did the popular associations believe the Bourse du Travail to be irreconcilable with the development of producers’ cooperatives, to which they had dedicated almost all their efforts? In any case, De Molinari, who met with indifference here and with open hostility elsewhere, was compelled to first postpone and then abandon the project (seven years later he would try to publish a journal called the Bulletin de la Bourse du Travail).

It was during this period, however, that the question of a working class Bourse was debated in the Paris municipal council as well as the legislative assembly. Decoux, at that time the prefect of police, presented (in 1848) a very detailed proposal. On February 3, 1851, this same Decoux, having become a representative of the people, advocated the following in the Assembly, referring to the “Bourse” of the Stock Exchange: “Their agitators don’t have to stroll about in sumptuous palaces. We must grant the workers some modest refuge, a meeting place.” A vain request! Neither on that day nor the next was Decoux to obtain the institution that he sought.2

It took twenty-four more years for this question, after first having been addressed by the Paris Municipal Council, to be brought up again. On February 24, 1875, two questions were submitted for debate, “one relating to the construction in the Avenue Laundière of a spacious many-windowed rotunda; the other, to the creation on the Rue de Flandre of a Bourse du Travail, or at least of a private place with a roof and a door, as a place of sanctuary for the numerous groups of workers which gather there every morning for assignments to dock work and other casual labor.” These two proposals, in the end, as had occurred in another time with the attempt by DeCorcelles, fell into the oblivion of Committees, and there they were to be joined in the next few years by others of the same stamp. Eleven more years had to pass before the following report authored by Mesureur crossed the desks of the office of the municipal council (November 5, 1886):

“The Council, in consideration of the resolutions concerning the formation of a Bourse du Travail, proposes:

The Prefect of the Seine is to immediately negotiate, with public assistance, for the lease or purchase of the aforementioned Redoute real estate and to submit the results of his negotiations to the Council along with the budgetary estimates for acquiring said real estate, for the purpose of building a branch of the Bourse du Travail.

Also, from the perspective of the terrain of freedom as stipulated in contract law, said Mesureur, you have the right, if not the duty, to allow the workers the means to fight with equal and legal weapons on a level playing field against capital. Without a Bourse du Travail, the trade union locals will always have only a precarious existence, because the results they obtain will always be far from representative of those obtained by the vast majority of workers. It is therefore necessary for us to have enough offices and meeting halls where everyone can go without having to fear being confronted by sacrifices of time and money beyond their means. The free use and permanent availability of meeting halls will allow the workers to carry on a more mature and precise debate on the various questions which affect them and their industries and have an impact on their wage levels. This will make available, for information and research, all the means of information and correspondence, the elements provided by statistics, and an industrial or commercial library, for understanding the trends in production in every industry, not just in France, but in the whole world. Perhaps then we shall see the real representation of labor….”

This time the cause of the Bourse du Travail finally prevailed and on February 3, 1887, the municipal council solemnly conveyed into the hands of the Parisian trade unions the real estate at the Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which would later (1892) be joined by the building at Rue Château-d’Eau.

Such was the apparent origin of the Bourses du Travail, although it must be admitted that the initiative of the Paris Municipal Council was not imitated anywhere else, and the trade unions in the provinces had to at first organize as free Bourses de Travail, before they could obtain a minimum of communal favor. The Bourses du Travail, as they exist today, preceded, except in name, the inauguration of the meeting hall on the Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The equivalents of the Bourses du Travail can be found in the two or three workers federations created by the International and in most of the local or regional trade union bodies created after the French Workers Congress held in Paris in 1876. When the socialist trade unions finally definitively evicted various mutualist trade unions from their ranks, and in 1886 tried (at the Congress of Lyon) to mount one last effort to regain the leadership of the workers movement, some trade unions established new local or district meeting-places, which, with job placement services, unemployment and strike relief, study committees, etc., prefigured the Bourses du Travail.

We have explained the reasons which prevented the National Federation of Trade Unions and the corporative workers groups from uniting their forces around the goal for which the Lyon Congress was convened. Among the most important reasons was the inexplicable error of calling for direct affiliation to a national federation which obviously needed, in order to properly look after its own interests, to keep the federations as restricted as possible: on regional, departmental and even local scales. Hence the impossibility, as a result of this error, for the national council of the federation to offer the least services to the hundreds of workers groups dispersed throughout the country.

Finally, and most importantly, it was the Council’s obvious intention of making the Federation, instead of an instrument of economic emancipation obtained exclusively by means of the corporative movement, into a nursery for Guesdist militants, interested primarily in parliamentary action, the “conquest of public power”, and ready to take the leadership of the whole working class. The trade union groupings whose members had not totally rejected electoral propaganda, but who thought that it should not be allowed in the trade unions, where that issue gave rise to disputes and discord, but should be confined to “political study circles”, therefore carried on their economic labors free of the tutelage of any “school” and joined with those elements who had animated the Bourses du Travail of Lyon, Nîmes and another twenty cities.

In 1892 there were fourteen Bourses du Travail. The elite cadres who administered them underwent a period of testing during times when, lacking any unifying bonds between them, their material and moral development proceeded much too slowly. Indeed, in their isolation, they were unable to make any use of their cumulative experiences and were therefore condemned to either waste precious time on projects later considered to be unrealizable or flawed, or to rule out initiatives which might have led to excellent results. It did not take long for the idea of a national federation of Bourses du Travail to make headway, and the federation was born at the February 1892 Congress (Saint-Etienne) of the Bourses du Travail. At that time, as well, deliberations took place concerning the confederal pact which, two years later (at the Congress of Nantes in 18943), would sanction the final and definitive break between the political socialist party and the economic socialist organization. The Bourses du Travail declared their firm resolve (a declaration which was by no means merely Platonic) to reject any form of interference in their affairs on the part of the national and local government authorities.

Soon thereafter, the number and importance of the Bourses du Travail grew at a remarkable rate. In June of 1895 the federations reported4 34 Bourses du Travail and 606 member trade unions, and in 1896, 46 Bourses and 862 trade unions. This growth even seemed disturbing to the federal committee, because it felt that the Bourses du Travail were being created without a sufficient trade union base, which exposed them to dissolution or to the disorder caused by dangerous strikes, and also because it feared that temporary problems in the Bourses du Travail of Rouen, Cholet and Bordeaux would prove contagious and spread to the majority of the Bourses with fatal results. The committee therefore judged it prudent, if not to moderate the organizational ardor of the militants, at least to bring to their attention the usefulness of extending their propaganda activities, which had until then been restricted to local neighborhoods, to the level of city districts (arrondissements) and even an entire department. “Two or three Bourses in each department,” the Committee stated correctly at that time, “will more rapidly enroll the workers than would the lesser efforts of seven or eight insufficiently utilized and necessarily weak Bourses.”

This advice was heeded and, in the following years, while another eleven new Bourses du Travail were created, the federal Committee learned that Rouen had annexed most of the trade unions of the lower Seine, which extended from Dijon in the North and to Montceau-les-Mines, while Amiens nourished the ambition of federating all the trade unions of the Somme and Nîmes, all those of Gard and, above all, the agricultural workers trade unions, among others.

On the opening day of the Seventh Congress, held by the Federation on September 21, 1898 in Rennes, the Committee announced that fifty-one Bourses du Travail, with a total of 947 trade unions, had attended the Congress. In 1899 another three Bourses du Travail with a total of 34 trade unions made an especially valuable contribution to the confederal association, because one of them primarily covered maritime interests (which were at that time still under-represented among the corporative groups) and also because the other two Bourses were in different regions which had until then remained hostile to the federation.

In all, up to June 31, 1900, that is, until the eve of the opening of the Eighth Congress (Paris, September 5-8), there were a total of fifty-seven Bourses du Travail with 1,065 trade unions, which comprised 48% of all the industrial trade unions throughout France. Of these fifty-seven Bourses du Travail, forty-eight were members of the Federation and included 870 trade unions.