Who Are The New Working Class Activists?

By Julian Mischi

In this post, I introduce the themes from my recently published article in The Sociological Review which deals with the evolution of working-class politics. My paper is based on fieldwork conducted in France. The French communist party (PCF) dominated the left wing of political life from the end of World War II into the 1970s. Closely tied to the largest union, the CGT (General Confederation of Labour), the PCF was primarily run by activists from labouring and unionist backgrounds. Studies agree on the importance of the scholastic aspirations of these worker-activists who came from the more highly educated fractions of the working classes. Worker-activists had distinctive educational aspirations and resources among their class, and they invested them in trade union and political activism. The aim of my article published in The Sociological Review is to revisit this model for working-class activism. I think this is essential given the weakening and splintering of the working class in recent years. This revisit is also prompted by the decline of the communist movement since the late 1970s. The activist environment has changed considerably in both socio-economic and ideological terms for newer generations of men and women active in the CGT, which is still the leading French trade union. Who are the new working-class activists? How do workers become union officers nowadays?

To deal with these issues in my article, I have explored activism of the rank-and-file through long-term fieldwork in a small town which is predominantly working-class. Fieldwork was conducted with union members, most of them shop-floor workers at a railway equipment maintenance facility. Analysing the processes leading workers to become unionists, I can report on the reconfigurations taking place in the studied union. Local union leaders are far from the classic figure of the worker with educational aspirations who, prevented from pursuing his schooling, compensated for his frustrated cultural ambitions by investing himself in activism, where his scholastic skills could continue to develop. They didn’t manifest early identifiable cultural aspirations valuing or facilitating the acquisition of reading and writing skills during their formal educations. Instead, their intellectual apprenticeship seems to result from their involvement in the union, which allowed them to gradually craft an activism-based cultural capital for themselves. Lacking significant educational capital, they emphasised union training and help from other members of the group when speaking of this learning experience.

Union leaders’s limited cultural capital from school or family should be put in relation to a change in the activist profile since the 1990s. Until then, union membership was commonly seen as part of a seemingly natural progression based on a family legacy. Workers from earlier generations generally knew of the union from family or neighbours before they joined the company, and in interviews they emphasise family values in explaining their union membership. This contrasts with the life courses and discourse of newer union leaders, many from families without union backgrounds, for whom union membership was not a self-evident choice. Many of the younger generation of railway workers joined the CGT around age 30, after several years in the company. This contrasts with previous generations of workers, which union records and interviews show that they joined earlier in their careers, when they were hired (ages 18-25). In interviews, workers of this generation put forward their taste for learning and their pursuit of scholastic aspirations through union work.

New activists join the union for work-related reasons such as tensions over the arbitrariness of bosses. When describing their reasons for joining the union, newer union members stress the unequal treatment that came with the new management system, which gave more power to higher-ups and more individualised remuneration with the proliferation of bonus systems. Some workers who feel under-valued and shunned at work decide to join the union when they need its aid. The union seems to be a space for defending and rebuilding the occupational dignity that has been undermined by recently implemented managerial policies at the railway company.

Union representative work demands that workers acquire new cultural skills and expand their social associations. It brings them to new places and introduces them to people from previously unfamiliar social worlds. Union leaders frequently go to big cities for meetings and demonstrations. They rub elbows with other railway-worker unionists in other grades or divisions at CGT conventions, training sessions, and gatherings of representatives from many occupations. In short, they come into contact with other social groups without necessarily being in a subordinate position. When he considers what unionism has given him, the leader of the union emphasises contact with people in more intellectual occupations that the union offers.

“You’d never in your life have the possibility of meeting people like that… Well, maybe it depends on your studies or your educational level… but usually you can’t, in normal life, even in a non-profit, you can’t chat about underlying problems, politics, with a teacher or engineer. And these people in the conversation see eye to eye with you […]. It’s the configuration that makes it so you can chat with guys like that, it’s thanks to the organisation […]. Your union responsibility leads you to frequent folks that you’d never frequent otherwise.”

Activist involvement thus favours social encounters with members of the middle classes such as teachers, technicians, engineers or social workers.

Union activism strengthens self-esteem and prompts a shift, albeit slight, in the social space. It can lead many to learn new skills and counter some rationales that marginalise workers. Reversing their subordinate position at work, workers-turned-unionists can hold prominent positions in the union and beyond. Bolstered by the resources and self-confidence acquired through activism, they may also assert themselves in spaces such as politics or community groups, where workers are usually rare. Union involvement does favour a degree of social promotion for workers using their newly acquired social practices and connections in the local public space, as the presence of some unionised workers in municipal government and community groups attests, but they are less present in political parties. Until the 1990s, CGT leaders in this town (like many French towns) were usually also members of the PCF and active in local political life. But since then, many union members have left the PCF, while younger generations do not extend their union involvement into political party membership. The past 30 years have seen a gradual split between union and political settings in France, with worker-activists relegated to the union sphere. This is explained by the weakening of unionism as well as developments in left-leaning political parties (communist and socialist) that have taken less care to promote activists from working-class backgrounds. As a result, the PCF has lost influence in labouring milieu and is now primarily led by the cultural middle classes.

Julian Mischi is a senior researcher in sociology at the Centre d’Economie et de Sociologie appliquées à l’Agriculture et aux Espaces Ruraux (CESAER), French National Institute for Agricultural Research. His research interests include working-class politics, trade-unionism, political party, local power and rural areas. For the past two decades, he has been doing fieldwork in industrial and rural France, and he has published books on French communism and trade-unionism.    

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