Manufacturing Inequality: Gender Division in the French and British Metalworking Industries, 1914-1939

By Laura Lee Downs | Go to book overview

C H A P T E R 4
Unraveling the Sacred Union

In the spring of 1917, a sudden, massive strike wave seized the munitions factories of Paris. Commencing in the aftermath of the Pentecost holiday, the movement spread rapidly from factory to factory and from one industrial suburb to the next. Within days, nearly 43,000 metals and munition workers, most of them women, had left their machines to join the crowds that marched along the broad boulevards of industrial Paris. Brief disputes had broken out in individual munitions factories over the previous year, but the May—June movement was by far the most widespread and powerful strike effort since August 1914. After three years of fighting, it seemed that low wages and long hours might undo the "sacred union" that bound working class to bourgeoisie in a crusade against the German threat to the Republic. Within a few short months, political scandal would shatter this domestic truce, but in May and June its partisans still hoped to preserve the fragile unity. Hence employers, police, state officials, and even some trade union leaders collaborated in the effort to end the street demonstrations and get the women back to work as quickly as possible.

The May—June strikes mark an important moment in the history of France's "other front." After three years of relative quiet, muffled by the blanket of sacred union and the many sanctions that state and employers wielded in time of war, the working class was starting to recover its independent voice. Yet historians give this movement a fleeting nod (at best) when they recount labor's fate during World War I. Certainly the police and employers who joined in repressing this movement viewed it as a significant event. The widespread work stoppages threatened the military effort by slowing the flow of arms to the front, while the daily demonstrations constituted the first serious rupture of public order since the war began. Moreover, the strikes followed hard on the heels of open revolt among some 40,000 soldiers along

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