Source: The Nation
We remember the students, the generational conflict, the cultural explosion—but we forget that it was, at heart, a working-class rebellion.
On the morning of June 10, 1968—a couple of weeks after French labor unions signed an agreement with Prime Minister Georges Pompidou to put an end to a crippling general strike—workers at the Wonder battery factory in the northern Parisian suburb of St. Ouen voted to return to the job.
Later that afternoon, as union representatives conferred outside the factory gates with the rank and file, an amateur camera crew captured the scene. The group’s 10-minute film, Wonder, May ’68, focuses on a young woman who has drawn a crowd around her.
“No!” she barks at her union rep, fighting back tears and shaking her head as he tries to console her by listing management’s modest concessions. “I’m not going back inside. I’m not putting my feet back in that prison.”
The woman has the unmistakable glow of raised expectations, that special energy that comes from successful collective action. When you convince yourself you’re capable of changing the world by banding together with your co-workers, the feeling of power that results doesn’t fade easily. In France, during the months of May and June 1968, millions of other workers caught the bug: Between 7 and 9 million went on strike. Hundreds of thousands of them did so while occupying their factories, as at Wonder in St. Ouen.
The fact is all too often neglected, if not outright forgotten, today. The unprecedented wave of protests and strikes that swept across France for a few weeks in 1968—known today simply as “May ’68”—was, at its core, a workers’ movement. This was the largest wildcat general strike in the history of capitalism: a mass revolt against low pay, poor working conditions, and the hierarchical, dehumanizing organization of the capitalist workplace itself.