The economic crisis ushered in by COVID-19 means that more of us live in fear of losing our jobs. Many have already been fired outright. In the resulting climate of insecurity, workers seek strategies to deal with the uncertainty that is a feature, not a bug, of the gig economy. Private coping mechanisms frequently involve self-medicating, overeating, or gentle sobbing. Less often do we collectively threaten to destroy our desks and detonate our workplaces so that management has to rethink letting our contracts expire. But in 2017, a group of 277 autoworkers at the GM&S Industry metal stamping plant in France decided to do exactly that. The consequences of their decision would lead the GM&S workers all the way from rural Creuse to the red carpet at Cannes.
It was footage of GM&S workers slicing up a twelve-meter-long, €250,000 metal press with a blowtorch that first caught the attention of press agencies around the world. And that was just for starters. Confronted with the total, irreversible liquidation of their livelihoods, and with scarcely a week to go until the commercial court made its ruling on the matter, workers committed themselves to destroying a machine a day until the future of the factory was settled. And when they eviscerated a welding machine with a forklift later that day, their seriousness was confirmed.
The most enduring images, however, were those of the gas cylinders. Workers had laced these enormous, highly explosive containers with petrol cans and rigged the lot to homemade detonators. On the face of this grisly assemblage, they had scrawled a desperate threat: on va tout péter — we’re going to blow it to bits. If the factory was to be handed over to the creditors, it was not to be handed over intact.
Historians — even sympathetic ones — have long portrayed machine breaking as an outdated way of getting your point across in a labor dispute. Back in 1865, when the Sheffield file grinders were at it, Karl Marx chided them as “old-fashioned.” For historian Eric Hobsbawm, machine breaking had its day in the early phase of industrial revolution, when attempting to engage in “orthodox” talks between employers and workers’ representatives — “supplemented where necessary with a coordinated withdrawal of labor” — could get you sent to the gallows or, for the unluckiest, Australia. Why, then, did machine breaking break out among highly organized and disciplined autoworkers in the heart of Emmanuel Macron’s France?
The Rise and Fall of GM&S Industry
GM&S (then SOCOMEC) began in 1963 as a family-owned workshop specializing in metal toys and scooters. Founded in the era the French call les trentes glorieuses — thirty years of rising affluence, full employment, and state intervention in the economy following World War II — old timers at GM&S, some with over three decades’ experience, refer back to the SOCOMEC days in nostalgic tones. “Today all that counts is to make as much money in as little time as possible, no matter the damage to society. . . . It’s clear that real bosses like there were after the war don’t exist anymore.” In our conversations, GM&S workers often contrasted their old boss, Mr Godefroy, with recent owners, the “bandits” and “financiers” they perceive as having hollowed out the site through disinvestment while growing fat on profits, dividends, and misappropriated state subsidies.
Jackie Clarke, a historian of deindustrialization, argues that (ex-)workers “distinguish idealized ‘good’ bosses from subsequent ‘bad’ bosses as a way of apprehending the structural and ideological changes that are crystallized in these different forms of ownership and management.” If Mr Godefroy, who knew his workers by name and reinvested profits in the firm, symbolized a paternalistic, interventionist variant of postwar capitalism, then subsequent owners — including the directors of Anglo-Irish pension funds and a man described as “a specialist in the liquidation of French companies” — have come to personify the vicious, financialized neoliberalism which has dominated our politics from the 1980s onward.
But if the rise in subcontracting over internal corporate planning has been a hallmark of the neoliberal turn, GM&S has been both the beneficiary and the victim of neoliberal flexibilization. That’s because, in 1985, GM&S began producing stamped metal parts as a subcontractor for French automobile giants Peugeot and Renault. Ever since then, GM&S has manufactured all parts of the car you don’t see. Not bumpers or doors, but door reinforcements and bumper reinforcements, as well as engine supports, exhaust flanges, steering columns, wheel arches, and oil pans. Ever seen a Renault Espace? It was probably these guys who welded it together.
I say “guys” for a reason; the workforce at GM&S is overwhelmingly male, with an average age brushing fifty. With little in the way of youthful flexibility, higher education, or transferable IT skills, ex-GM&S workers were always going to prove an uneasy fit in the France of then newly elected Macron. They knew that what the liberal president called “la France start-up nation” or “France 2.0” wasn’t meant for them. But even a hypothetical metallo ready and willing to trade in his metal presses for Microsoft Office would have a rough time finding a post in Creuse. For, according to machine operator and General Confederation of Labour representative Franck Cariat, most didn’t know how to create a CV.
All this meant that when the company went into financial receivership in December 2016, GM&S workers could not afford to go gently into that good night. The commercial court had set a deadline for a new owner to come forward: May 23, 2017. If a new owner was not found by then, the factory and its workforce were finished.
Why They Threatened to Blow It to Bits
The workers’ aim was simple: pressure Peugeot and Renault to order enough parts to keep the site viable over the medium term. After all, what right-minded capitalist would purchase a subcontractor with no clients? To achieve this, the workers had to make life difficult for the car manufacturers. Workers blockaded the factories of Peugeot and Renault, and they occupied their glittering showrooms on the Champs-Élysées. They wrote endless petitions and met with apologetic politicians. They occupied the factory, sleeping there every night of the week. Uncertain of what the future held, the workers and their families tried to ignore the crushing anxiety as best as they could. “On weekends, we don’t talk about it.” The clock ticked on.
In the past, these workers could exert pressure by withholding the car parts they made. But now those parts are also made elsewhere, in Portugal or Morocco. These workers discovered their production lines had been duplicated abroad when a shipment of parts was returned to GM&S for repair. After examining them, they realized these parts were not made at La Souterraine. Even if they downed their tools, or smashed them to pieces, production would continue unimpeded elsewhere. And with little leverage in the workshop, workers could rely on few of their traditional strategies.
If Renault and Peugeot were standing on workers’ necks, it was not out of spite. It is the relentless drive for shareholder value that leads well-spoken men and women to offshore production with clear consciences, even when it means misery for those left behind, as global supply chains are reorganized. And while the 277 GM&S had names, faces, families, addresses, hobbies, bad backs, and drinking problems, their real antagonist — the impersonal discipline of the profit motive — was both less tangible and less amenable to discussion.
Against the vicissitudes of the market, the workers’ last and best hope was to force the state to intervene. Despite decades of neoliberal reforms and privatizations, the French state maintained substantial interests in both Renault (15 percent) and PSA (13 percent). And at the time, the companies were grossing a combined €7 billion in profits per year. The money was there to save GM&S. It was the political will that was lacking. If the state would bring its muscles to bear on the car manufacturers, the hazy outline of a future for the site at La Souterraine remained on the horizon. But despite assurances from president François Hollande and economy minister Arnaud Montebourg, no such pressure was forthcoming. And if the impasse was reached under a nominally socialist government, the advent of Macron in May 2017 was a portent of darker times ahead. With Macron’s people in charge, there was little chance of a sympathetic hearing in the corridors of power. They needed publicity to force the issue onto the agenda.
Unfortunately for the workers, France is heavily centered on Paris — with an elite whose self-absorption would make even the London-centric British ruling class blush. And Creuse, four hours’ drive from the capital, is not a place that generates publicity by itself. The département is overwhelmingly rural, with a sluggish local economy based mainly around agriculture and light industry. Unemployment is high, and, like many parts of rural France, Creuse is bleeding population as the young leave to find work in the cities. The nearest of these, Limoges, even has the dubious honor of its own verb — limoger — meaning to dismiss someone from their post and send them where they can’t do any harm. It is rare for anyone to limoger themselves without good cause. The workers needed to give the jaded hacks in Paris a reason to do exactly that.
The problem is, in a country where workers’ tactics include “bossnapping” CEOs and dumping thousands of liters of neon-red sulfuric acid into rivers, it can be difficult to make oneself heard at the best of times. They needed to do something spectacular. So, faced with the irreversible liquidation of their livelihoods, they decided upon a course of action Marx had written off by the mid-nineteenth century: they smashed their machines.
From Creuse to Cannes
When I contacted the unofficial spokesman for 277 GM&S Industry workers, Vincent Labrousse, I was conscious of the fact that machine wreckers are rarely afforded the opportunity to explain themselves. Take the Luddites — the miserable English textile workers who smashed their looms in a desperate rearguard attempt to protect themselves from the new machines and practices of the industrial revolution. They were treated as simple criminals at the time, and for a long time afterward. Paraphrasing Stringer Bell, one doesn’t take notes on a criminal conspiracy, and many a Luddite went to the grave with their secrets intact. Consequently, historians have bickered over their motivations for more than two centuries.
The Luddites certainly never benefited from a Q&A session at Cannes Film Festival to clarify their position. But a few things have changed in the intervening centuries, and in 2019, forty machine breakers shared a red carpet with Bong Joon-ho, Julianne Moore, and Antonio Banderas. Opting for hi-vis jackets over Versace suits, the workers were there to publicize Blow It to Bits, the documentary Polish American filmmaker Lech Kowalski created while living and fighting alongside the GM&S workers over the course of seven months.
Kowalski is perhaps an unlikely candidate to make such an utterly Loachian film. After all, he was not renowned as a committed filmmaker of the Left, nor have his films typically included depictions of the working class in and for itself. On the contrary, he was until recently better known for his portraits of punk icons like Johnny Thunders and Dee Dee Ramone. But the telegenic actions of the workers had driven Kowalksi to tear his camera from the gaunt dandies of the NYC punk scene and train it on a group of embattled syndicalists in the heart of Macron’s France. The workers’ strategy had worked; they would get their publicity in spades.
The result is a film that gives us a unique insight into the motivations, fears, and hopes of the modern machine breaker. One thing is clear: GM&S workers were not motivated by anti-technology feeling of any kind. The video in which the workers destroyed a €250,000 press was, in truth, simulated. The workers had in fact repainted a rusting hulk to give the impression it was a shiny, expensive tool used to make parts for Renault, and Labrousse took pains to impress upon me that the broken machinery never jeopardized the future of the site. Even as one worker announces his commitment to destroy a machine per day, his sentimentality is revealed in the very next line of his speech to his colleagues: “If things do not go our way we will disassemble our machines, and each worker will leave with a piece to put at the bottom of their garden, to remember.” Whatever historians make of the Luddites and their motives, confused gardeners and amateur metal detectorists of the future will attest to the fact that GM&S workers viewed their tools with affection, not antipathy.
The worker behind that speech was Yann Augras. One of the most inspiring figures in a story with no lack of them, Augras died tragically in a car accident in 2020. At one point in the documentary, Augras, who was born in Creuse and had worked at GM&S from age nineteen, leads an attempt to blockade Renault and Peugeot factories by lying down in front of the entrance — preventing trucks from coming in and out. This unconvincing human barrier of intertwined middle-aged men actually forces Peugeot to ferry its completed parts to their destination with €20,000 per hour private helicopters (“There goes our severance package”). Augras is eventually dragged away, bloodied, by a quartet of wheezing riot police. His response: “Don’t hurt yourself, I’m heavy!”
This isn’t the only moment of grim levity. In another scene, two workers stand bewildered in the factory courtyard, surrounded by palette fires billowing smoke. “Can you imagine fighting like this to keep your job? It’s madness! It’s unheard of!” But, as the economist Joan Robinson reminds us, the only thing worse than being exploited under capitalism is not being exploited under capitalism.
It would be dishonest to say this story has a happy ending. It is true, the factory was not blown to bits and a new owner was found. But only 120 workers kept their jobs. And with global car sales plummeting in the last year, the future for even the remaining GM&S workers, rechristened LSI, remains unsettled.
But those who kept their jobs continue to struggle alongside the 157 who didn’t. They fight for a severance package orsupra-légale — what Kowalski calls the working man’s golden parachute — for ex-GM&S workers who gave so many years of their lives to an industry with the means but not the inclination to reciprocate. And if there is beauty in this story, it is to be found in the ongoing determination and solidarity shown by the GM&S workers in the face of the brutal indifference of capital and the state.
For those of us on the Left, accustomed to losing, there is much to learn from the workers who threatened to blow the place sky-high. Tenacity, bravery, comradeship, for sure, but also how to blockade a factory, and how to force a hostile media to acknowledge your existence. Next time things don’t go our way — and there will be a next time — let us find strength in the words of Labrousse, who lost his job alongside 150 of his colleagues in 2017: “We could have done nothing. But then we wouldn’t be here. We all won something. We kept our dignity. They didn’t roll over us. That’s worth all the severance deals in the world. Even if it won’t feed us.”