Thursday, March 11, 2021

French Syndicalism Was Sparked by Europe’s Deadliest Mine Disaster

A disaster begins--a blast at at a coal seam face in the French Courrières mine in 1906.

Most people known that by its very nature mining, particularly underground coal mining was and remains the most dangerous industrial occupation.  Pit collapses have been documented from the earliest post-Neolithic when the discovery of the rock that burns made coal a valuable commodity for the hearth.  By the late 19th Century the Industrial Revolution had created an insatiable demand for the stuff not only for home heating, but to fuel the whirling wheels of heavy industry, stoke the huge and superheated furnaces necessary to create steel, run the vast networks of railroads, and power the merchant fleets and Navies of world girdling empires

As the skies above the great cities of the world became begrimed with belching soot, millions of men, children, and even women were needed to dig mines that grew ever deeper, vaster, and more complex.  The work was brutally physical, the hours long and often included long, unpaid descents from the surface to the coal face which could take an hour or more. 

Relatively small numbers of experienced and skilled miners from old pits in places like Wales and Italy were in demand around the world but could not provide near enough bodies.  Workers were recruited everywhere from the displaced peasantry, small farmers, and agricultural laborers.  In exigency even the lowest level of the urban poor whose health and strength were generally bad and who were distrusted as semi-feral criminals and insurrectionary radicals had to be recruited.

In Europe competition was great enough that wages in the collieries were well above those paid in most industries to attract men to work that very often meant violent death or permanently disabling injury.  In the U.S. where mines were located mostly in isolated rural areas mine owners clawed back any extra pay with the system of company towns, stores, and pay in script.  Native born white miners were pitted against immigrants recruited Europe and Blacks lured from the semi-slavery of share cropping.

Mine owners everywhere were determined to maximize profits not only by keeping wages as low as possible, but by ignoring or skirting safe practices.  Mine galleries were often insufficiently timbered, ventilation inadequate, and evacuation routes unbuilt or obstructed.  Miners were not issued new and safer helmet lamps at company expense as they came on the market, but were required to buy their own leading many to continue to use dangerous open flame lamps.  The predictable outcome was a depressing parade of mine disasters around the world that killed scores or hundreds and left communities ghost towns of widows and orphans.  These disasters naturally outraged workers and led to the formation of unions and a condition of semi-permanent and open class war in many coal mining regions.

But on March 6, 1906 the Courrières Mine Disaster in northern France which killed at least 1,099 miners including many children dwarfed all the rest.  By contrast the deadliest mine disaster in U.S. history, which is also the worst industrial accident of any kind, which occurred later the same year on December 3 at the Monongah Mine in West Virginia killed an estimated 367.  The French tragedy remained the worst in the world until April 26, 1942 when 1,549 miners died at the Benxihu Colliery accident in China.

The vast mine was operated by Compagnie des mines de houille de Courrières, founded in 1852 between the villages of Méricourt, Sallaumines, Billy-Montigny, and Noyelles-sous-Lens 1 mile to the east of Lens, in the Pas-de-Calais département 140 miles north of Paris.  Each of those villages lost hundreds of dead in the explosion.

The mine was considered one of the most modern in Europe, and certainly one of the largest.  It was accessed by pitheads and interconnected by underground galleries on many levels totally more than 70 miles of tunnels.  Although the multiple access points and galleries were thought to expedite evacuation in case of a disaster, they helped spread the blast and fire from an initial explosion deep in the bowels of the mine, blowing up or damaging several pit heads and spreading deadly coal dust and gas far and wide.

                        Confusion and chaos as frantic rescue operations begin. 

At 6:30 in the morning of March 10 a large explosion rocked the mine.  Moments later the elevator cage at Shaft 3 was blown high into the air destroying pit head.  Wide-spread damage was done also at Shaft 4.  When the elevator at Shaft 2 was raised to the surface it contained only dead and dying.

The exact cause of the explosion has never been determined.  Some suspect it was ignited by badly executed face blasting.  Blasting on the previous shift at the suspected origination point of the accident had been insufficient to satisfactorily widen a gallery.  Some believe that foremen might have ordered excessive charges to speed up the work.  Many, however, believe it was likely set off by an open flame from a miner’s cap in gallery filled with coal dust from previous blasting.   Most miners still wore the open flame caps because they could not afford Davy safety lamps and the company refused to provide them.

General Inspector of Mines Delafond summed up the ultimate mystery of a cause in his official report thusly:

The primary cause of the catastrophe could not be determined with absolute certainty. This is what generally happens in catastrophes where all the witnesses to the accident are gone.

Rescue efforts began almost immediately but were hampered by a lack of man power, disorganization, and damage at the shaft heads.  Few of the 600 survivors of the explosion who began to emerge from the pits on the first day were fit to lend a hand or even advise rescuers where to find isolated pockets of survivors.  Many were seriously injured either burned in the explosion and fire or overcome by coal dust and gas.  There were many broken bones.  The physically unscathed were in a state of deep shock.

Miners from other shifts and neighboring villages pitched in along with townspeople, company officials, and local peasants.  But both heavy equipment and expertise were needed.  Both were in short supply.  France at the time had barely any trained mine rescue teams, lagging behind the British, Germans, and Italians in this regard.  It took two days for engineers from Paris and German rescue teams to reach the scene.

By that time anger was growing in the mining districts and the company was blamed for slowing rescue efforts to prevent damage to the galleries and fires at the coal faces that could burn for a long time and consume valuable seams.  This may or may not have been unfair.  There is some evidence on both sides.  The company claimed that rescuers were hampered by the extent of the damage and the complexity of the vast tunnel system.

Retrieving the bodies took days.

But there is no question that progress was painfully slow.  By April 1, three full weeks after the explosion, only 194 bodies had been brought to the surface. Small pockets of survivors were located.  Most famously, on March 30 thirteen were rescued who had survived on the lunches of the dead and by killing and eating a mine pony.  Their stories were widely reported in the press and they became such public heroes that the government eventually awarded the two eldest, men in their 50’s the Légion d’honneur, the other eleven including three younger than 18, the Médaille d’or du courage.  On April 4, one final man was pulled out alive.

The event received unprecedented press coverage.  The isolation of many mines from urban areas had prevented earlier accidents from receiving much coverage.  Prior to that various governments, royal, republican, and imperial had all severely censored news of industrial calamities and the inevitable labor unrest that followed in their wake.  But there were five highly competitive newspapers in Lille, the regional capital less than 25 miles away.  Their coverage was picked up in Paris and national publications rushed correspondents to the scene.  Front pages were dominated for days with lurid illustrations created from sketches drawn by artists at the scene.  Photographs in the form of widely circulated post cards were available within days.

The first funerals of victims were held on March 14 during an unseasonable snow storm.  15,000 mourners turned out for the funeral march.

The first strikes protesting the lack of mine safety precautions and the companies’ perceived lack-luster rescue efforts began on March 14, the day after 15,000 people turned out for the first funerals during an unseasonable snow storm.  Soon 61,000 miners across the district and spreading to other areas of France were out on strike.  The strikes intensified, became occasionally violent, and persisted for weeks.

On March 14, the very day the strikes began, by happenstance a new government led by the Radical-Socialist Party under Ferdinand Sarrien came to powerVeteran journalist and Radical politician Georges Clemenceauthe same man remembered by Americans as one of the Big Four at the Versailles Peace Conference after World War I and President Woodrow Wilson’s nemesis—became Minister of the Interior.  Clemenceau was a Radical only in the classic French sense—he belonged to a party rooted in anticlericalism.  Despite the support of the left wing of his party for the labor movement Clemenceau was a reactionary in regard to unions.

Angry protest strikes quickly spread through the region and beyond.  Miners, wives, and children marched from pit to pit in the snow behind makeshift red flags calling workers out.   Mining districts were quickly paralyzed.

He visited the area and made a show of trying to intercede in negotiations, making promises to union officials that they knew he had no intention of following through on.  Despite his pleas, the strike held firm.  Then, ironically on May 1May Day—Clemenceau intervened by flooding the region with troops who brutally suppressed the strike and arrested over 700 union leaders.

The French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO) and a socialist party, led by Jean Jaurès supported the Radical-Socialist was aghast at the brutality of Clemenceau’s policy.  The socialist and labor press ripped him and called for the downfall of the government.  In a speech in the Chamber of Deputies in June after workers had been forced to return to the pits at bayonet point, Clemenceau publicly broke with the socialists, splitting the ruling coalition.  Shortly after Sarrien had to step down as Premier and Clemenceau in coalition with small right wing republican parties formed a new government.

Clemenceau shattered his party and the government over his suppression of mine protests.  He assembled a new coalition government with right wing, anti union republican parties.

The experience shook the Left.  The labor movement began a total reassessment of its position.  That reassessment came to a head at the 9th Congress of the Confédération générale du travail (CGT) the largest French trade-union, in October 1906.  The Charter of Amiens, passed overwhelmingly by the delegates in attendance, mandated the independence of labor unions from all political parties.  This vindicated the long-held views of French anarcho-syndicalists who became the dominant force in the CGT.  The Charter explicitly laid out dual aims for the movement—the “defense of immediate and daily demands” on one hand and the “struggle for a global transformation of society in complete independence from political parties and from the state.” 

In this way the system of French Syndicalism, which persists to this day, broke with the German model in which the unions were expressions of the Social Democratic Party and the British model of trade unionism largely built on craft lines with limited aspirations for sweeping social change.  Eventually the British unions hoped to make the Labor Party their creation.

The Charter of Amiens enshrined French syndicalism as the reining principle of the labor movement--unions independent of political parties and the state aimed at both immediate improvement of workers' lives and a radical transformation of society in the long run.

The development of French Syndicalism paralleled and mirrored the development of radical industrial unionism in the United States, particularly the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and would provide intellectual and ideological fodder for Wobbly writers and organizers.  So-called American Syndicalism was not a child of the French model, but a cousin whose resemblance lay in similar experience and condition.  But each would develop their own forms, and especially structures.

Despite the differences the IWW has kept close fraternal relations with the French and other European syndicalists including the CNT in Spain and SAC in Sweden.

Syndicalism remains at the root of the French labor movement to this day, even with the development competing labor federations which emerged after World War II.  All claim heritage from and swear allegiance to the Charter of Amiens.

An early hand tinted French postcard of the monument erected in memorium of the  Disaster victims.                      

And that, more so than a surprisingly modest marker erected to the victims’ memory at Avion, is the real monument to all of those dead. 

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