Contribution to a history of the workers' movement in Africa (part 3): The 1920s & 30s

See also :

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

1923: “The Bordeaux Agreement” or “class collaboration” pact

It was in this year that that “the Bordeaux Agreement” was signed; a “treaty of friendship” between the colonial economic interests[1] and Blaise Diagne, the first African deputy to sit in the French National Assembly. Having drawn lessons from the magnificent insurrectionary strike in Dakar in May 1914 and its repercussions in subsequent years,[2] the French bourgeoisie had to reorganise its political apparatus to deal with the inexorable rise of the young proletariat in its African colony. It was in this context that it decided to use Blaise Diagne, making him “mediator/peacemaker” in conflicts between the classes, in fact a counter-revolutionary role. Indeed, the day after his election as deputy and having been a major witness to the insurrectionary movement against the colonial power, in which he himself had been involved at the beginning, Diagne was now faced with three options to play a historic role in future events: 1) to profit from the political weakening of the colonial bourgeoisie in the aftermath of the general strike, in which it suffered a defeat, by triggering a “national liberation struggle”; 2) to fight for the communist program by raising the banner of proletarian struggle inside the colony, profiting in particular from the success of the strike; 3) to bolster his own personal political interests by allying himself with the French bourgeoisie which  at this time was holding out its hand to him.

Diagne eventually chose the last course, namely an alliance with the colonial power. In reality, the “Bordeaux Agreement” showed that the French bourgeoisie was not only afraid of working class militancy in its African colony, but was equally concerned by the international revolutionary situation.

“...Given the turn of events, the colonial government set about winning the black deputy’s support so that his powers of persuasion and his foolhardy courage could be used to serve the colonial power and its commercial interests. This way it would be able to pull the rug from under the feet of the African elite whose minds were running way with them when, at the time, the October Revolution (1917), the Pan-black movements and the threat of world communism were having a dangerously seductive affect in the colonies on the thinking of the colonised.

“[...] Such was the real meaning of the agreement signed in Bordeaux on June 12th, 1923. It marked the end of the combative and headstrong Diagnism and opened up a new era of collaboration between the colonisers and colonised, and left the deputy stripped of all his charisma that up to this point was his major political asset. A great impetus had been lost.[3]

The first black member of the African colony remains faithful to French capital until his death

To better understand the meaning of this agreement between the colonial bourgeoisie and the young deputy, let’s retrace the path of the latter. Blaise Diagne was noticed very early on by the representatives of French capital, who saw him playing a future role in their political strategy and steered him in this direction. Indeed, Diagne had a strong influence on urban youth through the Young Senegalese Party that supported his campaign. With the support of youth, especially educated and intellectual youth, he entered the electoral arena in April 1914 and secured the single post of deputy with responsibility for the whole of French West Africa (FWA). Let’s recall that we were on the eve of massive imperialist slaughter and it was in these circumstances that the famous general strike broke out in May 1914 when, after mobilising the youth of Dakar with the prospect of mounting a formidable revolt, Diagne tried unsuccessfully to stop it, not wanting to jeopardise his interests as a young petit-bourgeois deputy.

In fact, once elected, he was responsible for ensuring the interests of big business on the one hand and enforcing the “laws of the Republic” on the other. Even before the Bordeaux Agreement was signed, Diagne had distinguished himself by successfully recruiting 72,000 “Senegalese Sharpshooters” for the global butchery of 1914-1918. It was for this reason that, in January 1918, he was appointed Commissioner of the Republic by the then French prime minister Georges Clemenceau. Given the reluctance of young people and their parents to be enrolled, he toured the African villages of FWA to persuade reluctant individuals and, by the use of propaganda and intimidation, managed to recruit tens of thousands of African young men to be sent off to their deaths.

He was also a strong advocate of that abominable “forced labour” in the French colonies, as indicated by his speech at the fourteenth session of the International Labour Office in Geneva[4].

All in all, the first black member of the African colony was never a real supporter of the workers’ cause; on the contrary, ultimately he was just a counter-revolutionary opportunist. Furthermore the working class would soon come to realise it: “ if the Bordeaux Agreement had convinced the workers that the working class was now able to lead the march itself in the fight against economic injustice and for social and political equality, the trade union struggles were given, like a pendulum swing, an exceptional boost.”[5] Clearly, Diagne could not long keep the trust of the working class, and he remained faithful to his colonial sponsors until his death in 1934.

1925: a year of heightened militancy and solidarity faced with police repression

The year of 1925 was shaken by three great social conflicts all of which had important consequences and all of which were indeed on the railways. First there was a strike of indigenous and European railwaymen in Dakar - Saint-Louis, from January 23rd to 27th, for economic demands; next, shortly afterwards, there was the threat of a general strike in Thies-Kayes, planned around specific demands including trade union rights; and finally, there was the workers' revolt in Bambara, on the railway construction site at Ginguinéo, a revolt where soldiers were called in to suppress it and refused to do so.”[6]

And yet the time was not particularly favourable for entering into struggle because to discourage working class militancy the colonial authorities had adopted a series of extremely repressive measures.

During 1925, on the recommendations of the Governors General, particularly the one of FWA, some draconian measures were imposed by the Department for the Colonies specifically making revolutionary propaganda illegal.

In Senegal, new instructions from the Federation (the two French colonies, FWA, FEA) had led to increased surveillance across the whole territory. And in each of the colonies of the group, a special service was established in conjunction with the General Security Service, to centralise in Dakar, and examine, all the evidence from the listening posts.

“[...] A new emigration regime with new arrangements for identifying natives was drawn up in the Ministry in December 1925. Every foreigner and every suspect had a file thereafter; the foreign press was under strict control, and it was commonplace for newspapers to be shut down [...] The mail was systematically violated, shipments of papersopened and often destroyed.”[7]

Once again, the colonial power trembled at the announcement of a new outbreak of working class struggle, hence its decision to establish a police state to take tight control of civil life and contain any social unrest arising in the colony, but also, and above all, to avoid contact between the workers in struggle in the colonies and their class brothers around the world; hence the draconian measures against “revolutionary propaganda”. And yet, in this context, important workers' struggles could violently erupt, despite all the repressive arsenal wielded by the colonial state.

A highly political railway strike

On January 24th 1925, European and African railway workers came out on strike together, establishing a strike committee and raising the following demands: “The employees of the Dakar - Saint-Louis railway unanimously agreed to halt the traffic on January 24th. They only took this action after much consideration and after feeling genuinely aggrieved. They had had no wage increase since 1921, despite the steady increase in the cost of living in the colony. Most of the Europeans were getting less than 1,000 francs in their monthly salary and a native got a daily wage of 5 francs. They were after higher wages to be able to live decent lives.”[8]

Indeed, the very next day, all employees in the various sectors of the railway left their machines, their workshops and offices, paralysing the railway for a short time. But this movement was above all highly political in nature in that it came right in the middle of a legislative campaign, forcing the parties and their candidates to take a clear position on the demands of the strikers. As a result, from that moment, the various politicians and commercial lobbies called on the colonial administration to get them back to work immediately by meeting the employees’ demands. And right away, on the second day of the strike, the railway workers’ demands were met in full. In fact, the members of the jubilant strike committee delayed their response until after consulting the rank and file. Similarly, the strikers insisted on having the order to return to work from their delegates in writing and sent by special train to all the stations.

The workers had once again won an important victory in the struggle, showing great maturity and determination, along with adaptability and realism. [...] This success is all the more significant from the fact that all workers of the network, European and native, who had been at loggerheads over issues of colour and had problems working together, had wisely set aside their differences as soon as the threat of the draconian labour laws was on the horizon. [...] The governor himself could not help but notice the maturity and the unity and the timing of the strike’s organisation. The preparation, he wrote, had been very cleverly carried out. The mayor of Dakar himself, experienced and loved by the indigenous people, had not been notified of their participation. The timing of the deal was chosen so that commerce, to safeguard its own interests, supported the claims. The reasons given, with some justification, put the campaign in big trouble. In short, he concluded, everything came together for it to have its maximum effect and to give it the support of public opinion.[9]

This is a vivid illustration of the high level of militancy and class-consciousness shown by the working class of the French colony, where European and African workers collectively took charge of organising their victorious struggle. Here we have a brilliant lesson in class solidarity consolidating gains from all previous experiences of confrontation with the bourgeoisie. And this makes even clearer the international character of the workers’ struggles at that time, despite the continual efforts of the bourgeoisie to “divide and rule”.

In February 1925, the strike of the telegraph office workers forces the authorities to back down after 24 hours

The movement of railwaymen had hardly finished when the telegraph office workers (‘câblistes’) went on strike, also raising many demands including a big wage increase and an improvement to their status. This movement came to an end after 24 hours for a good reason: “With the collaboration of the local and metropolitan powers, thanks to the successful intervention from members of the elected bodies, complete order returned within 24 hours, because satisfaction was given in a partial settlement to the câblistes, as conceded in the granting of an standby allowance to all staff.”[10]

So, buoyed by this success, the telegraph workers (European and indigenous together) put the rest of their demands on the table, threatening to go out on strike immediately. They took advantage of the strategic position they occupied as highly skilled technicians in the administrative and economic machinery who were clearly able to shut down communication networks across the territory. For their part, faced with the demands of the telegraph employees threatening a new strike, the bourgeoisie’s representatives decided to retaliate with a campaign of intimidation and accusation against the strikers: “How is it that the few functionaries who are agitating for an increase in pay can’t see they are digging their own grave?[11]

In fact, political power and big business piled a great deal of pressure on the strikers, going as far as accusing them of trying to “deliberately destroy the economy” while also trying to undermine the their unity. With the pressure intensifying, the workers decided to resume work on the basis of demands met at the end of the previous strike.

This episode was also one of the high points in the struggle when the unity between the European and African workers was fully achieved.

Rebellion in the Thies-Kayes railway yards, December 11th 1925

A rebellion broke out on this line when a group of about a hundred workers decided to cross swords with their boss, a captain of the colonial army. A cynical and authoritarian figure, he was accustomed to being obeyed without question and inflicted physical harm on workers he deemed “lazy”.

According to the investigation that had been carried out by the Administrator Aujas, commander of the Kaolack area, it appeared that a rebellion had broken out on December 11th because of “ill treatment” inflicted on these workers. The area commander added that, without admitting these statements entirely, captain Heurtematte acknowledged that he sometimes happened to hit a lazy and uncooperative labourer with a whip. [The incident] escalated after the captain had tied three Bambaras [an ethnic term], whom he took to be the main culprits, to stakes with ropes.[12]

And things went wrong for the captain when he began to whip the three workers because their comrades in the yard decided to put an end to their torturer for good. He was only saved in the nick of time by the arrival on site of soldiers called to his aid. “The soldiers in question were French subjects from eastern Senegal and from Thies; having arrived there and heard what had happened, they unanimously refused the order to fire on the black workers. The poor captain said he had issued it as he feared for his life, assailed on all sides by a ferocious and menacing crowd.”[13]

This is quite remarkable because until now we were quite used to seeing the “sharpshooters” as submissive individuals, obediently accepting roles as “blacklegs” or outright “liquidators” of strikers. This gesture of fraternisation reminds us of other historical episodes where conscripts refused to use force against strikes or revolutions. The most famous example is of course the episode in the Russian Revolution where a large number of soldiers refused to fire on their revolutionary brothers, disobeying the orders from above despite the high risks involved.

The attitude of the “sharpshooters” against their captain was all the more heart-warming since the conditions of the time were dominated by a strong tendency towards the militarisation of social and economic life in the colony. Moreover, the affair took a highly political turn because the civil and military administration found itself very embarrassed by having to choose between punishing the soldiers’ insubordination and risk strengthening their solidarity with the workers, or playing the incident down. Eventually the Colonial authority chose the latter.

But the affair strongly hit the headlines and threatened to create complications in interracial relations that were already a concern in a service like the railways, so the federal authorities, and local too, finally agreed on the need to smooth over the incident and to play it down, having already come to realise the disastrous consequences of the policy favouring racial collaboration introduced by Diagne in signing the Bordeaux Agreement which was already costing them dear.”[14]

Indeed, like its predecessors, this phase of struggle clearly exposed the limitations of the “Bordeaux Agreement” by which the deputy Blaise Diagne thought he had secured “collaboration” between the exploiters and exploited. But unfortunately for the colonial bourgeoisie, class-consciousness had been there.

The militant sailors’ strike in 1926

Like the previous year, 1926 was marked by an episode of struggle that was both very militant and very rich in terms of combativeness and class solidarity. This was all the more remarkable as the movement was launched in the same conditions of repression of social struggles, which in the previous year had seen a number of shipyards and other sectors continuously occupied by the forces of the police and gendarmerie in the name of “safeguarding” the economy.

While the attacks on the railways continued inexorably[15] and the agitation spread to the sectors more attached to order and discipline of the ex-servicemen, the workers of the African Freight Co. of Saint-Louis launched a strike action, which would hold the record for the longest duration of all the social movements studied in this locality.

It all started on September 29th when a telegram from the Lieutenant Governor informed the Head of the Maritime Federation that sailors of the African Freight Company in St. Louis had gone on strike for improved wages. In a real spirit of almost spontaneous solidarity, their colleagues in the Maison Peyrissac employed on the Steamship Cadenelle, then anchored in Saint- Louis, although not directly involved in the demands being pursued, also stopped work on October 1st.[16]

Driven by frighteningly high rises in living costs, many sectors put forward wage demands with the threat of going on strike, and a large number of companies had agreed to give their employees wage increases. This was not the case for workers of the Freight Company, however, and this led them to take action with the support of their comrades on the steamship. Despite this, the bosses remained unmoved and refused any negotiations with the strikers until the fifth day of the strike, letting the action continue in the hope that it would quickly exhaust itself.

But the movement retained the cohesion and solidarity of the first few days and on October 6th the management of the Freight Co., beset on all sides by commercial interests and secretly encouraged by the Administration to be more flexible, saw the danger in the situation and gave in suddenly. It made the following offer to the crews: ‘a monthly increase of 50 francs (regardless of category) and food for sustenance (around 41 francs per month)’. [...] But the workers involved, wanting to show active solidarity with their colleagues at Maison Peyrissac, asked for and won the same benefits to be given to them. The management at this company gave in. On October 6th, the strike ended. The movement had lasted eight full days, during which time the unity of workers stayed solid throughout. This had been an event of great importance.”[17]

Once again we are witnessing a formidable movement, providing clear insights into the vitality of the struggles of this time. In other words, the unfolding of the struggle provided the opportunity for a real expression of “active solidarity” (as Thiam says) between workers from different companies. What better example of solidarity than one crew demanding and obtaining the same benefits it had won through its strike for its comrades of another company in “gratitude” for the support received from them!

What to say too about the combativeness and cohesion that the workers of the freight company showed with their solid show of force against the might of capital!

The long and bitter strike of seamen from Saint-Louis in July-August 1928

The announcement of this strike was of great concern to the colonial authorities because it seemed to echo the demands of seamen in France who were preparing to enter the struggle at the same time as their African comrades.

At the Congress of the International Federation of Trade Unions (in the pay of Stalin) held in Paris in August 1927, an appeal was made in defence of the proletariat of the colonies, as related:

An English delegate to the Congress of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU)) in Paris, seizing the occasion... had particularly insisted on the existence in the colonies of millions of men subjected to unbridled exploitation, proletarians in the fullest sense, who now needed to become organised and engaged in trade union type actions, pressing for their demands in particular by using the weapon of protests and strikes. Echoing this, Koyaté (an African syndicalist) said himself that ‘the right to organise has the power to resist in French Black Africa through mass strikes, in illegality’”.[18]

In France unrest had been growing since June 1928 among seamen who were demanding a wage increase and were thus expected to strike on July 14th. But on the set date, it was the native seamen of the shipping companies in Saint-Louis who went on strike en masse, with the same demands as their comrades back in the home country. The reaction of the colonial authorities was to cry “international conspiracy” and point, among others, to two native union leaders as the “ring leaders” of the movement. And to deal with it, the Administration of the colony made a common front with the employers by combining political manoeuvres and repressive measures to break the strike.

“...Then the hard bargaining began. While the sailors were prepared to see their wage claim reduced by up to 25 francs, the bosses said it was impossible to award them more than 100 francs per month. As the workers (seeking 250 francs more), considered the offer inadequate, the strike continued unabated. “[19]

The strikers of the St. Louis region found immediate support from other seamen:

“(State Archives) The head of the maritime Register tells us, in effect, that in the afternoon of the 19th, the ‘Cayor’ tugboat came from Dakar and arrived with the barge ‘Forez’. The boat had hardly anchored when the crew made common cause with the strikers with the exception of an old boatswain and another sailor. But he tells us that the next morning on July 20th, the strikers stormed aboard the ‘Cayor’ and forcibly dragged the two sailors who remained at their posts ashore. A brief demonstration outside the town hall was dispersed by police.”[20]

The strike lasted more than a month before being broken militarily by the colonial Governor who used force to remove the native crews and replaced them with troops. Exhausted by the long weeks of struggle, deprived of the necessary financial resources to support their families, in short to avoid starving, the sailors had to return to work; hence the smug satisfaction of the local representative of the colonial power who offered his own account of events: “[At the end of the strike] the seamen asked to go back onto the ships of the African Freight Co. They returned to their old conditions, and the strike resulted in the sailors losing one month's salary, whereas, if they had listened to the proposals of the Head of the Maritime Register they would have benefited with an increase in their pay from 50 to 100 francs a month.[21]

This retreat of the strikers, realistic in the circumstances, was regarded by the bourgeoisie as a “victory” that announced the crisis of 1929, whose effects began to be felt locally. From then on, the colonial power was not slow to profit from its “victory” over the striking seamen and from the opportunity to strengthen its repressive forces.

Confronted with this situation, the colonial Governor, aware of the political tensions already brewing from the declarations of Ameth Sow Télémaquem[22] talking about the coming revolution in Senegal, about the succession of social movements and the deteriorating financial situation and popular discontent, adopted two measures to maintain order.

Firstly he had accelerated the process, begun in 1927, aimed at placing control of the Senegal security services in Dakar from where, he said, the surveillance of the colony would be increased. [...] The second measure was to more quickly put in place training for the gendarmerie responsible for policing Thies-Niger.”[23]

This meant: the presence of police assigned to escort duty on trains to “accompany” train crews with “intervention brigades” on all lines, measures aimed at individuals or groups who would be arrested and imprisoned if they defied police orders, while anyone stirring up “social unrest” (strikes and demonstrations) would be severely punished. Let us note that all these means of repression, increasing the militarisation of labour, were targeted principally at the two sectors that were the lungs of the colonial economy, namely the waterways and railways.

But despite all this military control, the working class did not cease to pose a threat to the colonial authorities.

Yet when social unrest continued on sections of the railway in Thies, where strike action was threatened after the non-payment of back pay they were due, with the submission of claims for wage increases and a denunciation of the negligence of an administration that was completely disinterested in their fate, the Governor took these threats very seriously, working to establish, in 1929, a new private police force, this time composed of former military, mostly officers who, under the direction of the Commissioner of the special police, would ensure a permanent peace in the depot at Thies.”[24]

So in this period of acute social tensions related to the terrible world economic crisis, the colonial regime had no alternative but to rely more than ever on its armed forces to put an end to working class combativeness.

The Great Depression and the militarisation of labour weaken workers’ combativeness

As we saw previously, the colonial power did not wait for the arrival of the 1929 crisis to militarise the world of work, because it began to resort to the army in 1925 faced with the pugnacity of the working class. But this situation, with both the deepening global economic crisis and the militarisation of labour, must have weighed heavily on the working class of the colony because, between 1930 and 1935, there were few struggles. In fact the only important class movement that we know of was that of the workers in the port of Kaolack:

A short and violent strike in Kaolack on May 1st 1930: between 1500 and 2000 workers from peanut farms and from the port stopped work while loading the boats. They asked for the doubling of their wages of 7.50 francs. The police intervened and a striker was slightly injured. Work resumed at 1400 hours: the workers had won a wage of 10 francs a day. [25]

This short yet vigorous strike brought to a close the series of dazzling struggles since 1914. In other words, 15 years of class confrontations after which the proletariat of the colony of French West Africa was able to stand up to its enemy and to build its identity as an autonomous class.

For its part, in the same period, the bourgeoisie showed its real nature as a bloodthirsty class by using every means at its disposal, including the most ferocious, to attempt to put an end to working class combativeness. But in the end it still had to regularly back down faced with the onslaughts of the working class, often giving in completely to the strikers’ demands.

1936/1938: important workers' struggles under the Popular Front government

In the wake of the arrival of the Popular Front government of Leon Blum, there was a fresh explosion of working class combativeness with the outbreak of numerous strikes. Hence, there were no fewer than 42 “wildcat strikes” in Senegal between 1936 and 1938, including that of September 1938, which we will deal with below. This fact is especially significant as the unions had just been legalised, given “new rights”, by the Popular Front government, and therefore benefited from its legitimacy.

These struggles were often victorious. For example the one in 1937 when seamen of European origin on a French ship stopping over in the Ivory Coast, having become concerned by the miserable living conditions of the indigenous sailors (the Kroumen), encouraged the latter to demand better working conditions. But the native workers were evicted using military force by the colonial administrator, which straight away led to the French crew going out on strike in support of their African comrades to force the authorities to meet the demands of the strikers in full.

Here yet again is an act of workers’ solidarity that can be added to the many episodes cited above where unity and solidarity between Europeans and Africans was the source of many of the victorious struggles, despite their “racial differences”.

1938: the railway strike arouses the hatred of the whole bourgeoisie against the workers

Another highly significant movement in terms of class confrontation was the strike of the railworkers in 1938, carried out by workers on short-term contracts whose demands had been “neglected” by the unions. In the case of the day labourers or auxiliaries, the more numerous and impoverished of railwaymen, they were paid daily, worked Sundays and public holidays, covered sick days, and worked a 54 hour week without any of the entitlements of the tenured staff, all of this with no guaranteed work on the next day.

It was these railwaymen who carried out the famous strike of 1938.

The strike movement had moreover broken out spontaneously and outside the unions. On September 27th, the auxiliary railworkers (not the tenured staff) of Dakar-Niger went on strike in Thies and Dakar to protest against the arbitrary removal of one of their comrades.

The next day, in the depot at Thies, the strikers organised a blockade to prevent the ‘blacklegs’ coming to work. The Dakar-Niger police tried to intervene, but were quickly overwhelmed, and the management of the railway appealed to the administrator who sent in the troops: the strikers defended themselves throwing stones, the army returned fire. There were six dead and thirty wounded. The next day (29th) there was a general strike across the network. On Thursday, 30th, an agreement was signed between the workers' delegates and the whole government on the following basis:

1) No sanctions, 2) No interference with the right of association, 3) Compensation for the victims' families, 4) An investigation into the demands.

On October 1st, the union gave the order to return to work.[26]

Here we see again a dramatic and heroic struggle waged by the railwaymen, outside the union’s instructions, which made the colonial power back down, and this despite its resort to a blood-letting, using the army, as indicated by the number of deaths and injuries, not to mention the dozens of workers thrown in jail. To better gauge the barbaric nature of the repression, here is the testimony of a workman painter, one of the survivors of this carnage:

When we learned of the assignment to Gossas of Cheikh Diack, a violent unease spread among the workers’ circles, especially the auxiliaries for whom he was the spokesman. We decided to oppose it by striking the next day when our boss was back at his post. I woke up that day, a Tuesday - I will always remember - I heard gunshots. I lived near the city Ballabey. A few moments later I saw my brother Domingo rush off to the Depot. I rushed after him, aware of the danger he faced. Soon I saw him crossing the railway line and then falling down a few yards further on. When I got near him, I thought he must have been struck by an illness because there was no obvious injury; when I raised him up, he was groaning. Blood flowed from a wound near his left shoulder. He died moments later in my arms. Drunk with rage, I rushed at the soldier in front of me. He fired at me. I advanced not realising I was hurt. I think it was the anger brewing inside me that gave me the strength to reach out and snatch his gun, his belt, his cap, then I knocked him out before falling unconscious.[27]

This story illustrates the ferocity of the Senegalese sharpshooters towards the 'native' workers, ignoring the example shown by their colleagues who refused to fire on workers during the rebellion at the workshop at Thies in 1925. The striking workers showed a tremendous fighting spirit and admirable courage in defending their own interests and their dignity as members of the exploited class.

It’s important to point out here that before going out on strike, the workers were harassed by all the forces of the bourgeoisie, parties and various leaders, employers and trade unions. All of these representatives of capitalist order hurled insults at and intimidated the workers who dared to go on strike without the “blessing” of anyone but themselves, and indeed wild and hysterical Muslim religious leaders were unleashed on the strikers, at the request of the Governor, as recalled by Nicole Bernard-Duquenet:

He (the governor) also appealed to religious leaders and community elders; Nourou Seydou Tall, who had often acted as an emissary of the Governor-General, spoke in Thies (before the striking workers), Cheikh Amadou Moustapha Mbacke went round the network explaining that a good Muslim should not go on strike because it is a form of rebellion.[28]

For once we can quite agree with this cynical cleric and say that a strike really is an act of rebellion not only against exploitation and oppression, but also against religious obscurantism.

As for the unions, which didn’t lead the struggle of the railwaymen, they still had to join the “bandwagon” so as not lose complete control of the movement. And here their state of mind is described by the strikers’ delegate: “We asked for an increase of 1.50 francs per day for the most recent starters with up to 5 years service, 2.50 francs for those with 5 to 10 years, and 3.50 francs over 10 years, along with a travel allowance for the conductors, escorts, mechanics etc. [...] Incredible as it may seem, such claims were favourably received by the management of the network, but by contrast were undermined by the Union of Indigenous Workers of Dakar-Niger, which represented the more senior staff. Indeed, it couldn’t resign itself to seeing us win this first round. Its leaders were eager to have exclusive rights to the negotiations with the authorities of the network. The union situation at the time led to rivalries, obscure internecine struggles and competition for loyalty to the employers, which largely explains this position. As a result I was transferred to Dakar. Those in high places were naïve to believe that this action could stifle the protest movement that had arisen amongst the ‘lowest paid’”.[29]

Again we see a clear demonstration of the betrayal of the workers' interests and the role played by the unions as “social peacemakers” on behalf of capital and the bourgeois state. Nicole Bernard-Duquenet sums it up:

It is therefore almost certain that the secretaries of the unions have done everything to stop the threat of a strike that could cause trouble for the authorities.

But in addition to the military and police forces, trade unions, employers and religious organisations, it was above all the press (of both right and left) that preyed like a hungry vulture on the strikers:

The ‘Courrier colonial’ (employers’ paper): ‘In the home country we have long condemned the disastrous consequences of strikes, constantly provoked by the slogans of agitators, mostly foreigners or in the pay of foreigners, so that the colonial governments rush to combat energetically every vague impulse to transform our colonies into spheres of strike activity’;

’L’Action francaise’ (right wing paper):’Thus, while those marxists responsible for the rioting are clearly left alone, the Minister of Colonies is considering using sanctions against the Senegalese soldiers (and not against the strikers). And all this to please the socialists and save their creature, Governor General De Coppet, who is acting in a scandalous manner.’[30]

Here we have an insight into the attitude of the media vultures of the right. Yet the approach of the left wing press was hardly less scathing:

Newspapers supporting the Popular Front are very bitter. The FWA blames the strike on agents provocateurs, a ‘pointless strike’ [...] The ‘Periscope Africain’ speaks of a strike ‘bordering on rebellion’ where no striker was a member of the indigenous union. The Bulletin of the Federation of civil servants condemns the use of bullets to disperse the strikers, interprets the strike as a riot, and says the auxiliaries are neither in the CGT or communists. They are not even union supporters. ‘It’s all the Fascists’ fault.’

Le Populaire (SFIO) blames the incidents on a ‘local right-wing party violently opposed to the CGT and to fascist intrigues of certain unionists (a reference to the strikers' spokesman)’.”[31]

And to characterize all these vile anti-working class reactions, let’s listen to the conclusions of the historian Iba Der Thiam when he says this:

As we see it, the events that occurred in Thies were seen on the left and on the right, as the extension of French internal politics, that is to say, a struggle between democrats and fascists in the absence of any concrete and plausible social motivation.

It is this erroneous assessment, which would explain in large measure why the railway strike in Thies has never been adequately taken up by French unions, even the most advanced.

“[...] The recriminations of FWA and Periscope Africain, against the strikers, are similar in many respects to the articles of Le Populaire and L’Humanite “.[32]

In other words, the press of the right and left has a similar attitude to the strike movement of the railwaymen. We see it all in that last paragraph; we see there the unanimity of the forces of the bourgeoisie, national and colonial, against the working class in its struggle against poverty and for dignity. These heinous reactions of the left press against striking workers confirm more than anything the final enrolling of the “Communist Party” into the ranks French capital, knowing that this was already the case with the “Socialist Party” since 1914. In addition, we should recall that this anti-working class conduct was taking place in the context of the military preparations of the Second World War, during which the French left played a key role in enlisting the proletariat in the French homeland as in the African colonies.

Lassou (to be continued), November 2011.


[1]. This refers to the big businesses dominated by Bordeaux merchants like Maurel & Prom, Peyrissac, Chavanel, Vezia, Deves, etc., a group with the monopoly of credit from the sole Bank of West Africa.

[2]. A general strike and a riot over five days spread throughout the Dakar region, totally paralysing economic and political life and forcing the colonial bourgeoisie to give in to strikers' demands (see International Review n° 146).

[3]. Iba Der Thiam, History of the African Trade Union Movement 1790-1929, Editions L'Harmattan, 1991.

[4]. See Black Africa, the Colonial Era 1900-1945, Jean Suret-Canale, Editions Sociales, Paris 1961.

[5]. Thiam, ibid. It’s worth recalling here what we said at the time of the publication of the first part of this article in International Review n° 145: “…if we largely recognise the seriousness of the researchers who provide these reference sources, we do not necessarily share some of their interpretations of historic events. It’s the same for certain ideas, for example when they talk about ‘union consciousness’ instead of ‘class consciousness’ (of workers), or again ‘union movement’ (instead of workers’ movement). Otherwise, up to another order, we have confidence in their scientific rigour as long as their theses don’t come up against historical facts and don’t prevent other interpretations.” [NB. Part of the section quoted above was omitted from the version of the article published in the English language edition of International Review n° 145.]

[6]. Ibid.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Ibid.

[11]. Ibid.

[12].  Ibid.

[13].  Ibid.

[14].  Ibid.

[15]. The information we have does not give any indication who perpetrated these attacks.

[16]. Thiam, ibid.

[17]. Ibid.

[18]. Ibid.

[19]. Ibid.

[20]. Ibid.

[21]. Ibid.

[22]. African trade union member of the IFTU social democratic tendency.

[23]. Thiam, ibid.

[24]. Thiam, ibid.

[25]. Nicole Bernard-Duquenet, Le Sénégal et le Front populaire, L’Harmattan, 1985


[26]. Jean Suret-Canale, op. cit. 

[27]. Antoine Mendy, quoted by the publication Senegal d’Aujourdhui, n° 6, March 1964.


[28]. Nicole Bernard-Duquenet, op. cit.

[29]. Cheikh Diack, cited by the same newspaper, Senegal d’Aujourdhui

[30]. Nicole Bernard-Duquenet, op. cit.

[31]. Nicole Bernard-Duquenet, op. cit.

[32]. Iba Der Thiam, The railway strike of Senegal in September 1938, Masters Thesis, Dakar 1972.