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Partners without Voices: Black Workers in the French Labor Unions during the 1960s

Félix F. Germain

My dissertation, The Color of Labor in the City of Lights: Black Workers in Paris, 1960-1970, deconstructs the myth of a colorblind France. I argue that the insertion of French Caribbean citizens, and sub-Saharan African migrants into the French labor market was highly racialized. I demonstrate that in the 1960s, similar to sub-Saharan African immigrants French Caribbean citizens received employment that reinforced the colonial division of labor. As a result, I reveal how self-help associations became an outlet for Caribbean and African people to improve their socio-economic conditions and to claim a cultural space within a host nation that strongly advocates for the cultural assimilation of foreigners and ethnic minorities. My next project will expand my dissertation to produce a manuscript entitled Beyond Colorblindness: The African Diaspora and its Discontents in Contemporary France, 1945-2001.

Partners without Voices: Black Workers in the French Labor Unions during the 1960s

My position paper will examine the ambiguous relationship between the major French labor unions and black migrants during the 1960s. I argue that sub-Saharan African and French Caribbean workers sought to participate in French labor unions during the 1960s. However, the major French labor unions failed to include the black workers’ requests on their agendas. For instance, they hardly pushed for the creation of the National Office of Immigration recruiting agencies in sub-Saharan Africa (during the postwar, the ONI was the national agency in charge of organizing labor migration to France). Indeed, Sub-Saharan African activists asserted that other migrants like the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Italians and the Moroccans obtained better jobs and housing in France since the state sponsored their migration via the ONI. Thus, I argue that many sub-Saharan African workers joined the French labor unions as a symbolic gesture rather than as members who believed the unions could bring about radical changes for their community in France. On the other hand, I demonstrate the unions were highly interested in recruiting African workers for ideological reasons, as they represented the best-case scenario of proletariat exploitation.

Regarding French Caribbean workers, I contend that the Labor unions were also ignoring their demands. However, I suggest that the involvement of Caribbean workers in the May 68 events changed the relationship between Caribbean workers and the French labor unions, which were forced to begin negotiating a series of requests.

Lastly, I conclude that the experiences of black workers in French labor unions during the 60s, specifically their humble efforts towards improving black working conditions, strongly influenced subsequent forms of black labor activism.

For the workshop
I am highly interested in discussing the different forms of black labor activism in France, the UK, and Germany. Particularly, how does the local and regional context shapes black labor activism? What are the commonalities between black labor activism in these three different countries? How does gender influence black labor activism? In addition, I have a series of questions pertaining to identity politics, exclusion, and representation, which I hope to explore during the workshop.

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