by Alison Hird
Article published on the 2008-05-11 Latest update 2008-05-14 11:34 TU
Marie-Colette Patin was just 22 years old when she led her co-workers on a strike at the Lainière textile factory in Roubaix, northern France, in May 1968.
“For me there are two May 68s,” she says forcefully. “The students made a lot of noise, we heard them on the radio, saw them on the TV, but we were living through a workers’ 68 and it was totally different.”Patin was one of 5,800 workers at Lainière's Roubaix factory. The work was tough - up to 47 hours a week in dusty, noisy conditions - and wages were low. The women were paid piece-work, so there was a lot of pressure to go fast “and you always had a supervisor on your back”, she says.
Spurred on by the student demonstrations and workers' strikes at the huge Renault factory near Paris, the Lainiere workers cut off the electricity and put four huge padlocks on the gates. At night only union members were allowed in. During the day workers could come and go but the shop-floor was out of bounds.
“What’s more the factory remained impeccably clean,” Patin says proudly. “This wasn’t the havoc de Gaulle talked about, it was organised.”
The strike lasted 15 days, which she says was “huge at the time, for working families.” Some workers went hungry, but she recalls a sense of solidarity and high morale.
“Each day we’d have a mass meeting and vote on whether to continue but also to organise activities: dances, concerts, football matches,” she says.
Above all Patin says 68 was a time when the working classes stood up for themselves. “We talked and talked, put the world to rights," she says. "For once we believed we could be authors of our own destiny and not just objects of production."
Patin left the textile factory shortly after to start a family but May 68 has left a strong impression.
“It was very intense because we had ideals about there being more fraternity in the world and that our voices would be heard,” she comments, with a fervour still tangible 40 years later.
“May 68 made me see that the priority is to give a voice to people living on the margins - to provide training so they can weigh in on decisions affecting them. This has been the basis of my life as an activist.”
She founded an association called Ecole et Quartiers which works on improving understanding between teachers and parents from working-class areas in Roubaix.