Union Struggle: How the Minions Fought and Won Against GRU

Date:

In 2015, 2 years after graduating from an animation school in Paris, I found myself participating for the first time in a struggle as a unionised worker. At the time my interest in the anarchist critique of our current institutions was increasing, but having no first hand experience of class struggle, I couldn’t relate to what anarchism had to say about unions. By telling the story of this fight, I hope to show how much can be learnt from a single campaign and why action is the best way to assimilate theory and perfect it. I also hope that the specifics of this story will be a useful addition to the wealth of past experiences anarchists can learn from.

In October 2015, the SNTPCT, a small workers’ union of the French Animation Industry published a note alerting workers of an unprecedented attack on their wages. The attack was strongly suspected to be led by the producers of McGuff, the biggest French computer graphics company, accounting for 25% of the industry’s workforce, and known for their franchise featuring the now ubiquitous yellow “minions”. According to the SNTPCT, film producers had submitted a deal proposal which involved cutting down minimum wages by up to 45% for certain professions. A handful of workers’ unions, including a section of the CGT called SPIAC, was apparently ready to sign the deal.

The SNTPCT was the strongest union of the industry. With an industry representation of 39%, it had enough power to single-handedly settle a deal with film producers, but not enough to single-handedly oppose a deal (this would have required a representation of at least 50%). While the SPIAC had a lower representation than the SNTPCT (only 38%), it too had the power to settle a deal with the bosses and was suspected of wanting to do so shortly.

The other workers’ unions of the industry were either too small to help tilt the balance of power or were favourable to the deal and less likely to be turned around than the SPIAC itself. In short, the only option available for the SNTPCT was to change the SPIAC’s mind and convince them to not sign the deal. At the time, calling for a strike was not seen as a realistic option. The animation industry had a very low rate of unionised workers, and a common misunderstanding was that unions were organisations meant to look after workers, not organisations that workers needed to join in order to look after themselves.

I joined the SNTPCT soon after having become aware of the film producers’ plan to drastically reduce workers’ minimum wages. Having little experience of unions and only a vague understanding of the history of the French animation industry, it was hard for me to anticipate how difficult it would be to change the SPIAC’s mind. After all why would a workers’ union sign a deal to crush minimum wages? This had to be a simple misunderstanding.

Yet I soon learnt that the SNTPCT was a breakaway union which was born from a conflict within the SPIAC. The two unions were in very bad terms and competition for membership, meaning that they were often discrediting one another. I realised that the need for workers’ unions to increase membership served as the basis of a divide and conquer strategy heavily relied on by film producers. The film producers were themselves gathered into a single organisation and had a high rate of unionisation.

The SPIAC had taken the role of the reasonable negotiator which, in the absence of a mobilised workforce ready to strike, was taking pride in reaching the best compromises with the bosses. The SNTPCT on the other hand was refusing to play the compromise game and focused on agitating the workforce. Film producers took advantage of this divide and portrayed the SNTPCT as irrational and incapable of having a reasonable conversation. By doing so they were implicitly congratulating the SPIAC delegates for their sense of dialogue. I soon realised that the word “dialogue” meant that any concession made by the bosses had to be met with an even bigger concession by the workers otherwise no deal would ever be signed.

The situation was not made less complicated by the fact that the SPIAC only had a handful of members and a delegate who didn’t work in animation. This may explain why they initially didn’t have an issue with a deal that the overwhelming majority of workers in the industry would identify as a very obvious attack on wages, and as a legalisation of the rampant practice of illegally low wages. The important fact here is that the film producers weren’t allowed to submit a deal lowering the minimum wages. So instead of explicitly stating their intentions, the film producers created a grey area by introducing a new concept. Long story short, the lowering of minimum wages was repackaged as the creation of a new set of professions only superficially distinct from the ones that were already listed in the industry’s collective convention. The SPIAC didn’t seem to cop on, so when the SNTPCT claimed minimum wages were under attack, the SPIAC joined film producers in calling the SNTPCT manipulative and deceptive. This effectively confused workers about the nature of the deal and delayed mobilisation.

The date of the next commission was getting very close, and there was no guarantee that the SPIAC wouldn’t sign the deal. A group of students and professionals launched a petition which in no time gathered a little more signatures than there were workers in the French animation industry itself. The numerous commentaries that came with the signatures made it clear that most of the signatories were professionals and students directly affected by the outcome of the negotiation. Despite this result, the SPIAC refused to acknowledge a petition which they deemed alarmist, not representative, and probably crafted by the SNTPCT as a means to attract new members. In other words, instead of recognising that a movement might be on the rise and instead of seizing this opportunity to agitate for a strike, the SPIAC focused on the race for membership and stuck to its role as a deal negotiator. 

Recognising that workers didn’t trust unions and that the SNTPCT would only further antagonise the SPIAC-CGT by calling for workers to join en masse, the authors of the petition decided to form a grassroot organisation called Velma and set up a Facebook page through which they started publishing updates about the struggle, as well as a worker’s perspective on the deal being discussed. The Velma Facebook page drew a lot of attention, and the Velma collective was soon able to put out a large survey showing once again that professionals and students overwhelmingly rejected the deal. But the SPIAC-CGT’s attitude remained unchanged.

It is worth noting here that the Velma collective operated in a completely horizontal manner. At first it only had 15 members communicating through a Facebook chat, but soon the numbers reached about a hundred, and the conversation had to be moved to a forum. On several occasions, participants in the movement gathered on Place de la République as part of the Nuit Debout movement which took place across France that same year in response to French President François Hollande’s labour law. Despite few of the participants claiming the anarchist label, direct democracy, consensus decision making, and free association prevailed and the Velma collective quite naturally started operating like a network of commissions producing press releases, analyses, visuals, surveys and providing a few spokespersons with the information they needed to communicate with the press and serve as delegates during encounters with the SPIAC-CGT.

Attempts were made to mobilise McGuff workers. Bringing that company’s activity to a halt would surely have defeated the deal. Although a few employees did join the opposition movement, more of them seemed to think that the deal contained major improvements such as the recognition and definition of the computer graphics professions that had recently emerged as a result of technological innovation. Another element which may explain this less aggressive stance against the deal lies in the fact that McGuff employees enjoyed the promise of a slow but steady wage increase and of a bonus based on box office success. A situation which was not shared by the rest of the workers in the industry.

The Velma collective also organised a protest in the main theatre of the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. Workers and students attending the festival were encouraged to wear orange clothes to manifest their disapproval of the deal being negotiated. As a consequence, people wearing orange saw their accreditations confiscated which meant they could neither freely access the theatres, nor meet recruiters to find a job. It became clear to me that the Animation Film Festival was first and foremost a place for companies to promote themselves, recruit and occasionally weed out disruptive workers rather than a friendly gathering of animation fans.

Yet after 6 months of campaign, the SPIAC was still refusing to block the deal and seemed satisfied with the concessions made by the bosses. The deal was about to be signed. As a last resort measure, Velma threatened to organise a protest in front of the SPIAC’s offices. If there is a single indicator that you lost the plot as a union, it is when workers march against you. This time the SPIAC copped on. The signature of the deal was postponed once more. Eventually the SPIAC rejected the deal. A few days before doing so, it met with a handful of Velma members. I will always remember the SPIAC delegate sincerely congratulating his union for having initiated a movement of unprecedented amplitude in the animation industry despite the movement having sprung explicitly to challenge the SPIAC’s stance. This led me to realise how much our consciousness can be warped by the place we hold in the fabric of society, and how agile the mind can be at creating a self-congratulatory narrative. This is why the ruling class sees itself as the horse pulling the cart and lifting the world out of poverty, not as authoritarian exploitative imperialists, and this is part of the reason why a liberal approach to politics is doomed to fail.

On a similar note, one aspect of the deal that was less commented upon was the redefinition of the production manager’s role. Production managers would have been expected to participate in the search for financing as opposed to being simply expected to allocate it. This denoted a discreet attempt by the bosses to bring what some anarchists call “the coordinator class” closer to the bosses’ perspective. A topic in of itself.  

In the end what Velma has achieved was not a hard win, but the mere rejection of a rotten deal. The latest news from France is that animation film producers have come up with a new and more targeted strategy to lower minimum wages the way they wanted. Having to fight repeatedly to simply prevent a situation from getting worse is easily discouraging and I don’t think it can work on the long run. This is partly why nothing short of a unionised workforce ready to strike will allow workers to really improve their condition and be galvanised by their own successes. But this is only one of the many equally necessary facets of the prefigurative movement which will eventually bring about the fall of capitalism.

 

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