Opening The Gates: The Lip Affair, 1968 – 1981

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Lip began as a watchmaking workshop in 1867 in Besançon in eastern France. By the 1960s it was a well-known and successful watch manufacturer. Lip was shaken by the political eruptions of May 1968 when the factory was occupied. Although Donald Reid’s magisterial book centres on events at Lip that started in 1973 it does acknowledge the impact of the preceding period; “the movement at Lip in 1973 developed directly out of May ‘68”.

In 1973, faced with the threat of job losses and bankruptcy, the workers occupied and succeeded in running the factory themselves. As one of their banners declared in August 1973, “It Is Possible. We produce, We Sell, We Pay Ourselves”. The detailed descriptions of what happened, such as the Commissions which “met daily to discuss what needed to be done and how, and who should do what” are wonderful.

Flowing from the Commissions workers did different tasks from what they had done before and moved between them. Workers “developed a new confidence, discovering talents they did not know they had… A female assembly line worker who chose to sell watches to visitors exclaimed…‘for once we had the chance to experience something other than a fixed task’.”

The narrative of the events over the period is astonishingly thorough. In a short review it is quite impossible to come close to capturing the detail, drama, twists and turns and highs and lows of this epic labour struggle during which workers spoke “about the factory becoming a place of fulfilment, not alienation”.

Coming in at 470 pages and being sold in hardback at £40 it is clearly aimed at an “academic” audience. Reid is a historian at the height of his powers and it is hard to imagine a more comprehensive account of the events at “Les Lip”.

It is a substantial and at times dense read and assumes a challenging level of knowledge about post-1968 France for a general reader. For example, Reid writes about the attitude of French Maoists and Situationists without explaining what these groups were arguing.

Reid goes well beyond a timeline of events to include much supplementary information including examining the relationships between the national and local unions, the role of government, the impact on women workers, the role of Catholic humanism, the French left and the responses of different sections of the French ruling class.

He also includes the national context and why this dispute became so important. “It was a 1968-style movement dealing with what would become the central issue in France during the 1970s: unemployment.”

In the end what stands out is its thrilling retelling of an occupation and its reminder to us that there are many different ways to live and work.