Besancon is a town in eastern France. It is also the original site of the Lip Watch Company, a watchmaker famous for its top-quality high-end timepieces. In the 1970s, the company was the site of a worker-managed undertaking instituted in response to attempts by the ownership to sell the company to outside financial interests. After a series of dismissals and layoffs from 1970 1972, workers formed an Action Committee. The worker takeover of the plant where the company was housed took place in 1973 after the committee discovered management documents detailing more dismissals. Hundreds of workers occupied the plant and took a couple members of management hostage. The building where the hostages were being held was raided by security forces and the hostages were released. In response, the occupying workers took tens of thousands of watches “hostage,” hiding them in secret caches around the region.
The occupation of the factory continued, as did the production of watches. Inspired by the factory takeovers in France during the rebellion of 1968 and informed by New Left concepts of worker management and autonomy, the workers at LIP organized themselves along non-hierarchical lines to run the factories, educate themselves about managing the company and cooperation across traditional gender, ethnic and occupational segmentation, and keep the police out. Their efforts were supported by individuals and groups formed and inspired by the aforementioned rebellion. Support from the traditional union leadership was tendentious at best, especially among those who feared a loss of power and control should the LIP self-management exercise prove successful in the long run. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the striking/occupying workers of LIP received tremendous support from the residents of Besancon.
In 2018, Verso published the most complete English language history of what is known as “The Lip Affair.” Written by University of North Carolina history professor Donald Reid, the text, titled Opening the Gates: The LIP Affair, 1968-1981, is a lengthy and detailed report on the struggle. Reid has written an in-depth examination of the financial decisions of management that led to the “affair,” simultaneously describing the owner’s paternalism and assumption of his employees’ ignorance. As he continues his reporting of the machinations and manipulations of management and ownership, Reid reveals the growing empowerment of the workers. It becomes clear that this empowerment is related both to the fact of the workers’ success in keeping the plant open and in their growing knowledge of the industry’s financial workings.
Beyond the specifics of the watch industry and LIP watches in particular were the early soundings of a global economy unlike any such economy that came before. In other words, the time period covered in the book is the period just before the advent of what became known as neoliberalism—the most recent stage of capitalism. When thinking about the struggle of the LIP workers and their attempts to manage their work environment in the context of neoliberal capitalism, the struggle becomes less hopeful and more desperate. Of course, that is a perspective made forty years after the fact and with a better understanding of the cancerous nature of neoliberal capitalism and its financialization of the world. This also makes the LIP workers’ struggle even more heroic than it seemed at the time.
The political atmosphere of the late 1960s and 1970s was charged with hope, revolutionary and otherwise. Arguably, this was especially the case in France, which had come closest to revolution of any of the western nations. The insurrection of 1968 turned the political and cultural worlds of establishment France on its head. The institutions of France—from the media to the opera, from the Gaullists to the Communists, from the boardroom to the shop floor—were in various states of turmoil. The fact that this ultimately failed experiment in worker control took place in a somewhat rural and traditionally Catholic region of France illustrates the effects the upheavals of 1968 galvanized. The reaction to the affair by the government and capitalists illustrated their fear of those effects and their potential.
The failure of the workers to maintain their control of the LIP plant is testament to many things. Foremost among them is the reality of financial capitalism; a monopoly of banking houses, the extremely wealthy, and the governments they manipulate. The overwhelming financial power of this conspiracy of capital makes undertakings like the LIP experiment impossible to maintain over the long run inside a capitalist economy. Donald Reid has provided an important and captivating narrative of a few thousand men and women who tried their damnedest to do exactly that. Opening the Gates is an important book for workers the world over (and for those who hope to organize them.) It is not the story of a failure, but a lesson about the nature of the struggle.