‘Our Strike’: Equality, Anticolonial Politics and the 1947–48 Railway Strike in French West Africa

The Journal of African History (Impact Factor: 0.38). 02/1996; 37(01):81 - 118. DOI: 10.1017/S0021853700034800

ABSTRACT This essay is both a reinterpretation of the place of the French West African railway strike in labor history and part of an exploration of its effects on politics and political memory. This vast strike needs to be studied in railway depots from Senegal to the Ivory Coast. Historians need both to engage the fictional version of the strike in Ousmanne Sembene's God's Bits of Wood and avoid being caught up in it. Interviews in the key railway and union town of Thiès, Senegal, suggest that strike veterans want to distinguish an experience they regard as their own from the novelist's portrayal. They accept the heroic vision of the strike, but offer different interpretations of its relationship to family and community and suggest that its political implications include co-optation and betrayal as much as anticolonial solidarity. Interviews complement the reports of police spies as sources for the historian. The central irony of the strike is that it was sustained on the basis of railwaymen's integration into local communities but that its central demand took railwaymen into a professionally defined, nonracial category of railwayman. The strike thus needs to be situated in relation to French efforts to define a new imperialism for the post-war era and the government's inability to control the implications of its own actions and rhetoric. Negotiating with a new, young, politically aware railway union leadership in 1946 and 1947, officials were unwilling to defend the old racial wage scales, accepted in principle the cadre unique demanded by the union, but fought over the question of power – who was to decide the details that would give such a cadre meaning? The article analyzes the tension between the principles of nonracial equality and African community among the railwaymen and that between colonial power and notions of assimilation and development within the government. It examines the extent to which the strike remained a railway strike or spilled over into a wider and longer term question of proletarian solidarity and anticolonial mobilization.

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