YMHC #11: Working-Class Ecopolitics in French Northern Mining District (Late 19th-Early 20th Century) – by B. Cabot
In this Issue of the series The Young Mining Historians’ Corner, Bastien Cabot (Associate Researcher at CESPRA / EHESS) presents a short summary of his PhD thesis, discussed in october 2022 at the EHESS in Paris.
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Working-Class Ecopolitics. A Socio-Environmental Investigation in French Northern Mining District (Late 19th-Early 20th Century)
by Bastien Cabot
My dissertation proposes an environmental history of labor relations in the French northern mining industry at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. One of its main contributions is to show that, in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais basin of the 1880s-1910s, labor relations were marked by a growing concern with occupational safety and health issues, and that this shift can largely be attributed to the miners’ union action.
The making of an industrial workscape
From the 1860s to the 1900s, French northern mining companies set up a productive territory which they sought to control, in particular by means of an entrepreneurial administration of industrial damage. Benefiting from legal laissez-faire, the mining companies spent considerable sums to compensate for surface damage, such as subsidence and flooding (Troch, 2021). In this way, they contained the complaints of local residents, and ensured the pacification of the territory in which they were established, and where they settled their workers.
The industrial paternalism that developed at the time (whose primary objective was to retain and settle the workforce) also set up strategies for accommodating the working populations to occupational risks through relief and retirement funds, free medical services, and pharmacies (Rainhorn, 2016). Mining companies’ physicians, who were under their direct supervision, were indirectly encouraged to favor a productivist medicine. Thus, around 1890, when industrial hygiene began to discuss the morbidity of underground work, its results were carefully selected. Pastorian bacteriology, which shifted sanitary responsibility towards individual and family hygiene, made a triumphant entry into mining medicine. At the same time, mining companies undertook a vast project of renovating workers’ facilities with the construction of more hygienic housing and the introduction of gardening allotments (the so-called jardins ouvriers).
The crisis of sanitary and environmental paternalism
However, this “sanitary paternalism” system faced a major crisis at the turn of the century. In 1890, the miners’ labor movement obtained the establishment of “miners’ safety delegates” who were able to challenge mining engineers during inspection tours and during accidents (Debrabant, 1995). Additionally, at the beginning of the 1890s, the miners’ labor movement asked for the workers administration of the relief and retirement funds, which led to a 1894 law reorganizing what was until then solely under companies control. The 1898 law on industrial accidents compensation (which was supposed to benefit the employers, as it favored insurance-based management of compensation) paved the way for a large number of disputes against company doctors, brought by the miners’ safety delegates. In 1902-1903, the hookworm epidemic affecting the mining district undermined the companies’ claims about the harmlessness of underground work . Even more, in March 1906, the Courrières disaster, with its 1,099 deaths, drastically challenged the companies’ claims about safety (Conus et al., 2006; Varaschin, Laloux, 2006).
The development of working-class ecopolitics
These various crises fueled the workers’ combativeness in matters of safety and health, which gradually became central issues in the struggles and union discourses around 1900-1910. This combativeness was first carried by the miners’ safety delegates who put forward the legitimacy of their lay expertise, in the face of the learned but more distant expertise of the engineers. It also owed a great deal to the encounter between trade unionism and a nebulous group of physicians who argued for the development of “social medicine”. This encounter, which took place during the hookworm epidemic, led to the creation of a Hygiene Workers’ Secretariat in Lens in 1909-1910. It was intended to provide legal and medical assistance in case of accidents and it clearly reflected the existence of independent forms of worker preservation (Rainhorn, 2016). Such autonomy was also reflected, on the eve of the war, in strikes that explicitly emphasized the refusal of “overwork” and the need to “preserve” oneself against overwork. Finally, it is noteworthy that this desire for preservation was articulated with labor movement’s traditional watchwords, such as the critique of capitalist property and the nationalization of the mines. Indeed, after the 1906 Courrières disaster, many union and socialist militants made this dreamed-of form of industrial democracy an ultimate means of preventing risks.
In sum, the social group of miners acquired its coherence in a very specific process of “environmental ouvriérisation” and learned to defend its safety and health within the framework imposed by sanitary paternalism. They consequently mobilized numerous means of action and representations that led, not only to a clear increase of mining safety, but also to the transformation of the relationship to work and to the work environment. French northern miners thus offer, through their mobilizations, a particular example of “workers’ ecopolitics”, which was predominantly characterized by the valorization of lay technical expertise in environmental risks, and the ideal of democratizing labor relations (or even the “communization” of natural resources and labor) as a guarantee of risk prevention.
 This parasitic disease of tropical origin, characterised by the presence of a worm in the intestine, became epidemic in the coalfields of Western Europe in the years 1899-1905, as it was carried by Italian immigrant workers and found favourable conditions for its development. (Löwy, 2003; Bluma,2014).
Lars Bluma (2014), « L’ankylostomiase dans la Ruhr. Corps, environnement et réseaux sociaux dans l’industrie minière de l’Empire allemand », in : Judith Rainhorn (dir.), Santé et travail à la mine, XIXe-XXIe siècle, Villeneuve-d’Ascq, Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, coll. « Histoire », p. 35-58.
Marie-France Conus, Diana Cooper-Richet, Sébastien Cordeau (dir.) (2006), 10 mars 1906, compagnie de Courrières. Enquête sur la plus grande catastrophe minière d’Europe, Lewarde, Centre historique minier, coll. « Mémoires de gaillette », n°9.
François-Xavier Debrabant (1995), Les délégués à la sécurité des ouvriers mineurs dans les houillères du Nord-Pas-de-Calais (1890-1939), DEA research paper, Université de Lille.
Ilana Löwy (2003), « ‘Intervenir et représenter’ : campagnes sanitaires et élaboration de cartographies de l’ankylostomiase », History and Philosophy of Sciences, vol. 25, n°3, p. 337-362.
Judith Rainhorn (2015), « Médecins des mines et médecins des villes autour du corps blessé : l’enjeu du certificat médical d’accident de travail au début du XXe siècle », in : Sylvie Aprile, Matthieu de Oliveira, Béatrice Touchelay, Karl-Michael Hohn (dir.), Les Houillères entre l’État, le marché et la société. Les territoires de la résilience (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles), Villeneuve-d’Ascq, Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, coll. « Histoire et civilisation », p. 123-137.
Judith Rainhorn (2016), « Qui fixe le tarif des corps ? La difficile mise en pratique de la loi de 1898 à la mine (Nord-Pas-de-Calais, premier XXe siècle) », in : Nathalie Crochepeyre, Bruno Dubois, Farid Lekéal (dir.), « La réparation des accidents du travail : pratiques et acteurs, XIXe-XXe siècles, France-Belgique », Revue du Nord, hors-série, collection histoire, n°34, p. 95-109.
Kevin Troch (2021), Ne pas grever l’avenir au bénéfice du présent : Une histoire environnementale de l’extraction du charbon de la fin du XVIIIe siècle à l’entre-deux-guerres : un développement non soutenable. L’exemple du Couchant de Mons et du Valenciennois, Ph.D. dissertation, Université de Lille.
Denis Varaschin, Ludovic Laloux (dir.) (2006), 10 mars 1906. Courrières aux risques de l’histoire, Vincennes, GRHEN.