The Sugar Crackers (Notes of a Striker)
To be a striker without having been a worker might, at first sight, seem rather paradoxical. But if I did not work at the factory, even for one day, it’s the fault of the owners who did not hire me the day before yesterday.
I wanted to find out, technically, about the origin and goal of this strike; to know through experience rather than through hearsay the bitterness and dreariness of this job whose name has spiced up Paris; to realize, in the end, the vast amount of willpower, endurance and fatigue that a creature has to spend to earn just enough so as not to die—and then begin again the next day!
To go down there as a “lady”, even if a friend, with pencil and notebook in hand, a female reporter among male reporters, was to risk, perhaps, finding out less about it than them—in any case, not to be able to do any more than them about it, to sit cooped up in the same circle of evolution, in the same order of ideas.
The task of a journalist is, unfortunately, an official task in such circumstances, which often smacks of sterility, though taking nothing away from its interest. Whatever the rank of the informer in the professional hierarchy, he is known, has to make himself known—hence, inferior. The two opposing parties tell him only what they want to tell him, let him see only what they want him to see.
Whereas the ideal would be to go incognito, anonymous, so much like everyone else that no one would suspect you; so assimilated to the crowd, so close to its heart that you feel it really beating, just by putting your hand on your own chest… a wave blending in with ocean, a breath mingling with the great human respiration.
Regarding questions of work, this seems to me to be especially useful. To describe the life of a worker is not enough—you must live it to really appreciate all the injustice and all the horror. Then you know what you are talking about; you are truly the echo of what you have heard, the reflection of what you have seen; to the marrow of your bones you are infused with pity and revolt!
To be “chic”, with the best intentions, with the greatest talent in the world, will never give the impression of sincerity that an uncultured person sometimes can, crudely reproducing what they saw or did.
And there is no need to dedicate years, months or even weeks to this study, to these environs, to this ordeal, as long as it is not a matter of studying the intricacies of the job, of becoming good at earning one’s wages—or of indoctrinating, like in Russia, unschooled souls. Our workers know how to think without guides: and the iniquities they suffer are so obvious (and, alas, so dreary) that a few hours are enough for anyone who knows how to watch and listen and record them.
That is what I did. For almost a day, mingling with these poor girls, dressed like them, I wandered around under the eyes of the cops in front of the deserted factory amongst the grim camaraderie of the unusual idleness. I stood with them, I listened to their grievances given free rein, I entered the factories, saw the work of the girls who had submitted—having too many children or too hungry!—and that is why I can tell you today, with full knowledge, what this strike is about and how much it deserves your attention and sympathy.
First of all, the word is inappropriate: they should not be called “crackers” but “arrangers” because the job consists in stacking up the sugar in boxes or crates after being cut into different sizes depending on the number. Thus the sugar for coffee is number 50 while the second, squared off into cubes, is specially reserved for the Midi. Only the waste, in powder or slivers, is sold by weight and not lined up.
Except this term “cracker” is justified by the fact that the machine they work at is called a sugar-cutting machine, when the loaf comes in whole in order to be chopped up. First it passes through the “sawyer” which cuts it perpendicularly, exactly like a black radish, into more of less thick slices depending on the length of the piece meant for consumption. Then these slices are placed into the “bar cutter” at one end, at the head of the cutting machine, which, as the name indicates, separates each one into eight strips, into eight bars. The “bands”, meaning the blades of the bar cutter, are spaced equally at more or less distance depending on the sugar number.
Here the worker comes into action. The “puller” takes the bars out of the machine; the “pusher” arranges them on the part of the sugar cutter between the bar cutter and a kind of jaw or double guillotine, one knife above, another below, which divides the bars into pieces as it goes through. Past all this are the “arrangers.”
For, everything here is in motion. A chain rolling over a wheel, like a driving belt, continuously pushes the work from the machine to the women, leaving them not a minute of rest.
In order to understand what the sugar-cutting machine is, you have to imagine a very long table, around one meter [or three feet] wide with parallel grooves, like a music staff for the blind. The sugar passes between these rails—bars above the knives, pieces below—and the six arrangers, in constant motion, incessantly, mechanically as well, take a line, turn around, put it in the crate or box that is behind them on a kind of wooden bench, about-face and start all over again, always, eternally, from seven in the morning to six in the evening, without ever stopping, without ever resting, without ever sitting down, except for ten minutes for the snack and one hour for lunch.
Well, they do move. When their box is full, they have to carry it to the scales which is, at Monsieur Sommier’s for example, twenty or twenty five meters [or yards] away. They make an average of forty trips a day. Pregnant women and little girls carry up to a thousand kilos [2,200 pounds]. Many of them are hurt; the sturdiest of them lose around two or three days of work every two weeks because of dizzy spells, exhaustion, aching sides, suffering in their maternity or their puberty.
I am only speaking here about their exertion because you have to resort to medical books, like I just did, to find out what illnesses are inherent to this gruesome state. They have no more nails and they have no more teeth: the former are worn down to the skin from handling the sugar and the latter are chipped, lost or eroded by the dust that it gives off—this dust that burns their eyes and throats, makes their voices hoarse and causes gastritis and tuberculosis—constant suffering and early death!
What do they earn? They earn 60 centimes per 100 kilos, which means, no matter how strong they are, between 3 fr 25 and 4 francs a day. They came to tell them about two weeks ago: “You’ll only get 50 centimes per 100 kilos. Competition is too hard. Take it or leave it.”
They left it. They left, preferring to starve to death quickly rather than die slowly. Because this would brought them down to ten sous [50 centimes, half a franc] a day—and do you realize what ten sous a day is for a working household?
They tried a general strike. The workers at the factories of Lebaudy, Lucas and François first followed the movement started at the Sommier refinery. Then they dropped it… went back. On their own the workers at Lucas, both men and women, sacrificed 15 centimes a day to come to the aide of the strikers at Sommier. But there are less than twenty of them—and the strikers are more than a hundred and forty!
Some help came from the right and from the left, sent by the plebian solidarity or the compassion of good folk who were touched, beyond all politics, by so much distress and so much courage. They could hand out thirty sous a day. And families of five, six people, lived on bread and water from it—but didn’t give in!
I went to meet them, on Monday, at dawn, around 6 am, at the end of rue de Flandre. The day before three delegates had come to me to tell me what was happening. When I told them about my idea to spend a day there, to get hired if possible, they were very enthusiastic, a little skeptical, however, about how to pull it off. Nevertheless, the “secretary”, Hélène Milani, a tall blonde girl, like a crane, with a determined look in her eyes, said to me, “See you tomorrow!” But she added, “You’ll never be able to do it, Madame,” which really stung me. I’m no weakling either and when I have a will to do something my will is strong.
So there I was arriving at one of their houses at the appointed hour. In no time at all I took off my gloves, veil, hat and coat and now bare-headed, my hair pulled back—that devilish hair refusing to stay in place—in a canvas blouse and skirt, a scarf on my shoulders, an apron around my waist and a basket in hand, looking so much like all of them that they went crazy with laughter.
We went down to rue de Flandre and made our way through to the big building of the Sommier refinery to find out if they were hiring. I slipped into the pack of turncoats, at the risk of being “seized” by the strikers whom I came to defend.
The street is full of police, with and without uniforms. I am only afraid of Granger, the député of the arrondissement, who is here with Lhermite from the labor exchange and my colleague Degay from the Marseillaise. All three of them came down here because the other day the police were really brutal and in case it happened again Granger’s colors would fly. If he recognized me, he might yell something out in surprise, which would be the end of my incognito to come and go at pleasure and talk with my companions.
Gatherings are forbidden. When there are more than three and you do not move, the police come over. And since I am standing in front of the factory gate, scrutinizing every inch of it, staring at the watchman in his pretty blue uniform with metal buttons like an old soldier from the Imperial Guard, with his dreadful white whiskers, who seems rather flattered by my examination, a cop pushes me along gently, “Let’s go, gorgeous! Move along! Can’t stay here.”
I obey and take refuge with many others in “our” office located almost right across from it at 122 in a wine shop that has a sign “Let’s go to Charles’ place.”
I go to Charles’ place. We file by the counter where a few workers and a bunch of snitches are drinking up and we gather in the back, in a kind of little hall, lit from above, half ballroom, half tennis court… like hundreds of others! Except, thank heavens, no one is ranting; they are simply discussing, matter-of-factly, what would be best to do in the common interest.
My status as a newcomer does not seem to bother them—one of the delegates, Madame Gasse, answers for me—and I notice again, with inexpressible emotion, that these scorned and exploited people have (especially the women) so much natural kindness, gentleness and resignation. No or few angry words, nothing but melancholy to see how difficult an agreement is and, in spite of everything, the hope that one will be found.
“We weren’t asking for anything; just that they give us what was ours… Monsieur Sommier is not mean, he’ll want to do it: he’s so rich! It’s a problem not to work when they don’t do it.”
In truth, these laborers are here like soulless bodies, even while in their barely healed fingers the hook of bone grabs the wool. On the little table are an inkwell, paper, a wooden box and a registry. From time to time a striker arrives, signs, gets her thirty sous—goes away clutching them in her hands like someone drowning and holding onto a branch. She does not stop, does not talk; she runs… they are waiting for her to eat!
Oh, the poor emaciated faces with anemic lips, almost no pink at all in their pale skin; the poor ringed eyes, the poor creatures!
One, in a corner, has opened her undershirt to breastfeed a little baby whose skin is so wrinkled and waxen that it looks like an old man. And the lean breast appears, a weapon speaking for the whole race that is hungry before it has teeth, that is hungry when it looses them—that is always hungry!
One of my guides comes to take me: “Break time! They’re going to hire at François, rue Ricquer. Are you coming?”
I get up and follow her.
At François, for the ten-minute rest, the personnel rush out. Most of them are young (the others being dead or retired), many dressed in petticoats and light-colored, floral camisoles, handkerchiefs tied up as headscarves, tips flying in the wind, over their sugar-frosted hair. At first sight it is almost pretty in this bright September sun, like a rising of grisettes in Porcherons. But the illusion vanishes quickly among the gapped smiles, the chapped lips, the narrow shoulders, the sunken throats and all the dry little coughs that echo pretty much everywhere. What looked like color in the cheeks is really just fever. Gradually as the little beads of sweat dry on their temples, the color disappears from their cheeks. Then they turn as pale as faded dolls…
We amble through the courtyard. “Look, there’s the Vésinet,” my companion tells me. It is a dark basement where machines, human shapes, vaguely stand out.
“What is that?”
“That’s where they work. But come upstairs, it’s better.”
In fact, at the top of a few stairs the room is bright, at least. But it is the same sweltering heat, the same steam, the same sugar dust that chokes and suffocates us. The sugar cutting machines are there and my companion gives me a lesson, showing me how the machine works and what I would have to do.
“Except,” she tells me, “in the evening your fingers will be pissing blood.” And she draws my attention to the women’s hands wrapped in rags and strips.
The foreman arrives. My companion talks to him timidly, tells him what we want. Not looking at us, but still very polite, he answers, “I have my people for today. Come back tomorrow at 6 am and we’ll hire you.”
I put in my pocket the booklet printed for the occasion by my adopted sister and we leave, crossing the courtyard as the workers return. At the entrance a striker who had come to watch the defections yells at me, “Lazy girl, get going!”
Well, that, no!
Now I only have to try to get inside Sommier’s to get a glimpse of the establishment.
“There’s only one way: bring a liter to Barthélemy!”
I would love to bring a liter to Barthélemy, but they still have to explain to me how to do it.
“Here you go. Barthélemy is a tub carrier at the refinery underneath the place where we usually work. The tub carriers never leave; whatever they need is brought from outside until three in the morning. My husband brought him his breakfast, but we can still bring him a liter.”
“How can I do it?”
“You go right past the watchman without saying a word. You go straight into the courtyard, go down some stairs and in the cellar are the tub carriers. Then you yell out, ‘Hey, Barthélemy!’ And you’ll see how hard their job is, too, and how hot it is down there.”
No sooner said than done. The plan was carried out to the letter. I strolled past the gateman and lickety split stumbled into the basement. At the entrance I got dizzy from the torrid heat. Men in canvas pants, no shirts, their chests and stomachs protected by a kind of leather-worker’s apron, file by carrying huge copper containers that they empty, one after another, into the machine with the bread tins. That’s molten sugar that they are carrying. You have to see their weary movements when they pour out their load and go back to get another from the metal vats! And those stupid painters who insist on portraying the Danaids when these creatures of flesh and blood right here are giving such a show of art. What a splendor! What a shame!
All around, like in a huge bombshell foundry, the tins are lined up against one another, point downward.
But I dare not yell out, “Hey, Barthélemy!” I ask for him.
“Don’t know him,” the first answers.
“Hold on,” says another. “That’s Andouille!”
“Hey, Andouille!” The whole basement yells out together.
A tall, curly-haired young man who looks good-natured, comes out of the depths. “Who wants me?”
“It’s your girlfriend bringing you a liter.”
“That’s not my girlfriend, but I still want my liter.”
I hold it out to him, smiling. “It’s from Eulalie.”
“You tell her thanks a lot. And you, too, miss.”
As I leave, I wander a little. I watch the pretty flow of the factory. I calculate what source of wealth lies in these buildings, these machines, this powerful organization of Capital.
And all of a sudden I think of a visit I once made a long time ago to the castle of Vaux-Fouquet, that royal residence of a royal superintendent, which is owned today by Monsieur Sommier. I think of the statues in the arbors, the fresh, woodland air, the marvelous shade, all that well-being, all that luxury, those pleasures of Maecenas, and rebuilding such a residence from its ruins.
These poor girls are right. It should be impossible for them to remain hard and implacable when they enjoy such comfort and satisfaction here on earth.
Outside the delegates come up to me. “We just made our last offer to the owner. Even when we split the difference, the two sous, giving 55 centimes, he didn’t want to hear it.”
“He was like ice… he talked to us so nastily!”
“And what was the reason for his refusal?”
“Monsieur Sommier just said that he couldn’t do it, that he didn’t have the means.”
Weep, oh nymphs of Vaux, over your master’s poverty. It makes many others weep, too, this poverty that gnaws away at wages to lodge it in his palaces and that can do nothing but make a bunch of young children and old mothers and weary women slowly perish in one of our working suburbs.
 Le Journal, September 28 1892.
 Young, flirtatious, working-class women, sometimes referring to prostitutes.
 In the 9th arrondissement in Paris.
 Numbskull or Goofy, for example.