unpublisheed thesis

Cheik Sidya Diombana, "1938-1948: Dix Années de l'histoire syndicale des cheminots de Dakar-Niger" (Bamako, unpublished monograph, December 1989), 8 pages.

Notes © 1999 by Jim Jones, Ph.D.

Go to Archive Table of Contents Read Disclaimer

Note: Cheik Sidya Diombana was the Secretary-General of the Association des Cheminots Rétraitées, section de Bamako when I did my research in Bamako in March-April 1992. He allowed me to photocopy this document, which he prepared in 1989.


(p1) The 1947-1948 strike was the outcome of the 1938 strike, so the story begins in 1938. The basic problem grievance concerned the auxiliaires who had no contracts, benefits nor security, and who earned "salaires de misère" (literally "miserable wages").

Specifically, the auxiliaires wanted a raise of 1.50 francs per day for those with 5-10 years of experience, and 3.50 francs per day for those with more than ten years. They also wanted paid allowances for cheminots who were required to travel, such as drivers and mechanics; bonuses for fuel economy and other gains due to worker efficiency; and bonuses for detecting passengers without tickets.

The administration was willing to yield on these grievances, but the Gning's STIDN union (Syndicat des Travailleurs Indigènes du Dakar-Niger) refused to support them. At the time, the union leadership was split by many personal rivalries who competed to show their fidelity to management. The Secretary-General of the Association Amicale et Professionelle of the auxiliaires, Chieck Diack, was transferred to Dakar. When that failed to silence him, the administration offered to promote Diack to the Cadre commun supérieur des Travaux Publics. When that failed to silence the auxiliaires, Diack was transferred to Gossas. He left Dakar on 26 September and the next day, nearly all the cheminots at Thiès refused to begin work when the siren blew at 8h00.

The administration chose the grade crossing in Thiès as the point of action. They posted 45 policemen ...

(p2) five gardes cercle and three gendarmes, including three Europeans. At 7h30, groups of workers began to form opposite the barrier.

Diombana included the text of a telegram to show that the French did not take the strike threat seriously. [Commandant du Cercle de Thiès Cau to Gouverneur du Sénégal, telegram (Thiès, September 26, 1938).]

The same day (27 September), the Dakar-Saint Louis train was stopped at the Cyrnos crossing in Dakar and the locomotive forced to return to the station. Flares were used to stop the Saint-Louis-Dakar train at Louga, and the locomotive was seized and its fire extinguished.

The Commandant du Cercle de Kaolack (Gossas was in Kaolack) and the chefs de canton N'Déné N'Diaye and Boubou Sow made contact with Diack, who agreed to negotiations. Diack selected Thiès as the site, and the railroad placed special trains at the disposal of the union to bring their representatives to Thiès throughout the night. The administration provided Diack with a vehicle to transport him from the Thiès railroad station (hoping to avoid a public procession through the town). Diack refused, but tried to calm the populace as he walked from the station to the commandant's residence to meet with Gouverneur Général de l'AOF de Coppet.

After reaching a complete agreement that raised salaries and ended all sanctions against strikers, Diack informed all sections of the union to return to work.

During the shootings at Thiès, there were a number of heroic acts by people whom Diombana wished to recall: Bessenly Mendy, a 37-yr old painter; Moctar Fall; and Nene Souko, Tata Souko and Maimouna Diop. The last three fought alongside the strikers and were beaten. The final tally was 6 dead, twelve serious injuries (of whom five were law enforcement personnel), and eighty injured (of whom forty-five were law enforcement personnel).

The strike had a huge impact in France where, on 26 September, Hitler gave a speech denouncing Czechoslovakia, which had already announced mobilization against Germany.

(p3) France was preoccupied with the Nazi threat, and the right-wing press used the strike as a pretext to attack the Popular Front government of de Coppet and Leon Blum.

The newspaper Le Populaire accused Galandou Diouf of instigating the strike, even to the point of employing one of his colleagues, Manekke Seck of Thiès, to distribute arms to the strikers. Diouf published a rebuttal in the newspaper Le Sénégal in which he expressed his support of de Coppet and blamed the strike on collusion by the members of the cadre commun supérieur who had misled and betrayed the administration at the expense of the auxiliaires.

The Minister of Colonies (Mandel) sent Gaston Joseph to conduct a mission d'enquˆte. As a result, several high officials were transferred and de Coppet left on "vacation" never to return.


Six years later, the Decrét du 7 Aout 1944 (which went into effect in AOF on September 16, 1944) removed the education and literacy requirement for union membership. It nullified the Decrét du 11 March 1937 which limited union membership to Europeans. The "petit blancs" (Europeans from the middle and lower classes) were incensed.

Although unions in France occasionally supported the African unionists, the Europeans in AOF showed no inclination to unite with the Africans in a single union.

Africans who worked as low-level civil servants, commercial employees, sailors, house servants and cheminots gradually realized the power of labor strikes. The August 7, 1944 decree incited calls for new union leadership that was more combative. (NOTE: at this point, Diombana's chronology becomes fuzzy. His text suggests that Ibrahima Sarr replaced François Gning on September 23, 1944, but I know that it happened in May 1946. On the other hand, a bit further down, Diombana mentioned the formation of the Fédération des Syndicats des Cheminots Africaines, which occurred in 1945. Maybe Sarr became leader of some other group, like the "Jeunes de Thiès, in September 1944.)

There was a meeting in Thiès for workers of the Section de Voie et Batiments and the Section de Traction et Exploitation. The majority of workers, when they heard about the decree, headed towards the Dakar-Niger administration builiding shouting " bas, Fran‡ois Gning!"

(p4) The French engineer, Malakam, who made the announcement, told the demonstrators that since Gning was not only the Secretary-General in Thiès, but of the entire Dakar-Niger line, there would have to be a meeting of all the representatives to determine if Gning should resign. He also threatened that if the meeting chose to retain Gning, anyone who disagreed would be treated as an agitator, subject to arrest. The strikers accepted this. Seven days later, Malakam informed the delegates of the union that everyone had voted against Gning except for the cheminots at Mahina.

Gning was ordered to give up the keys of his office to the delegates and, at an extraordinary session held later that day, Ibrahmia Sarr was elected the new Secretary General. At the time, Sarr was working for the Direction Fédérale in Dakar, but he was quickly and easily transferred to Thiès where the union headquarters and administration was located.

The meeting also passed resolutions concerning the employees' cooperative; or rather, reconstructing the cooperative. M. Wallis of the Section de Traction lost the post of president of the cooperative to Békéry Djeye. Abou Cesse became the trésorier-payeur, aided by Massene Diallo.

After "l'élaboration de nouveaux statuts du syndicat," Sarr left on a trip to rally the rest of the AOF cheminots. He returned to Dakar with two representatives of each country that he visited, and together they formed the Fédération des Syndicats des cheminots Africains de l'AOF (FSCA). This was even before the administration created the Régie des Chemins de Fer de l'AOF with the Decrét du 17 Juillet 1946, which took effect on January 1, 1947.

Following a large meeting organized by the FSCA for that purpose, the cheminots presented a list of grievances. (Diombana listed seven, including the right to strike, a cadre unique, no layoffs, etc.) The main problem was the difference between salaries and the cost of living.

(p5) On March 22, 1946, African deputies Lamine-Guèye and Senghor denounced the accusations made in the French press that the cheminots demanded 6,000 francs per month (equal to the monthly cost of living, as calculated by the strikers). The strikers had demanded only 2,800 francs per month, along with various price breaks on supplies and transportation that made up the difference. What the African strikers really wanted was salaries equal to those of Europeans. Senghor compared the salaries of European and African accountants employed in commerce -- the European received 24,000 francs per month while the African was asking for only 12,000 francs.

On August 30, 1946, the cheminots themselves demanded a cadre unique and no layoffs.


Despite meetings held under the auspices of Haut-Commissaire, Gouverneur-Général de l'AOF Réné Barthe, no progress was made and the cheminots decided to strike on April 19, 1947 during a visit of Président de la République Vincent Auriol to Dakar, Saint Louis, Conakry, Bamako and Niamey. To defuse the issue, the Socialist Ministre de FOM, Marius Moutet, agreed to meet with representatives of the union and the administration on the morning of April 19. They were joined by Haut-Commissaire, Gouverneur-Général de l'AOF Barthe, parliamentary deputies Senghor and Lamine-Guèye, and senators Charles Cros, Oussmane Soce Diop and Alioune Diop. They were able to devise a protocol that ended the strike that same day by admitting the need for the cadre unique, revision of the promotion scale, and a collective bargaining agreement.

The conclusion did not satisfy the cheminots and on September 1, 1947, the union published its grievances along with a threat to strike on October 10, 1947.

On October 9, 1947, the administration announced that it was unwilling to satisfy the union's grievances. At an enormous meeting held in Thiès on October 9, Ibrahima Sarr instructed the workers from Dakar to Bamako to prepare for the strike. At midnight on October 11, twenty thousand cheminots throughout the AOF went on strike.

(p6) Réné Barthe declared the strike illegal because the union failed to submit their grievances and the decision to arbitration. From 14-15 October, M. Lascogne, ingéneiur en chef des constructions navales, directeur de l'arsenal de Dakar met with Abdoulaye Bah, secrétaire-général adjoint du syndicat des cheminots to seek a solution, but they failed.

When that failed, the Haut-Commissaire, Gouverneur-Général de l'AOF appointed a judge, M. Perrey, President du tribunal de la première instance de Dakar to arbitrate the dispute. Meanwhile, both sides organized their defence. The unions organized assistance for the strikers and their families, while the administration organized a reduced railway service operated by European personnel. On the Dakar-Niger, there were two trains per week in each direction between Dakar and Bamako to carry mail and essential supplies.

Without railroad service, sheep could not be shipped from Soudan to Dakar for Tabaski, and the price of a sheep in Dakar reached 1,500 francs. There were incidents of sabotage, but no culprits were found because the cheminots' code of silence remained solid.

There were several arrests in Conakry. The RDA leaders, Boigny and d'Arboussier, sent a telegram calling for a "grand conseil" to resolve the strike. Subsequently, Boigny told his colleagues in the grand council to remind the cheminots that their strike was hopeless because the Haut-Commissaire, Gouverneur-Général de l'AOF was adamant that the arbitration decision must be followed.


As 1948 began, the situation was completely blocked. At that moment, more than fifteen thousand cheminots remained on strike, while service was operated by 838 strikers who had returned to work, 2,418 newly hired Africans and 246 soldiers.

On January 5, 1948, the agents de cadre of the Abidjan-Niger decided to return to work following an offer made by the director of the railway in the name of Governor Pichoux.

On February 7, Paul Hazoume of Dahomey addressed the government angrily. He accused the government of yielding immediately to European strikers in other strikes, but employing divide-and-conquer tactics against the African strikers.

(p7) A solution became possible when a Socialist, Paul Béchard, was appointed the new Haut-Commissaire, Gouverneur-Général de l'AOF. He arrived in Dakar on February 22, 1948. At the time, the Chemin de Fer Dakar-Niger was operating at only 36% of full employment, the Chemin de Fer Conakry-Niger at 46% and the Benin-Niger at 37%.

On February 26, 1948,Haut Commissaire, Gouverneur-Général de l'AOF Béchard held a meeting with all of the interested parties, including the railway director Cuneo, African deputies Senghor, Lamine-Guèye, Fily Dabo Sissoko, d'Arboussier, Hamani Diore; and the lawyer for the union, Léon Boissiers-Palun. The new Gouverneur-Général de l'AOF took each grievance in turn and worked out a solution that satisfied all parties.

By the afternoon of 15 March, the cheminots were ready to sign an agreement, but still insisted that all of the auxiliaires be rehired. Béchard compromised and the agreement was signed in 16 March (while Béchard was away in Kaolack) by Président du Conseil d'Administration Nicolat, Vice-Président du Conseil d'Administration Gavot, Aynina Fall (Abidjan-Niger), Ibrahima Sarr (Dakar-Niger), Diop (Conakry-Niger) and Dravo Houenou (Bénin-Niger).

Work resumed at midnight on March 19, 1948. During the strike, the AOF economy had suffered greatly. The roads and automobiles were worn out from their intensive use to replace the railroad. More than sixteen thousand tons of produce were still at the docks in Koulikoro waiting for transport to the coast. The Senegalese peanut trade and the supply of fuels and building materials in Soudan, Haute Volta and Niger were all seriously affected.

(p8) In closing, Diombana pointed out that the cheminots created their union for the sole purpose of protecting cheminots' interests. He then listed the reasons why a cheminot should support the union nowadays.

  1. On the national level, all workers have common problems: length of the work week, the minimum wage, accident pay, retirement, code de travail, treatment by employers, etc.

  2. There are other more specific interests, such as those of women workers for pregnancy leave, no heaving lifting, etc.

  3. Other groups have their own interests, such as the young people, physically handicapped, older workers. Worker success depended on more than just union action.

  4. Other factors: the attitude of the state, which could treat the union as free, respected, tolerated or domesticated. Unions have a role to play in improving the standard of living, not only in terms of material goods, but also rights and dignity.

  5. The union overcame management that was hostile to the very existence of the union and refused to admit that it abused its workers.