Cheick Hamaoullah Traoré, "La Grève des Cheminots Africains 10 Octobre 1947 - 19 Mars 1948"
(Bamako: École Normale Superieur, memoire de fin d'études en histoire, 1974-5).

in Bibliotheque de l'École Nationale Supérieure du Mali, n°75-D-7
Notes © 1999 by Jim Jones, Ph.D.

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(p6) The period during WWII was one of turmoil as the forces of progressivism and democracy became stronger. Africans received the rights of citizenship, the right to form unions and the right to strike. Forced labor was ended, as was discrimination in the workplace. The railroad workers' strike took place to ensure that these rights were speedily and fairly implemnented.

(p11) Galienni started forced labor in the Soudan in 1888 in order to extend the railroad. Work on the railroad slowed in 1900 because of the yellow fever epidemic. After 1903, it moved ahead rapidly. On 10 December 1904, railroad operations to Koulikoro began.

(p12) In 1947, 308 kilometers of rail was replaced between Kita and Kayes.

(p13) The Ambidédi-Kayes (44 kilometers) opened on 15 July 1909. The railroad from Ambidédi to Thiès (623 kilometers) opened on 15 August 1923. The railroad siding from Guinguineo to Kaolack (22 kilometers) opened in January 1912. The railroad siding from Louga to Lingéré (129 kilometers, the Ligne du Siné) was built between 1 December 1929 and December 1931.

(p14) In 1948, there were 379 steam locomotives (100 switching engines), 11 autorails (self-propelled pasenger cars) and 8 diesel locomotives (delivered during the strike) in service on the Chemins de Fer de l'AOF. The Chemin de Fer Dakar-Niger used Mikados and American-built 1-4-1 steam locomotives.

(p15) Dieselization of the French West African railroads was complete by 1958. There were 119 stations on the 1,697 kilometers of the Chemin de Fer Dakar-Niger; 40 stations for 652 kilometers on the Chemin de Fer Conakry-Niger; 43 stations for 834 kilometers on the Chemin de Fer Abidjan- Niger and 67 stations for 579 kilometers on the Chemin de Fer Benin-Niger.

(p21) The Régie du Chemin de Fer de l'AOF had 600 European and 20,000 African employees by 1 January 1947. By 1949, there were only 15,000 Africans. As of 1 January 1947, the Chemin de Fer Dakar-Niger had 8,230 workers organized in 3 cadres:

  1. Cadre commun superieur : this included all Europeans and a few Africans, mostly involved with the accounting office
  2. Cadre local superieur : technicians and local officials. These jobs went to graduates of the École Terrasson de Fougères (Bamako), École Pinet- Laprade (Gorée), École Clozel (Cte d'Ivoire), l'École des pupilles mechanicines de la Marine (Dakar), and les Écoles d'apprentissage du Dahomey et de Guinée (Dabou).
  3. Cadre local secondaire : local staff organized by colony. These workers obtained their jobs by examination or on the recommendation of the Chef de Service. Included "dessinateurs, topographes et surveillants des Travaux Publiques."

Otherwise, all employees were auxiliaires. This included only Africans, who were recruited as needed and trained on the job. Their contracts were negotiated locally and were usually short-term. There was no way for an auxiliaire to advance to one of the cadres.

Chapitre II: Les Fondements de la Grève

(p24) First, WWII weakened whites with respect to blacks.

(p25) Vichy-Gaullist infighting ruined French prestige in Africa. The following events were crucial to reducing French colonial power:

  1. 1944 (30 January to 8 February): Conference de Brazzaville
  2. 1946 (11 April): law abolishing forced labor
  3. 1946 (7 May): Loi Lamine Gueye made all Africans French citizens
  4. 1946 (October): Constitution of the French Fourth Republic guaranteed equality of all citizens based on the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789.

(p28) The labor union movement began in Africa after WWI as mutual-aid societies.

(p29) In 1920, citizens of the Quatre Communes (Senegalese coastal cities including Dakar, Rufisque, and Saint Louis) received the right to organize political parties.

(p29) In 1937, the Popular Front reforms extended the right to French "subjects" (i.e. Africans) to organize for collective bargaining, as permitted by the French law of 20 March 1934. Three years later, on 20 March 1937, Africans received the right to organize their own labor unions for the purpose of collective bargaining. However, the right to fjoin a union was limited to holders of a certificat d'études. In other words, union members had to have at least successfully completed primary school. It was not until 7 August 1944 that the right to form labor unions was extended to all African workers.

(p30) In 1945-6, European representatives of major private firms refused to accept collective bargaining with African labor unions, despite the reforms of 1944. Using various pretexts (smoking on the job, wearing slippers to work, etc.), they fired militant workers. [see Mahmadou Saba Traoré, "Recueil de souvenirs des luttes d'émancipation en Afrique de l'Ouest, notamment en Soudan Français et en Republique du Mali" Roméo 60pp. p8]

In 1947, the Union Regionale des Syndicats du Soudan formed under the leadership of Secrétaire- Général le Postier Abdoulaye Diallo from Guinée. Within this group, railroad workers were organized as La Confédération des Cheminots Africains and based in Thiès, home of the Régie du Chemin de Fer de l'AOF. The confederation was organized in four sections that corresponded to the four railroads.

(p31) Europeans formed their own union. They were always distant from the African workers and had no more than professional relationships with them.

(p32) Situation générale des cheminots Africains: The work was extremely hard, especially since the old steam equipment and war time shortages necessitated a lot of wood-cutting for fuel.

(p33) Traoré says that this wood-cutting was the root cause of deforestation along the railroad right-of-way. It also made it difficult form the railroad to follow a set schedule.

Engineers faced extreme heat in the wood-fired steam locomotives. Conductors worked long hours that were determined by the length of train runs rather than by their contracts. Welders worked without safety masks. Railwalkers (gardes- ligne) had to cover 10 kilometers, often in wild brush, with no protection against wild animals.

(p34) Salaries were based on the classification within the job category, and on the zone where one worked. Employees in Bamko, Toukouto, Kayes and Koulikoro received 100% of the salaries for their job classification, but workers in Kita, Bafoulabé, Sikasso, Gao, Mopti, Segou and Nioro received only 85% and all of the others received only 80%.

This table shows the minimum salaries for each promotion level:

Pay category Monthly salary (francs)
1 1,560
2 1,880
3 2,480
4 3,120
5 3,680
6 5,760
Hors categorie 8,960

(p35) One type of grievance had to do with the paternalism inherent in the system of European promotion. Some Europeans obtained their jobs in France and then came to Africa to be trained, usually by Africans. After training, they were promoted while the Africans continued to perform the same jobs. Occasionally, Europeans were promoted to positions that made them the supervisors of the Africans who had trained them.

(p38) La conjoncture économique: During the war, prices rose due to the blockade and black market while salaries remained constant. Roughly 17,000 workers of the Chemin de Fer de l'AOF were auxiliaires who received no family benefits or cost-of-living increase.

(p39) For the 17,000 auxiliaires, monthly salaries in 1947 were 800-2,000 francs, which was not enough to feed a family.

(p40) Le Cahier de Revendications: This is a partial list of the major grievances of the railroad strikers:

  1. Europeans and Africans should be placed in a single cadre.
  2. Promotions should be by examination, without any favoritism.
  3. Workers should be entitled to 15 days of "permission" per year and three months of vacation after three years of service.
  4. Workers had a right to lodging and expatriates should have priority.
  5. All workers should receive equal salary for equal work.
  6. All auxiliaires should be admitted to the cadre.
  7. Improved safety condtions, especially for the gardes- ligne, who should be equipped with boots, a flashlight, a rifle, and whose responsibility should be limited to 5 kilometers instead of 10 kilometers.
  8. End the practice of hiring cheaper temporary workers who had no job security.

    (p41) These demands were presented to the railroad administration in April 1947, but they were ignored. Since the President of the Republique, Vincent Auriol, was scheduled to visit Senegal and Soudan shortly, the railroad workers decided to make their point with a strike that began on 17 April 1947.

    (p42) The strike leaders met with representatives of the railroad administration and the French community to negotiate an end to the strike. These representatives included: Inspecteur General des Travail Colonna d'Istria, representing the Gouverneur General; Directeur Général de la Régie du Chemin de Fer de l'AOF Maurice Pilot; Secretaire Fédéral du Syndicat Africain des Cheminots Ibrahima Sarr; the Secretaires Regional du Syndicat Africain des Cheminots Moriba Sissoko (Soudan), Edo Koffi (Dahomey), Adama Diop (Guinea) and Gaston Fianka (Cote d'Ivoire). Representing the government were Leopold Senghor, Lamine Gueye, Alioun Diop and Ousmané Socé, the deputies from Senegal, and Charles Cross, counseilleur de la République.

    (p43) On 19 April 1947, the railroad union and the government signed a protocol ending the strike after only two days. Work resumed on the 20th, but the protocol was never implemented.

    (p44) Auriol's visit went off without disturbance. While in Bamako, he laid the first stone for the bridge over the Niger River.

    Chapitre III: La Grève et son denouement

    (p45) There were several antecedents for the 1947 strike. In 1890, Soudanese workers protested Archinard's attack on Ahmadou at Ségou. In January 1921, Tiémoko Garan Konyaté led a strike by cheminots and government employees in Kayes. Later, he fled to join the Mouvement Ouvrier International, first in France and later in the Soviet Union. He died during WWII under the German occupation.

    (pp46-47) In early 1925, the workers on the Chemin de Fer Dakar-Saint Louis struck following the decree of 28 May 1924 that created the Chemin de Fer Thiès-Niger. Bambara soldiers disobeyed orders to fire on the strikers.

    (p47) From 27 September to 1 October 1938, workers of the Chemin de Fer Dakar-Niger struck in Thiès and Dakar. When the police in Thiès were unable to stop the strike, soldiers from the coastal areas were brought in. They fired on a crowd of strikers on 30 September 1938, killing six and wounding thirty. The next day, the strike spread to the entire Chemin de Fer Dakar-Niger line. On the 30th, an agreement was reached that ended the strike without sanction against the strikers, and with indemnities for the families of the victims.

    (p48) This sequence of strikes meant that the cheminots had a long history of strike activity and solidarity that placed them ahead of other Africans.

    La preparation du mouvement (1947)

    (p49) From June until the end of September, Sarr, Diop, Fianka, Koffi and two of Sarr's assistants, Moussa Diarra (Soudan) and Abdoulaye Ba (Senegal) circulated throughout the AOF to spread the word of the impending strike.

    (p50) By October, they were ready to strike.

    (p52) The strikers were careful to avoid any acts of sabotage or other forms of provocation. Engineers returned their trains to stations even when their run lasted past the midnight deadline.

    The organizational pyramid consisted of federal, section and cercle levels. Moriba Sissoko (Bamako), Mangara Maiga (Toukoto), Madiop Bassé (Mahina) and Mahmadou Sidibé (Kayes) were heads of their respective cercles. Daily meetings were held in workers homes far from the train stations in order to avoid any possible provocation. Different groups communicated by horse, bicycle and foot messenger.

    (p53) The train stations were occupied by the army.

    (p54) Ibrahima Sarr was the leader of the railroad workers union. He was born in St. Louis. He replaced François Gning as the Secrétaire Général du Syndicat des Cheminots Africains.

    (p55) Gning did not support the strike, but instead formed a rival union, the Syndicat Libre des Cheminots Africains, in opposition.

    (p56) The strike was opposed by a combination of the Régie du Chemin de Fer, the colonial administration and the large French companies.

    (p57) The administration's response was to arrest Sarr, send him to prison for a month and order him to pay a fine of 1200 francs after an investigation ordered by Governor General Réné Barthes.

    (p59) The Union Française (created by the Fourth Republic to replace the French Empire) came to be regarded by cheminots as the extension of the "esprit coloniale." They believed that the strike was not only about wages, but was an effort by the railroad administration to destroy African syndicalism.

    (p60) The Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA) of Félix Houphouet-Boigny and Gabriel d'Arboussier supported the strike. On 24 November 1947, the RDA published a call for debate by African parliamentary deputies and conseillors. At the time, these included Fily-Dabo Sissoko (Soudan), Horma ould Babana (St. Louis), Djibrilla Maiga (Niamey), Sourou Mingham Apithy (Porto Novo), Mamba Sanoh (Conakry), Mahmadou Konaté (Bamako), Yacine Diallo (Conakry), Lamine Gueye (Paris), Leopold Senghor (Paris) and Hamain Diori (Paris). Houphouet-Boigny (Abidjan) and d'Arboussier (a former deputy from Gabon-Congo) called the meeting.

    Léopold Senghor agreed to participate, but Fily-Dabo Sissoko refused because he didn't want to "faire intervenir la politique dans le syndicalisme" (introduce politics to the union movement). [see "Le Reveil" n°262 (24 November 1947)] In the end, Yacine Diallo, Senghor and Lamine Gueye all failed to attend.

    (p62) Governor General Barthes obstinately opposed the meeting by African deputies, so in early December 1947, the African deputies took their problem to the National Assembly in Paris.

    (p63) By early 1948, the cheminots were in a bad way. The workers' cooperatives had run out of money, their wives had sold everything and the cheminots were reduced to scavenging food or firewood to sell. However, they were assisted by the majority of the African population. Other Africans shared their suffering as a result of drought and a bad harvest in 1947. Prices were high everywhere.

    (p64) There are lists of subscriptions of people who supported the strike. The biggest was the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) of France, which gave 500,000 francs on 2 January 1948, but the majority were simply listed as "boy" or "voisin"--little people who supported the strike. A few strikers were employed by Lebanese or Syrian firms. The African workers of the Poste et Telecommunications aided the strike by maintaining their communications, sometimes in code, despite a prohibition ordered by the government. (Abdoulaye Diallo, a worker at the PT, was Secrétaire Général des Syndicats Conféderés du Soudan) The newspaper "Le Reveil" sold its 4 December 1947 issue for 10 francs instead of the usual 7 francs and donated the difference to the union. (NOTE: Le Reveil had a typical circulation of 6,000, so this may have brought in 18,000 francs.) 2 December On 1947, the RDA sponsored La Nuit du RDA, a dance for the benefit of the railroad union.

    (p65) In December 1947, the railroad administration brought in 350 French cheminots "pour aider à l'evacuation de la recolte d'arachide" (to assist in moving the peanut harvest to the coast). However, the French cheminots claimed that they couldn't operate steam locomotives under African conditions, so the first diesel-electric locomotive was also delivered about this time. The strikers called the first one "Le Briseur de grève" (Strike-breaker). None of this worked because Africans continued to boycott the railroad, even to the point of death. One man, Mahamadou Cissé, the chef de gare at Tabaoro (127 kilometers from Bamako), refused transport to the hospital at Pointe G in order to maintain the boycott, and died a few days later.

    (p66) The administration brought several forms of pressure on the strikers. According to an editorial, strikers could only obtain their salary increases at the cost of increased ticket and freight rates for the rest of Africans [see Editorial by M. Edine in "Sud Quotidien" n°9 (10 October 1947)]. Moriba Sissoko replied that prices had already risen twice in a year but the railroad workers had not received any of it. He gave an example of a mechanic who began work in 1909, yet still earned 1,980 francs/year. [See Letter by Moriba Sissoko in "Sud Quotidien" #10 17 October 1947).]

    (p67) Some Africans collaborated with French efforts to divide the union. Fily Dabo Sissoko sent a telegram from Thiès announcing that the strike was over, and some workers returned to work on 2 February 1948. Meanwhile, Francis Gning started the "Syndicat Libre" for the "jaunes" (literally "yellows"; i.e. strikebreakers). The members of the rival union received a bonus and access to a cooperative that was well-stocked.

    (p68) Mass strike rallies were held at the racetrack in Dakar to counnter these divisive tactics. A particularly important rally was held on 7 December 1947.

    The economy of the Soudan was devastated by the strike. The big cities suffered from a severe shortage of supplies. Businesses laid off workers when raw materials failed to arrive. The price of wood and all other imports rose as they fell into short supply. Construction materials for 1948 FIDES projects in the north failed to reach the Soudan.

    (p69) Merchandise piled up in Koulikoro and Bamako where it began to deterioriate. Commercial houses were short of cash because they couldn't import anything to sell.

    During the strike, Directeur-Général du Chemin de Fer de l'AOF Maurice Pilot died at his desk and was replaced by Henry Cuneo.

    (p70) Marius Moutet, the Ministre d'Outre-Mer, recalled Governor-General Barthes to Paris on 19 January 1948. He was replaced by Paul Béchard, Haut Commissaire de l'AOF, who arrived on 22 February 1948. The office of Haut Commissaire (high commissioner) was created after WWII as a temporary expedient that provided increased military and executive powers with which to address postwar problems. One of Barthes weaknesses was that he combined the offices of Governor-General and Haut Commissaire, and the power went to his head.

    (p71) A new contract was signed between the railroad administration and the union on 18 March 1948 that confirmed the 19 April 1947 agreement.

    (p72) Work resumed on 19 March 1948.

    One result was that the strike had involved all African people in the struggle against colonialism.

    (p73) Subsequently, the Syndicat des Fonctionaires Africains struck in 1951 and the Code de Travail d'Outre Mer was adopted on 15 December 1952 after a long struggle by the unions.

    The cheminots became poltically sophisticated after their struggle. They rejected the PSP because of Fily Dabo Sissoko and began to support Mahmadou Konaté and the RDA.