The first fraternity in the north-east of France (in Roubaix) dates from the year 1951. Lille, 'grand place' The one on Lille was founded in 1982 in a neighbourhood with a very large presence of foreigners, mainly Moroccans. For a long time the brothers in Lille have quite often welcomed young men who want to make a stay in a fraternity, as well as foreign brothers who come to France to learn French. Since 2006 it has also been a fraternity for brothers who are students.
I work in a factory that makes decorating paint. I am in the section called "Final packaging", which prepares the lids, on the bench called "Pistols", because we paint the lids of the paint tins of 0.5 and 2.5 litres with air pistols; the lids must show the same colour and the same finish as the paint inside the tins.
I started in this factory 14 years ago, when I was 42. For the first two years I was on short-term contracts, and I then obtained a permanent position because the company reduced the working hours (by 10%, which led to a 10% increase in the number of staff).
Since my arrival in Lille 1982, I had only had minor temporary jobs with very short-term contracts – over 5 years, I had 25 different jobs in a textile factory. I also went on a few retraining courses, including one to be a fork-lift truck operator, and was also unemployed for varying lengths of time. So my life was very uncertain for 13 years. It was during a retraining course that I came across my current factory, doing unpaid work experience for three weeks.
It is a family firm, which was founded in 1825. Over the last five years at least, there have been a number of major difficulties: losing a major client, choosing an unsuitable IT package, appalling co-ordination. Senior managers seem to be incompetent; they are amazingly incapable of organising or of anticipating problems. We are becoming increasingly worried about the firm's future. And the recent financial and economic crisis makes matters worse.Regis, with work colleagues
But I have to admit that I feel happy working in my team. I do not have that "Monday morning feeling" when I start a new week at the factory. There is Sebastien (who weighs in at 150kg, about 300 lb) who works with me on the lids, then two others who do the silkscreen printing for the tins and a labeller – 5 permanent posts, with three women working as casuals for 8 months over the last year. We get on well, we have several coffee breaks together during the day, we celebrate each other's birthdays, we tell each other everything, and we also try to understand why things are going so badly in the factory. And so far, we are lucky enough not to be too bothered by the supervisors.
I say we are lucky because in other parts of the factory I hear a lot of talk about stress, productivity and sometimes harassment, both on the shop floor and in the offices. We used to be a family firm, and the atmosphere was by and large relaxed and we were treated like human beings. But the economic problems, and the arrival of a new director, have led to an increase in everyone's work load and a more oppressive atmosphere. We cannot have as many breaks as before, smokers have to go to a special place which is a long way away, we’re no longer allowed to have a drink at 11.45 a.m. when there is something to celebrate, and so on. Over the last few months we have had the move to the new factory and, more recently, the dismissal of all the casual workers. Many salaried staff have had to put up with changes to their workstation or duties, some of them major. In many cases it is to increase their output, and it is often unsettling. I have come to realise that people don’t like change, that it is pleasant to carry on doing the same thing and to feel competent doing the job you know.
Thanks to the staff representatives, I quickly became interested in staff social activities. There is a workplace committee which organises various activities, such as outings, barbecues, Christmas celebrations. But there is no union, and no forum for the staff to voice their views on the running of the firm.
I often heard the workers complaining that the representatives are too much under management control, to which I said, "Get on the committee yourselves", but then they didn’t want to know! So after working in the firm for three years, I stood as a candidate and was elected. At the following election, ten of the seats were filled by six union members. And there are now fourteen union members. This has been going on for 10 years.
But that is where the good news stops, because I feel very much on my own when it comes to opening up a real channel of union communication with the management. None of the other elected delegates goes along with the union recommendations for training, discussions, meetings or demonstrations. None of them comes to ask me for the union's standpoint on any particular issue. The only exception is for elections to the industrial tribunal – "Oh, by the way, Regis, what’s the name of the union?"
All my dreams of joint discussions, mutual support, and democratic decision-making and protecting the weaker members of staff are falling to dust. It would be nice to have the support of others, but I am surrounded by people who, just like me, have never taken militant action in a trade union or in any other context. And I do not have the gift for inspiring or leading others.
What keeps me going are the meetings (five a year) with the other union delegates in the chemical industry in the Lille region. I admire their commitment, and the campaigns they lead in their various firms. They make me feel less on my own, and I learn all sorts of things. I also get support from our discussions in the Workers' Mission, with the Worker Priests and the nuns working with the workers. I need to feel part of a wider movement which relates also to other campaigns.
Sometimes I ask myself, "Aren’t I in a privileged situation as a worker, with no threat of unemployment, uncertainty or poverty? Am I ready to hear a call to become one of the truly poor?" Most of my workmates have a standard of living much higher than that of my neighbours, which is often close to that of the Fourth World. My friends at the factory often own their own homes with a garden, one or two cars and all the very latest audio-visual and telephonic equipment. Some go away on holiday in the summer. And I often hear them despising people on benefits, the unemployed, those living on hand-outs. I am also struck by the fact that there are no full-time North Africans employed by the factory, whereas 30% of the population of my neighbourhood comes from there. And racist comments at work are the norm.
Should I go back to living more precariously, just doing little jobs here and there? I would perhaps have stronger links with the poorest sections of society, and be in a situation more similar to that of my neighbours. But in fact I would not be up to it, and furthermore, it would be just playing games: I seek a job, I find one, I leave it and I start again! No, my role in the neighbourhood is that of a worker, and the neighbours were pleased for me when I found my job. And having known what it was like not to be permanently employed and then to find a secure job, I wish my neighbours similar good fortune.
So yes, I have good reasons for staying where I am. First of all, like my colleagues, my work enables me to live because of the money and the stability (stable relationships, pride in a job well done). And then I am happy to be there because the people there are part of a society of which I want to be a member. That society is the permanent staff of the factory and their families, but it also includes former staff (those who are retired or have resigned, those made redundant and former apprentices), together with the casual staff and the unemployed who may end up there one day. I thus have links to the whole of the 'working class'.
I also stay because I can listen to, view and share the lives of the casual workers who are treated like pawns, together with the life of my workmates who are worn out by the poor working conditions, treated with suspicion, despised, underpaid and so on, not to mention their family or other problems. It is this whole shared life, this shared anger that I offer to the Lord in my prayers and ask for his help.
Another reason for staying is that I can increase the feeling of worth that comes through work. Over the days, there are endless opportunities to say how worthwhile our work is, to thank colleagues, to encourage their good initiatives, to admire their skill or to resolve disputes. I seek to get them to formulate their thoughts, requests or proposals as a body, which I can then submit to the workplace committee or to the management. All these are also reflected in my prayers, either as intercessions or in giving thanks to God.
In November I had the satisfying experience of leading a joint initiative by all the production workers (i. e. both manufacture and packaging, about thirty of us). Several of them had asked me to get the working hours changed, so that they could avoid road congestion and pick up the kids from school. We did a first survey and I saw the workshop foreman. As our request was rejected we did a second survey, then I saw the boss, there was a vote and we won. What pleased me was that I was acting for my mates; it was their initiative, and they managed to find a working pattern which everyone could live with – which did not seem a very likely proposition at the start!
Three years ago, we delegates to the central workplace committee agreed to exercise our right to hire a chartered accountant to examine the company accounts with us. But the boss did all that was necessary, including threats and blackmail, to ensure that there was no majority agreement for this. My fellow delegates said to me, "It’s all right for you, you don’t have a family – we don’t want to risk losing our jobs". This was hard to take.
Everything I go through at work makes me rather like the worker priests. When my mates discovered that I was a member of a religious order, the easiest way to explain what I was doing there was to mention the worker priests. And in fact, for the last 26 years I have been attending their regional meetings of the Nord/Pas de Calais region, as well as the national meetings. I find this gives me a good opportunity to deepen what I learn at work, or did previously when I didn’t have a stable job. I do not work because I want to be a worker priest, but because I have chosen to be a Little Brother of Jesus. My vocation is to live fraternally with a small segment of the deprived urban population of the Lille region. That is why I live in a council flat and do a job at the bottom of the heap, so that I can live as the poor live, as far as possible on equal terms with them. So my primary concern at work is to live fraternally with my workmates. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of brothers and sisters.
When I meet the worker priests I am not the only religious, but I am often the only one who is not a priest. So what they say about ministry is of no direct concern to me, and I have no pastoral problems, but it is very unusual for me to feel completely disconnected from them. For I too want the Good News to be known to those around me, for the people I am alongside to know that God loves them, that their life is of great worth and that they can play a full part in the Church. So this is why I continue with the worker priests; I find there a fertile ground for reflection on the world of work and the workers' struggle; it widens my horizons, and helps me to keep up to date. I am grateful to them for accepting me as one of their own.
However, I should say that my main forum for discussion is my fraternity and the two or three brothers with whom I live, and also with all the other brothers. It takes some organisation to avoid getting involved in too many meetings – a problem which I think we all share. I see all these different contact points as complementary, and one thing the worker priests bring me is their contact with the Church, their links to the local Church and to the Workers' Mission.
Why do I want to be in the workplace itself ? what is the point of it all?
1- I am the first person to benefit. Living alongside very ordinary people, the 'meek' of this world, helps me find Christ who identified with the meek and reach God's love. In the course of this humdrum life, I see the Spirit working within people, even though they do not know it. Prayer is central to all that I do. I offer my whole life to God, especially its difficult moments, and I ask him for the help of his Spirit. When things are going better, I offer him my thanks.
I try to learn from him how to see and listen to my workmates in the way he sees them and listens to them. As the years pass, I become ever more aware of God's faithfulness: he is ever present, ever loving, ever consoling, in every one of the many situations and places in which I find myself. It could not be better! When I pray, it is not some great lover's heartfelt outpouring, but I know that he loves me and the moments I offer him, and to him only, are my response to his love, and I think that I gain in trust through accepting my weaknesses.
I experience a God who is humble and discreet. When things do not go as I want, he teaches me patience. He teaches me wonder when I see positive results springing up when I had abandoned all expectation. He excites my sense of pity so that I can share the suffering and rebellion of those who fail and are despised.
2- And what of my colleagues and neighbours? Their thoughts about me probably differ widely. Most of them know I am a Christian, a sort of priest. I hope that I convey to them that God is not locked up in a church, or only to be found through some major figures like the Abbe Pierre or Soeur Emmanuelle. I hope that I make them feel that their humdrum lives can be full of richness, that they have qualifications not reflected by certificates or through a decent salary, but none the less real for all that. They have taught me a lot. And through that I have been able to glimpse that everyone is important in the eyes of God, and each one of us is loved by him. And when I meet selfishness or racism, I try to bear witness that fraternity and solidarity are the foundations of a better world.
3- And what of the Church? I think it is essential for the Church to be present on the 'fissures' of the world – and not just to observe or offer help. Only through an actual fraternal rubbing of shoulders can we show just how 'far down' Christ came. The presence of Christians, members of religious orders or priests is part of the Good News which proclaims God's will to save everyone, because he loves each one with a love personal to them. It is a powerful message to the world, and also a powerful message to Christians as a whole, that the Church must be in the midst of those men and women who are seeking to create a more fraternal world.