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Big Business and Industrial Conflict in Nineteenth Century France: A Social History of the Parisian Gas Company.

The Paris Gas Company, like its counterparts across Europe, contributed to the reenchantment of life that overtook many urban dwellers after the pinched and dark years of early industrialization had given way to the more consumer aware society of the late nineteenth century. Department stores, cafes for the affluent, and rows of streetlamps brightened the gray days and dark nights with their gas light, all provided by the heavy laborers, white-collar workers, and engineering corps of the Paris Gas Company. Founded in 1855 through a merger of six pre-existing firms, the PGS was so blessed by the government's original terms for setting up its monopoly that it reaped average gross profits of 42.6 percent annually during the first three decades of its existence. But good fortune did not make PGS directors nice people; instead they systematically cheated, overcharged, and otherwise milked their customers and discouraged middle-class and working families from installing gas. Only when electricity began seriously eroding the popularity of gas at the turn of the century did the PGS adopt a policy of attracting average people to gas cooking.

High profits, high prices, and an elitist image made the PGS a political issue in mass politics, and republicans decided that as a quasi-public corporation the company should liberalize its labor practices. Lenard Berlanstein takes as the centerpiece of his interesting story the intersection of the bourgeois and managerial elite with a complex workforce. Trained in the grandes ecoles, managers interpreted wages for workers morally, low wages inducing virtues such as thrift and hard work and higher pay inevitably producing sloth and degeneracy. PGS directors and managers thought nothing of promising worker pensions they had no intention of paying and awarding promotion and raises to the substantial white-collar workforce whimsically and randomly. The highly differentiated workforce reacted variously to these practices and to the inevitable changes in work procedures. Stokers and others of the manual workforce, according to Berlanstein, ultimately became most adamant about control of the work process, while white-collar workers were mainly concerned with pay. In the latter case, however, one could interpret office workers' attention to procedures in awarding step-increases and pensions as not only venal but part of a shifting awareness of the importance of substituting predictable routine for managerial whimsy in worklife as a whole.

Interested in making direct connections between the factory and politics, Berlanstein adds few ingredients from everyday life to his analyses and thus tends to see historical personae as constructed only on the shop floor. This is a pity, for his very broad vision could be broader still. No PGS workers ever devised a consistently radical politics, he argues, to challenge the industrial elite, and efforts to republicanize the workplace came to naught. Instead, drawn to the burgeoning nationalist right spawned by the Dreyfus Affair, workers were only rescued when the PGS charter was not renewed and the company liquidated in 1907, "a victim ... of its own rapaciousness" (79). From then on gas service became a municipal and prefectorial service and less contested than in the past. As for French labor, it never satisfied its quest for equality, leaving issues of domination, authority, and a decent treatment permanently to shape politics and work throughout the twentieth century.
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Author:Smith, Bonnie G.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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