UMC - Grandes Marques et Maisons de Champagne

The grand history of the Champagne Houses


Atelier de tonnellerie dans les établissements Veuve-Clicquot. The summer of 1936 marked the election of the Popular Front (Front Populaire) and with it a call for massive strike action. Textile workers in Reims were soon joined by their Champagne counterparts, starting with the employees of Champagne Henriot who downed tools on the afternoon of 4 June leaving a trail of gunpowder in their wake…

To the Champagne Houses, the strike felt like a betrayal given their efforts to safeguard employee benefits despite dwindling sales across the past six years. The 10% pay rise granted in 1928 had never been rescinded even though deflation put more money into workers pockets with every passing year. It was only at the lowest point of the Great Depression in 1933 that the Champagne Houses resorted to partial unemployment and a 15% drop in wages as a necessary but strictly temporary measure. Be that as it may, things were now at a standstill and negotiation was the only way forward.

The heads of the Reims Champagne Houses felt that social issues should be considered in light of the profession’s collective interests and kept separate from politics. Hence their initial refusal to negotiate with the CGT, preferring to deal exclusively with representatives of the Corporation des Tonneliers on behalf of all employees. That said, a preliminary agreement signed at the Hôtel de la Mutualité (a building gifted by Roederer) nonetheless reflected the demands of the CGT, just as it would be CGT representatives who would eventually sign the binding collective agreement.

Implementing the 40-hour week in 1937 raised another storm. The Champagne Houses feared it would send labour costs rocketing, stifling Champagne’s smaller brands but favouring producers of sparkling wines made by the tank method, which was considerably less labour intensive.

In truth however, it was the big Champagne brands that really felt the fallout of the Great Depression, leaving it to their smaller counterparts to buy grapes from the Growers. But what was to become of those thousands of producers if they suddenly found no takers for their wines?

For the big brands, the 40-hour week meant resorting to more seasonal workers in peak periods, never mind that their policy hitherto had been to maintain job stability. Everything about their work now was erratic in any case. All it took was for a boat to leave, or the imminent prospect of customs measures to trigger stockpiling in some country somewhere, and suddenly the 40-hour week wasn’t enough.

At harvest time for instance, cellar workers would be routinely assigned to man the grape presses, often working 12-hour shifts because the grapes had to be pressed immediately after picking to avoid staining the musts. For the Champagne Houses, this change in status from cellar worker to farmworker implied a more flexible working arrangement.

Ultimately the CGT agreed to working more than 40 hours a week, on condition that no employee worked more than 80 hours a fortnight, and that the harvest period was exempt from the maximum 75 hours of overtime set by law. The agreement was a symbol of the industry’s collective spirit – the result of negotiations conducted without recourse to arbitration and reproduced word for word in the Journal Officiel. Champagne houses and workers were represented by a joint delegation to the national committee for the implementation of law – a show of solidarity that raised a few eyebrows on the day. There were even some solid friendships born of these challenging times: a few years later, under the Occupation, Moët & Chandon director Robert-Jean de Vogüé would obtain the release of his union delegate Gaston Martin, who had been arrested by the Germans for communist affiliations.