We spent several hours yesterday in the Musée Carnavalet, a museum devoted to the evolution of France. We were especially intrigued with the exhibits devoted to the French Revolution. Through art and artifacts, they documented the struggle of people who had nothing left to lose. Paintings, miniatures models, scraps of cloth, pikes and weapons showed how the French overthrew a monarchy out of touch and mired in excess despite a seriously depleted treasury thanks in part (and in irony) to the funding of the American revolution. It was a struggle for a more equitable distribution of wealth and a better life which resulted in the establishment of a republic, a bill of rights for all citizens and a new constitution.
Zip ahead a couple of hundred years. This morning, we were watching French television and got caught up in an interview with the head of the Mouvement des Enterprises de France, the largest French employers union. The topic was unemployment.
Setting aside for the moment the idea of an employers’ union, the man was being interviewed about his proposal to move France from a 35 hour work week to a 39 hour work week with no corresponding wage increase. This provoked Sweetie and me into a lively discussion.
First: how civilized. A 35 hour work week. Why change? According to the MEDEF… Well, it wasn’t exactly clear why France’s employers think this would be a good idea but it’s safe to say that getting more work without paying for it would certainly benefit the employer.
The interviewer pointed out that France currently has the highest productivity rate in Europe. I have no idea how that was measured or on what it was based but I liked the sound of it since it fit with my bias toward a better balance between work and life. No response though from the guest.
Then the interviewer asked how the employers’ proposal would affect the unemployment rate. The point of a shorter work week in the first place was to create more jobs. The guest, known as the boss of bosses in France, ignored the question. Instead he cited Canada (!) as an example of how public expenditures were reduced significantly over a three-year period with a longer work week. Again, no further explanation. Sweetie and I spent some time trying to puzzle it out but finally concluded there was nothing in this proposal that made any sense. I suggested it might have something to do with fewer people for which to pay benefits but Sweetie reminded me that France is a country with socialized benefits. So that would seem to be of little benefit to employers.
In Canada, with the current conservative government, it’s no surprise that public spending has been reduced but that has nothing to do with increasing productivity of private enterprise. It’s ideologically driven, slashing and burning government programs that could be seen as socialist in any way. We are fortunate to have Medicare, public education and social assistance. The problem is the constant cutting and continually reduced access. If you’re in serious trouble, you’re pretty much on your own.
Sweetie and I have commented frequently on how the current global political economy is sowing seeds that could lead to another type of revolt, a workers’ revolt, with governments worldwide determined to roll back wages, benefits and working conditions, all in the name of profit for a few. I have admired France’s unions, powerful enough to shut down a country and push for social reforms beyond wages and working conditions. Yet earlier this year, they gave in to a push by employers for labour reform, allowing employers greater flexibility in turning people into part-time workers and making it easier to lay people off. It’s a worrisome signal that even in France, workers are losing hard-won ground.
Today workers throughout North America are celebrating Labour Day and the benefits brought by unions. Benefits that came as the result of significant struggle. Yes, the labour movement has been in decline but the time is right for a revitalized movement. When employers continue to make demands for no apparent reason other than for their own benefit, sooner or later working people will stand up and say, no more. It can’t come soon enough.
P.S. Because I am a member of a union, I am able to write this sitting in an apartment in Paris, enjoying decent wages and paid vacation time.
- Hollande Revamps French Pensions With Longer Working Lives – Businessweek (businessweek.com)
- Hollande’s Government Cautiously Moves Towards Pension Reform (lajeunepolitique.com)