Was it only three years ago that some of our puffed up patriots were denouncing the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” too fattened on Camembert to stub out their Gaulois and get down with the war on Iraq? Well, take another look at the folks who invented the word liberté. Throughout the month of March and beyond, they were demonstrating, rioting, and burning up cars to preserve a right Americans can only dream of: the right not to be fired at an employer’s whim.
The French government’s rationale for its new labor law was impeccable from an economist’s standpoint: Make it easier for employers to fire people and they will be more willing to hire people. So why was Paris burning?
What corporations call “flexibility”—the right to dispose of workers at will—is what workers experience as disposability, not to mention insecurity and poverty. The French students who were tossing Molotov cocktails didn’t want to become what they call “a Kleenex generation”—used and tossed away when the employer decides he needs a fresh one.
You may recognize in the French government’s reasoning the same arguments Americans hear whenever we raise a timid plea for a higher minimum wage or a halt to the steady erosion of pensions and health benefits: “What?” scream the economists who flack for the employing class. “If you do anything, anything at all, to offend or discomfit the employers, they will respond by churlishly failing to employ you! Unemployment will rise, and you—lacking, of course, the health care and other benefits provided by the French welfare state—will quickly spiral down into starvation.”
French youth weren’t buying this, probably because they know where the “Anglo-Saxon model,” as they call it, leads. If you have to give up job security to get a job, what next? Will the pampered employers be inspired to demand a suspension of health and safety regulations? Will they start requiring their workers to polish their shoes while hand-feeding them hot-buttered croissants? Non to all that, the French kids said.
Of course, the French weren’t entirely fair in calling their nemesis the “Anglo-Saxon model.” It’s the specifically American model they have to fear. While France was in turmoil, I was in England, ancestral home of the Anglo-Saxon race, giving a talk when a fellow in the audience asked me how people could be fired without “due process.” In the U.K., a person who feels she has been wrongfully dismissed can turn to an employment appeals tribunal and, beyond that, to the courts. I had to explain that in the United States, you can be fired for just about anything: having a “bad attitude,” which can mean having a funny look on your face, or just turning out to be “not a good fit.”
Years ago, there was a theory on the American left that someone—maybe it was me—termed Worsism: the worse things get, the more likely people will be to rise up and demand their rights. But in America, at least, the worse things get, the harder it becomes to even imagine any kind of resistance. The fact that you can be fired “at will”—the will of the employer, that is—freezes employees into terrified obedience. Add to that the fact that job loss is accompanied by a loss of access to health care, and you get a kind of captive mentality bordering on the kinkily masochistic: Beat me, insult me, double my workload, but please don’t set me free!
Far be it from me to advocate the burning of cars and smashing of store windows. But why are American students sucking their thumbs while the Bush Administration proposes a $12.7 billion cut in student loans?
Where is the outrage over the massive layoffs at Ford, Hewlett-Packard, and dozens of other major companies?
And is the poverty-stricken quarter of the population too stressed by their mounting bills and multiple jobs to protest cuts in Medicaid and already pathetic housing subsidies?
Compared to those “surrender monkeys,” we’re looking like a lot of soggy used Kleenex.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive. Her latest book is “Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.” Her website is www.barbaraehrenreich.com.