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
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