French workers don't put up with everything Ruthless Criticism

French workers don't put up with everything

[Translated from broadcast by GegenStandpunkt, June 22, 2009.]

Also in France, mass layoffs take place, and the workers in some companies become militant and lock up their bosses or managers. This is partly admired here: “at least they resist ... ,” but even more scandalized: “that should never happen here!” – as the debate recently went on TV. In fact, the workers in numerous French firms respond in a bold way to management's announcement that their services are no longer needed. While German workers in such situations carry around symbolic coffins in which they bury their jobs or their trust in or even the decency of the employers, their French colleagues take their bosses hostage. They are to be coerced into deliberating one more time and reversing their anti-social decision.

A spokeswoman for Lutte Ouvrière (Worker's Struggle):

“People want to defend their jobs. They, the employers, cannot understand this. The people have sacrificed everything to the company for over 30 years, their family, their health, and now comes the layoffs. At Molex, the workers received a prize last year for outstanding profitability, and now this! They defend themselves with the means they have, and we are in solidarity.”

The woman from Worker's Struggle of course knows that the company reckons with the workers as productive resources, that they are thrown on the street because of the same profit calculation for which they were previously employed. However, the militant hostage-takers do not care at all about the economic purpose of a capitalist enterprise which their occupations now fall victim to; they protest on a different level, not an economic, but rather a highly moral one: of all things, the fact that for years they have selflessly always made whatever sacrifices were required for the profitability and success of the company, that they were always only well-behaved servants who the boss could do anything to, and that they let themselves and their families be ruined for this – of all things, because of this they should have a right to insist on their continued employment. They act as if, along with the stupidity of letting themselves be exploited for a lifetime, they have fulfilled a social duty and proved true loyalty towards their employer – and now they find it rotten that he lacks the same loyalty to them. They take the ideology of “employer” bitterly seriously, and complain to the boss that he has breached his professional duty of giving them work.

The angry militants do not let the bosses get away with sneaking out of their responsibility for jobs: they see their layoffs as an act of antisocial violence and respond to it with the counter-violence they deem legitimate. They occupy the boss's office, they won't let him go home. He should feel pressure from the menacing will of the working class, experience the humiliation and dependence that is unknown to members of the elite. With their extortion, the activists make the person who implements the decision to lay them off personally accountable: they seek to force on the boss the loyal relationship which they hold up towards him in the reverse direction.

In doing so, they have brought themselves funny problems:

“The problem is that almost all of the acts took place in foreign owned companies. Where is the contact person, the people ask themselves. I have nothing against foreigners, but who is the contact person when it comes to layoffs? They sit in India, or like Molex, where it turns out that the appointed manager does not make the decisions at all. They are made elsewhere, 10,000 kilometers away, by people one doesn't know, about whom one does not know why they made the decision, in whose name and with what legitimacy! Try to put yourself in the position of the workers, they shout in the woods and don't get an answer, this upsets me.”

The labor unionist from the CFDT complains that those who are really responsible can't be approached – as if workers aren't able to arrest a company's desire for capitalist profit because of geographical distance or lack of familiarity with the top bosses. In such criticisms, one can almost hear a certain longing for the patron of past centuries who lived at the workshop, knows the people who he exploits by name and has to look them in the eye when he throws them into destitution.

Or – in another case – where the boss robbed of his freedom has the power to decide, but keeps to the advice of the President of the Republic and promises to his oppressors everything they demand. Sarkozy: promises made under duress have of course no validity. The state protects the freedom of both contracting parties to sign and dissolve employment contracts. The fact that workers are existentially dependent on the possibility to work does not entitle them to use duress if a capital doesn't need them any more.

In one way or another, the hostage-takers learn that they do not suffer from irresponsible individuals that are interested only in their profit, to whom one could teach manners, but from a complete, state protected economic system. This cannot be detained nor impressed in a moral way.

As if to mock the militant job defenders, the representatives of exactly this system also inform them that they face an economic objective necessity whose principle and mode of functioning cannot be corrected by appeals or individual changes in behavior. Olaf Henkel, former president of the BDI [Association of German Industries], talks as if to children when he argues that a capitalist who is in competition is exposed to necessities which he must comply with; therefore his decisions can not nor should not be measured by the interests of those who are affected by them.

“The problem is: if car sales drop by 50%, the company also doesn't buy any more tires, and then we can't produce tires. Who would buy them? The government can't buy them, we can't set fire to all of them on the French streets. It must be reacted to, for example in the interest of the other tire plants that still produce in Alsace.”

In the current crisis, the tire manufacturer Continental reduces excess capacity and closes one of its French plants in order to defend its return. The propaganda pro from Germany wouldn't put it in this way. But this is also not necessary: that jobs have to be profitable in order “to be secure” is evidently clear to everybody he addresses and is not even denied by the defenders of the hostage taking. If the employer says: competition!, everyone nods their heads – there are just constraints which one can't do anything about. This attitude is only possible if one believes that competition is a kind of natural law or divine order. Once this is accepted, Henkel can allow himself the next offense and pass off layoffs in one Continental location as an act of welfare – not for the dividend of the shareholders, but on behalf of the work force in the other location.

“I would just like to defend the entrepreneurs, they're not sadists, they don't like to put people on the street... It's an insult to the entrepreneurs and politicians in France and Germany when it is claimed that they do not care about the interests of their employees. This is still their very first task! I would like to say one more time, I know many entrepreneurs, but not one who enjoys closing a factory or dismissing people. But I do know many who are happy to open new factories and provide jobs.”

This is plausible: of course, entrepreneurs are not happy to reduce jobs; after all, they provide them in order to earn money from them. And they lay workers off only when they are not or no longer profitable, or less profitable than expected. They lay people off not for fun and games, but out of their business considerations, so their actions should be appreciated as dedication to the interests of the workers. Its doesn't matter whether or not the hostage-takers believe the brash comments of someone like Olaf Henkel: in their own way, they too recognize that they have to deal with an economic system and not only with irresponsible individuals in the executive chairs. They recognize this by the fact that they let these individuals go after a night or less. And then?

Then the bosses can and may go ahead with their layoffs. The matter is settled. The fighters who lose their livelihood and do not know how they should find a new one have “tried”; with the violation of the rules, they have drawn attention to their extraordinary shock, they have taken the liberty to freak out. The deprivation of freedom was a cry for help to the nation and is also understood as such in France: a resounding majority of the citizens finds the reaction understandable. The difference between the French militancy and the coffins one gets to see in Germany in comparable situations is not exactly big: different countries, different customs, same mistakes!