Just before Christmas of 1995, I concocted some hooey to get out of work and travel to Paris to cover the mass public sector strikes roiling that country for weeks. The good folks at Socialist Worker asked me to go since I could butcher French with greater panache than others. So off I went with a beaming smile and a tiny bag, since I knew I’d have to walk everywhere given the wholesale shutdown.
I won’t recount the fascinating tale here of that magnificent display of class power and solidarity, but suffice it to say that it stopped the prime minister’s retirement plan, known as the Plan Juppé, and shifted French politics in lasting ways.
Aside from the longest urban hikes of my life, the most memorable moments were conversations over too much coffee and wine with a group of electrical workers who managed to rig their grid so that only the poor and working quarters were served while the rich were left stewing in the dark. After several hours of chatter one guy leaned over and summed up their fight: “We don’t want to live like Americans.”
That poignant phrase has rattled around in my brain all these years. I’m reminded of it lately as I watch images of 3 million striking French workers fighting to stop their retirement age being raised to 62, with a full pension if they work to the age of 67. For many, their fight has embraced the social struggle against the government’s attempt to scapegoat Roma (“Gypsies”)—20,000 French just marched against the deportations and harassment of Roma.
We Americans are always taught to think that these French (and Swedes and Germans and Greeks, etc.) are a lazy lot who expect too much compensation for too little work. They just want to play, we are told. But in fact it is we who are getting played.
American workers’ expectations have been whittled down over the decades so that American men today work 100 more hours than in the 1970s and women work 200 hours more—that’s 2.5 and 5.5 extra soul-sucking weeks on the job! Add to that the little factoid of ZERO guaranteed vacation time and what you get is a country where one in ten full-timers and six in ten part-timers have NO VACATION. [Really, I didn’t make this shit up, it’s all from the Bureau of Labor Statistics].
I don’t buy the whole culture clash thing about French and Americans. Eating baguettes and drinking better coffee and wine doesn’t deliver the goods—though it does make for a far more pleasant meal.
The French have paid health care and guaranteed weeks off, despite trade union rates below 10%, because there is greater combativity and a larger left that, despite its myriad problems, challenges the status quo. Of course the story is more complicated, but this is a blog post and not a treatise.
In short, if we want to live better and longer lives we have got to build a bigger and stronger left independent of the Dems.
A decent place to start is by joining the socialist contingent at the One Nation March for jobs, peace and justice in Washington, D.C., Sat., Oct. 2. Click here for all details and get on one of hundreds of free buses heading there!
Sherry Wolf is a public speaker, writer and activist who is available to speak at your campus, community center or workplace for a moderate fee. Wolf is the author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation (Haymarket Books, named one of theProgressive’s “Favorite Books of 2009”). Contact Sherry at: sherrywolf2000 at yahoo.com or find her on Facebook. Check out the video of Sherry speaking with Cleve Jones and the cast of Hair at the National Equality March.