The strikes in France

The press reaction to the strikes in France is sort of amazing. In the depression of the 1930s, people thought that strikes and protests were perfectly natural. In fact, most of the social benefits that governments provide — both in the US and in France date from that period: think of the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act, for example.

The press reaction has been along the lines of ‘Those silly French – why don’t they want to postpone retirement?’ Similarly, I heard one commentator on NPR mention that the last Socialist government in France had tried to move to a 35-hour work week, which the commentator thought that France ‘obviously’ couldn’t afford. (I know, I should give names and citations, but i was listening on a car radio while driving and didn’t get the details).

Just think about it — in a period of high unemployment, what would be the result of shortening the work week? More job! Less unemployment, as the amount of work available was spread over more people. That’s not unaffordable indulgence, it’s about solidarity.

The more basic issue is who should pay for the crisis. Investment bank executives continued to pay themselves huge bonuses after their banks went broke. Right now in the US, the right wing is arguing that we can’t afford to let the Bush tax cuts for the rich expire — in other words, that higher incomes for the rich help the economy.

In fact, it’s just the other way around. Higher incomes for the rich just fuel speculative investments, like the recent bubble in mortgage-backed securities that triggered the crisis when it burst. It can’t fuel productive, job-creating investment, because there is no demand for the additional products that such investment would produce.

On the other hand, higher income for working people would generate increased demand, since it would put more money into the pockets of people who are struggling to get by, and therefore spending everything they take in. That’s precisely what is needed now.

Earlier retirement spreads the existing jobs around, and it puts more money into the hands of working people — so it’s just what is needed in this crisis. The French strikers are right.

Reference: For a good analysis of the causes of the crisis, see Martijn Konings, ed., The Great Credit Crash (London: Verso, 2010).