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Labor Day Musings Courtesy of Marion Cotillard: Depression, Job Loss, Precarious Employment & Labor Solidarity

For Labor Day weekend I watched a 2014 Belgian film, Two Days One Night by directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.  The film is a good prompt for contemporary Labor Day reflections. Marion Cotillard plays Sandra who is employed by a solar panel company  (with Chinese competitors) and who has been out on leave for an indeterminate period of time with depression. When she informs Solwal, her employer,  that she has been released and is ready to return to work, she learns that the employer has just given the employees a “vote” to choose between the alternatives of allowing her return and forgoing a bonus of as much as 1,000 Euro, or receiving the bonus and she will lose her job.

A Friday show-of-hands was 14 for the bonus and only 2 for her return to work.  But Juliet, a coworker friend, prevails upon Sandra to ask the employer for a re-vote on Monday on the grounds that supervisor Jean-Marc has influenced the voters– by saying that the employer has realized it needs only 16, not 17 employees in her section (and if it’s not Sandra, then someone else will be let go).  Word also has it that Jean-Marc believes that she is not ready and able to return from her depressive illness.

Juliet and  Manu, Sandra’s husband, prevail upon Sandra to spend the weekend visiting her 16 coworkers to ask them to vote for her job.  Sandra resists but relents and finds it a humiliating beggar-like experience and one which sparks violent attitudes expressed not only towards her for stealing money from coworkers, but also between husband and wife, or father and son, who disagree on the issue. Her will is nearly pulverized by the violence, but she is  heartened when one coworker, Timur, recalls she took blame for certain panels which he ruined, and begs her apology for having voted (wrongly) against her in the Friday vote.  Although he is scared the employer will find him out and non-renew his contract, an African contract worker agrees to vote for Sandra because it is the right thing to do, she “is his neighbor.”

For all her efforts and Xanax-pill-popping (towards the end, the entire box), Monday’s vote is a stalemate: 8 for and 8 against her job, so she loses.   But the employer calls her in to compliment her on her persuasion and to  tell her he has decided that, to promote employee morale, he will let the employees retain their bonuses and will bring her back and let the contract worker go when his contract is up.  Sandra says “c’est la meme chose (“it’s the same thing”);” the  employer disagrees. Sandra leaves with a lift in her heart.

What is this film about?  Certainly about low-wage workers.  Each of the employees needs the bonus- for children’s school fees, to feed another child, because one spouse already is on the dole, etc.  Sandra and Manu need her salary to stay out of public housing; the film depicts Sandra lovingly smoothing the carefully chosen, colorful sheets and covers of her boy and her girl’s bedclothes.

Certainly it’s also about the disabling throes of depressive illness as well. Throughout the film and her saga of persuasion of 16 fellow workers, Sandra suffers bouts of crying and emotional and physical collapse.[1]

It’s also about solidarity vs. individualism.  Sandra feels she wins when she refuses to play the employer’s game of pitting the workers against each other.  When she retorts to the employer, “c’est la meme chose,” she means it is the same whether you do it to him or to me.

In Two Days One Night the employer clearly expected Sandra to accept its “generous” solution that the employees receive their bonuses, Sandra return, and only the “temporary” “contract” employee be nonrenewed- as though in that scenario, all were winners except the one who didn’t count.  Which takes me to the last issue, and a 2013 article called “The Task Rabbit Economy” by Robert Kuttner.  http://prospect.org/article/task-rabbit-economy, in which Kuttner opines that ‘the rate things are going, tens of millions of us could end up as temps, contract employees, call-center operators, and the like.”  See also, Elaine Pofeldt, “Shocker: 40% of Workers Now Have ‘Contingent’ Jobs, Says U.S. Government,”  http://www.forbes.com/sites/elainepofeldt/2015/05/25/shocker-40-of-workers-now-have=contingent-jobs-says-u-s-government/, a May 25, 2015 Forbes article, addressing a report of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “the first time since the Great Recession that the U.S. government has taken stock of how many people are working without the protections that come with traditional full-time W-2 jobs,” and commenting that “many people in this workforce are struggling economically.”  Kuttner, as others,  refers to this workforce as “the precarious labor market,” “a dystopia where regular careers are vanishing, every worker is a freelancer, every labor transaction  is a one-night stand, and we collude with one another to cut our wages.”  This is related to the phenomenon to which the National Labor Relations Board responded in Browning-Ferris, discussed in a previous article.  It also implicates the principles set forth in Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens.  See, discussion at David Herrera, Univ. of San Diego, “How Can Work Be Organized so That it is More Humane? A comparison among Laborem Exercens, ‘Traditional’ Organizations and the Democratic Mondragon Model,” https:/www.stthomas.edu/media/catholicestudies/center/johnaryaninstitute/conferences/pdf/DavidHerrera.pdf.

 

 

 

 

[1] In the U.S.  the scenario would be a not uncommon premise for litigation:  Was the employee targeted for layoff due to the depressive illness, due to having taken leave, due to assumption she will not be able to perform due to the depressive illness.  Was she let go for such reasons, or did the employer simply learn it only needed 16 rather than 17 employees in the section and need to contain costs due to global competition and she overstayed her job-protective leave?  (Of course, in the U.S. the particular scenario of requiring employees to “vote” on their annual bonuses – a contractual right? or Sandra’s job, is a non-starter.)