C's company, Acme Unlimited, has been announcing worldwide layoffs since October. It's the kind of company that, when worldwide layoffs are announced, the announcement makes the crawl across the bottom of the screen, and everyone shakes their heads sagely and talks about how we live in difficult times. C still has a job. A third of his colleagues in France aren't going to be so lucky.
No one knows yet who is going to get laid off. Acme announced months ago that a third of their French workforce would lose their jobs but, because of the (to the Acme eye) peculiarities of French labor law, no one at the local office has yet gone home. There is a complicated series of negotiations that have to take place between Acme, the employees' representatives, and a French fonctionnaire or two before anyone can be selected for a pink slip. Questions have to be answered: how many dependents has the employee, is he married, does he own or rent his house. Each answer is worth a certain number of points, and those points are tallied. The one with the fewest points looks for a new job--while living on a severance package that comes from both Acme (several months' salary) and the government (up to two years of help).
Acme's employees in America--several thousand got their notices last week--took their pencils and went home the same afternoon as the announcement. C's email box was flooded with farewell messages, mostly, mercifully, from people he didn't know. They were, to a message, accepting of their fate, pleased to have had the opportunity to work for Acme, and would always look back fondly on their time there.
Such are not the prevailing sentiments in the French office. Every company in France of a certain size is required to have a Comité d'entreprise, a body which acts, in happy times, as the purveyor of discounted ski passes and opera tickets and which metamorphoses, in times like these, into the employees' union representatives. In this capacity, the comité wants to know, with all due respect (and not a hint more) why, when Acme is still turning a profit, are people being laid off?
We think it's a reasonable question, the same way that we think that all those points and all that severance are reasonable compensations. Why, indeed? It comes down to a philosophical difference between the notion that a company exists to make a profit and to further its own interests, and the notion that a company exists to provide for its employees. And so the members of the Comité d'entreprise are negotiating with Acme representatives, and meanwhile, back in the Home Office Park, the guys with the MBAs want to know why the layoffs haven't happened in France yet.
Rumors have reached American shores that the French aren't going to go without a fight. Last week there was a small manifestation--employee-protesters met up in the lobby of Acme's main building here, and marched outside and around the perimeter of the campus, putting photocopied notices of their intent to protest under any and every windshield-wiper that stood in their way. Friday last there were rumors of a strike for this week. The building was going to be blockaded (how do engineers do that?) and, outside, there would be some more marching about, and maybe some speech making.
The grève didn't come off--the comité called a meeting in the company lunchroom, and said that negotiations were ongoing, but that they were keeping the strike option open--and C has been in the office all week. His colleagues back in the Home Office Park are emailing him about the goings on over here. Their emails range from the disdainful (which you can pretty well imagine) to the concerned: do you feel safe in your office? are there going to be riots? one colleague wanted to know.
The answers were yes, and no. The Comité will continue negotiating, and Acme will, perhaps, make the odd symbolic concession. Then the MBAs in their cotton blend shirts will decide that they don't want to let their Microsoft Project calendars slip any more, and, finally, people will be sent home. It's not the workers' world any more, if it ever was; it's not even the workers' France. But lost causes can still be worthy ones. We're following the developments with interest.