02 April 2006

Missing in Action

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Watching the many students protesting in France and in the Los Angeles area, I have been heartened by the sense that someone out there actually cares – kids, young adults, taking some risks to take to the streets and show the world that they think the issues being discussed by politicians are serious and worthy of further consideration. What a shame, then, that in so many ways, these protests are not what they seem, are not being given the respect they deserve, or are representative of mistaken (if understandable) impulses.

That last point first. France’s protesters are up in arms over a law that would limit the degree of protection people have in civil service jobs, making it possible – get this! – for them to be fired every now and again. It is, for France, a radical concept, but it is more radical as a concept than as a reality, given the high degree of unemployment that has been a pervasive French problem for more than a decade; getting fired requires first having a job. If the students, bureaucrats, and politicians of France would like to see a not-so-small example of where they, as a nation, may wind up if they persist with this jobs-for-life approach, they need look no further than the situation of General Motors and the United Auto Workers here in the United States.

In today’s New York Times, Daniel Akst makes the point that “workers and managers in the American auto industry have been rowing in unison, albeit directly toward the cataract,” and the results have been predictable for GM (among other companies): wages and benefits that have been disproportionately high both for the automotive sector and for American manufacturing; expensive, unsustainable commitments to cover wages and benefits for non-working former employees; and ultimately, limited flexibility to respond to changes in the market by firing (or hiring) new workers, closing or changing plants or production methods, etc.

This is not a new analysis, but regardless, the French – employers and employees alike – should take note. It may have taken three decades, but GM’s decline looks irreversible, and if it can be traced back to any one element, it is the company’s labor relations and the out-sized demands of the labor union. (Arguably, the UAW is not responsible for GM’s near-total failure to produce innovative, high-quality cars; that rests with GM’s management and designers. But even innovation would have been unlikely to save a company with bad management practices and labor contracts that virtually prohibited it from shifting its manufacturing processes to respond to these innovations.) So, citizens and students of France, take to the streets and protest all you want – but take care that your near-term success does not become the key to your long-term collapse.

Contrast all of this with the protests in California over proposed changes in immigration laws that would further criminalize the status of illegal immigrants to the United States while doing little – realistically – to stop more immigrants from coming into the country. Putting aside the philosophical arguments about the rights, wrongs, or real options in the discussion of American immigration law (versus the rights and wrongs of lifetime employment contracts), there is an important distinction between the protests in France and those in Los Angeles: the nature of the participants themselves.

In France, the protests seem to be driven mostly by those who are already part of some mainstream elite, the students of the universities and training programs that produce that nation’s consistent supply of government workers. In the United States, though, the protests are driven – as most of our protests have been, ever since the nation was founded – by the poor or the disenfranchised, the students whose families and communities are comprised of the illegal workers whose fate is being discussed so abstractly by our government. The elite in the United States tend to stay away. The mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, criticizes these students for skipping school to protest – but instead, he should be encouraging the citizens of his city to join in the demonstrations, to show support for a better set of immigration policies. After all, if France is nothing without its bureaucrats, then California is nothing without the low-wage immigrant workers who sustain both the agricultural and “domestic service” economies across the state. The well-to-do of Los Angeles would likely be devastated by some of the changes in immigration law being discussed in Washington, DC, but not enough (so one gathers) to take to the streets in support of better policies.

Somewhere in all of this, something has been lost. On the one hand, there are the people of France who seem to enjoy protests, national strikes, and face-offs with riot police as if they were the national sport. This is not to belittle their concerns, but it is also difficult to distinguish between all of these French protests what, if anything, matters (except perhaps the aperitif, cigarette, and heart-felt conversation that I might romantically imagine follows a hard day of protesting on the streets of Paris). On the other hand, there are protests in the United States: generally small, soulless affairs, rigorously controlled by the police and seemingly exciting or engaging no widespread political interest.

I am not old enough to recall, except as history, that most famous of American protests – the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – but none of the other, subsequent Washington marches ever seemed to carry what I imagine must have been the punch of the 1963 event. I think this is because that 1963 march was part of a movement, an event integrally tied to demands for change taking place, in some way, in almost every large community across the country. Since then, there has been nothing like that: no further nationwide civil rights campaigns, no real, energetically driven anti-war protests, few direct confrontations between protesters and police (aside from the misguided, anti-globalization protests in Seattle in 1999, the most notable achievement of which was to change how security is handled for the World Trade Organization meetings) – and nothing that has engaged the hearts and minds of America’s middle classes and educated elites.

We are, by and large, a nation of immigrants. So, perhaps this is the moment for a new movement, to support those who are here, and those who wish to come, to sustain and continue building a nation whose energy and drive is a result of that very influx of people seeking the two things for which the United States is most known: jobs and freedom. I don’t know about France, but I think that’s worth skipping one day of public school in L.A. to make a point.


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