Strikes see Macron reap whirlwind as Whirlpool closes
May 1 is a traditional celebration of the rights of working people
It is usually an occasion for marches and demonstrations but perhaps this year we should use it as an opportunity for reflection about job security in the fast-moving modern world.
Almost exactly one year ago Marine le Pen, candidate for the presidency, stood outside the Whirlpool factory in Amiens and told TV viewers she shared the pain of the workers who would lose their jobs when the company relocated the plant to Poland.
She was scathing about her rival, Emmanuel Macron (then still a plain monsieur), saying he was a man of the bosses and oligarchs, not the people. He was in favour of the forces of globalisation that were eliminating French jobs. He wouldn’t dare turn up here in this car park, she taunted him, and speak to these angry people.
Mr Macron rose to the challenge a couple of hours later when he arrived and wormed his way through the crowd as they heckled and whistled derisively. “I’m not going to lie to you,” he told them. “No politician can honestly say they will save your jobs.” Calmly, he explained his plans for the French economy. Private enterprise has to be free to do what it wants, he said, but it also has to take responsibility for its actions. If elected, he would make sure the free movement of capital was alleviated by a “social programme” to defend the interests of those, like the Whirlpool workers, who stood to lose out.
His willingness to tell a hostile crowd what it did not want to hear made him look straight-talking and presidential, and it probably helped him to win the election in spite of the suspicions of a sizeable part of the working population of France – and particularly in the public sector.
A year later and President Macron is in the thick of his economic “reform” programme which will lead to job losses and insecure contracts. France’s unions have responded, as expected, with a series of strikes in a bid to put pressure on him to change his plans.
The Whirlpool factory, meanwhile, will close for good at the end of May but it could come to represent the painful changes that France is about to experience.
There could hardly be a more apt name to sum up the economic maelstrom of globalisation that makes so many people feel as if they have lost control over their own lives.
The company did not help itself or Macronomics when it responded to its loyal workers’ request for a pay rise to mark the end of their employment.
It offered each soon-to-be laid-off worker a free tumble dryer (presumably without extended warranty).
The workers were astounded by this offer in kind instead of cash. Was this what Macron called being “responsible for its actions’, a company unloading surplus stock to save itself the cost of warehousing?
DIY retailer Castorama similarly put its foot in it when managers asked French staff who were soon to be made redundant to train their Polish replacements in the spirit of “professionalism.” The company quickly realised its faux pas and backtracked but the incident again revealed a philosophy of putting making money before treating workers with consideration.
If Macron’s reforms, and globalisation in general, are to be for the benefit of all and not just the few, big business is going to have to do much better.
It must prove that it is not impersonal, insensitive and uncaring about its workforce. It has to convince us that it is not looking forward to the day when it can robotise every factory and not have to bother with human employees at all.
A suitable epitaph for heartless globalisation was coined by one embittered Whirlpool worker who declined the multinational’s offer of a tumble dryer: “Good thing I don’t work in a cemetery,” he remarked “or they might have offered me a tombstone or coffin to take home in lieu of pay.”