Worker’s Rights: What Can We Learn From the French? (Vault Career Blog)

by Sam Reynolds,

Americans greeted the news of the latest riots in France with a disapproving shrug. The general reaction was this: In a country with a “normal retirement age” of 65 (the age at which Americans receive full social security benefits), the notion that millions of French workers would strike over a proposed deferment of retirement pensions from age 60 to 62 appeared downright ridiculous. How could these cigarette-smoking, Pernod-drinking protestors be so self-righteous? So petulant? So…justified?

French protestorOf course, few Americans would call the efforts of French unions and students “justified”—we’re far too sedate for that. But before you cry “socialism!”, consider for a moment several of the now-accepted norms of American working life that we owe to movements like the one currently ongoing in France—all of which played out on home soil.

Take the 40-hour work week for example: It wasn’t until Americans demanded reasonable working conditions in the Depression that the full-time standard–which we all take for granted now–was adopted. Same goes for the minimum wage. And, note the year (1935) in which the American pension, Social Security, was formally enacted. At a time when jobs were scarce and all government spending came under intense scrutiny, American workers–not corporations–were the benefactors of these federally granted protections.; perhaps it’s no coincidence that they would go on to spur an economic golden age in the 1950’s and early 60’s.

Today, faced with eerily similar economic circumstances, the prescription here and abroad is to scale back worker’s rights—in a way, to hit them while they’re down. Unfortunately for Nick Sarkozy & Co., the French are too well versed in the history of labor to go down without a fight.

So, what career advice can we glean from our friends across the pond? For one, it’s well within our rights—and our history—as American citizens to demand improved working conditions. While that doesn’t mean unionizing your 12 fellow employees or throwing a Molotov cocktail at your boss’s Dodge Stratus, it does mean that you have a right to voice your concerns if you’re feeling put out by corporate injustice.

Unlike the militant stance adopted by the French, try taking the human approach: While employees and bosses may well be affected differently by, say, a Great Recession, it still makes sense to try to connect on a personal level. If you’re struggling to pay your electric bill because of “recessionary” salary cuts, say it. The same goes if you haven’t seen your kids in a week because you’ve assumed the workloads of the laid off: speak up.

Keep in mind that companies can’t fix a problem if they don’t know one exists, so speaking up may be the only way your problems will get addressed. And even if they can’t fix everything, the chances are your company will do what they can to help—a happy employee is a productive employee. And you never know: Maybe they’ll give you the weekend off! Oh, right: we already have the weekend off—see what can happen when you speak up? Keep fighting the good fight!

See original blog post here.


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