59 MinutesBy Gregory Messina
May 12, 2010
Nobody could argue when I say that the French national pastime is going on strike.It is the punchline of many a joke and has become cliché for a reason.Everybody does it and often: teachers, students, civil servants, daycare centers, air traffic controlers, train conductors, bikers…even the unemployed went on strike recently.When I first moved to France and saw that dental students were on strike, I was surprised to learn that there were dental schools here [Sorry, low blow].
There is always something to complain about and there is no more effective way to lodge a complaint than by going on strike.
Labor Day in France is on May 1 and unlike in the U.S. it is not an excuse to have a barbecue.People actually take to the streets in support of all workers, disgruntled or not, voicing a myriad of complaints against The Man.This year I participated in the demonstration with my unionized domestic partner Luc to see what it was all about.
The starting point, Place de la République, resembled what could only be described as a tailgate party.Sausages were being grilled, beer was being served, music was booming from loudspeakers; the overall atmosphere was rather festive for the discontented. There’s nothing like a good demonstration to bring people together.I was surprised by how many adults were accompanied by their children.But it makes sense; this is how the love of the strike is passed from one generation to the next.
Once the “parade” began, it was like taking a nice stroll along the Parisian streets towards the famed Opera Garnier.The only difference is that we were amongst 45,000 other strollers (according to the organizers), 21,000 (according to the police).While the Labor Day demonstration is a general movement, this year there was a specific theme — people made it clear that they wanted the retirement age to remain 60.As one union put it in one of the hundreds of flyers being passed out, “…employees simply refuse to die at work.”
I have been working for one version of The Man or another since 1996 and it never occurred to me to go on strike for anything in particular.I recognize that companies exist to make money and that I work in order to make money to live.If I have a job that I love then I consider myself lucky.If I am truly miserable because of how I am treated in the workplace, I look for a new job.I fully acknowledge that not everybody has a career in which it’s easy to look for a new job.
I am often under the impression that my colleagues here are too easily disappointed by what management does or does not do.It must be exhausting to care so much.I just try to go in, do a better-than-average job, and leave without worrying about the bigger corporate picture.When management makes a decision, it is theirs to make.I can agree or disagree, but that’s where my role ends.
So you can imagine my surprise when I went on strike.For 59 minutes.One of my colleagues was under the impression that an employer could not dock pay for a strike that lasted less than one hour.She was wrong.You would think that someone would’ve confirmed this beforehand.
The strike was financially motivated, of course.To overly-simplify,the company I work for (Company A), along with 39 other companies, is owned by a larger company (Company B).Company B is also owned by another company (let’s call it “Company C”).C sold B (which includes A and the 39 others) to another company, Ñ (it’s Spanish), for a nice profit.So, my colleagues were curious to know where our bonus was.Afterall, C would never have turned a profit without our hard work.The argument made sense to me, it’s just not something that would’ve ever crossed my mind.But this is France and I don’t think like everyone else.
The 59 minute strike was decided upon after the demand for a bonus went unheard for a few weeks.I did not believe that chasing after this bonus was reason to go on strike, nor did anyone really believe that striking for 59 minutes would yield any results.It was more of a symbolic strike to let the higher-ups know that we were unhappy.If there’s one thing I have learned in France it’s the concept of solidarity.I learned that if people are genuinely upset about something I could support them in their cause even if I don’t feel the same way.
That’s exactly what happened in this instance.I saw how upset my colleagues were by not receiving this bonus; by not being recognized for their hard work.While I did not care for myself (although the money would’ve been welcome), I felt that I had to stand by them.Not only did I want to support them, I also did not want them to accuse me of siding with The Man.
So at 3pm one day, the 100 employees of Company A took to the sidewalk in front of our office building to go on strike.However, it didn’t feel like how I imagined a strike should feel.It felt more like a fire drill, or one very long cigarette break.There were no picket signs or slogans being chanted through a megaphone.There was no angry mob scene.There were just groups of colleagues chatting and catching-up, as one took photos so that the memory of the moment would last.Donna Martin got a more boisterous turn out so that she could graduate.
As an American, it was exciting to be on strike, almost dangerous, despite the calm nature of it.I felt like what it must feel like to play hooky from school, something I never did.I’ve gone through life not making many waves, so I was a bit hesitant to make my début in such a way.But there was safety in numbers so my wave was more like a tiny, gliding ripple.It felt right to support a movement that others believed in so strongly.
The strike kind of, sort of worked, but not right away.We were only Company A striking without the other members of the group owned by B that was owned by C.But the strike set off a chain of events that led the 4O members of the group to form a united front.When C, the company that made the profit, made us an offer, we scoffed at the amount for it was a mere pittance, an insult.I thought that a bold reaction.It turns out to have been wise because C then offered us more.The masses were still unhappy with the amount but summer vacation was fast approaching and people had more important things to worry about. A deal was therefore reached.
Although those 59 minutes were mostly inconsequential, it was one of those rare moments when I felt more like one of my newly adopted countrymen than as an American.To have done something so typically French was reassuring to me.When fleeting moments like these happen they give me the sense that I can in fact do this – stick it out here in this different land, almost as if I belong.
Gregory, your post was thoroughly hilarious, and your tone perfect.
Thanks for your “tiny, gliding ripple”. I almost feel French now; let me reach for my bottle of Petite Sirrah—–oops, it’s made in the USA!
Gregory, this was awesome. For some reason, amidst all of the imagery, I couldn’t stop giggling over the cleverness of “[Company] Ñ (it’s Spanish)”.
As I comment, I’m on a con-call, listening to our monthly “town hall” status meeting. When we get to the numbers portion of this little dog and pony show, if we’ve made another massive profit, I am going to loudly demand a larger share of it and possibly throw in a “Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” to see if I can get the Paris office to back me in solidarity. Though, being American, I may disguise my voice….
Goddam it, Anon! That’s what I was going to say! I’m getting really sick of you saying what I want to say right before I get to. Stop thinking like me! Right now! (Brat!)
@Gregory, I enjoy reading your pieces. I also laughed when, after you accepted the factual nature of the 59 minute rule you said this: “You would think that someone would’ve confirmed this beforehand.”
You really are a funny guy.
(Anon is a Brat!)
Purely unintentional, Madam. It’s just one of those statistical anomalies that comes from pretty much never shutting the hell up. Sort of like that old saw about an infinite number of monkeys eventually producing the complete works of Shakespeare. Eventually, I’m bound to say what everyone is thinking.
I never got the notice that you answered me!
I am gobsmacked!
Are you comparing me to a monkey, Mr. Anon?
Just the opposite – I drew a parallel between my copious TNB commenting giving the appearance of telepathy and a roomful of typing rhesus giving the appearance of literacy. Or possibly vice versa.
It is totally taking the fun out of it when you don’t fight back.
I am a notorious killjoy. Of course, that bitch had it coming. I bet that wasn’t even her real name….
I’ve never gone on strike for anything, though I did support the 2007 Writer’s Guild strike. Now I kind of want to.
As someone who’s been almost belonging for several years now, I really enjoyed this. Your insight about French solidarity and “supporting their cause even if I don’t feel the same way” especially rang true and is probably something I have yet to fully grasp. I like the story I recently heard about some employees going on strike and barricading themselves overnight in their offices. The strikers demanded first that the management provide them with food and bedding for their ‘manifestation’ then complained to the media that management never sent anyone in to clean up the leftovers and garbage.
The French and now the Greeks just don’t get it. What is the purpose of a strike? They are socialist countries with massive frivolous entitlements. It is paid for by their taxes which comes out of their pockets so when they are striking they are striking against themselves to get or keep more for themselves from themselves. So if it’s a collective effort each individual is striking against himself too. I’ll stop here. I think I’m coming off like Edith Bunker here, but they are still jerks and this is substantiated by their belief that they are this axis of the universe, not just the planet, and that nonsense about the wife of Jesus moving there with their child after the Crucifixion. I will concede their two redeeming qualities: blocking the British fleet at Yorktown and selling Louisiana. Oh, yeah, the Statue of Liberty too.
In France, is The Man called ‘Le Monsieur’?
Very, very cool. It’s one thing to experience a culture through observation. It’s another to experience it through immersion. But to shoulder a common burden with the people of that culture as you did obviously gives a deeper understanding of and empathy with that culture.
Wow, France is pretty cool. I always wondered how striking worked and why they did it so much. I think if I convinced my coworkers to hang out outside our office for an hour long strike, our boss would declare that we’d just wasted our lunch break.
I love this! I think it hilarious that the French will strike and protest, without hesitation, if they are even just barely dissatisfied with their conditions.
But what happens if the Labor Day organizers get fed up and go on strike before the date?
In France, don’t you get 8 weeks vacation time in the summer? Could you plan a strike for immediately after so you could be off for another month?
Bonne ideé, non?
Sorry, can’t resist, but maybe the 59 minute strike wasn’t effective because they just thought you were all at lunch.
Jordan, Jordan…..wot a hoot! Time we unleashed you from the sheep in Australia and threw you into the cafes of Paris. Oh the stories you’d tell!
HA! Thanks, Judy.
I once worked for the New York office of a multinational that was in a bit of turmoil. We never organized a strike, but I spent endless hours with colleagues flopped in my guest chair, whining. If you think of how much time got wasted that way, it was sort of a pointillist strike, though I doubt anyone in management ever perceived the pattern.
Strikes DO seem exciting. When I was a freshman in college, a group of us students united to try and petition for higher wages for the college workers. One of us was very adamant about the idea of a hunger strike. Not because it made any sense. It didn’t. But because- I suspected- it seemed like a cool, daring thing to do. All that holdover nostalgia from the ’60s…
“I just try to go in, do a better-than-average job, and leave without worrying about the bigger corporate picture. When management makes a decision, it is theirs to make. I can agree or disagree, but that’s where my role ends. ”
You are a rare breed. If more employees showed up to work with that attitude, maybe more employers would offer a better than average work environment.
On the other hand, the French do seem to enjoy more beneficial perks than Americans, so I suppose their strikes have made a difference.
I enjoyed the read. Thanks.
Hey, Gregory, I got a comment from you in my email, but don’t see it here. Hope that’s not been an ongoing prob with this post. Any way for you to check that out?
My response to your thanks is that writing about another culture can be a minefield, but you’ve got it covered beautifully: the sympathetic but head-scratching outsider, the wit, the details, the whimsy, the editing. Oh yeah.