Some thoughts on solidarity and the film “at war”

“One for all, all for one”

Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers

The other night, I had the pleasure of watching a screening of the film “En Guerre”, in collaboration with the Alliance Francaise Los Angeles, followed by a discussion with Mr. Stéphane Brizé, hosted by Nadine Juton. It was a remarkable film, really excellent in all respects. It is a dark view of labour relations, particularly in France. It’s in what I think is a small town in the southwest of France.

Vincent Lindon (the star of Measure Of A Man, for which he won the prize for best actor at the Cannes Film Festival 2015), plays Laurent Amédéo, the leader of the strike of the 1,100 employees in a factory where the management (at the behest of the German multinational which owns the factory) after obtaining subsidies from the government and important concessions from the workers, decides that it is more profitable to close this plant and transfer production to a Romanian plant where wages will be even lower. (In addition, I was shocked to learn that there was only one professional actor in the film. All the performances were excellent. Sometimes the film almost seemed like a documentary).

The film begins with a reminder that “whoever fights can lose; the one who does not fight has already lost”. And yet, even if I do not want to spoil the plot of the film, I also remember the French proverb, often attributed to the Count Bussy-Rabutin “providence is always on the side of the big battalions”. Which, I have to say honestly, presages everything in the movie. But for the purposes of our discussion today, I will simply say that large multinational employers have learned to follow a strategy of divide and conquer as a way of breaking unions, breaking workers, and breaking governments. I would like to comment briefly today on the implications of this strategy.

As I mentioned, there was an excellent discussion after the film with Mr. Brizé, hosted by Nadine Juton from AFDELA. And during that discussion, Mr. Brizé made a critical point in which he spoke about some of the actual strikes that inspired his film and the tactics used by the large companies to break those strikes. The events of the film can only be described as a tragedy, but I think Mr. Brizé summarized what we should all take as the message of the film when he spoke about “solidarity”. That disunity and the inability or refusal of the unions to work together to support strikes like this one, as Mr. Brizé notes, was the cause of the weak bargaining position of the employees depicted in the film and, ultimately, of their fall.

Solidarity between unions would have made all the difference in the world.  If all the trade unions in France and Germany had worked together, their combined resources would have far exceeded those of the German company and the employees would not be subject to such economic pressure. Similarity, if all the unions in France, had used their combined muscle to put pressure on the president (who, I suppose, was François Hollande), they could have gotten some tangible help from the government, instead of just lip service. And with the president more firmly committed to their cause, the response to the German company’s boss’s refusal could and should have forced the government to try to take the scalp of the recalcitrant boss of the German owner of the factory. If successful, negotiations with his successor would likely be more productive.

The other problem is that even in that one plant, there were obviously several unions, each with its own agenda and its own needs. And the lack of solidarity facilitated the division of the workers and victory of the German group. The main source of this division was whether to take a rather meager buyout offer or continue the strike to save the factory and their jobs.  At the heart of the problem, of course, was the fact that the strikers were not supported even by their own unions but were forced to rely on donations from supporters and their own limited savings. All the unions in France, if they worked together, pooled their resources, could have eased the financial burden that created the pressure which divided the workers.  But without this solidarity, the factory workers were like a handful of peasants confronting the king with nothing but their pitchforks. They are doomed to failure.

I really cannot stress enough how crazy it is to think that a worker, with limited resources and limited financial means at the bank, could survive for a long time in a fight with a multinational business with billions of dollars in the bank. Yet the national unions left them to fend for themselves.  Both financially and, perhaps more importantly, politically.

Each of these workers spoke only for himself and therefore had no power, even against politicians who were nominally their allies.

I think that if the German boss were under pressure from his government and the French government were to put pressure on the price of the company’s shares, his perspective would be different, knowing that he could personally lose. And if the unions had succeeded in taking the scalp of a CEO, the trend towards globalization could be considerably slowed.

Since Mr. Brizé started his film with a quote, I will finish with a quote. Unions and workers around the world must heed Benjamin Franklin’s saying, “we must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”