Two Days, One Night

I’ve just seen the Dardenne brothers’ brilliant Two Days, One Night (2014)   It’s a film I’ve been looking forward to seeing for a long time, and it didn’t disappoint.     The premise is deceptively simple: Sandra Byas, played by Marion Cotillard,   is a worker in a Belgian solar panel factory who has just returned to work after suffering a nervous breakdown, only to find that her boss has offered her colleagues a bonus of 1,000 euros a month if they agree to make her redundant.

From the management’s point of view this is the cheaper option for a small company operating in a globalised market against Asian competition, and also because in Sandra’s   absence her co-workers have been able to cover her shifts by working overtime.

Sandra finds all this out on a Friday, by which time one of her colleagues has managed to persuade the boss to hold a secret ballot amongst the workforce on Monday morning to decide her fate.     Her only hope of keeping her job is to persuade nine of her colleagues to vote against accepting the bonus and for keeping her on instead.

This is what she tries to do in the course of the ‘two days and one night’ of the title.   As Sandra visits her co-workers one by one she is forced, essentially, to beg them to vote in her favour and vote against their own interests, because if she needs a job,   it is equally clear that all of them are struggling economically and need the bonus. At the same time there is another choice that each of these workers must make: whether to accept the divide-and-rule arrangements imposed by management or act out of solidarity and ordinary humanity to help a fellow-worker in difficulty.

This story is told through a series of beautifully low-key and convincingly uncinematic performances, with Cotillard absolutely outstanding as a fragile young woman forced into a humiliating attempt to assert herself while struggling against depression and her own lack of self-worth.     I won’t say how it all ends, in case you haven’t seen it.   Suffice to say that this is a quiet masterpiece, which the dim careerists who are competing for the Labour leadership by paying homage to ‘business’ and ‘wealth creators’ would do especially well to see.

Because if Two Days and One Night is a film about solidarity in the face of adversity, it’s also a film about work and working lives, and the human consequences of what employers like to call ‘flexibility’ and which some economists have more accurately labelled ‘precarity.’   Sandra is one of those ‘hard-working people’ who politicians claim to love, but her life and the life of her family is threatened by a decision made on purely financial considerations.   In order to compete successfully in the global market, her company needs the ability to lay people off and take them on at will.

Flexibility for the management translates into constant insecurity for the workforce, and     Sandra’s breakdown and depression gives management a lever than can be used against her, since her line manager Jean-Marc tries to sway her colleagues by telling them that she isn’t working well as a result of her illness. Jean-Marc is an invisible presence for much of the film, but he is the one who reports to his superiors and influences their decisions, and therefore exerts an unseen power over the workforce, such as the welder on a fixed-term contract whose renewal depends on what Jean-Marc tells management.

One of the reasons why Jean-Marc is so powerful is because there is no union to counter-balance him.     As far as we can tell, the secret ballot to decide Sandra’s job appears to be an ad hoc and idiosyncratic arrangement between the staff and management.     As a result the workforce is entirely dependent on the vagaries of the global economy and the largesse of their employers.

Sandra’s attempts to persuade her colleagues to vote in her favour are made even more difficult by her painful awareness that all of them need their bonus, because the money they make is not enough to make ends meet.

This, in short, is true precarity: low wages, powerlessness and permanent insecurity in the workplace, and the constant prospect of unemployment and the dole.     It’s a situation that millions of men and women find themselves in to some degree or other across the world, and which has become something of a desired ideal for governments like ours.

Even though the words ‘trade union’ are never mentioned in the film,   Two Days and One Night is a powerful reminder of why we need unions, and what workers lose when they don’t have them.   In this country in particular, we have been taught for many years by Tory governments and the Tory press to regard unions as a historical anachronism and a reactionary obstacle to ‘reform’.       With their new strike laws, Lord Snooty and His Pals are plotting to strip trade unions of the most powerful tool that workers have to defend their pay and conditions and protect their interests.

I wouldn’t recommend a showing of Two Days and Nights at Downing Street: His Lordship wouldn’t be interested.     But   Burnham, Kendall, Cooper et al really ought to see it.     It won’t do much for their careers, but they might learn something about what 21st century working lives are really like, and it might even remind them of what their own party was once supposed to stand for.



Britain plays happy families

There’s a grim article in today’s Independent on  an ongoing survey into work and relationships in Britain by the Working Families and One Plus One charities, called Happy Homes, Productive Workplaces, whose preliminary findings include

[stextbox id=”alert”]

A culture of “downsizing”, where long working hours and job insecurity have become the norm, is leading to a “vicious cycle” of stress and people losing out on family life….One in four workers “constantly” does more than their contracted hours, with a further one in five doing so “frequently”. Just 7 per cent have the luxury of never doing so. And nearly a third of employees suffer from anxiety or panic attacks due to work stress, while more than half admit to being exhausted and irritable at home.


The Indie also reports  that this year ‘  stress has become the top cause of long-term sickness absence for the first time across British industry’ and that ‘more than a quarter of employers have noticed an increase in the number of people coming to work ill in the past year, and nearly two-fifths report an increase in mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, among employees.’

To complete the picture,  TUC general secretary Brendan Barber reports that

[stextbox id=”alert”]’Increased job insecurity has made people more wary of asking to shift and reduce their hours, while unpaid overtime is rising again after years of decline. Staff now give away around £29bn a year in unpaid hours at work.'[/stextbox]

The Indie attributes these phenomena to ‘the dire economic climate’ as though it were talking about the weather. But when people have to work longer hours, sometimes for nothing at all, simply in order to be able to keep their jobs, they do so because they don’t have any choice.   And what  we are talking about here is  enforced precarity or precarisation, and the deliberate and conscious re-disciplining of the workforce to create a situation of permanent insecurity.

For some therefore, the current crisis is an opportunity.   And this phenomenon isn’t limited to Britain, it’s part of  a global assault on wages and working conditions that threatens to permanently transform  the whole idea of work.   Take the conclusions from Business Week on America’s new ‘disposable workers’ in January this year:

[stextbox id=”alert”]You know American workers are in bad shape when a low-paying, no-benefits job is considered a sweet deal. Their situation isn’t likely to improve soon; some economists predict it will be years, not months, before employees regain any semblance of bargaining power. That’s because this recession’s unusual ferocity has accelerated trends—including offshoring, automation, the decline of labor unions’ influence, new management techniques, and regulatory changes—that already had been eroding workers’ economic standing.[/stextbox]


[stextbox id=”alert”]The forecast for the next five to 10 years: more of the same, with paltry pay gains, worsening working conditions, and little job security. Right on up to the C-suite, more jobs will be freelance and temporary, and even seemingly permanent positions will be at greater risk. “When I hear people talk about temp vs. permanent jobs, I laugh,” says Barry Asin, chief analyst at the Los Altos (Calif.) labor-analysis firm Staffing Industry Analysts. “The idea that any job is permanent has been well proven not to be true.“[/stextbox]

The same thing is happening all over Europe and beyond.    But don’t feel too bad. If you are tempted to feel despondent, you can always raise your voice and sing along with George Osborne:

together we will ride out the storm.  And together we will move into the calmer, brighter seas beyond”

But you might do a lot better to join a trade union, get out onto the street and do everything you can to prevent these bastards from getting away with it.



The zone of precarity

Last night a friend of mine has told me that his 20-year-old son has just been sacked from his job at PC World, where he had been working for the last two years. His son had been working variable 12-hour shifts, and the weekly shift schedule was not announced till the last minute, making a ‘social life impossible’ as my friend put it.

It came as no surprise to hear that trade unions were not allowed by the company.   The inability to know when you will be working from one week to the next is another consequence of the phenomenon known as ‘precarity’ or ‘precarisation’ that has become increasingly prevalent in the ‘post-Fordist’ capitalist economy.   In an article on ‘Precarity – the Causes and Effects of Insecure Employment’, Klaus Dorre, a sociologist at Frederich Schiller university in Jena,  defines precarity as

a  living situation that is not only characterised by material deficits, insecurity, adverse working conditions and lack of recognition, but above all by dwindling possibilities for people to make long-term plans.

Dr. Dorre also notes that

Post-Fordist working society has now become divided into zones of varying levels of security. Although the majority of employees are still to be found in a zone of integration with regular working conditions and a more or less intact social safety net, there is in fact another zone that is growing all the time the “zone of precarity”.  This zone is not only characterised by insecure working conditions, but also by a social safety net that is wearing thinner and thinner all the time.

Precarisation is a process whose impact increases the further down the economic ladder you go.    The bottom layer of this ‘zone of precarity’ is often occupied by ‘illegal’  migrant workers, who not only have no rights in the workplace, but no right even to be in the country – an absence that makes it easier for employers to do what they like with them.

Such conditions are worth bearing in mind the next time you hear politicians or the rightwing press criticizing public sector resistance to ‘reform’ – a code word which almost always means privatisation – as some kind of unfair monopoly or reactionary protection of vested privilege viz a viz the private sector.

In September last year the CBI  unveiled a series of measures ‘ to sustain businesses and jobs during the recovery’.  These included ‘ embracing more flexible working, blocking regulations that will cost jobs and changing industrial relations legislation ‘ and also

Retaining the individual opt-out from the maximum 48-hour week under the Working Time Directive, which allows staff to choose to work longer hours, for example to earn extra money to support their families.

Interesting to know what factors will influence this ‘choice’.   Labour flexibility has been a key component of the UK economy for many years, and can be positive phenomenon for employees and employers – when it stems from mutual agreement and negotiation.  But as a recent TUC report on ‘Family-Friendly Rights: Transforming Britain’s Workplaces’ noted

Without consideration for workers and consultation with trade unions, flexibility can result in casualised or long hours, unpredictable and unsocial hours and exploitative working conditions.

In the current crisis, this outcome is unlikely to worry CBI or the government, who clearly have other priorities, such as limiting the right to strike.  Without that ability however, and without an effective organization in the workplace to enforce it and represent their interests,   the zone of precarity is likely to widen until we all find ourselves living and working in it.