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.



Blitz Spirit



You always know you’re doing something right when Max Hastings and the Daily Mail tell you that you’re doing something wrong.  Today Hastings is in full flow, calling for ‘Blitz spirit’ from the wilds of west Berkshire in the face of today’s strikes and working himself up into a lather of indignation at the fact that The private sector can no longer afford to indulge state workers who, for too long, have got away with murder.’

Got that readers?   You got away with murder, because you thought you could have a living wage and retire on a decent pension.  You thought you could have a publicly-funded health service and a  state-funded education system.  Well guess what, you self-indulgent,  lotus-eating bastards,  you teachers, headteachers, nurses, binmen and council workers, Max Hastings is here to inform you that ‘ the Age of Abundance is over’ and that ‘ the  Government faces a long struggle to persuade the British people to accept that, in future, most of us will have somewhat less than we have had in the past’.

Most, but not all, eh Max?  The sage of Hungerford goes on to inform us that ‘If we are to become once more a solvent society, we shall need to become a less “compassionate” one, and to hell with the victimhood lobby’.

One suspects that Hastings would not find it too difficult to make the transition from compassion to solvency.  And who might the ‘victimhood lobby’ be?.  You guessed it

[stextbox id=”alert”]The unions” state of denial is illustrated by today”s strikes, which their leaders claim as the start of a long campaign to protect their privileges.  Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, supposedly sensible and educated men and women, will be on the streets clamouring for preservation of inflated earnings and insupportable pension rights. [/stextbox]

Let’s hope Hastings is right about that at least.  Let’s hope that hundreds of thousands do come out and clamour for their ‘inflated’ earnings.   And not just today, but again and again.   Because there is no other way to prevent the truly dire future that our political and financial elites – and their cheerleaders in the national press – are preparing for us.




Now is the summer of our discontent

It’s only three days before Thursday’s mass strike action, and anyone looking at the British media would be forgiven for believing that the world was about to end,or that the armies of the undead were about to lay waste to the nation’s cities.   What we actually contemplating is the prospect of public sector trade unions at last flexing their collective muscle to oppose the gross injustice in which politicians of all two and half parties are complicit.

Spearheaded by the repellent Michael Gove and backed up by the Tory press, the government is doing everything it can to prevent this nightmare from unfolding, whether writing letters to headteachers exhorting them to show ‘leadership’ by keeping their schools open or calling on parents to break the schools strike.       Meanwhile the ‘opposition’ is equally desperate to prevent the strikes, with its front bench spokesmen from Miliband to the eternally tanned Peter Hain downwards calling on everyone to be sensible and negotiate rather than risk being associated with industrial action that might damage their political careers.

Naturally Blair has put his oar in, advising the unions to ‘engage with the process of change’ – a typically vacuous soundbite that entirely fails to address the consequences of ‘change’ for those on the receiving end of it,   even as it accepts ‘change’   as some inevitable and (in Blair’s case at least) God-given process that should simply be accepted just because it’s ‘modern’ or mandated by Goldman Sachs.

All these politicians share the same view of   ‘change’ and ‘reform’ – and how they fear the possibility that the public may see through the deception and actually stand up and say that these changes are not desirable, necessary or inevitable.

The best response to this fearmongering would be a massive turnout on Thursday, in which parents, pupils, teachers and headteachers act together to prevent this ghastly government and its pallid opposition from turning the education system and everything else that falls under the designation of ‘public’ into a feasting ground for the corporate sector which, it now seems, is the only sector that most politicians listen to.