Just Above Sunset
September 11, 2005 - Labor Day Here and There

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Corinne Maier - the author of "Bonjour Laziness: Jumping Off the Corporate Ladder" - had in the New York Times last week, on Labor Day, this - Working Hard at Nothing All Day.


It is a discussion of how Labor Day is an American invention and the rest of the world celebrates such things on the first of May.


Of course, Corinne Maier's call to slackers everywhere to goof off, "Bonjour Laziness," was discussed in these pages last September here.  That item was about attitudes toward work her and over in Western Europe, with reader commentary from Montreal, London (the one in Canada) and from our Paris readers.

What Corinne Maier has to say this Labor Day?


... it's you Americans who have invented it. We French thank you for that, even if few of us realize that this paradoxical day comes from across the Atlantic. Nonetheless, it was in America, a decidedly pioneering land, where the idea of a shorter workweek, a notion dear to French hearts, was born.

All that began on May 1, 1886. On that historic day, American workers went on strike to demand an eight-hour day; at that time it was habitual to work 10 to 12 hours - quelle horreur! Alas, the strike resulted in the Haymarket tragedy, and European Socialists, shocked, decided to fix May 1 as the day for demanding better working conditions.

Even though the impetus for the May 1 Fête du Travail comes from America, your Labor Day is not celebrated then, but in September. And this difference in date changes everything. For in France, May 1 announces summer, and we also have a saying, "En mai, fais ce qu'il te plaît" - that is, in May, do as you please. The day is also the prelude to a series of warm-weather events that the French dote on: the Cannes film festival, the French Open tennis tournament and especially the Tour de France, even when it's always Lance Armstrong who wins.


The big difference?  There Labor Day is "the beginning of a season of pleasures." Here, it's the end of same, sort of.

Other differences –


Americans have picnics and family gatherings; we have the lily of the valley, brought into the city by rural folk who've gathered it in the woods, and protests. Every year, the famous May 1 protest gathers together union members, militants and leftists. This march, though closely covered by the news media, doesn't usually get a lot of attention from the public. There are exceptions, as in 2002, when the threat of the extreme right's coming to power drove a million Parisians into the streets. ...


This is followed by the usual comments on how our two nationalities don't have the same attitude toward work.  "Americans think the French are lazy, and the French think Americans are interested only in money."  There's a nod to the issue that French workers have a higher per hour productivity rate than their American counterparts – "proof that you can work better by working less."

But the key is this:


Americans also forget that going to work every day is often more a chore than a pleasure. You seem more and more disillusioned about work: only a third of you say that you love your jobs. In such conditions, it's not surprising that you spend on average two hours of your workday ... not working. Answering personal e-mail messages, shopping online, playing computer games or chatting with co-workers ... it's so much more pleasant than working, really.

My American friends, there you are caught, red-handed, being lazy. Is that enough to reconcile the Americans and the French? United in indolence, a foundation of sloth in which Labor Day is the cornerstone. Will Laziness Unlimited be the future of work?


Ah, we're not so different, after all.

Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, reacting to this, has some more, this Labor Day, in an exclusive, "Put Down that Hot Dog and March!"


PARIS - Monday, September 5, 2005: Today is Labor Day in the United States and Canada. Europe borrowed this day and placed it, for reasons of solidarity, on May 1st. On this day workers are supposed to celebrate, and many do so by having a parade to protest about the latest dumb outrages by stupid management. In Paris something is always wrong so there is never no parade, but there are other years when corks are ready to blow and the mechanics and shopworkers, the bus drivers and the train workers, teachers and scientists, the whole bleeding working world takes to the streets to give the big red finger to the MGT. Here are links to the ugly, the bad and good May Days in Paris from 1996 to 2005, as they appeared in MetropoleParis:

• May Day in Metropole Paris 1996 Red Flags On May Day
• 1997 Hide and Seek May Day Parade
• 1998 May Day at République, also see Eyewitness to Paris in May '68, by Jim Auman and 30 Years Later - A Chronology of 'May '68'
• 1999 A Week Asleep
• 2000 Red Flags, Blue Skies, May Day
• 2001 The May Day Issue
• 2002 Parisians Vote for May Day, Massively
• 2003 Day of club meet, 1st missed May Day
• 2004 Four Parades Instead of One
• 2005 Primo de Mayo

As Marx or Lenin or Willy Brandt used to say, 'Workers of the world, unite! You got piss-all to lose!'


Of interest also, see this book review:

The white-collar blues
'Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream'
Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books: 242 pp., $24
Reviewed by Wesley Yang - September 4, 2005 - Los Angeles Times



… [the book] focuses on the subtler psychological exactions made on the dignity of the middle class. We watch as Ehrenreich posts her résumé at Monster.com and HotJobs, consults "career coaches," labors over her (concocted) résumé and 30-second "elevator speech," attends networking events and "boot camps," and receives a business-professional image makeover.

She skewers the florid inanity of much that she encounters with her characteristic wit, painting a picture of a corporate world "paralyzed by conformity, and shot through with magical thinking." The world she describes demands absolute obedience (in marked contrast to the "rules-breaking" cant of the new economy-era managerial gurus), which it repays with absolute indifference.

The leader of a job "boot camp" dispenses a putrid mélange of New Age mind-cure that dominates the "transition industry" ("Every unit increase in your personal sense of well-being increases your external performance exponentially," expressed in the style of a formula, "EP/PSWB") and turns out to be himself a psychologically broken man. Workers are urged never to blame their employers or the economy for their straitened condition, lest bitterness infect the "winning attitude" they must at all times exude.

The obfuscatory jargon serves a transparent purpose - to present as inevitable and thus beyond politics the one-sided withdrawal of the social contract that used to assign mutual responsibilities to employers and workers. The white-collar job-seeker faces, she notes, "far more intrusive psychological demands than a laborer or clerk." Browbeaten from all sides to display "cheerfulness, upbeatness, and compliance," submissive employees turn out to be the easiest to fire.

Ehrenreich's next foray, into the faith-based job-networking scene, is both sad and farcical. She is enjoined to "network with the Lord" and is exposed to lecture topics such as "how clutter can be an obstacle to God's grace," with a smattering of racism, sexism and homophobia to wash it all down. One wonders what the Jesus Christ who smashed the money-changers' tables in the Temple would have made of all this.

After seven months of searching, only two "jobs" call her back - both sales positions without benefits, offices or guaranteed salaries. One is for Mary Kay cosmetics, the other for Aflac insurance.

It's hard to know exactly how to apply the lesson of her example.


Been there, done that, and got kicked out for bitterness infecting my "winning attitude" that I was, at all times, supposed to exude.  Couldn't do it.  Fine.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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This issue updated and published on...

Paris readers add nine hours....