Workers’ Hours and Productivity in US, UK, and France

Grenoble  There was an interesting aside to the conversation about political “break” movements in Europe and the United States at the ACORN International meeting. When the discussion turned to what the election of Macron as President of France would mean to the renewed efforts to dilute the famous French labor code, Antoine Gonthier, one of the senior organizers for ACORN’s affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne Grenoble, pointed out what he saw as ironic that for all of the corporate bashing of the labor code in France, French workers were more productive than those of other countries including the United States and United Kingdom. I replied that I had also seen numbers that indicated that the US workforce was more productive, but it was a minor point, and we moved on with the discussion. Nonetheless, it seemed important, so it kept nagging at me until I could look it all up.

It turns out that Antoine and I were both right, but even where we were wrong it illustrates the point, and, unfortunately, why the corporatist movement is gaining ground in France. A fairly recent report on the latest 2014 statistics by the Office for National Statistics in Great Britain comparing productivity across several measures for the G-7, the most highly industrialized countries in the world, went through the numbers pretty closely.

So, the ledge Antoine was gripping firmly for the French working class was productivity per hour worked. There German workers kicked everyone’s south side hard with a significant lead. French and American workers were pretty much what-and-what, but the French were very narrowly ahead, making Antoine and I more in agreement than either one of us might have realized at the time. Luckily our Canadian and British organizers had stayed out of the conversation because they took up the rearguard on these issues with Japan getting the worst mark, then Britain and then Canada with even the much maligned Italian workers more productive per hour.

When the GDP or Gross Domestic Product was measured, the American workers were more than one-third higher per worker than the French, and the French led other G7 countries in 2nd place with Italy right behind them and Germany farther back. Once again Canada was only ahead of the UK and Japan.

But where it really got dicey was looking at the hours worked per week over the 20-year period between 1993 and 2014. In 1993, workers in the G7 were relatively close together. The average was slightly over 33 per week with the US at a tad over 35 hours per week and Japan over 36 with France close to 32 hours per week and Germany just below 30 hours per week. Sweat forward 20 years and France’s hours worked per week per worker was down a full 5 hours, while the US worker had only dropped a smidgen to a little under 35 hours per week. Italy, Japan, the UK, and Canada were all around 33 hours, and Germany was around 26 hours per week and France was around 28 hours per week. These may not reflect victories that French grandfathers won, as much as what their fathers delivered.

The weaknesses of the US labor movement and the strength of US business and their political allies have forced American workers to continue to keep their shoulders to the wheel. Take the lack of family and sick leave in the US as a prime example of this. French corporations pushing for labor law reform and perhaps even UK interests trying to keep British workers farther away from European standards, clearly have their hearts set on holding the line on productivity, increasing automation, and fighting hammer and tong to get more hours worked every week, and are committed to chaining Macron to that wheel until he delivers.


Please enjoy these new releases, Thanks to KABF.

Emily Saliers – Long Haul

Billy Bragg – The Sleep of Reason


Hard Changes Coming to France?

Paris   The day began with an ominously when I woke up at 2:05 AM for my 2:45 AM ride to the 3:17 AM train to Budapest. After taking a shower, I realized that in the dark, I had misread the time, and it was now 12:20 AM, not 2:20 AM. It was going to be a long day!

The 3:17 AM to Budapest was a workers’ milk run to the city. Tired men and women would slump into their seats and then immediately doze off in a practiced part of their routine. The train hit Budapest 4 minutes late, and I knew I only had 8 minutes then to find the ticket machine, get a ticket, find bus 200E and make to the airport for my 6:25 AM flight, where I could doze off in my practiced routine.

And, then on to Paris. With the election of the Macron government and his new party, Marche, which has disrupted French politics, hard changes were projected with hard fights in the future to see whether he would succeed or would the resistance.

The first change I noticed though was the McDonalds in the guts of Terminal 1 at Charles DeGaulle Airport. Of course it was huge. That was predicable, but it was also all automatic. Orders had to be placed on a eye-level robotron machine where you picked through your selection, to go or in-house, card or cash, and then went to a counter to pay and pickup, or not. Where you would think automation would mean less workers, I had never seen so many. There were people to help you learn the machine. If you were eating there, a worker brought you order to your table. Yes, to your table! Everywhere we looked there were staff people by the dozens. Our affiliates in France had been working on the McDonald’s organizing campaign and the fight for higher wages and workers’ voice there, as well as the opposing the use of GMOs, which are largely vilified in France. I noted all of this with interest, mentally tabulating the contradictions.

Meeting later in the afternoon with several union and community organizers, there seemed to be a feeling that the constant assault on long established labor rights that had endured in France for generations against almost constant attack were in real danger from the new government. Though Macron had run on a merging of left and right policy positions, and had formerly been a minister in the ruling Socialist Party before resigning to pave his own path, there seemed nothing moderate in his proposals for amending labor rights. The rigid and exacting labor rules that make it difficult to displace workers in an arbitrary fashion have long been targeted by business interests. Labor unions are girding for the fight of course, particularly the CGT, which has militantly drawn the line in the past even though a competing workers’ federation has been trying to play a more accommodating role with the new government. All other business, including new organizing, seems to have been pushed aside for the coming struggle.

Nonetheless, even if labor’s efforts were heroic, my friends seem to feel success would be defined in how much was saved compared to how much would be lost in measuring the level of the defeat, rather than optimistically predicting a victory.