Even crazier than the French

January 06, 1996|By DANIEL BERGER

AMERICANS HAD trouble understanding the mentality of the recent French general strike, which has largely petered out.

French public-sector workers struck against the prime minister's speech announcing changes in national policies. Some were specific employment issues, others basic welfare practices.

Ostensibly, the workers were striking against the government. But it was the hard-working, tax-paying people of France who suffered. They could not get to work, did not receive mail, lost services. Small businesses failed. Probably some people died.

We do not have such strikes. So that one was hard for us to understand, but even harder was the French popular reaction.

People were angry not at the strikers harming them, but at the newly elected government. They saw in the new policies an attack on the cherished French way of life to satisfy German central bankers. They would rather have that French way of life, affordable or not, than a single European currency.

In this country, such strikes do not happen.

But our government just locked out the workers. The government, not its workers, suspended services and punished the hard-working, tax-paying people. It is not only the French who do not understand this. Hardly anyone does.

U.S. embassies have not paid bills and may lose their electricity. Passports and visas are not being granted. Tourism evaporates. Medical research stops. Toxic dumps go untreated. Museums and parks close. Some unemployment compensation stopped. Welfare payments, meals on wheels and federal courts might be next.

The 760,000 federal workers selected for lay-off (and family crisis) were deemed non-essential. But it will most likely turn out that some Americans died as a result.

Power struggle

Unlike lockouts in the private sector, the employer in this instance has no grievance against the punished workers. The employer is at war with itself.

Its board (Congress) and management (the president) are feuding. Until one gives in, neither pays those workers who are available for deprivation. But this is OK, they say. The quarrel is over principle. Ending deficits is worth (other people's) sacrifice.

L But this is 1996 and the impasse is also about the election.

President Clinton proposed no serious deficit reduction and then vetoed the vicious cuts with which the Republican Congress responded. Each side holds workers and services hostage, and the other does not blink.

Each side is trying to make the other look bad. Mr. Clinton appears to be winning. If House Republicans backed down on tactics yesterday, that is why.

Mr. Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole wanted those workers and programs held harmless during the struggle. Speaker Newt Gingrich's House Republican army refused, on the apparent ground that government workers do nothing of value anyway.

This turned out to be untrue. Voters count on federal workers' services. But President Clinton has driven a wedge between Senator Dole and the Republican right. This ought to help Democrats in the general election.

Government disloyalty toward employees parallels what has happened in the private sector: AT&T to lay off 40,000; Westinghouse unloading its core business; etc.

Disloyalty from the top is a great fad, demanded by Wall Street, taught in business schools and rewarded in ever-higher senior management compensation.

But has any business scholar tried to cost the disloyalty of management in terms of the inevitable reciprocation by workers and customers?

The French public-sector strike was a model of rational behavior compared to the U.S. government lock-out.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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