On the 5th of July Manuel Valls ended the parliamentary debate on the loi travail by an act of force. To defeat a weak parliamentary opposition, the government resorted again to the 49.3 article of the constitution, an emergency procedure which is supposed to guarantee the general interest of the nation. For the government it is of little concern that in the last four months millions of men and women went on strike and demonstrated, making it clear that they are not interested in this general interest. A government under siege invokes the state of siege to tighten the grip of neoliberalism on the life of those women and men. After the European Commission imposed the diktat on Greece, ignoring the outcome of the referendum of July 2015 without hesitations; after the imposition of the Jobs Act in Italy by means of the vote of confidence, now also France conforms itself to the European trend which aim to establish the domination of the executive power over the living labor. By invoking the article 49.3, the French government does not just get rid of a pathetic parliamentary opposition, but also wants to overcome the refusal expressed in these months in the squares in order to impose an undisputed domination of capital. By defining the political conditions of exploitation, of a complete availability to work and therefore of an extension of the capitalistic command also beyond the labor relationship, the loi travail is the national expression of the European regime of wage. Yet, the French uprising of the last months is the clear demonstration that precarious, migrant and industrial workers are not available to undergo such regime. Examining the loi travail means therefore to fully interrogate ourselves not only about the changes that it aspires to introduce, but also on a struggle that encompasses the chance to govern our own time and to affirm our own power.
The preeminence that the law grants to enterprise bargaining over the national one has been one of the most disputed point. The famous article 2 establishes indeed the right of a company to disregard the conditions ratified by the collective contracts, something that was possible before only if the workers took advantage of it. This is even more serious in a country where, by now, the national collective contract applies to about the 90% of the workers. The fierce opposition of the unions is not surprising. As the British Trade Union Bill, the German Tarifeinheitsgesetz and the Italian agreement on union representation, the French reform restricts dramatically their capacity both to organize struggles on the workplace and to negotiate. Under the loi travail, when the most representative union refuses a proposal made by the company, the company can submit that same proposal to a referendum, when this is supported by the 30% of the workforce. Thus, the Italian «Marchionne system» is brought on a European scale. The referendum serves the needs of the company, when it wants to get rid of the possible opposition of the unions. Company unions or the «responsible ones» are ready to promote «direct democracy» when in fact they will live the workers divided and exposed to the blackmail of wage and of layoff in front of the company executive. The referendum is thought of as a factory plebiscite. Far from the endless debates on the transformations of democracy, the sought-after supremacy of the executive has here its first root. This is the real form of populism in Europe, both within the EU and in the Eastern part of the continent. Just like the governments that aspire to address single citizens directly and without annoying mediations, the company executives want to face a mass of single isolated workers, without any collective solidarity or power that connect them. We must add that, just as the nation-State, the company is not only an unreal community of shared interests, but also a fictional perimeter, in so far as the ongoing productive organization bases itself on outsourcing and subcontracting. Who will be entitled to vote in such a referendum? Temporary workers or employees of a subcontractor will undergo a pejorative agreement without being entitled to participate to this praised show of democracy. The referendum is therefore in this case the tool to impose directly, beyond any mediation, the blackmail of work, resorting to the fragmentation that increasingly characterizes whatever workplace: no more just between white- and blue-collars, but between a multitude of individual destinies that face in different ways the blackmail of the regime of wage.
The State, that still pretends to call itself social, with the loi travail becomes the warrantor of a widespread and discretional power which displays itself as a daily arbitrariness. The crisis is not a passing contingency anymore, demanding exceptional and temporary efforts, but it is transformed in the ordinary and regular condition of the workers. The fundamental problem of the crisis is the government of living labour. The interest of the employer, whose command can become total, decides in each moment when it is time to sacrifice oneself. The priority given to enterprise bargaining leaves every segment of the productive chain and of services with its own rules, free to oil its wheels through flexibility and the reduction of the cost of labour. The employers can increase the number of daily working hours (from 10 to 11) and the weekly ones (from 44 to 46), with a following reduction of the overtime pay. The working hours become more flexible and the variation can be communicated one week before – 3 days before for part-timers – so as to impose to the workers a full availability without compensation, also because the hours of required availability will be considered as free time and therefore not payed. As if that were not enough, through enterprise agreements it will be possible to impose wage reductions and increases of workloads for a period of 5 years, whenever it benefits the competitiveness of the company. Again in the name of the clad law of competitiveness, the reform provides for discretional dismissal: a sudden recession of the demand or a period of low profits is enough to justify «social plans» in favour of the company, that is collective dismissals and standby of the human machinery. While employers are protected from any oscillation of the market, workers must protect themselves alone by accepting any wage. What for the servants of capital is the law of the market, for the workers is the most brutal arbitrariness.
The social precarity produced by this arbitrariness does not exclusively depend on the legal regulation of the labour relationship, since the 85% of French workers has a permanent contract and, unlike the Jobs Act, the loi travail does not provide any reorganization of the types of contract. Despite the increased use of fixed-term contracts – that in 2015 constituted the 90% of the new ones – the significant fact is that the French labour reform imposes a radical overturning of the power relationships between workers and employers, though maintaining the reference contractual framework relatively stable and unchanged. Both in the workplaces and through a restructuring of welfare and the government of mobility, the labour reform produces the conditions for a government of precarity based on the most severe individualization of the working relation. For example, the severance pay will be now more strictly calculated on the years of career of each worker: 15 months for the workers with at least 20 years of service; 12 months for those who have worked between 10 and 20 years, 9 months for those who have worked from 5 to 10 years and maximum 3 months for all the others. Every worker has no other chance than to confide in the compte personnel d’activité (individual activity account) that has been extended to all those who are older than 16. It is a portfolio that tracks, according to the working experience, the acquired rights, a kind of individual «increasing protection» device that produces differentiated rights ad personam. Each person carries in the pocket his or her own personal package of rights and can hope to increase the value of his or her human capital for the price of a complete availability and docility. At best, it will be possible to invest a portion of the wage to sign a mutuelle, a co-insurance, relying on the private security largely encouraged by the recent reforms of the so-called «social economy» (ESS). Differentiating the regimes of rights that can be claimed by each individual, and thus within each workplace, the loi travail aims at preventing any possibility to develop common and collective claims. Liberté to sell oneself at any price, égalité as a full availability to work, fraternité between the State and the bosses. The loi travail is the new declaration of the rights of man and of the precarious citizen that seals the French adaptation to the European regime of wage. As it is already clear in other recent European legislation, starting from the Italian Jobs Act, the problem is no longer the production of precarity. It is no more a matter of erasing acquired rights. At stake is the government of a by now consolidated precarity, or the freedom to force someone to work under time and working conditions established exclusively by the needs of capital. The European regime of wage is this perverse power deployed on a continental scale.
This regime is imposed through a forced differentiation of the working conditions and an increasingly widespread government of mobility. For the French government, the so-called «refugee crisis» was a pretext for reforming the asylum and immigration laws (respectively in 2015 and 2016) in order to accelerate both the entrance of suitable migrants into the labor market and the expulsion of those who are not regarded as suitable for asylum rights, who have only 7 days for making a plea. The precarious quantity of social power that each migrant brings in his or her pocket in the guise of a residence permit is more and more subjected to the discretional power of the Opfra (the French office for the protection of asylum seekers and stateless persons) over the applications, a power that includes the possibility of demanding private information from fiscal authorities, schools, agencies of social security and the providers of energy and telecommunication. As it happens also in Italy since long, the European long-term residence permit can be always withdrawn, when migrants’ «social costs» result too high.
Then again, this is precisely what the European Union asks for, and this is why the loi travail is regarded by the Union as «the minimum that should be done». After all, hundreds of thousands of French men and women understood that the loi travail concerns the relations of power within society. The triumph of the enterprise bargaining is only one of many ways in which the neoliberal politics of fragmentation of the labor market display, together with the ways in which welfare is provided and mobility is governed. All these measures impose a direct confrontation with the employer whose aim is not only to wipe out every risk of a collective initiative, but also to establish an unquestioned dominion of the wage that tends to be reduced to the level of survival, as it is happening in the UK. The loi travail is not simply a point of arrival, but the point of departure of a mechanism that serves to constantly modify the condition of life of those who are affected by it. The loi travail is not simply a law, but it is a mortgage on the future that can be always cashed in. The loi travail is part of a continental device that aims to synchronize the conditions of exploitation inside the European transnational space, hiding beyond the mantra of the economic coordination between the member States also known as the Agenda 2020.
Hence, it is useless to think that this tendency can be inverted through the simple defense of national bargaining inside this or that country: what can be acquired in France through the national bargaining can always be compensated by a reduction of wages and the erosion of rights beyond the borders, so that the extraction of value along the transnational chains of exploitation can function without obstacles. It is also clear that a European bargaining – be it one that involves an entire sector or profession, or one in which a multinational enterprise is the counterpart – runs the risk of being nothing more than a noble ambition in a context characterized by an unprecedented mobility of labor. The watchword used by the French movement inside and outside the workplaces must be taken seriously: the struggle is not only against the loi travail, but concerns also its world. This means that we must clearly recognize the fields of this struggle: wage, welfare and the government of mobility must be thought in their connection and at least on a European scale, because the world of the loi travail is not simply a French one. European minimum wage, welfare and residence permit are therefore political claims whose aim is to create the conditions of a transnational organization, capable of contrasting the individualization of the relations of power imposed by the neoliberal transformation of society, and able to attack its crucial nodes. Against those who pretend to turn the direct democracy in the working places into a mask to hide the blackmail of the regime of wage, it is necessary to build, also beyond the representation of the unions, the conditions of a common and collective struggle against work and against all forms of domination, inside and outside the workplaces. Against the transformation of the individuals into human capital, and against the political synchronization of the conditions of exploitation, it is necessary to affirm the social power of precarious, migrant and industrial workers on a transnational scale, so as to bring the social strike that overwhelmed France beyond the French borders.