Sweet words: You're fired

May 11, 2006
I worked one summer during college as an electrician's assistant.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

The boss at the job shop had a picturesque way of saying he had fired someone. "I offered him a permanent position on the outside," was the way he put it.

And as a matter of fact, he offered a lot of people outside positions while I was there. The shop where I worked was a small sub-subcontractor to the auto industry and didn't pay well. So its hiring standards were low. More than a few of the new hires turned out to have debilitating addictions, problems with authority, or simply stopped showing up for work. They were shown the door in short order.

It was during that summer I learned that firing people can be a good thing. We worked with industrial control panels that carried potentially lethal voltages and currents. There was an informal watch-out-foryourbuddy system as a matter of safety. When you were wiring a panel, you depended on the watchful eyes of a coworker to help make sure no one accidentally energized it and put you in the hospital.

Small wonder, then, we had little use for workers who were irresponsible or just inattentive. It was a union shop, but even the union steward had no issue with giving pink slips to hopeless slackers. He, as much as the rest of us, wanted to go home at night in one piece.

My summer of wiring control panels came to mind recently as French youth rioted in Paris over proposed legislation that would have let firms of more than 20 people fire employees without cause. The law would have affected mostly unskilled workers under the age of 26 during a two-year trial period. Companies that could readily get rid of deadbeats, it was thought, would be more inclined to take a chance on hiring inexperienced young people.

No question that French youth desperately needs jobs. The unemployment rate among them is and has been over 20% for a long time. The only alternative for many working-class kids in France has been off-the-books employment that is temporary.

So why the vehement reaction to a proposal that might change things for the better? Commentators have blamed creeping socialism, the antiglobalization movement, and even European skepticism of market forces.

But I'm convinced there is something much simpler at work here: The prospect of firing without cause, heard through the ears of an 18 year old, sounds harsh and unfair. It would seem especially so to those who have never held a real job nor seen firsthand that sometimes it's imperative to get rid of irresponsible people quickly, without spending undue time on establishing a "cause."

It now looks as though French legislators have caved in on the firing-without-cause proposal. Too bad. The only reason my employer took a chance on me during that summer long ago was because of a tacit understanding that I'd be gone quickly if I didn't work out. Ditto for the misfits and losers who labored with me. If current French labor laws had applied in the U.S. back then, none of us would have gotten a foot in the door of that factory.

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