I’ve just seen the Dardenne brothers’ brilliant Two Days, One Night (2014) It’s a film I’ve been looking forward to seeing for a long time, and it didn’t disappoint. The premise is deceptively simple: Sandra Byas, played by Marion Cotillard, is a worker in a Belgian solar panel factory who has just returned to work after suffering a nervous breakdown, only to find that her boss has offered her colleagues a bonus of 1,000 euros a month if they agree to make her redundant.
From the management’s point of view this is the cheaper option for a small company operating in a globalised market against Asian competition, and also because in Sandra’s absence her co-workers have been able to cover her shifts by working overtime.
Sandra finds all this out on a Friday, by which time one of her colleagues has managed to persuade the boss to hold a secret ballot amongst the workforce on Monday morning to decide her fate. Her only hope of keeping her job is to persuade nine of her colleagues to vote against accepting the bonus and for keeping her on instead.
This is what she tries to do in the course of the ‘two days and one night’ of the title. As Sandra visits her co-workers one by one she is forced, essentially, to beg them to vote in her favour and vote against their own interests, because if she needs a job, it is equally clear that all of them are struggling economically and need the bonus. At the same time there is another choice that each of these workers must make: whether to accept the divide-and-rule arrangements imposed by management or act out of solidarity and ordinary humanity to help a fellow-worker in difficulty.
This story is told through a series of beautifully low-key and convincingly uncinematic performances, with Cotillard absolutely outstanding as a fragile young woman forced into a humiliating attempt to assert herself while struggling against depression and her own lack of self-worth. I won’t say how it all ends, in case you haven’t seen it. Suffice to say that this is a quiet masterpiece, which the dim careerists who are competing for the Labour leadership by paying homage to ‘business’ and ‘wealth creators’ would do especially well to see.
Because if Two Days and One Night is a film about solidarity in the face of adversity, it’s also a film about work and working lives, and the human consequences of what employers like to call ‘flexibility’ and which some economists have more accurately labelled ‘precarity.’ Sandra is one of those ‘hard-working people’ who politicians claim to love, but her life and the life of her family is threatened by a decision made on purely financial considerations. In order to compete successfully in the global market, her company needs the ability to lay people off and take them on at will.
Flexibility for the management translates into constant insecurity for the workforce, and Sandra’s breakdown and depression gives management a lever than can be used against her, since her line manager Jean-Marc tries to sway her colleagues by telling them that she isn’t working well as a result of her illness. Jean-Marc is an invisible presence for much of the film, but he is the one who reports to his superiors and influences their decisions, and therefore exerts an unseen power over the workforce, such as the welder on a fixed-term contract whose renewal depends on what Jean-Marc tells management.
One of the reasons why Jean-Marc is so powerful is because there is no union to counter-balance him. As far as we can tell, the secret ballot to decide Sandra’s job appears to be an ad hoc and idiosyncratic arrangement between the staff and management. As a result the workforce is entirely dependent on the vagaries of the global economy and the largesse of their employers.
Sandra’s attempts to persuade her colleagues to vote in her favour are made even more difficult by her painful awareness that all of them need their bonus, because the money they make is not enough to make ends meet.
This, in short, is true precarity: low wages, powerlessness and permanent insecurity in the workplace, and the constant prospect of unemployment and the dole. It’s a situation that millions of men and women find themselves in to some degree or other across the world, and which has become something of a desired ideal for governments like ours.
Even though the words ‘trade union’ are never mentioned in the film, Two Days and One Night is a powerful reminder of why we need unions, and what workers lose when they don’t have them. In this country in particular, we have been taught for many years by Tory governments and the Tory press to regard unions as a historical anachronism and a reactionary obstacle to ‘reform’. With their new strike laws, Lord Snooty and His Pals are plotting to strip trade unions of the most powerful tool that workers have to defend their pay and conditions and protect their interests.
I wouldn’t recommend a showing of Two Days and Nights at Downing Street: His Lordship wouldn’t be interested. But Burnham, Kendall, Cooper et al really ought to see it. It won’t do much for their careers, but they might learn something about what 21st century working lives are really like, and it might even remind them of what their own party was once supposed to stand for.