Nothing characterizes the private-sector labor market in the United States more clearly than the ability to fire employees at will. “Sorry, you’re no longer needed here” sounds like the refrain of a classic American song. Those Europeans who oppose the job protections typical of post–World War II social democracy admire the “American model.” They see easy firing as part of “labor market flexibility” and the best answer to their economic problems. If only their businesses could operate in a deregulated labor market . . . if only they could get rid of excess workers, troublesome workers, mediocre workers, then certainly all good things would follow: employees would work harder, companies would hire more readily, productivity would rise, structural unemployment would shrink, and Europe would compete as successfully as the United States in the global market.
In Italy today, the call for labor market flexibility sounds like the repetition of a sacred mantra. Not surprisingly, employers of every kind, business leaders, and center-right politicians want to deregulate. Yet even some parties in the center-left coalition and some left economists and sociologists now support greater flexibility. They all see the labor unions as their main opponents, as the foot-dragging adversaries of “modernization.”
This assault on basic job protections (won in Italy only thirty years ago) erodes the social democratic model just as much as, perhaps more than, cutbacks in welfare state benefits. To understand exactly what’s going on, one needs a clear image of how people find and keep jobs in Italy and how this contrasts with the American model. Here are six snapshots—taken recently in Italy and the United States—of workers, bosses, and trade unionists.
The New York Temp
Sally Reid, twenty-four years old, works full time at a publishing house in Manhattan. She is the administrative assistant to two high-level editors who couldn’t get along without her. At night, she takes classes at a local university where she’s trying to earn a bachelor’s degree in English literature. She found her job through a private employment agency, and the publishing house hired her as a “temp”—a worker hired in theory on a temporary basis. Because no legal time limits exist for this kind of work, a temp job can last one day or twenty years. Reid has been working at the publishing house for four years.
The employment agency that placed Reid still takes a percentage of her pay check and will do so for as long as she works at the publishing house. She has no health insurance, no accident insurance, no retirement plan aside from Social Security. She gets no paid sick days, no paid legal holidays, and no vacation unless her employer agrees to let her take unpaid time off. She keeps her job by working hard, making no demands, and not complaining. She doesn’t look for another job because she doesn’t expect t...
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