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Why Europe's Laws On Vacations Are Better Than Your Wildest Dreams (and How Badly Americans Get Screwed)

We work ourselves to death, while people in other countries take holidays, get family leave and have paid sick time during vacations.

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By the mid-1970s, it became clear that the policies were good both for business and for working people so the idea spread throughout Europe. Also, government policies encouraged “works councils” that brought together labor and management from the shop floor to the corporate level. The overall result of empowering unions in Europe was the establishment of national legislation in support of paid vacations, paid sick leave, paid maternity and paternity leave and many other pro-worker policies.

Meanwhile back in the USA, we headed in the opposite direction. Rather than empowering unions, as a matter of policy we crushed them, a process that has accelerated since President Reagan broke the air traffic controllers' strike. Through a variety of court rulings it became more and more difficult to organize new workers. The laws that did exist were so weak that management could easily fire workers who engaged in union organizing activities even though it is a legally protected right. When unions pressed for legislation to stop union busting, and to plug porous labor laws, they got nowhere in Congress, no matter which party was in power. So while unions became more stable in Europe, union density in the U.S. dropped from a high of 35 percent in the private sector in 1955, to less than 7 percent today. That, my friends, is why Corporate America is making suckers out of us. We don’t have the muscle to take them on.

Here’s a graph that shows why our muscles have atrophied. As unions decline, so does our middle-class way of life:

Clearly, corporations have more than enough money to provide us with the same vacation plans as they do workers in Europe. But they would rather “let the market decide” – which is French for setting up and taking advantage of a downward spiral in wages and benefits. It’s not a coincidence that defined pension funds in the U.S. are becoming extinct (but not so in Europe). It’s not a coincidence that median family wages are declining. It’s not a coincidence that public and private sector workers are being pitted against each other as the downward spiral accelerates. It’s not a coincidence that working people in this country are being asked to sacrifice in order to pay for the damage that financial elites have done to our economy.

In Europe workers are not fighting each other. Rather they are standing in the way of any and all efforts aimed at eliminating their cherished benefits – benefits that go to union and non-union members alike. Even the austerity-minded German political leadership dare not touch those cherished vacations.

So next time you get some time off, think about what it might be like to have paid maternity and paternity leave or have a couple of months vacation at full pay (and, of course, full protection against illness while on vacation) ... and then maybe think about how we might join together to fight for these very basic human rights that nearly the entire human race, except us, enjoys.    

Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York, and author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—and What We Can Do About It (Chelsea Green, 2009).

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