Walker's World: Explosive militancy

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  July 20, 2009 at 11:41 AM
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BORDEAUX, France, July 20 (UPI) -- There are three striking features about the sudden spate of threats by redundant workers in France to blow up their factories, not including the careful way that police and firefighters have been told not to intervene.

The first is that the explosive tactic has now been shown to succeed. Employees at JLG, a company that makes crane-mounted hydraulic platforms that help technicians work high above the ground, secured Friday the 30,000 euros a head in compensation they had been demanding.

Otherwise, said the 53 laid-off employees, they would throw the switch on the stacks of butane gas cylinders they had installed around the expensive machinery at their plant outside Bordeaux.

The second striking feature of this dramatic threat is that most French voters appear to support the tactic, according to opinion polls. In particular, they tell pollsters and call-in radio shows that when bosses and bankers get lavish "golden parachutes" it is only fair that ordinary workers should also get fair compensation.

The third remarkable aspect of the "pay or we explode" plan is its fatalist, even defeatist quality. A generation ago a wave of planned shutdowns and layoffs was met by the workers occupying their factories and demanding that they be kept in business. European workers of the 1970s were defending their future by defending their jobs.

This time, there is no such goal. The new tactic is not to defend their jobs but to accept the inevitable: that the jobs are going and will not be kept on life support and will not be coming back. Instead, they just want a reasonable payoff. The fundamental psychology of employee resistance and of militancy has changed.

The JLG employees were the third group of workers in France to make similar threats this month after workers from telecoms manufacturer Nortel and car parts maker New Fabris responded to their prospect of closure by setting demolition equipment around their plants. Cylinders of butane gas and oxyacetylene tanks normally used for welding equipment have been linked together by electrical cord and placed around machinery and around electrical transformers and substations.

Union spokesmen at the New Fabris factory in the town of Chatellerault, about 200 miles south of Paris, say they will detonate them on July 31 unless they receive 30,000 euros each. The New Fabris company filed for bankruptcy last year and does not have the cash to pay. But its main customers, French carmakers Renault and Peugeot, which slashed their orders when demand for new cars collapsed, have each received some $4 billion in state aid.

Some of that money, says the New Fabris workers, should go to them since their taxes helped pay for it. And as the TV cameras showed bare-chested workers playing boules in the factory courtyard this week, the butane gas cylinders piled up behind them, French voters seem to accept the logic of their case.

So do the company directors and the government. With some discreet prodding from the politicians, a deal is apparently under negotiation by which Renault and Peugeot would buy up the remaining inventory of the New Fabris plant and New Fabris would then use the money to pay the 336 workers their 30,000 euros each.

"If we don't get anything, they'll have nothing at all," a union representative told Le Figaro. The factory inventory has been formally valued at about $5.6 million, most of it ordered by the two automakers. French Industry Minister Christian Estrosi has agreed to meet with union leaders on July 20.

The context in which this burst of explosive union militancy unfolds is a recession in which French unemployment creeps steadily higher. At the end of May it was 9.3 percent, the highest rate of any major Western European country except Spain, according to the latest statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The only question is whether it hits 10 percent this year or next. Credit insurer Euler Hermes forecasts that business bankruptcies in France will rise 30 percent this year after a 15 percent increase in 2008.

The third explosive threat comes from Chateaufort, west of Paris, where workers at a Nortel telecommunications plant placed 11 gas canisters on the site and threatened to blow up the plant unless workers facing redundancy received 100,000 euros each. The price has evidently gone up. The company responded quickly and arranged a meeting with the bankruptcy receivers, after which the gas canisters were removed.

Nortel France, a subsidiary of Canadian communications equipment supplier Nortel, was placed in bankruptcy on May 28, with 467 of its 683 workers due to be laid off Aug. 1. But Nortel has not received the kind of state financial support that had been paid to the carmakers, so the government has been rather tougher. The French Justice Ministry warned, "Apart from the clear risk to human life, blowing up someone else's property amounts to criminal damage, and those responsible would obviously face prosecution and probable prison sentences."

But police are reluctant to intervene in industrial disputes, and no prosecutions were brought last year against the spate of "boss-napping," when angry workers held their bosses hostage overnight and in one case for four days, to try to win better deals at factory closures. One French business magazine ran an item on the kind of emergency kit the thoughtful French boss should keep in a suitcase in his office, just in case.

The bottom line, however, is that the employees have recognized that their jobs have gone and the world has changed. Compensation, rather than the promise of work, is the new focus of their militancy.

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