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French workers pull few punches in fight to keep jobs

In one incident a U.S. executive of an Illinois-based company says he was pummeled by a mob and pelted with eggs. Experts attribute the workers' fury to their being rooted in small-town factories.

August 09, 2009|Devorah Lauter | Lauter is a special correspondent.

PARIS — Will threatening to blow up the factory where you work get you a better severance package?

What about staging a "bossnapping," and attracting TV cameras?

These are the questions some French workers have been asking in the last six months. The problem is, they're doing more than asking.

As jobs are lost, and factories close because of the global financial crisis, French workers have resorted to threatening management with violence; forcefully holding their bosses on company grounds; blocking and burning property in factories; and, in one instance, ransacking police headquarters.

The radicalized trend among the workers has "awakened an old anarchistic French tradition," said Bernard Vivier, director of a French research institute on labor issues, the IST.

He and other experts say the climate is a sign of an increasingly grim outlook for laborers rooted to the same factory, often located in small, centuries-old towns, where they have worked their whole adult lives.

The radical methods "are the expression of local desperation, because a person's job isn't just a job in our country," Vivier said. "In these towns it is something that is very rooted to the territory, a factory, the history of a people and place."

The workers echo that sentiment.

"We're not savages," Guy Pavan, a union representative for workers involved in the latest incident, said by telephone. "We are workers who don't want to get fired."

The incident involved Molex, an Illinois-based automotive parts maker, which is planning to close a plant near Toulouse, in southern France.

As the company's visiting American business development director, Eric Doesburg, walked out of his office Tuesday night, he was pelted with eggs "all over his body" and beaten by a drunken crowd of employees, he said in an interview.

"My French is weak," Doesburg said over the phone. "But I can understand a good bit. In a crowd of 40 people yelling at me, they were obviously very angry. I couldn't tell you the exact phrases that were being said, but I can tell you the intent: . . . The intent was violence. Anger and violence."

Doesburg, who said he was hit in the arm, shoulder and back of the head and has filed formal charges, was in France to help negotiate with workers protesting the company's plans to close the factory by October.

Pavan and other workers contradicted Doesburg's version of events, saying that the visiting director merely was hit by eggs thrown by understandably frustrated employees who have been on strike since July 7.

Both parties acknowledged that tensions had risen Tuesday night, after employees were told Molex wasn't planning to sell the business. Union and French government officials had been under the impression that was a possibility up for negotiation, as a way to save nearly 300 jobs.

Vivier said companies headquartered in Paris or the United States tend to underestimate workers' attachment to their factories, and the corporations try to close them too quickly or without sufficiently communicating on a local level.

But Molex employees probably will have a hard time defending their actions in court: Two of the company's French managers were "bossnapped," or detained on the factory site, by employees this year.

"We understand the perceived theatrics of events that unions like to use," Doesburg said.

"But that does not excuse violence. I don't care what country it is."

French government officials have strongly expressed to workers that threats work against them. The acts of violence "do a disservice to the cause of employees, and make negotiations all the more difficult," French Industry Minister Christian Estrosi said in a statement last week.

With the incidents of threatened violence getting so much news coverage, it has fueled the sense among some that aggressive tactics can pay off.

"If we didn't have the gas canisters [explosives], we'd never have had anything," Dominique Duval, a union representative for automotive supplier New Fabris, told France 24 TV reporters. "They would have left us to die in our corner."

In July, New Fabris employees in west-central France threatened to bomb their factory unless they were given an extra 30,000 euros ($42,000) in severance. They received about one-third of that, in addition to the statutory 17,500 euros ($25,000) they were to get.

It's unclear whether they would have gotten more by taking a less confrontational route. However, Vivier says businesses prefer to pay off violent workers with a quick check rather than spend extra time to negotiate a plan for alternative employment.

"In conflicts where violence exploded, the negotiations can be summed up with a check."

"When there's violence, [employers] just want to send a check and put an end to it."

For example, in April factory workers at a Continental tire plant in northern France ransacked police headquarters, blocked the work site and burned tires. Some employees risked spending three to six months behind bars for their involvement, but the workers won 50,000 euros (about $70,000) in severance pay, among the highest such settlements in France, plus their annual salaries until 2011, along with standard unemployment benefits, according to French reports.

But, Vivier said, "the real goal is to get work. Once a check is spent, you're left with nothing."

French sociologist Jean-Pierre Le Goff tried to explain the rationale behind the aggressive methods.

"In this kind of desperate battle, you don't think about the others. . . . It's every man for himself, in a world where bosses earn millions," he said.

"It's an extremely black vision of the society."

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