[Marxism] Vive la France!
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Apr 18 05:20:58 MDT 2009
French Workers Hold Bosses Captive to Force Negotiations
President Calls for Order, but Hostage-Taking Continues
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Staff
Saturday, April 18, 2009
GRENOBLE, France -- The striking workers had no battle plan, but their
jobs were endangered by layoffs, and they were itching for a confrontation.
So when managers at the U.S.-owned Caterpillar factory here refused to
negotiate under pressure, workers recalled, resentments that had built
up during several years of increasingly sour labor relations suddenly
boiled over. About 40 employees invaded the executive suite, locked five
top bosses inside and said they would be released only after resuming
talks on the strikers' demands.
"It was spontaneous. We just had it with them," said Benoit Nicolas, 38,
a Caterpillar line supervisor and delegate from one of several striking
unions, the General Labor Confederation. "They refused to talk, so we
locked them up until they agreed to negotiate."
The takeover, at midday March 31 in a Grenoble suburb in the Alpine
foothills 75 miles southeast of Lyon, ended without injuries 24 hours
later. It was one of more than half a dozen "boss-nappings" over the
past month in factories across France, a whiff of revolution by workers
who are facing massive layoffs because of the global economic crisis.
The hostage-takings, a specifically French reaction to the worldwide
crisis, have been denounced as illegal by President Nicolas Sarkozy. But
they have been widely applauded among the French people -- and in some
instances have brought results. Most of all, they have dramatized the
extent to which, in France perhaps more than anywhere else, the
perspective of class struggle remains lodged in many people's minds and
shapes the way they view the economic crisis.
The latest detention took place Thursday, when workers facing layoffs at
a printer plant near Strasbourg run by Faure et Machet, a
Hewlett-Packard contractor, confined their bosses in a meeting room for
about 12 hours and forced them to continue negotiating on a severance
package. Previously, a 3M executive in Pithiviers was held overnight
after announcing layoffs, as were the head of Sony France in
Pontoux-sur-Ardour and three expatriate British bosses in a Scapa Group
adhesive tape plant at Bellegarde-sur-Valserine.
Trying another tactic, workers facing layoffs at the Celanese-owned
Acetex-Chimie plant in Pau started a rotating hunger strike, with Mayor
Martine Lignières-Cassou taking a turn to show solidarity.
More spectacularly, François-Henri Pinault, a luxury-brand magnate who
recently married actress Selma Hayek, was surrounded in a car in the
middle of Paris by salesclerks upset at layoffs in his stores. Before
police came to his rescue, television cameras captured the Gucci
millionaire negotiating through the car window and snapping to his
captors that their actions were altogether inappropriate.
The historic class-struggle reflex has been sharpened because, in the
view of many French workers, the current crisis is the fault of
rapacious Wall Street speculators and their French equivalents. Reports
of fat bonuses and stock options, even in businesses that accepted
anti-crisis subsidies, have exacerbated the popular outrage. In opinion
polls, about half of those queried support the workers who carry out
"There is no justice in France today, and even less in America, because
the bosses went to the casino with our pension money," complained Rene
Mirisola, 46, a machinist and 24-year Caterpillar veteran whose schedule
has been reduced to part time.
Jérôme Pélisse, a sociologist at the University of Reims who specializes
in labor conflicts, said the French labor union movement descended from
a tradition of confrontation. The main Caterpillar plant here, for
instance, sits next to Leon Blum Avenue, named for the socialist prime
minister whose Popular Front government in the 1930s instituted paid
vacations and the 40-hour workweek despite bitter opposition from French
Moreover, Pélisse said, France's perennially high unemployment rate
means laid-off workers will have difficulty finding new jobs. "When they
leave, they have to leave with a lot," he said, drawing attention to the
demand for severance packages that are at the core of many
labor-management disputes, including Caterpillar's.
Capturing the mood in its own way, the satirical newspaper Le Canard
Enchaine published a front-page cartoon Wednesday showing executives in
a fancy restaurant, sharing tables with their mistresses and calling
their wives on cellphones to explain that they would not be home for
dinner because they had been abducted by workers. Another cartoon showed
a bedraggled manager exiting his factory with strikers in the background
and telling a companion, "I think I deserve a kidnapping bonus."
In that vein, Pierre Piccarreta, another delegate from the General Labor
Confederation, said union negotiators have demanded that executives at
Caterpillar's Grenoble factory give up their bonuses for 2008 and turn
in their company cars to sweeten the pot for severance payments. The
demand was rejected out of hand, he added.
"We live in a crazy world, and if things don't change, there is going to
be a revolution," Piccarreta told a rally Tuesday, generating whoops
from the workers. "We demand redistribution of the wealth that has been
generated by Caterpillar. Today the workers are calling the tune."
Workers at the rally, numbering about 600, shouted and whistled when
Piccarreta urged more defiance. They booed and sent up catcalls when he
brought up Sarkozy's condemnation of their tactics. The refusal of
Caterpillar executives to forgo company cars elicited cries of "scandal"
"They say we're a bunch of hotheads," screamed a bearded worker, seizing
a microphone and addressing his colleagues. "We're not hotheads. The
problem is that they are jerks."
Union organizers said they were convinced that the hostage-taking was a
success, forcing management to take them seriously. Only after the
executives in Grenoble were held captive during the night, the
organizers said, did they call U.S. headquarters, get authorization to
pay workers for several strike days and resume negotiations.
The chief executive of Caterpillar in Grenoble, Nicolas Polutnik, told
employees in February that the factory would lay off 733 of its
approximately 2,500 employees, citing a drastic decline in orders for
Caterpillar's earth-moving and construction equipment. Many workers
already had been put on part-time schedules. Reducing the number of
layoffs is the unions' main goal, organizers said, but they are also
seeking increases in the severance package.
Polutnik was one of the five senior executives taken hostage. The human
resources director, Maurice Petit, was released at the end of the day
because of a heart problem. But Polutnik and the other three spent the
night in the executive suite with a rotating team of workers acting as
Since then, talks have been held in government offices with involvement
by the central government's regional representative and telephone
discussions between the representative and senior Caterpillar executives
in the United States, union officials said. The Grenoble management team
now moves about town with bodyguards, they added.
Despite Sarkozy's call for respect of law, French authorities have
brought no charges against the Caterpillar workers or others who have
taken executives hostage. But a Grenoble court on Friday ordered the
removal of 19 workers who were camping at the factory entrance and
harassing employees who tried to enter.
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