Reactions to factory closures
Some years ago, a French website gave details of factories as they were closing; there were so many they gave up trying to keep up. Nevertheless, closures still provoke strong reactions, as in the following example.
Les Emaux de Longwy have produced decorative enamel in Longwy, on the Belgian border, since 1798. In recent years the firm being in difficulties, the workers accepted unpaid overtime, loss of bonuses, being paid late, first on the 10th of the month, then the 15th then the 20th. They were told, ‘if you refuse, we close’. In November 2015, the manager said, ‘since we are looking for someone to take over the firm, we’ll stay as we are, and not bother to hold the scheduled staff representative elections.’ The staff representative accepted this, but on 1st January she was told, ‘you no longer have a mandate, so you no longer attend the planning meetings’. After talking with the other employees, the by now ex-staff rep. went to see the labour inspector, who told her to start a union branch in the firm, which she did, to the indignation of the manager.
When the tribunal of commerce declared the bankruptcy of the firm, the employees decided to strike. The union federation office sent them a lawyer, and together they demanded to have their say in who would take over the firm. They studied the various proposals with the management and the tribunal of commerce. Their favourite, who had had discussions with the union CGT Federation for Glass and Ceramics, and who promised not to shed jobs, was chosen, after the employees threatened to strike if the tribunal of commerce’s favourite was chosen.
The Emaux de Longwy website boasts of their latest creations and their commercial success. The union representative says that relations with the new owner were good to start with, but are deteriorating; she was confident that the employees could defend themselves again.
Industrial taps in Ham
Pentair, a firm in Northern France making industrial taps, had 133 employees and was doing well: it was in the black and has funds for the next two years. It received 2 million euros in Tax Credit, under the government scheme of tax credits in exchange for job creation. Before Christmas 2015, the owner, an American pension fund, announced closure and relocation in the Far East. The accountant declared publicly that the closure was for the benefit of shareholders, the local MP, a right winger, blamed financiers. But the employees were resigned. They were told that the factory would be taken over, that everything would be sorted out and they didn’t need to do anything. They are organised as a group, the ‘Pentair’ but are just awaiting events.
This is the ‘Tax Credit in Exchange for Employment’ that firms are taking advantage of. It stands for ‘Credit d’Impôt Compétitivité Emploi’ [Tax Credit Competitivity/Employment]. When the law creating this credit was passed, the leader of the Employers Union (the MEDEF), Pierre Gattaz, wore a badge saying ‘A million jobs’. The CICE is meant to help firms face up to international competition. Meanwhile, the major supermarket chain, Auchan, even though it pays tax in Belgium, receives this Tax Credit; and yet, in 2015, since receiving this subsidy, it was employing 1400 fewer people, compared with the previous year, and even though it had opened two new shops. Nevermind that it pocketed credits which depend on a promise to take on more staff. But see below (Labour Inspectors) on the power or absence of power of those tasked with checking on labour practices.
Plus ça change
In 1982, protesting against the taxes and contributions Mitterrand had heaped on enterprises, Yvon Gattaz, the father of the Pierre Gattaz mentioned above, and also head of the Employers Union, said: ‘[In these circumstances] our enterprises won’t be able to run, or even walk. It’s a race. You have to be in the starting blocks, jump the hurdles. They’ve given us lead shoes with these contributions we have to pay. The enterprise horse is so heavily laden he can’t carry his rider and can only fall by the wayside. ‘
Thirty years later his son, Pierre, is also an amateur of metaphors: ‘Our rucksack has been filled with stones between 2011 and 2013, with 30 billions worth of contributions. To run the marathon of international competition, we need this rucksack emptied as quickly as possible.’ Different image, same message.
A new meaning for the word ‘flexibility’ entered French dictionaries in 1983; according to Larousse, in their journal entry for the year 1986 ‘the word was launched by Yvon Gattaz, president of the CNPF [predecessor of the MEDEF] when he publicly asked the president of the Republic more suppleness for enterprises to help them cope with international competition.’
The change is not just in words but in reality. Between 1980 and 2007, the number of part-timers went from 6 to 18% of the work force, non permanent contracts have gone from 17 to 31% of the total; since 2007 the number of so-called self employed and other forms of precarious employment has also increased.
French workers are still not flexible enough. Pierre Gattaz: ‘We need to no longer be subject to article 158 of the World Labour Organisation [charter] which demands that employers justify redundancies. As long as this supra-national constraint remains, we won’t get to the bottom of the problem.’
Tefal is suing a labour inspector who was making difficulties regarding an illegal agreement the firm had negotiated regarding working hours. Tefal complained to the local director of Labour Protection, the superior of the inspector in question. He put pressure on her to drop the case. Subsequently the inspector received, anonymously, transcripts of conversations between Tefal and the director; she passed them on to her union, which leaked it to the press. Tefal sued for breach of confidentiality. The inspector is now sentenced to a suspended fine of 3000 euros and was removed from the Tefal case.
The reports above are taken from a magazine called Le Fakir, published in Northern France by François Ruffin. Ruffin made the film ‘Merci Patron’, a showing of which started the movement ‘Nuit Debout’, nightly meetings in Paris on the Place de la Republique and in other French cities. Ruffin does not control what goes on in these meetings, and is exasperated by unrealistic demands, for ‘general strike’ for example. His view is that nothing will be done without an alliance between students and other relatively well off elements (those in Nuit Debout) and the working class. This alliance is not taking place yet, even if the leader of the CGT came to speak at Place de la République.
The example given by the employees of Les Emaux de Longwy shows the way forward: for workers to take the future of their firm in their hands. But movements such as this, even though not unique, are piecemeal and isolated. There is no national movement calling for worker participation, and more of it, as the answer to globalisation and factory closures. And it would most probably be too prosaic, and hard work, for the chatterboxes of Nuit Debout.
This is the article of the 1958 Constitution which allows the Cabinet to impose a law that would not get a majority vote in Parliament, in the field of finance and the financing of Social Security, and, once a term, for any other law. This is how the government forced the passing of the Labour Law, the so-called El Khomri law, in the face of street and Parliament opposition. Hundreds of Nuit Debout participants gathered outside France’s National Assembly to protest at the use of the ‘49.3’ as it’s called. The bill now goes to Senate. The last word has not been said, as the railways, petrol refineries, lorry drivers etc go on extended strike. The CGT is leading the fight against the Labour Law, against its main rival, the CFDT, which has accepted the new law. At the moment the CGT represents more employees, especially in public services, but it may lose this majority in the next round of factory-based union elections in 2017. At the moment, relations between the two main unions could not be worse. One anti CFDT slogan reads: ‘When slavery is re-established, the CFDT will quibble about the weight of the chains.’ This disastrous division is not something that worries the Nuit Debout participants, and yet it must be a crucial factor in future political developments, and yet another factor in the weakness of employees in the face of management actions.