Zut alors! The French are bossnapping again

Jan. 1, 2000

Goodyear plant manager becomes the latest hostage du jour

The forecast for the U.S. automotive industry is sunny. Perhaps not sunny enough to power Ford’s new C-Max Solar Energi concept car into economic feasibility, let alone actual production, but sunny enough to blind Europe’s car industry.

According to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA, www.acea.be), the auto sector is Europe’s engine room, but the ACEA is trapped in it, while the ship sinks. Although steps are being taken to keep it afloat with plans for seaworthiness by 2020, Europe’s car industry could use a life preserver, given the rebirth of its American counterpart.

Among G8 nations, Japan captured the lion’s share of global auto manufacturing in 2012, with the United States checking in at No. 2 with a bullet and Germany clinging to the third spot. America’s car industry is expected to displace Japan, climbing into the top position by 2016, and Russia’s expected to surpass Germany for No. 3.

The U.S. resurgence comes just four years after the 2009 economic crisis, which sent GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy. American-made cars are No. 1 in America again. GM’s factories — the ones that weren’t closed — are running all three shifts.

But the outlook in Europe is not so bright. Now slumping for six straight years, the continent is rife with overcapacity. And, despite the ACEA’s rosy outlook, IHS Automotive (www.ihs.com/industry/automotive), an industry analyst, predicts European sales of only 14.7 million in 2020, still well below its 2007 peak. One of the biggest problems is that Europe’s overcapacity is not a quick fix, especially because of labor laws in France and Belgium. Factories remain in operation, despite lack of demand for what’s being manufactured. Sacre bleu!

In France, for example, the tradition of “bossnapping” has become a last-ditch favorite practice of workers. If we can’t negotiate based on production and profitability, then we’ll hold them hostage in their own facility to show that we mean business. If you can’t beat ’em, lock ’em in a room until they start to smell appropriately.

The first widely reported case of French bossnapping was at Sony in 2009, when workers held the CEO and HR director overnight, until they at last relented and agreed to renegotiate the severance package for laid-off workers. Holy Cirque du Soleil! French police, remarkably, did not intervene in this struggle, nor in the one that occurred months later at a 3M plant in Pithiviers, France, where a similar scenario played out. To their credit, the 3M workers did supply their captive with a dinner of mussels and French Fries. Please insert your own joke about “liberty fries” here. That one’s just too easy.

In 2010, police finally got involved, when five managers at the Caterpillar plant in Grenoble, France, were held against their wills. Toyota and Hewlett-Packard facilities in France also became notable bossnapping sites. The practice became so rampant that executives were often encouraged to prepare their own bossnapping survival kits, which included a change of clothes and a cell phone pre-programmed with the numbers of the police and a psychologist, apparently, in case they were distressed by the inadequacy of the steamed mussels. Oh, and don’t forget to pack the cornichons.

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about the most recent bossnapping incident. Workers at the Goodyear Dunlop Tires France facility in Amiens barricaded the plant manager and an HR representative in a room. The police took control on Tuesday, ending a two-day encounter that was anything but peaceful (http://photoblog.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/03/07/17224341-french-goodyear-workers-make-a-last-ditch-effort-to-save-their-jobs?lite). Workers also took control of the plant, reportedly carousing and rolling flaming tires around. Zut alors! The French sure know how to throw a party — I mean protest.
This, of course, did nothing to help the plant’s five-year bid to find new ownership, as Goodyear has attempted to remove itself either by closing the plant or by selling it to another Tier 1 supplier.

The problem is that French law requires Goodyear to negotiate any restructuring with France’s General Confederation of Labor (CGT) union. About a year ago, France courted Maurice Taylor, CEO of U.S. tire company, Titan International, as a potential suitor, but that potential relationship soured, at least temporarily, when Taylor called plant personnel lazy in a letter to French Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg, explaining that only someone stupid would purchase a plant with more than 1,000 employees who only worked three hours a day.

But never say jamais. Taylor has recently reversed his position and said that Titan is still interested and would not run from a deal to acquire the plant. I only hope he carries a spare change of clothes and an ample serving of escargot with him at all times.

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