European workers rebel as G-20 looms
At companies, including Caterpillar in France and Visteon in Northern Ireland, workers have occupied offices and detained bosses.
By Jason Walsh
As world leaders meet at the Group of 20 summit in London, Europeans are taking militant actions to protect their jobs, pointing to a growing anger – and willingness to act on it – among workers in the European Union.
In the latest such move, staff at US automotive-parts manufacturer Visteon in Northern Ireland occupied a factory.
The timing couldn't be worse for world leaders. With the G-20 summit bringing together heads of government, including President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a rise in militancy could undermine already shaky negotiations over how best to address the global financial crisis.
British unions took to the streets of London over the weekend as part of a demonstration calling for G-20 leaders to protect workers. More protests erupted Wednesday as G-20 leaders arrived.
President Obama cautioned the same day that the international community must address "the most severe economic crisis since World War II" together. But European workers appear unconvinced leaders will protect them as job losses increase:
• The British arm of Visteon, which is a major supplier to Ford, announced Tuesday that it was cutting almost 600 jobs across the United Kingdom, including 210 in Northern Ireland. It filed for bankruptcy the same day.
Workers immediately occupied Visteon's manufacturing facility in Belfast, seeking an enhanced layoff package, which they say should be financed by the factory's former owner, Ford Motor Co.
• In Ireland, fired workers at Waterford Crystal occupied the world-renowned glassmaking factory after it was shut down. The occupation, which started in late January, ended after almost two months with the announcement that 176 jobs had been saved for at least six months.
• In Dundee, Scotland, staff at Prisme, a box manufacturer, are in the fifth week of an occupation and are reportedly planning to restart the business as a workers' cooperative.
• In France, workers at Caterpillar took the dramatic step Tuesday of kidnapping four managers, who were held for 24 hours at the company's plant in the southeastern city of Grenoble before being released Wednesday. Workers were angry that 700 of the 2,500 employees face layoff due to a drop in demand for Caterpillar bulldozers.
The action at Caterpillar was the fourth "bossnapping" in France in the last month. Last week, workers at 3M held executive Luc Rosselet overnight until management agreed to discuss job cuts with staff. The chief executive and director of human relations of Sony's French arm were also held for a day by workers, and two managers were locked up at a Kleber-Michelin machine-parts factory in Toul.
Holding management overnight is an extreme, though not entirely uncommon, tactic in French industrial disputes and first rose to prominence during the 1968 revolt by students and workers.
Traditionally, workers have entered into discussion with employers over job losses and other hot-button issues like pay and benefits. If discussion failed there, was always the nuclear option: a strike. With workers being laid off, strikes are not possible – thus the more extreme measures.
The protests are symbolic in nature, intended to draw attention to workers' plight, says Zander Wedderburn, a labor union expert and professor emeritus at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.
"In a way they're fighting against a global recession – they're not going to shoot the guys, they're looking for a headline to get support from the public and attention from politicians.
"There is a structural problem in the economy and occupations won't change that," said Professor Wedderburn.
The 100 former workers who spent the night at the Visteon plant in Belfast are already gaining support from both ends of the local political spectrum.
Gerry Adams, president of the Irish republican political party Sinn Féin and member of parliament for West Belfast, home to many of the protesters, spoke at the site on Wednesday, saying Ford had a "moral responsibility" to the workers. Northern Ireland's enterprise minister, Arlene Foster from the pro-British Democratic Unionist party, said politicians must help the manufacturing sector.
Workers in Visteon's two plants in Britain also attempted occupations Wednesday. Fifty people are protesting inside a plant at Basildon, Essex, while others are protesting outside a plant in Enfield, London.
Jane Gunn, founder of the mediation firm Corporate Peacemakers, says that the actions are driven by a sense of desperation.
"The psychology of it is that people in conflict lack a feeling of power over their circumstances," she says. "It isn't outcome-driven, it's a way of regaining power and influence in a psychological sense.
"There are two fundamental things people are asking for in any relationship: 'Do I matter?' and 'Am I heard?' The underlying feeling is one of lack of respect."
Roger Maddison, automotive sector spokesperson for the union Unite, said that workers are not sufficiently protected by British law.
"We are bitterly disappointed with today's news," he commented Tuesday. "Within minutes, these workers' working world collapsed around them. Once again we see how cheap and easy it is to sack UK workers. One minute, they were working, but six minutes later they were jobless, pensionless, and looking at the state basic in redundancy pay as their company was placed into administration. This is no way to treat a loyal workforce."
Unite, the largest union in Britain, is the British arm of Workers Uniting, the largest private sector union in the USA and Canada.