Workers release bosses after Sarkozy intervenes

2nd April 2009, Comments 0 comments

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s offer to help reopen talks on layoff with US Caterpillar firm resulted in the release of its four executives.

GRENOBLE – French workers Wednesday released four managers held hostage for 24 hours at a Caterpillar bulldozer plant, after the US firm offered to reopen talks on layoffs under mediation by the state.

Employees at the Caterpillar factory in the southeastern city of Grenoble barricaded their bosses inside an office on Tuesday after talks between management and 733 workers facing redundancy broke down.

Factory director Nicolas Polutnik was set free along with the head of personnel and two other managers. A fifth executive, the human resources director who suffers from heart problems, had been allowed to leave Tuesday.

Hecklers shouted out "Resign!" while some 400 workers booed and whistled as the executives were driven from the site, headed for the regional labour office where the talks with unions are to take place.

Their release came after President Nicolas Sarkozy moved to defuse the situation by offering in a radio interview to meet union leaders from the plant to hear their demands.

A CGT union representative called on Sarkozy to ask US President Barack Obama, when he meets him in London at Thursday's G20 summit, to intervene with the US boss of Caterpillar to improve lay-off terms.

"Mr. Sarkozy can perhaps influence Obama, so that he can then influence Jim Owens," said Pierre Piccarreta.

Wide-ranging negotiations resumed Wednesday afternoon on a possible cut in the number of redundancies, compensation for laid-off staff and the long-term future of the Grenoble operations.

Caterpillar workers were demanding a minimum of EUR 30,000 in severance pay, much more than the EUR 10,000 that Caterpillar was offering as minimum compensation.

The CGT's Piccarreta said the talks would involve representatives from Caterpillar's European and US headquarters and French state officials.

He said Caterpillar had already put an offer of compensation on the table for staff forced into part-time work, and would pay workers for the three days spent on strike – which he called a "historic" gesture.

Polutnik told reporters at the plant that Caterpillar had agreed to the unions' demand for payment for time on strike "as a gesture of appeasement".

"There is a condition, which is for the site to be evacuated, for us to be free to come and go as we please, and for the strike order to be lifted to allow negotiations to go ahead," he said.

He did not confirm the offer of special compensation for part-timers.

The Caterpillar action was the latest in a spate of so-called "bossnappings" in France as anger mounts over the global economic crisis, and Sarkozy and his ministers have taken a cautious approach to the protests.

"I will save the site," Sarkozy told Europe 1 radio. "I will meet the union leaders since, if I understand right, they called for my help and I understand this. I won't let them down."

It was not immediately clear what Sarkozy's promise amounted to: the "site" as such is not under threat, but 733 of the firm's 2,800 jobs at two plants in Grenoble are due to be cut.

Nevertheless, Sarkozy's failure to criticise the workers for denying the bosses their freedom of movement could give encouragement to the organisers of increasingly militant protests across the country.

It was the third time in March that executives had been held by French workers outraged at job losses sparked by the global economic crisis.

A manager of a factory run by US conglomerate 3M was held for more than 24 hours last week and on March 12 the boss of Sony France was detained overnight by workers seeking better redundancy packages.

In those instances, police did not intervene to free the managers who were released unharmed and no charges have been laid against the workers.

France has also seen strikes and protests over bonuses paid to managers, as the crisis sent the number of French jobless shooting up to reach 2.4 million, more than eight percent of the workforce.

AFP / Expatica

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