A Paris court will rule on Monday on whether to accept a plan by a worker’s co-operative to save bankrupt SeaFrance. But hard-line intransigence by powerful trade unionists may have fatally undermined the process.
French cross-channel ferry service SeaFrance is drinking in the last chance saloon.
A court will rule on Monday whether a union-supported worker’s cooperative, known in France as a SCOP, can take over the ailing business using “extraordinary” redundancy payouts to employees.
But as accusations of “gangsterism” and “piracy” by the regional chapter of the powerful CFDT union emerged, hopes of a government-supported solution were looking increasingly in doubt.
On Thursday the CFDT head office “disavowed” its SeaFrance branch following reports in the press (both right and left wing) that union bosses at SeaFrance had all but taken over the management of the company and were operating a mafia-style system of control.
The union, one of the biggest in France, also complained that the SCOP had flatly rejected a major offer in November that would have saved the ferry company, albeit at the cost of hundreds of jobs.
Le Figaro on Friday quoted disgruntled non-union SeaFrance employees, who said the union effectively controlled recruitment and promotion, was openly favourable to friends and allies and operated a system of violence and intimidation.
Left-leaning daily Liberation also published an investigation which included a long list of allegations of illegal and unethical practices.
Dominique Andolfatto, a political science professor and author of numerous books on trade unionism in France, told FRANCE 24 that the alleged behaviour of SeaFrance’s CFDT leaders amounted to “piracy” that would inevitably sink the firm.
“This is a rare situation and no one in France who supports unions will have much sympathy for them,” he said. “It certainly brings into question the role of unions in France.
“But it is symptomatic of a wider problem - that there are too many unions competing against each other, acting in their own interests rather than in the interests of their companies and colleagues.
“In the case of SeaFrance, it would seem that there is a complete perversion of what unionism is all about. And it will not save SeaFrance.”
A litany of failed bids
SeaFrance’s vessels, and the company’s 880 employees, have been tied up in dock since November, when the firm, which is wholly owned by French national rail operator SNCF went into liquidation.
Numerous attempts to rescue the company have failed.
In 2010 SeaFrance was put into receivership and shed 700 jobs. The following year an ownership bid by SeaFrance management, backed by a 160-million-euro loan from SNCF, was blocked by the European Commission on grounds of competition.
In November 2011 an offer by French shipping firm Louis Dreyfus Armateurs and Danish ferry company DFDS was rejected by the CFDT because it would have meant cutting hundreds of jobs.
The SCOP is a final attempt to save the ferry operator. Under the plan, SeaFrance workers would finance the firm’s re-launch from their standard redundancy packages supplemented by an “exceptional” payment from its parent company, the state-owned rail operator SNCF.
The scheme had the support of the local authorities in Calais, as well as the eleventh hour backing of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who said as late as Monday January 2 that he was behind the bid.
But this broke down on Thursday after unions said the payout, at 50,000 euros, was “less than SNCF’s offer six months ago,” according to the SCOP’s lawyer Fouad Barbouch.
A last-minute proposal was filed with the commercial tribunal in Paris at 6pm on Friday.
The SNCF said on Friday that it would guarantee SeaFrance employee jobs, provided they were prepared to relocate.
Date created : 2012-01-06