Laptops, barbecues and industrial action made an unlikely mix at a Nortel France plant near Paris Wednesday as striking executives and engineers, used to perks and smart offices, threatened to blow up their plant with gas canisters.
A total of 480 jobs are set to be axed at the plant in Châteaufort, near Paris, after the Canadian telecommunications manufacturer filed for bankruptcy protection in a Toronto court in January. The threat to blow up the plant however turned out to be a ploy to attract government and media attention as striking employees admitted that the gas canisters were empty. But as the strike entered its ninth day, employees were acutely aware that they had little time to act.
On Wednesday, the threats of violence attracted a swarm of cameras, journalists and anchors, and to top the day off, a visit from Industry Minister Christian Estrosi, who promised to relaunch talks with partners, including administrator Ernst and Young UK. Striking workers are demanding 100,000 euros each in compensation for lost jobs.
No breakthrough in talks had been obtained so far, workers said, and on Thursday, strikers met Estrosi for talks in Paris.
A wave of threats
“We placed the gas canisters symbolically, we weren’t going to blow the place up, but we knew we had to do something exceptional,” said operations manager Charles-Henri Descours, sitting under a tree in the site’s lush gardens. “We’re executives and senior executives, used to working 15 hours a day,” he said, “we knew the rules of the game and never imagined we would need to go on strike to get our demands heard.”
That was until Nortel Networks put the Châteaufort plant into liquidation following bankruptcy protection.
Nortel France employees are not the first to threaten to blow up their offices. On Sunday, workers at New Fabris, a failed auto parts maker in Chatellerault, a town southwest of Paris, made similar threats. Workers at the Chatellerault factory threatened to detonate gas canisters if the carmakers Renault and PSA Peugeot Citröen failed to compensate them for their lost jobs.
On Wednesday, striking workers at aerial work platform manufacturer JLG also threatened to blow up their plant near Bordeaux if they did not obtain compensation for lost jobs.
At the Nortel France plant, striking employees said they took their cue from blue collar workers, underlining the increasing levels of labour tension in the wake of the global economic downturn.
The latest attention-seeking measures come in the wake of a series of "bossnapping" incidents in France, when striking workers took their bosses hostage and succeeded in grabbing the national headlines.
A learning experience
At the Nortel plant in Châteaufort, striking was a learning experience for the executives and engineers who knew little about trade unions and industrial action. After a couple of days of hesitation, the research and development department turned into a do-it-yourself zone, churning out posters, demonstration props and even a small coffin to commemorate Nortel France. Employees claim they have set a national record, the longest strike among executives to date.
Striking employees demonstrate in front of Ernst and Young offices in Paris.
“It’s something unusual, executives striking for over seven days, it’s a record, a first, it shows how bad things have got,” says 29-year-old engineer Lies Chouiter, standing near a barbecue stand set up near the plant’s entrance.
Senior management has also been stunned by the methods employed by Nortel’s staff. “On the first day of the strike, our CEO [Michel Clément] laughed,” says Descours, “on the second day, when he saw me distributing flyers, he was not laughing quite so much.”
Nortel employees know their fate is sealed and that there is little they can do to save their plant. However, staff say they want “decent” compensation for their years spent working for Nortel. And they are ready to fight for it – some have even set up tents to stay overnight.
Administrators however, say the company’s coffers are empty. “The main difficulty is that employees demand a high redundancy package and the problem is that the accounts of the firm don’t allow this,” said the French judiciary administrator Franck Michel in an interview with the AFP last week. On November 10, 2008, Nortel announced 1,300 layoffs after posting a $3.4 billion quarterly loss.
But the feeling at Nortel is that workers have been deceived for years. “Nortel Networks drained the funds of Nortel France before they filed for bankruptcy, denying our branch the means to give us decent redundancy packages,” said a striking employee.
“We believed in the Nortel team spirit, in their mottos, integrity and ethics,” says Nortel’s Descours, “but when integrity doesn’t suit them, they simply sit on it.”
On July 20, the company’s works council is set to discuss the plant’s liquidation and, after a local court’s decision, employees could soon be joining the dole queues.