Continental workers brace for drawn-out battle

As tension mounts at the Continental factory in the town of Clairoix, north of Paris, wary workers are prepared to go all the way to keep their factory, and their jobs, alive. FRANCE 24’s Clea Caulcutt reports from the outskirts of Paris.


At the Clairoix factory north of Paris, the Continental jacket is still worn with pride. Some have chosen to customise theirs with such phrases as “thank you, bosses” or “Conti screws you” printed in large yellow letters. Cigarettes in their mouth, Conti employees have come to hear Xavier Mathieu, the firebrand representative of the CGT union (one of the largest French trade unions), give his account of continuing negotiations to close the Clairoix site in 2010.

They look tired but determined. A minor victory on Tuesday has given them some hope. The ministry of public affairs has requested that Continental suspend the closure of the factory and suggested that the German company should have consulted the company's European works council from the outset.


“It’s a relief. We were dispirited after meeting officials in Paris. Basically, they told us there was nothing they could do,” said Loic Vestiel, a tyre technician in Clairoix. On March 25, Continental employees marched on the French capital, but failed to secure the state's full support. The unions warned the workers to be cautious, sensing “treason” on the part of the company management. In 2007, they negotiated an agreement to save the plant, giving up the 35-hour work week, to keep the site operating until 2012.

A day after Caterpillar workers released four managers they had held captive for 24 hours, Continental employees have not ruled out stepping up their activities depending on upcoming talks. “We’re waiting at the moment, and all depends on what happens next,” said Pierre Sommé, a factory worker and member of the FO union. “I am moderate and calm; but when needs be, we are ready for action.”

Workers say this is a transplant in disguise

“Everyone blames the crisis, but the factory is doing fine. The auto sector depends on the sale of small cars. But where will the tires come from? Eastern Europe!” said Christelle Lacoste, who distributed flyers during a demonstration in Compiègne on Saturday. Lacoste, who has been a forklift operator at Continental for five years, denounces the decision to close a factory that made 17 million euros in benefits last year.

But the management sees things differently. “We are not moving because of transport costs. In the tyre business we have to produce our products near the markets where they are sold. The markets in the East and in Russia are on the rise, but this is not the case for the Western markets,” said Continental’s press office.

Although 30 jobs are expected to move to the Continental site in Romania, the company claims it has suffered from overproduction, and that it was forced to halt its activities for nine days in 2009 because orders were low.

Iron fist with a 'transplanted' management

On Tuesday, the management decided to “move” a board meeting with trade unions to Nice, refusing to hold meetings in the factory “for safety reasons”.


At the last workers’ organisation meeting in Reims, hundreds of employees symbolically lynched an effigy of the director of the factory, tossing eggs and shoes at two other mannequins.


The employees say the move to Nice is “unacceptable". A representative of the CFTC union, Antonio Da Costa, told the AFP: “We left on the inside of ten minutes. We didn’t want to stay a minute longer in Nice, it’s not our world. Our movement continues.”


Currently, employees are negotiating the payment of next month’s salaries. A member of the Continental board of management, who agreed to speak to FRANCE 24 on condition of anonymity, says production has dropped by 10% - a fall that well reflects worker morale. All eyes are now on French judges, who will decide whether Continental’s decision to close the Clairoix site is legal on April 21.

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