French workers use threats in compensation demand

Friday, July 17, 2009 Following similar threats by workers at New Fabris and Nortel, workers at JLG in Tonneins, France, threatened to blow up several platform cranes. The JLG factory announced in April 2009 that it will fire 53 of its 163 workers by the end of 2009, while the remaining 110 jobs will not be secure over the next 2 years.

JLG Tonneins was acquired in 2006 with its parent JLG Industries, a maker of aerial work platforms, by the U.S.-based Oshkosh Corporation. Despite being hugely profitable in the past, production has been much reduced since 2008 with the contraction of the construction industry and lower demand for its products. Despite excellent past results the new American management demanded sweeping cuts at the company.

In the view of locals, "the company's actions are a disgrace given the expensive perks, such as official cars, for its corporate fat cats, compared to the sacrifice, silence, and dignity demanded by the company of those it has made redundant."

The management offered severance pay of 3,000 (US $4,200), however the workers demanded a severance package commensurate with "the wealth that their labor has generated." Worker's delegates requested a "supra-legal" payment of € 30,000, on Thursday 16 of July the management responded with a counter offer of € 16,000. On Thursday night the worker's actions secured the € 30,000 settlement initially demanded.


A JLG Tonneins worker who wished to stay anonymous spoke to Wikinews.


Can you explain what inspired the workers at JLG to make these threats?

Photograph of the threatened machines, Tonneins, France. (Photo credit:Public domain photograph provided by a Tonniens worker)

 ((JLG worker )) After four months of negotiations with very little progress, we saw the need for a media coup in our dispute. Similar threats in recent disputes, reported by the mainstream media, have proven to be productive. We were spurred on by redundancy pay of 3,000 Euro, derisory in view of the wealth that our labour has generated in previous years and the threat that these lay-offs pose to our families. Responsibility must also lie with the refusal by the management, these last four months, to negotiate an appropriate severance package; the movement in our company has therefore resorted to the media with a visually striking example. Machines designed and built at our workshops were therefore surrounded by two and four canisters of gas. The visual effect was created.

 ((WN )) You have demanded a large severance payment. In the context of the crisis in the building industry, can JLG afford it?

 ((JLG worker )) JLG is part of the Oshkosh Corporation, the group brought JLG in 2007 because of its very good economic health, 2006 was a very good year, and the fiscal year of 2007-2008 was excellent for JLG, our best figures ever. So yes, with regards to the figures for 2007-2008 the results to come 2009, 2010 are very poor. But only in comparison with exceptionally profitable years! The crisis appears to be a belt-tightening one. This is not the optimal solution, almost exclusively the solution chosen is to lay off technicians and employees at the sites, when they are the least expensive [part of the work force]. Yes, JLG France has other ways to better manage this crisis. This would require that all tighten their belts, which does not appear to be the strategy chosen by the management. Hence the accumulation of tension in the company.

 ((WN )) What is your take on the present situation and the rising tensions, is it morally justified?

 ((JLG worker )) The experience of these lay-offs is of punishment, while those who have made mistakes at higher levels are always protected. Executives with high salaries unfortunately seem to be more concerned with their own careers, to satisfy instructions from abroad, then with efficiency and pragmatism. The perception of supine obedience to directives from the U.S. is difficult to accept.

Things must change in the future, in order for the course to be corrected to ensure the good health of the JLG company, we are well aware of it. The changes involved, the massive dismissals, give the semblance of a brutal and symbolic pruning of the wage bill of the company, without touching and reducing costs or increasing the efficiency of the better-paid.

The best paid ten at JLG France obtained a 17% increase [in salary] for the year of 2008. The case of an expensive car park facility, that it is not planned to be reduced, is another strange case given the current crisis. Bizarrely, on the part of the technicians and employees on site, we are not offered similar increases: we are offered redundancies with a € 3,000 payoff.

While this is legal, it is not morally acceptable. A company is an organism, it is not just legal contracts and wages that ensure the loyalty of employees, but also the moral contract, of good governance, equity, efficiency. These moral conditions do not seem to have been offered to us. The proposal for a € 3000 payoff was ridiculous. There is a willingness on the part of employees to work, and behind these to-be dismissed employees, families who want to continue to progress, to educate their children, to continue living in their homes, to live with dignity.

The tension created is deplorable. We would all have preferred an amicable agreement from the beginning of the dispute. The tensions are the result of two forces, both equally responsible:

  • The knowledge, by we the employees, of the wealth created by our labour in recent years, and our pride;
  • Refusal of the French management in the context of the dislocation of the company to ensure an [equitable] distribution of this wealth.

We are pleased that the situation defused that night with dignified exits and fairness to all.

 ((WN )) Had you considered other forms of pressure, are others in the movement you are in contact with as "hardball" as you are?

 ((JLG worker )) Yes, for sure! But we are trapped in a situation of general apathy, low unionisation, and the psychology of a media who are interested only in the spectacular! We first tried 3 months of negotiations in which we achieved almost nothing. In a second step, we embarked on 3 weeks of strikes and a blockade of the premises with calm and without overspill, however we did not achieve much more, all this has driven up tensions

As a last resort, we surrounded 4 machines with canisters of gas...and alerted the local media. That the cannisters were empty or full is of no importance: the visual effect was there. Radio and television (and the law) were on the spot within 45 minutes. The big boss in the United States was on the phone within an hour, for three months he had not wanted to hear of French labour movements. That evening, Thursday, 16 July, negotiations resumed and were finally resolved on the night of Thursday-Friday 16-17 July, instead of the original € 3000, an agreement for a redundancy payment of € 30,000 was signed. This will cover our backs.

I repeat, achieving it this way is really silly and a pity. But negotiations resumed and an appropriate agreement was signed on the night of Thursday to Friday. Within the circle of leaders of the company, the faction advocating negotiation finally prevailed. It is a great relief to us all.

It is to be noted that no political party or trade union has supported or have hijacked our movement, all employees have remained united behind our DSU representative.

Latest developments

According to AFP, the French authorities, after its threat of sending in the police, has announced that it "understands the plight of employees affected by this recession..." and suggests that the recent tactics are a radical media stunt rather than a real threat. In an article Amadio Christian, leader of the labour movement at JLG Tonneins is reported as saying "It is ridiculous that we have had to come to this to get this result."

The police checked the gas cylinders to ensure that they were all empty.


This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.