Goodyear Amiens: The factory that refuses to die
- 27 June 2013
- From the section Magazine
For years tyre giant Goodyear has been trying to stem losses at a plant in northern France, but has failed to persuade unions to agree to its plans. Now it wants to close the factory, and the battle has moved to the courts. How much longer can the struggle continue?
The burly man stands in front of me with folded arms like a bouncer at a night club. "No way," he says. "You can't go in. The lawyer is talking and that's secret."
Through the glass doors I can see rows of workers from the American-owned Goodyear tyre factory, sitting and listening intently. Many wear red T shirts which say Patrons Voyous - the Bosses Are Thugs. They all belong to the CGT (Confederation Generale du Travail) the country's largest trade union.
Eventually I am allowed into the hall to hear a rousing speech from Mickael Wamen, the union's representative at the Goodyear plant. There are loud cheers and fists in the air as he announces the latest tactic - blocking the factory entrance from 4am on Monday morning.
He is in a defiant mood as he tells me about a string of legal victories which have so far prevented the US company from closing the factory with the loss of 1,173 jobs.
Last week, for the first time, a judge ruled in Goodyear's favour. A court in Nanterre rejected the union's case that the tyre manufacturer had violated the correct procedures when informing the union about the closure plan. But Wamen and his union are undaunted, and will appeal.
Employees have also filed a complaint in the state court in Akron, Ohio where Goodyear is based. Seeking $4m in damages and class-action status for their case, they claim the company has violated laws on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Goodyear must certainly be the only multinational in the world where workers have resisted so much," Wamen says. "First of all they wanted to sack 400 of us then it was 800 then they said they wanted to close the factory altogether. But we have resisted every step of the way."
The workers see their conflict in epic terms. Footage of past demonstrations features piles of burning tyres, huge banners and dramatic headgear. Some protesters sport helmets with horns on them - as in the French cartoon Asterix about a plucky Gaulish village defending itself against brutish Roman invaders. Mickael Wamen relishes the comparison.
"Goodyear is the biggest tyre maker in the world," he says. "It makes $1.5bn profit a year, employs 80,000 people globally and there is only one village which is holding out against them - it is the village of Amiens."
From the company's point of view the struggle looks very different. The factory is losing $80m a year, it says, and producing goods there is no market for.
The battle began back in 2007, when Goodyear announced plans to stop making cheap car tyres at the plant and focus on tyres for tractors and other farm vehicles.
Restructuring was urgently needed, it said. Along with new investment, it wanted to introduce a new shift pattern called quatre huits or four times eight, with four teams working eight-hour shifts.
Overall, employees would still have a 35-hour week - in accordance with French law - but they would work rotating six-day and four-day cycles, including nights and weekends.
Unions refused. The next year they went to court to prevent the company laying off 400 staff, and won. Last year they helped scuttle Goodyear's plan to sell the factory to Titan, an agricultural tyre producer, in a deal that would have seen many more job losses (including voluntary redundancies).
It was in January that Goodyear finally announced its decision to close the factory, describing this as "the only possible option after five years of fruitless discussion". Cue another legal battle.
"French law says if you want to put all these workers on the dole, you have to have a good reason," says Fiodor Rilov, the CGT union's lawyer. "This may be an American company, with a headquarters in the US but they are operating on French soil and they have to respect our social rules."
Sometimes called the Red Lawyer by the right wing press, Rilov is a key character in the drama unfolding in Amiens. The grandson of a Russian immigrant, he was born in London before moving to France, aged eight. He has a reputation as a workers' hero because of his track record in taking on several multinationals. He has often stalled or prevented layoffs and won compensation through his imaginative use of the Loi de Travail - France's fiendishly complex labour law, which runs to 3,371 pages.
Despite last week's disappointment at the court in Nanterre - a "bad decision" he argues - he still hopes that a judge will rule Goodyear's redundancy plan invalid at a hearing in September.
As well as judges and lawyers, politicians have also taken to the Amiens stage. President Francois Hollande visited the plant during his election campaign last year, to demonstrate his support for the workers.
Hollande's Minister for Industrial Renewal, Arnaud Montebourg, meanwhile, responded to Goodyear's closure decision by saying he wanted "to bring everyone around a negotiating table" to find an alternative.
But when he tried to woo Titan back to buy the factory, its CEO Maurice Taylor sent him a stinging reply.
"Sir, your letter states you want Titan to start a discussion", wrote the straight-talking Texan. "How stupid do you think we are?"
He went on: "The French workforce gets paid high wages but works only three hours. They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three, and work for three. I told this to the French union workers to their faces. They told me that's the French way!"
Montebourg dismisses this as a "grotesque attack" from an "absurd character".
Taylor's description certainly does not apply to workers at another tyre factory - also owned by Goodyear, and located by coincidence on the same Amiens industrial estate.
It is referred to as the Dunlop plant after its previous owners, and here the gruelling quatre huits shift pattern has been accepted. Unlike the Goodyear factory, which has seen no new machinery since 1982, the Dunlop factory has recently had $65m of investment and its 940 jobs are safe - at least for the time being.
Two employees, Frederic and Fabrice, invite me into the office of their trade union called UNSA. They joined this independent union because they were kicked out of the CGT after signing up to the flexible schedule.
"I felt I'd rather lose my union card than my work," says Frederic. "That was the point we had reached. I thought OK I might be more tired but at least I'd have a job, the factory would be working and we won't have to spend so much time at court on or strike."
Fabrice admits that relations with the men over the road have at times been strained. "At the beginning there was some animosity. Guys from Goodyear broke into our office and smashed everything up, including the computers - that's why we now have bars on the doors and windows", he says.
Frederic adds that the new timetable has meant the Dunlop factory no longer closes for a month over the summer.
"I actually feel proud," he says. "We have set a precedent for other companies in the future."
But the new shift pattern has been difficult for his family.
"The changeover was brutal," says his wife Audrey at their home that evening. "Since he began these rotating shifts, I hardly see him."
Audrey adds that she is also worried about the future. "It comes down to Goodyear in the end - if Goodyear is in difficulty that isn't good for Dunlop either."
Many tyre manufacturers are expanding into Eastern Europe where labour costs are four times lower, or shipping tyres from outside Europe where costs are lower still.
One in six industrial jobs in France has been lost in the past decade, and the Picardy region, in which Amiens is located, is an unemployment blackspot.
At the Goodyear plant itself, one worker tells me that if employees are working short hours it is not through choice.
The American company has been steadily reducing production as it prepares to abandon the factory, says Mickael Semedo, leaving workers bored and demoralised. There's so little work to do, employees take it in turns to man the production line.
"Coming to the factory just to sit on a chair for 12 hours with nothing to do - it is very difficult," he says.
"You are punished if you help your co-worker… it's psychological harassment at every level."
Some think it may be time to put the moribund factory out of its misery. Jean Francois Vasseur, the man in charge of economic development in Amiens, would like to create new jobs manufacturing hi-tech insulation materials - using straw and other agricultural products, which are abundant in Picardy.
But at the moment his hands are tied. Until the Goodyear case is settled there's no money on the table for retraining and development.
"This has been going on for more than six years, which is extremely gruelling," he says.
"And the further we go, the more the employees lose hope and become discouraged, and more and more of them say, 'Give us a cheque and let's be done with it.'
"If I can put it this way - if you have someone in a coma, either you are certain that he will wake up and you offer palliative care, which you keep up potentially for a number of years, or you consider that it's finished, that there is a reality of death and you switch off the life support machine."