French strikers hold boss hostage

By Scott Sayare,Associated Press
Wednesday 25 March 2009 16:03
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Striking French workers for US manufacturer 3M held their boss hostage amid talks today at a plant south of Paris, as anger over layoffs and cutbacks mounted around the country.

While the situation at the 3M plant outside Pithiviers was calm, worker rage elsewhere boiled over into an angry march on the presidential palace in Paris and a bonfire of tires set alight by Continental AG employees whose auto parts factory was being shut down.

While France has a long tradition of labour unrest, the latest wave of hostage-takings, marches and strikes has echoed across Europe, as the global slowdown fans job fears and leaves many workers skeptical of their leaders' ability to solve the crisis.

The French division of 3M — a diversified US manufacturer known for Post-It notes and Scotch tape — recently announced layoffs and job transfers among its 2,700 workers at 13 French sites. Among those targeted are 110 of the Pithiviers factory's 235 workers.

A few dozen workers at Pithiviers took turns standing guard Wednesday outside factory offices where the director of 3M's French operations, Luc Rousselet, has been holed up since yesterday. The workers did not threaten any violence and the atmosphere was calm.

A few police officers stood outside, while workers inside exchanged jokes and worries about their future amid heaps of empty plastic coffee cups and boxes of cookies.

Talks among 3M workers and management resumed today mediated by a local labour official. Rousselet was not taking part. Workers want better severance packages for those being laid off and better conditions for those keeping their jobs.

In France, it is not unheard-of for striking workers to hold company executives as a way of winning concessions from management. The hostages are almost never injured. A similar situation ended peacefully earlier this month at Sony's French facilities.

"We don't have any other ammunition" other than hostage-taking, said Laurent Joly, who has worked at the Pithiviers plant for 11 years and is angry that he is being transferred to another French site.

"I really have the impression that we no longer exist for these people," Genevieve Camus, who has worked for the plant for 35 years, said of the company's US management.

The Maplewood, Minnesota-based 3M is also planning job cuts at facilities in the United States and other developed nations.

The 3M workers at Pithiviers have been on strike since Friday. Hamon said Rousselet was blocked from leaving the factory Tuesday after arriving from 3M France headquarters near Paris.

Store owners in Pithiviers were shutting down early on Wednesday to support the factory workers.

When Rousselet came out of the guarded office to go to the bathroom today, workers booed him while reporters asked how he was holding up.

"Everything's fine," he said.

Workers planned to bring Rousselet mussels and french fries for dinner if he was still there tonight.

Meanwhile in Paris, an acrid plume of black smoke from burning tires wafted mere blocks from President Nicolas Sarkozy's Elysee Palace. It was a clear signal that French labour unrest over the state of the euro zone's second-largest economy had taken an ugly turn for the worse.

Faced with what it calls the collapse of the European auto market, Germany's Continental recently announced plans to close the plant in Clairoix, northeast of Paris, in 2010.

"We shouldn't let this company close down, otherwise it means that all these robber bosses can do whatever they want to," said Antonio Da Costa, a union representative.

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