RUEIL-MALMAISON, FRANCE: Burning the fruit of their labor, workers from Goodyear clashed with police outside the tire maker’s French headquarters Thursday in an attempt to save their jobs.
Akron-based Goodyear has been trying to restructure or close its plant in northern France for five years in the face of a shrinking European car market.
The workers say Goodyear wants to shift the work to China, where tires can be made more cheaply and which is closer to booming markets. Goodyear says the type of tires made at the French plant is for Europe and are no longer selling.
Workers’ protests, government concerns and the layoff process in France have held up the factory closure.
In yet another effort to save the plant and its 1,200 jobs, hundreds of Goodyear employees protested Thursday outside the company’s offices near Paris, setting fire to a pile of tires. Inside, union representatives met with management.
Protesters hurled paint balls at a line of riot police taking shelter behind their shields. There were several brief clashes, as police drove large barriers forward in an effort to push back the protest. One demonstrator tore away a policeman’s shield while others hit him on the head. A spray of tear gas pushed them back.
Nineteen police officers were injured, with six taken for medical treatment, while one protester was arrested, the Paris police press office said.
Goodyear announced plans on Jan. 31 to shut the Amiens factory, citing the failure of five years of negotiations with the main CGT union at the plant to increase productivity. Goodyear currently employs about 3,000 across the country and there’s no set date for the closing, spokeswoman Mathilde Davadant said.
The fight over the Goodyear factory has become a symbol of France’s troubled labor market, which drew the derision of an outspoken U.S. executive whose company considered taking the plant over.
“The French work force gets paid high wages but works only three hours. They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three,” Maurice Taylor, the CEO of Titan tires, wrote to a French government official.
France’s political leaders attacked the letter, but the country’s Socialist government is also trying to reform labor regulations, saying that relaxing rules on firing is key to also improving hiring.
France’s unemployment has been high for years, even during boom times, and it has climbed higher in recent months as Europe’s economic crisis has deepened. Statistics released Thursday showed the jobless rate rose to 10.6 percent last year.
Costly to operate in France
Labor rules and generous benefits also make it expensive to manufacture in France, leaving the country with a major competitiveness problem that the global economic slowdown has exposed and exacerbated. Many companies that produce in France are now in a bind: Either they get beaten by competitors with more room to slash prices because they have lower costs or they also cut prices to compete, leaving little left over to reinvest in the kind of innovation that insulates manufacturers from such price competition.
The government’s proposed reform unveiled Wednesday would offer companies in financial difficulty more flexibility in setting working hours and salaries. The government hopes that will help businesses stay afloat, instead of shutting down factories or moving production to countries with cheaper labor.
It’s unclear if that reform would help a company like Goodyear, which is still profitable, even in Europe. Workers have seized on the company’s profitability in their fight against the factory closure, but the company says profit margins have been slipping for years and that the business in Europe isn’t sustainable.
Goodyear reported earnings of $183 million last year, down more than 40 percent from the year earlier.
The CGT union condemned the “outburst of police violence,” it said in an e-mailed statement. “Six employees have been injured, two of whom got a two-week medical leave,” the main union at the Goodyear plant said.
Auto factories closing
In Akron, Goodyear officials relayed a statement issued by the French company:
“Goodyear Dunlop Tires France condemns the violence that occurred today in connection with the Central Works Council meeting on the proposed Amiens North closure project. This type of behavior, which resulted in injuries to several people, cannot be tolerated,” the statement read. “The company strongly believes that a responsible dialogue is the only way to reach an agreement between employee representatives and the company.”
Planned auto factory closings elsewhere in the region have also stoked rising social tensions, as longtime workers face unemployment with no clear prospects for finding another job.
PSA Peugeot Citroen, Europe’s second-biggest carmaker, has barely produced any vehicles since Jan. 16 at its factory in Aulnay, on the outskirts of Paris, which is slated to close by 2014. A group of about 300 workers is blocking production and the head of plant was held for a few hours last October.
The head of Ford Motor Co.’s factory in Genk, Belgium, was also held for about an hour last month by a group of workers opposed to a plan to close the plant, which employs 4,300.
Beacon Journal business writer Jim Mackinnon and Bloomberg News contributed to this report.