Should a government accede to demands of workers who threaten terrorist acts? This was the question many in France were asking, after officials yesterday agreed to most of the ultimatums made by 153 laid-off workers at a chemical plant near the Belgian border in northern France.
In a tentative settlement the workers, who on Monday poured 790 gallons of sulfuric acid into a tributary of the Meuse River, were granted severance pay of about $11,500, about half their original demand, and 80 percent of their salary in unemployment benefits for the next two years.
"It seems to me that we have invented a new form of labor struggle," workers' spokesman Remo Pesa told French television on Wednesday. Christian Larose, of the Central Confederation of Workers, France's top labor organization, refused to condemn the spill. "They reached the limit," he told reporters. "But nothing was done that is beyond repair."
Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevnement characterized the action as "unacceptable, no matter how difficult the situation."
Firefighters quickly contained the spread of the acid, preventing it from polluting the Meuse, which flows into Belgium and the Netherlands. In addition to dumping the toxic substance, workers had threatened to blow up the Cellatex plant, which produced viscose, a synthetic used in making clothes. Experts said the carbon disulfide, sulfuric acid, and soda stored at the plant are an explosive combination that could leave a crater 160 feet deep and 1,600 feet in diameter in Givet, where the factory is located.
Cellatex, founded in 1903, is in liquidation after years of crisis. The company was sold by its former owner, chemical giant Rhne-Poulenc, in 1991. Since then, it has struggled to survive as the textile business in northern France collapsed.
The threats and occupation of the factory by workers since July 5 drew international attention to the economically depressed town, which has a 22 percent unemployment rate, more than double the national average. It may also signal the start of a new, more violent chapter in labor relations.
Workers at the Adelshoffen brewery near Strasbourg, in eastern France, took a manager hostage on Wednesday and threatened to blow up their plant. The brewery, a Heineken affiliate, is scheduled to shut down by the end of the year.
Workers at the Cellatex plant were unrepentant about using destruction as a negotiating tool. "The chemical products are our only bargaining power," an employee identified as Nathalie told the newspaper Le Monde. "If we made candy, we would not be in a position to negotiate."
The workers' action has shocked many in France, a country with extraordinary patience for strikes and labor violence. It is not unusual, for example, for farmers to attack trucks from Spain, spilling fruits and vegetables on highways to show their displeasure with low-priced Spanish produce. Student demonstrations in major cities regularly end with battles between riot police and gangs from the impoverished suburbs.
But the drama in Givet, though it ended peacefully, has raised the issue of a violent turn in the labor movement not experienced since the end of the 19th century. It also poses the question of whether the government should negotiate in the face of evident blackmail.
THE events in Givet also brought to the forefront the growing inequalities in French society, despite a booming economy that has created 1.28 million jobs since the fall of 1996, and reduced unemployment from 12.6 percent to 9.8 percent during the past three years. Yet 2.3 million people remain unemployed, of whom 800,000 have been without a job for a year or more.
While hundreds of start-ups are born and some sectors of the economy - including the computer industry, construction, and the restaurant and hotel trade - are experiencing labor shortages, pockets of intractable poverty remain. This is especially true in northern France, where the once prosperous textile, mining, and coal industries have virtually disappeared, losing hundreds of thousands of jobs during the past two decades to foreign competitors.
"An immense sense of despair is hidden behind this intense anger, and especially a sense of total isolation with regards to corporations," says Guy Groux, who specializes in social conflicts. "In Givet, the environment and public health were made hostage in order to exert pressure, an unheard-of situation until now."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society