Republic Factory Occupiers Meet French ‘Bossnappers’

Chicago saw an unusual meeting of the minds last week between two groups of workers who have taken extraordinary steps when faced with a plant closing.

French workers at Molex, a U.S.-owned auto-parts supplier, came to the Chicago area last week to protest at their company’s annual shareholders meeting. These workers took over their plant in Villemur in southwest France in April and detained two managers to protest the closure of their factory and the loss of 283 jobs.

While they were in the Midwest, they took the opportunity to trade notes with members of United Electrical (UE) Workers Local 1110, who famously occupied the Republic Windows and Doors factory on Chicago’s Goose Island for six days in December, ultimately forcing Bank of America to pay workers the severance and benefits they were owed.

Despite the workers’ resistance, Molex has closed the Villemur plant and moved work to China and Vietnam as part of a restructuring plan that has cost the company $120 million. It has also cost many workers their jobs—but not without a fight.

More than 60 union members led a protest against Molex last week as the French workers entered the shareholder meeting with proxy documents in order to ask executives whether Molex will honor its own ethics code and respect the laws in the countries where they operate, and why so much is being spent on restructuring when it hasn't proven profitable. Wouldn’t it be better spent on modernizing production and innovating better products?

Molex was terrified and refused to allow the workers entry even with the proper shareholder documents. Strangely, the workers also encountered difficulty when they arrived in the U.S. They were detained by customs officials and interrogated about their union activities. The customs officers even had French newspapers about the so-called “bossnapping.”

French workers have detained corporate managers at least a dozen times in the past year, usually barricading them inside an office for a few hours or days after the company has declared a plant closing or mass layoff. Many company higher-ups have decided to renegotiate over severance terms when faced with a bossnap.

After the shareholder protest, Molex workers—members of the CGT union federation—explained their story to UE members.

New Book

Secrets of a successful organizer

A step-by-step guide to building power on the job. Buy Now. »

Molex bought the French plant in 2004 and soon began making a large profit, they said. Workers were commended for excellence in production and service. Despite this Molex announced in October 2008 it would close the facility. Workers decided to fight that decision and defend their jobs.

What followed could have happened to any U.S. union member. The company refused information, refused a fair settlement for the workers, and refused to cooperate with the French Works Council, which is charged with working to save jobs.

In the course of the battle, the workers took over the plant and refused to let two managers leave until they agreed to resume negotiations with a better attitude. Then workers learned that machinery had been leaving the plant to be used in production in other facilities. The company had violated the law in many ways, but was unrepentant.

So when the workers struck in July, the French courts ruled in their favor. The company responded with a lockout. They have been out of work since that time, but they have never abandoned their fight to save jobs and win the benefits they have earned.

The meeting in Chicago was a chance to talk about the fight to save jobs and the common decision to occupy their factories. (It was also attended by HartMarx workers, unionized suit-makers who threatened an occupation when faced with plant closure recently). What everyone discovered was how much they had in common. While the banks played a major role in the crisis in U.S. factories—but less so in France—the companies involved acted the same. Workers expressed admiration for each other's bravery and determination, and everyone left the three-hour gathering feeling stronger and more committed than ever.

As Melvin Maclin, vice president of UE Local 1110, said to his French counterparts, “no language, race, or ocean will divide workers. We welcome you as brothers because we are united in struggle.”

See more about the meeting at the UE website (here), and more about the Molex workers' battle at the Working In These Times blog (here.)