French workers who “boss-napped” three managers last April to protest the closing of their American-owned factory tried to take their fight to corporate shareholders in the Chicago suburbs late last week.
But even though they had valid proxies, Molex officials kept them out of the stockholders’ meeting in Lisle, Ill., on Friday. Just the day before, customs officers at O’Hare airport detained and questioned them for more than four hours.
Molex, an electronics company, bought a French auto parts plant in Villemur, France, in 2004. The new U.S. owners took it through a rocky period that brought restructuring and layoffs but no new product lines before they announced in October 2008 that they would close the factory, eliminating 283 jobs.
The union — part of the leftist CGT federation — decided to fight, especially since managers had previously praised the profitability and product quality at Villemur. But Molex refused to open the company’s books, in violation of French law requiring consultation with the local works council in cases of plant closings or restructuring.
Workers, digging on their own, discovered company documents indicating that Molex was transferring molds and dies (or copies of them) from Villemur to the U.S. as part of a plan to shift production to China and Vietnam.
Shortly after that discovery on April 20, “workers got very angry and did the so-called ‘boss-napping’,” said Guy Pavin, secretary-general of the local union and part of the delegation to the shareholders’ meeting. They detained three managers overnight at the factory in protest over the failure to share crucial information.
A French court ruled that Molex’s failure to provide this information to the works council violated French laws on worker consultation, effectively making the planned shutdown illegal. Over the next few months, French courts reaffirmed the ruling three more times, issuing an injunction against the closing.
When Molex refused to abide by the injunction, workers struck in July; but when they decided to return to work, management locked them out, again violating French law. Workers then sued in September for unpaid wages.
Molex has an agreement with the government to revitalize the factory and protect the jobs, and negotiations are underway for sale of the factory. But workers and the CGT also have more ways to pressure Molex. Under “framework agreements” negotiated between European car makers and global union federations, like the International Metalworkers Federation, the companies cannot source components from firms that violate labor rights.
The CGT is prepared to demand that auto companies refuse to use Molex products.
Pavin says the CGT is not fighting against work being done in China, Vietnam or the U.S. “This is not our intention,” he says. “There is work for all of us.” But he argues that Molex – and its employees – would have done better if the company had invested the $150 million spent on restructuring in research and development for new products and machinery at Villemur and other plants.
About 60 union supporters turned out to back the CGT delegates in Lisle, including UE workers who had occupied the Republic Doors and Windows factory in Chicago last December, and Workers United/SEIU workers who successfully fought to keep their Chicago suburban factory open earlier this year.
Later the French and American workers exchanged stories and messages of solidarity in their fights. The American workers promised to investigate the actions of both Molex, in barring legal proxies, and the O’Hare Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.