The French factory defying austerity

How one union of workers has fought cutbacks by occupying their tea factory for months

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“The type of tea we make in this factory has been around since the late-19 century,” says Olivier Leberquier, a delegate for French trade union, General Confederation of Labour (CGT), at the Fralib factory in Gémenos near Marseilles. “However, since the factory’s owners, Unilever, tried to close the plant and move production to Poland, we’ve been fighting for our jobs and occupying and running our workplace ourselves.”

Amid widespread economic turmoil and austerity in Europe caused by the 2010 Eurocrisis, Olivier’s story is unique. An historic French household name, the Elephant brand of herbal teas that he and his colleagues manufacture was first registered in 1896. In 1972, multinational consumer good company, Unilever, purchased the brand, which today is sold under the Lipton range, and is managed by Unilever’s subsidiary, Fralib, meaning “French food and drink.” 

"Governments are getting tougher on trade unions and attempting to criminalise our actions. During our occupation we have resisted several attempts at provocation by the factory’s owners who have employed security companies to intimidate us"

However, due to declining profits, in June 2010 Unilever announced that the plant at Gémenos was to close, claiming it was a lossmaking enterprise that accounted for 27% of the cost of Fralib’s four factories in Europe. Workers at the factory denied that it was making a loss and responded with industrial action, and by the end of the year, began the first of two occupations at the site, the second of which has been continuous since May 2012.

The workers have also received support from president Francois Hollande, who began putting pressure on Unilever to reach a redundancy agreement with its workers during his election campaign. So far, Unilever has produced 3 redundancy plans each of which has been deemed illegal by the French courts.  “We [The CGT] have always refused to negotiate on this aspect, since we are fighting to keep our jobs,” Olivier says. “All the packages submitted were ruled against by the French courts as Unilever was only willing to pay the minimum of what can be expected in France.”

Currently, Unilever is putting together a fourth redundancy package. In France and the EU, this story represents a small but important part of the question of financial reform and the role of trade unions. Regarded by some as “anti-business” because of his 75% tax on incomes over €1 million, Hollande has also been criticised French trade trade union leader due to his failure to impose the widespread reforms of the tax system that he has promised. Moreover, as swingeing austerity measures imposed by the EU damage the ability of collective representation to act against the will of private interest in countries like Greece, the future of trade unions within Europe has begun to seem uncertain. Unlike the UK, many trade unions in Europe are embedded at both a governmental and company level. However as unemployment continues to rise, the EU’s founding commitment to a striking a balance between business and labour seems to be eroding, and as unemployment reaches a historic high of 24% in the EU and a 16-year high of 10% in France, trade unions like the Olivier’s CGT would like to see a more robust defence of common principles.

“The point is, we are not expecting the government to support our individual struggle, just to deliver the campaign promises on which it was elected,” Olivier says. “But nothing has changed, and as time go by, governments are getting tougher on trade unions and attempting to criminalise our actions. During our occupation we have resisted several attempts at provocation by the factory’s owners who have employed security companies to intimidate us. But employees who take action so that we can keep our constitutional right to work, have no place in court. And as such, we are hoping for nothing less than victory.”

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