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French Hostage Situations Have Some Wondering if U.S. Is Next

Workers at 3M Co., Sony Corp. and Caterpillar Inc. factories in France have taken their managers hostage to negotiate better benefits for laid-off employees.

April 3, 2009
Related Topics: Downsizing, Global Business Issues, Labor Relations, Latest News
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Labor relations experts are beginning to wonder if a recent string of incidents in France where employees have taken their managers hostage also could unfold in the U.S.

In the past several weeks, workers at 3M Co., Sony Corp. and Caterpillar Inc. factories in France have taken their managers hostage to negotiate better benefits for laid-off employees. No managers have been hurt, and the employers in all three situations have agreed to negotiate with the unions for better conditions.

French workers have a long tradition of going on strike and taking militant action as a negotiating tactic, experts say.

“As a consequence of a highly polarized class situation, there has never been a tradition of peaceful negotiation between labor and management in France,” said Douglas Webber, a professor of political science at INSEAD, an international business school in Fontainebleau, France.

Given that tradition and the current economic situation, with thousands of employees in France losing their jobs, it’s not surprising that workers are taking such drastic actions, experts say.

“This is not new in France,” said Betty Slowinski, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. There have been hostage situations like this before, but it’s just more prevalent now given the economic situation, she says.

While the labor-management relationship is much more hostile in France than in the United States, experts wonder if layoffs and public outrage over executive compensation in the U.S. might lead to similar events here.

“I predict that this could easily happen in the United States,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. “At the very least I could see an auto plant shutting down and the workers refusing to leave.”

Such a situation occurred in December at Republic Windows and Doors’ plant in Chicago, where management told its 240 union employees that they were being laid off and the plant was closing in three days.

The workers staged a sit-in until they were paid for 60 days of severance compensation and accrued vacation owed to them. After six days, their demands were met.

“I absolutely believe that you might see U.S. workers take more drastic actions,” said David Gregory, a professor of law at St. John’s University in New York.

But Slowinski doesn’t think a hostage situation is likely in the United States.

“U.S. workers are used to getting laid off,” she said.

Slowinski, however, said she worries about acts of violence in the workplace as a result of layoffs. During the G-20 summit in London earlier this month, banks told their employees not to dress in suits and, if they could, to work from home to avoid becoming victims of violence.

“I don’t think you would see anything that extreme here,” she said. “But you are hearing about companies not revealing the names of their executives. I do worry a bit about acts of violence.”

—Jessica Marquez 

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