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article imageFired French Goodyear workers make last stand in court

By Julia PAVESI (AFP)     Oct 4, 2018 in World

More than 800 former employees at a Goodyear factory in France converged for a mass court hearing Thursday to seek compensation for their dismissal when the US tyre giant closed the site in 2014.

Goodyear had been seeking a buyer for the loss-making plant in the northern city of Amiens -- President Emmanuel Macron's hometown -- for years before deciding to abandon the site, leaving 1,143 employees without jobs.

Unions had fiercely resisted management's restructuring plans and the closure, which became a symbol of rusting factories across broad swaths of France's industrial heartland.

After the shutdown of the factory was announced, workers held two executives hostage for 30 hours in protest, in a case of so-called "bossnapping".

"Firing people to improve your bottom line is not allowed, it's forbidden!" lawyer Fiodor Rilov argued at the Zenith conference centre in Amiens, where the hearing was held instead of a courthouse to squeeze in all the plaintiffs and their supporters.

Rilov accused Goodyear of betraying the workers despite "record profits" and rising sales, citing a company filing to US market regulators at the time reporting net profits of $2.5 billion (2.2 billion euros).

"The most colossal amount ever recorded by Goodyear since its creation," Rilov claimed.

While the employees received severance packages, Rilov is seeking payments representing two to four years' salary for each of the 832 workers claiming unfair dismissal.

- 'It wasn't our fault' -

"I hope this lawsuit will show people that it wasn't our fault the factory closed -- we knew how to do the job," Frederique Pacquin, a 58-year-old former employee, said outside the convention centre.

Goodyear executives argued that five years of contentious negotiations with labour unions, as well as strict labour laws including a 35-hour work week, had made it impossible to operate the plant at a profit.

"The company had to deal with an intractable problem at the site: it produced tyres with low added-value that were too expensive," Goodyear lawyer, Joel Grange, told the judges.

Fiodor Rilov  lawyer for the GoodYear workers  told the tribunal it had not been their fault the fac...
Fiodor Rilov, lawyer for the GoodYear workers, told the tribunal it had not been their fault the factory closed
FRANCOIS LO PRESTI, AFP

"We're well aware that job cuts are a difficult decision, we did not take it lightly," he said.

The conflict made international headlines in 2013 when the CEO of a potential American buyer dismissed talks over a potential purchase while mocking French workers.

"They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three," Maurice Taylor of Titan International wrote to the French government.

"How stupid do you think we are?" he said.

Local authorities say some 640 former workers have since found jobs thanks to retraining and other programmes financed by Goodyear to the tune of 5.9 million euros.

But such claims were dismissed by union officials who gathered in support outside the Zenith on Thursday.

The company's efforts to help ex-staff find new jobs "was a joke -- a few people found work, but nothing steady," said Mickael Wamen, one of seven former workers given suspended prison sentences last year for holding the two executives hostage.

A ruling from the labour tribunal is expected early next year.

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