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Learning French: Tous ensemble

 

On July 1, 2009 Albany International announced in the Puget Sound Business Journal that it intended to close its Tumwater manufacturing plant at 5700 Littlerock Rd. Two months later, at the end of August, they closed it.

Thirty years of manufacturing history ended. The average length of work per employee had been eighteen years. There had been more than 95 workers at one point making between $15,000 and $40,000. When Albany International closed the plant, 32 workers lost their jobs. The only US plant producing polyurethane coated belts for the paper industry disappeared. Albany International moved the work to Bury, England, calling the closure, “a business necessity, driven by existing and anticipated market conditions.”

As part of Albany’s press release of July 1st, they also said they were proposing to close a plant in France.

St. Junien is a city in the Limousin region of France and the second largest city in the Haute Vienne department. When you walk up the hill from the railroad station to the center of St. Junien, one of the first buildings you run into is an all white, monumental, art décor-type structure engraved with title, “Bourse du Travail.” It’s St. Julien’s labor temple, cultural center and union office building constructed in the 1920s at the request of the unions. Today it remains a symbol of the importance of workers to this city’s history, according to the historical marker just outside the front door.

St. Junien was also, like Limoges, a center of armed resistance to German occupation in the 1940s. And, like Limoges, the resistance fighters liberated their own city from a defeated German army. St. Junien was “rouge” then and still is, according to many of the folks I talked with while there.

On February 9, 2012, a regional newspaper, Le Populaire, ran a story saying Albany International was planning to close their St. Junien plant and lay off 134 workers. The source of the story remained anonymous and the workers could not believe it. The plant had been renovated in 2004 with a public investment of 1.5 million euros. The plant’s production figures were setting records; it was profitable and the industrial demand for its products was growing. The story made no sense.

Still. What about the story? For the next two weeks, workers, union leaders, city and regional officials tried to get a straight answer from Albany International. They confronted a stranger that had been seen with local management and discovered he had been hired in January 2012 to close the plant and layoff the workers. On February 23rd the other shoe dropped. Albany International announced it was closing the plant, laying off the 134 workers and moving production to its other French plant in Selestat. It sent an email asking the workers to leave the plant by February 27th and ordered the local management to cut the plant’s electrical current.

The workers didn’t budge. They decided to stay in the plant 24/7. The local unions, led by the CGT and the FO, held press conferences to condemn the proposed closing, organized large demonstrations, collected petitions, gained the support of local businesses, local and regional government officials and utilized the French presidential elections to gain exposure in a country wracked by plants closures and growing unemployment.

On March 7th, they sent an open letter to the Joseph G. Marone, President and CEO of Albany International based in Rochester, New Hampshire. They told him that closing the plant made no sense, that they were committed to keeping it open and demanded a direct meeting with Albany International. A copy of the letter was sent to the French Ministry of Labor.

You wouldn’t think a guy like Joseph Marone would handle a situation like St. Junien in such a clumsy and inept manner. Appointed President in 2005 and CEO in 2006, he holds a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University and is author of Winning in High Tech Markets, a book about how to use technology to gain a competitive business advantage. Nevertheless, he has been busy.

If you fly on an new Airbus or Boeing jetliner, when the plane takes off it will probably be using a LEAP engine with Albany composite materials inside. When it lands, it will probably be using a landing gear made of Albany’s composite materials rather than from steel.

Albany has two main divisions: machine clothing for the paper industry and engineered composites for aerospace. It seems clear Dr. Marone is moving his company toward composites and aerospace. In November 2012, Albany stated that over the past several years, due to deteriorating market conditions, they had closed 12 plants, eight in the US and three in Europe. When Albany closed its Tumwater machine clothing plant in 2009, Albany had 6000 employees world wide. They now have 4300. In addition, Albany is building two new composite plants to service aerospace, both in conjunction with its French partner SAFRAN. One plant will be in Rochester, New Hampshire and the other plant in Commercy, France.

Dr. Marone wasn’t too busy, however, to know that he had to send his new President of Albany’s machine paper division, Daniel A. Halftermeyer, to France for a March 8, 2012 meeting called by the French Ministry of Labor. Mr. Halftermeyer had been appointed president of the machine paper division in February 2012. St. Junien must have been his first plant closure effort. It hadn’t gone well. In fact, at the March 8th meeting in Limoges attended by all community and worker leadership from St. Junien, Mr. Halftermeyer said Albany hadn’t closed the St. Junien plant and wanted to talk to everyone about the plant’s future.

It was a great victory for the people of St. Junien. The workers went back to work on March 12th. They even got paid for the two weeks the plant had been shut down. But, talking to Albany about the plant’s future has been a different story. In fact, there has been no talking about the 134 workers, just announcements and Albany press releases.

In November 2012, eight months after work had resumed at St. Junien, Albany issued a press release stating that it was going to reduce employment at its two French plants by 200 positions, 74 at its St. Junien plant. Dr. Marone stated that the St. Junien would remain a “center of excellence” but with only 50 workers rather than 134.

The workers had another idea of excellence and mobilized again. Their efforts produced two meetings at the national finance ministry in Paris, one in December 2012, and one at the end of January 2013. The meetings were chaired by Arnaud Montebourg who had been appointed to head the Ministry of Industrial Renewal by the newly elected socialist President Francois Hollande. You’d think he would have been more helpful to the St. Junien workers. This was the guy who told Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal to leave France and threatened to nationalize his plants because Mittal was refusing to fire up two blast furnaces which meant 629 workers would lose their jobs. He did tell the St. Junien leaders that Albany was going to invest 1.5 million euros in the St. Junien plant, but that they would have to talk to Albany about layoffs.

On the evening of February 1st 2013, I attended a standing room only public meeting in St. Junien’s Administrative Center, chaired by Christophe Sardin, CGT’s local delegate. It’s been a year of continuous struggle mixed with wearing uncertainly for many families, some of whom have worked at the plant for over 30 years. The union leadership again asserted their position that there was no need for layoffs. They called for a debate on the public TV channel France 3. They intend to mobilize large demonstrations. They want direct talks with Albany leadership.

I don’t know if Dr. Marone will hear them. He’s quoted in a January 2013 New Hampshire business journal as saying, “The whole show is talent. It drives innovation and growth.” It’s not clear whether he means talent to replace workers with machines, or talent to use the creativity of workers.

Whatever he means, I have hope for the workers of St. Junien. They know their history. They are attached to their community. They possess a deep reservoir of talent. And, as they say, they are mobilized. I remember one of the best chants in the streets of Seattle when people closed down the WTO ministerial in November 1999:

“Tous ensemble, tous ensemble, tous, tous, tous!” It was the French workers reminding us of the strength of solidarity.

WIP’s foreign correspondent, Dan Leahy, reporting  from Limoges, France.

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