Work resumes at BN after three-week strike

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In February 2002, workers at the Biscuiterie Nantaise (BN) biscuits factory near Nantes in France returned to work following a three-week strike, without the issues in question being resolved. The strike - which followed various management and ownership changes at the company - related mainly to pay and early retirement.

January and February 2002 saw a three-week strike by workers at the Biscuiterie Nantaise (BN) plant near Nantes in western France. The dispute should be seen against the backdrop of changes in ownership and management at BN .

In the 19th century, the Nantes region developed major industrial activity around the area's ports (in particular Nantes and Saint Nazaire). In the agri-foods sector, several processed food firms such as Cassegrain and Saupiquet, and numerous major biscuit manufacturers, such as BN, Lefèvre-Utile (LU) and St Michel, were founded during this era. Gradually, over a period of many years, these local biscuit companies – which were initially family-owned - have either merged or been absorbed into multinational corporations such as Nabisco, Danone or United Biscuits. However, the region has retained its biscuit manufacturing plants and local biscuit producers have become well known in both France and the rest of the world.

In the period up until the early 1990s, BN, which was founded in 1896, experienced several changes in ownership and saw numerous different management teams come and go. For the past few years, the company has been owned by the UK-based group, United Biscuits, which operates other continental-European brands such as Delacre and Verkade. In May 2000, United Biscuits was acquired by the Finalrealm holding company (involving Cinven, Paribas affaires industrielles and DB Capital Partners) and the giant US-based biscuit manufacturer, Nabisco. This takeover enabled Nabisco to rationalise all its European activities under the United Biscuits banner. In September 2001, a new management team was appointed at BN's only production plant, located near Nantes.

According to employee representatives, the BN employees now feel as if they are no longer anything more than chips in a huge financial game of 'Monopoly'. Henri Chiffoleau, a French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT) representative and secretary of the BN works council, claimed that 'BN workers are having a hard time coping with a mercenary management team, who did not even know that BN existed six months ago, who might no longer be part of the company in a few months' time and who revel in laying down the law to people with 30 years' experience in the business'.

While production is on the rise, the size of the BN workforce is falling. In 2000, the plant employed 660 workers. This has since dropped to 400. In an attempt to raise productivity, the new management team has put forward a new work organisation policy. Employees see this new approach as restrictive and as failing to meet their demands for talks on wages and early retirement schemes for older workers and those facing most hardship, based on the 'early retirement for certain employees' (Cessation anticipée pour certains travailleurs salariés, CATS) scheme introduced by the government in 2000 (FR0102131F) .

It was in this context that on 24 January 2002, 95% of the BN plant employees – according to trade union estimates – walked out on strike. Their demands related to wages – with CFDT and the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT) demanding monthly increases of EUR 41 and EUR 90 respectively - but also retirement procedures and working conditions. After two weeks of industrial action and a complete production standstill, the head of United Biscuits for France and northern Europe took the negotiation process out of the hands of the local plant management, who had until then been responsible for conducting them. During new rounds of talks, management put an EUR 40 a month raise on the table. Workers eventually rejected this.

Notwithstanding this rejection, the plant's workforce went back to work on 18 February 2002, without having made any tangible gains. The unity achieved by the unions around the strike failed to out-manoeuvre BN's management, which cited the need to consult with shareholders. Moreover, it succeeded in getting striking workers back to work as a condition for continued talks. However, workers' morale does not appear to have been broken by this strike, which is one of the longest in BN history. Some employees maintained that they had come through the dispute in one piece, undivided and with their heads held high. Another worker added that 'it was the greatest strike I have seen in 30 years at BN'.

On 19 February, negotiations resumed on a proposal providing for an EUR 40 a month pay increase and a potential CATS-type early retirement scheme, following consultation of shareholders. The trade unions will indicate their position on the management proposals in due course.

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