Tribunal decision annuls Renault closure

In April 1997, a Belgian labour tribunal confirmed the trade unions' point of view that the closure by Renault of its Vilvoorde plant was in violation of a number of Belgian labour laws

The next step in the Renault Vilvoorde saga (BE9703202F) was probably not initially foreseen by Renault senior management in Paris. Indeed, although the Renault managing director, Louis Schweitzer, has already announced that the tribunal decision to annul the closure of the Renault plant in Vilvoorde will in no way interfere with the plans to close the plant, it has slightly changed the dynamics and the timetable of the course of events.

The labour tribunal in Brussels concluded on 3 April 1997 that Renault had ignored legal procedures concerning collective redundancies (collective labour agreement no.9), the disclosure of information to works councils, and its obligation to negotiate the plans with union representatives on the works council (collective labour agreement no. 24). In an unusual move, the judge also called on the parties involved to reconsider the closure and to search for alternative solutions. According to labour law specialist Patrick Humblet of the University of Ghent, the fact that a judge has annulled a closure is an extremely rare case in the practice of Belgian labour law. He can think of only one precedent, namely the closure of a vinegar factory at the end of the 1950s.

Senior management at Renault reacted immediately by announcing that it would reopen the procedures under the terms of collective agreements nos. 9 and 24, which means that the closure will be postponed but not de facto annulled. "Procedural issues do not change economic realities", said Martin Baert, spokesperson for Renault. Renault also lodged an appeal against the tribunal decision.

Union leaders are considering the opportunities for future action. According to labour law specialists, the tribunal decision does not imply at the moment a fine for Renault or an obligation to renegotiate the closure as such. The Belgian General Federation of Labour (ABVV/FGTB) and the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (ACV/CSC), along with unions from France (CFDT,CFTC and CGT) and Spain (CC.OO andUGT), have decided to coordinate further joint action against the current Europe-wide restructuring moves on the part of the Renault group. They have also decided to work on alternative plans to prove that Renault can remain open and economically viable.

In the meantime, the unions have received some sort of support from the EUCouncil of Ministers which has urged the European social partners to draw up a European code of conduct for factory closures and relocations (EU9704118F).

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