Usinor takes over Cockerill-Sambre, under union supervision

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In October 1998, the French-owned Usinor agreed to take over Cockerill-Sambre, the last major steelmaking enterprise in Wallonia, under strict conditions. Trade unions in Belgium have been closely involved in the strategic decisions aimed at maintaining activity at Cockerill-Sambre.

On 14 October 1998, the French-owned Usinor steel group and the government of the Walloon region reached an agreement whereby Usinor will become the majority shareholder in the Belgian steel producer Cockerill-Sambre.The steel and metalworking trade unions based in Liège and Charleroi in Wallonia are generally satisfied by the choice of Usinor to rescue Cockerill-Sambre, a company owned 78.8% by the Walloon regional authorities.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the steel industry has been highly symbolic for both political circles and the labour movement in Wallonia. Cockerill-Sambre, the last major bastion of this sector based in the two rival industrial capitals of Wallonia, Charleroi and Liège, still represents the strength of working-class traditions and the foundations of socialist trade unionism. Some 15 years ago, it still employed 18,000 people.

Trade union organisations, particularly the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV), have been closely associated with the strategic decisions aimed at maintaining activity in the steel sector. This has included merging the two old competing sites, and securing the takeover of the Cockerill-Sambre group in the 1980s by the regional public authorities.

In spring 1998, in order to preserve Cockerill-Sambre's survival in international competition, a French expert, Jean Gandois, selected 15 years previously as chair of the board by the Walloon government, recommended the sale of the publicly owned shares in the group to a foreign firm. Several showed an interest, such as British Steel, Thyssen-Krupp (Germany) and Hoogovens (the Netherlands). The first was rejected by the trade unions, which distrusted its social policies and financial interests. The other two withdrew before the September 1998 deadline, owing to the terms and conditions imposed by the Walloon region. These terms, which incorporate a large part of the unions' demands, focused on:

  • preserving existing corporate assets and sectors. "We do not want to be run by the financial side", said A Delory, leader of the metalworking section of the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond/Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens, ACV/CSC);
  • the guarantee of new investments and plant modernisation;
  • management autonomy ("n the spirit of keeping decision centres in Wallonia", according to R Piron, former president of the metalworking section of the FGTB in Liège); and
  • preserving a workforce of 7,800 until the year 2003.

The trade unions had demanded to be kept informed about progress of the discussions. Through press releases and mass meetings, they kept reminding the Walloon regional negotiators that they should act in the public interest and preserve steel-making activity in Wallonia.

Amongst the candidates, only the French-owned Usinor group stayed in the race. The unions already preferred Usinor, as its proposals guaranteed both balanced investment in the two centres of Liège and Charleroi and maintenance of a level of employment acceptable to them. The agreement also included less essential undertakings, which nevertheless demonstrated good knowledge of regional circumstances, such as financial support for local football clubs and research contracts for Liège University.

More fundamentally, Cockerill-Sambre's takeover by the French group represents a double turning point:

  • for the steel industry in Wallonia, it marked the end of Walloon influence after the takeover in 1997 of Gustave Boël by Hoogovens and the bankruptcy and takeover by the Italian-Swiss firm Duferco of Forges de Clabecq (BE9707109F); and
  • for the trade unions in Liège and Charleroi, it is the end of a policy of state initiative in the industrial sector, of which Cockerill-Sambre, controlled by the public authorities, was the model and the flagship.
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