Dispute at Elf takes on regional proportions

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In late June 1999, employees at Elf Exploration Production in France had been on strike for over two months in protest at a planned restructuring of their company. In light of the impact this would have on the regional economy of Pau, many local elected representatives have come out in support of the striking workers.

No settlement had been found in late June 1999 to resolve a strike by employees at Elf Exploration Production which had begun in April over management restructuring proposals. The planned restructuring, put forward by the petrochemical company's management in March, would have a major impact on employment in the Pau region. The plan provides for massive reductions in the workforce, with 1,320 of a total workforce of 4,500 in the Paris and Pau areas to be cut - 650 through early retirement and 500 through outsourcing or the transfer of jobs to another plant. Over and above these measures, concerns are being raised as to whether one of the major activities of the Elf group will be kept up.

This restructuring project is part and parcel of a strategic management scheme, which has been criticised by many parties - workers, financial analysts and politicians alike. Elf is facing challenges on two fronts - a much lower level of foreign development than its competitors and the management of the gradual winding down of production at its Lacq gas field. This second problem is of great importance to local elected representatives in the Pau area, many of whom are supporting the strikers, since they are concerned about changes in the region's economic base. The current dispute, aimed at the company's chair Philippe Jaffré, was triggered by a redundancy plan drawn up due to extraction costs that were excessively high compared to those of Elf's competitors. However, the dispute is part of a wider dissatisfaction. The elected representatives have added their voice to the strikers' long-running criticism of Mr Jaffré, whom they reproach with putting shareholders' interests first in the absence of any long-term corporate plan.

The current dispute is notable in many ways. Managerial and professional staff, traditionally very shy of industrial action, have come out in great numbers. The strike has been characterised by a round-the-clock sit-in at the plant and the paralysing of the central computer system, which has brought activity to a standstill. The local court in Pau threw out Mr Jaffré's request to call in the police to dislodge the strikers, on the grounds of upholding the workers' right to strike. The CFDT, CFTC, CGT, CGT-FO and CFE-CGC trade unions have formed a united front. Workers also used their status as shareholders to express their point of view at the annual shareholders' meeting on 28 May. This action forced a second meeting where all the proposed resolutions were, however, approved. In mid-June, management and the inter-union committee at Elf Exploration Production began a series of discussions on the economic rationale behind restructuring, the subsidiary's future and the restructuring plan itself.

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