Europe-wide protests against Hewlett-Packard job cuts

Following the takeover by the leading computer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard (HP) of the information technology service provider Electronic Data Systems, HP announced that it will be cutting more than 24,000 jobs. About 9,300 of these job cuts may be in Europe. In protest against the management’s plans to cut jobs and freeze wages and benefits, a European-wide action day was held in November 2008, followed by two further protest action days in January 2009.

Hewlett-Packard restructuring plan

In May 2008, the computer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard (HP) announced the takeover of the information technology (IT) service provider Electronic Data Systems (EDS). At the time of the takeover, HP counted 178,000 employees, while EDS had 142,000 employees. As a consequence of the takeover, in late September 2008 HP announced plans to cut 7.5% of its workforce, or 24,600 jobs, in an effort to achieve savings from its recent acquisition of EDS. HP stated that it intended to carry out the cutbacks over the next two years, while replacing about half of the jobs in new areas of its services business. The company is predicting USD 1.8 billion (about €1.4 billion as at 10 March 2009) in annual cost savings once the cost-cutting programme is completed.

Of the 24,600 job cuts, at least 9,300 are likely to be made in Europe. It is also speculated that wage benefits will be retrenched. The majority of the 9,300 European layoffs will affect former EDS employees.

Trade union protests

Trade unions, however, are challenging the economic necessity of the layoffs and cutbacks in terms and conditions. On 13 November 2008, the European Metalworkers’ Federation (EMF) and UNI-Europa affiliates throughout Europe staged local and national actions as a mark of protest against the management’s plans to cut jobs and freeze wages and benefits. More than 8,000 people participated in the first European action day organised by the two European industry federations in protest against the layoffs and worsening working conditions due to the takeover of EDS by HP. According to an EMF press release, demonstrations and protest actions took place in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom (UK). In light of the successful European-wide mobilisation, UNI-Europa and EMF organised a gathering of HP and EDS trade unions on 8 December 2008 in Brussels to evaluate the situation within the two companies.

Despite the high level of mobilisation, HP did not change its position. In response to a letter sent by EMF and UNI-Europa, the company’s vice-president of human resources replied that HP would continue to consult with European Works Councils and employee representatives. Nevertheless, according to the trade unions, the management is still refusing to release the exact figures regarding future redundancies and to explain how it intends to implement the restructuring plan in each of the countries affected. The management has, however, announced that the process which was initially expected to last two years will be shortened to a period of three months.

Further European-wide protest action

The trade unions called for a new wave of national mobilisations leading to another common European action day in protest against the reportedly unacceptable conditions faced by HP and EDS employees. The action day took place on 30 January 2009 as a mark of protest against the HP/EDS restructuring plan, salary freeze, benefit cuts and redundancies. The unions also called for meaningful information and consultation processes to help pave the way for acceptable solutions for all workers.

According to the trade unions, the second European action day proved to be a success, with protest actions taking place in at least six EU Member States. In Germany, protests were organised at nearly all sites, with staff meetings reaching 100% participation in certain locations. As EDS management refused to enter negotiations for a collective agreement on job security and the safeguarding of current terms and conditions of employment and pay increases, the trade unions United Services Union (Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft, ver.di) and the German Metalworkers’ Union (Industriegewerkschaft Metall, IG Metall) called for a joint strike at 14 German sites on 10 February 2009. In France, a major demonstration was organised on 29 January while, in Italy, strikes were organised in the southern city of Bari, the northern city of Milan and the central capital city of Rome. In certain cases, the participation rate reached 95%. Further protests also took place in Austria, Belgium and the UK.

Commentary

The HP/EDS case seems to confirm the importance of revising Council Directive 94/45/EC on the establishment of European Works Councils (EU0803039I, EU0810019I), especially with regard to the strengthening of the definitions of information and consultation. In the future, the new definitions might contribute to improvements – such as stronger dialogue between the employee side and management in order to reach a common understanding of the general principles of a planned decision, its potential impact on the workforce and a sustainable process of implementation.

Volker Telljohann, IRES Emilia-Romagna, Bologna

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