The announcement of the closure next spring of the factory of the Bridgestone tire brand in Béthune in the Pas de Calais region has led several television channels to broadcast images and give a voice to the workers to express their disappointment. or even their disgust. To the ministers and the president of the Hauts de France region who express their indignation, the management of the site retorts that factories in countries with low labor costs are more profitable than those which still remain in France. In our country, the closures of tire factories due to relocation are nothing new. Between 2006 and 2015, the new tire and retreading industry cut 11,700 jobs in France to produce in countries with low labor costs, according to INSEE.
Closures at Kléber in 1983 and 2009
But these plant closures had started long before. The journalist that I became in 1983, after a summer internship in the editorial staff of “l’Humanité”, is well placed to know it. From the fall of 1965 to the summer of 1983, I was a manufacturing worker on a tire line in the Kléber factory in Colombes, where 3,200 people worked, including more than 2,000 workers when I was hired. In 1981, Michelin, the sole shareholder of Kléber, announced the closure of the Colombes plant just after the establishment of the government headed by Pierre Mauroy, following the arrival of François Mitterrand at the Élysée.
While ensuring production, the fight against the closure lasted two years, while management relocated certain productions to its provincial factories over the months and abandoned aircraft tires, while Kléber was the European leader in this niche of production. The Kléber factory in Toul, which had started producing in 1969, had recovered, in 1983, the production of car tires previously produced in Colombes. It was closed in 2009 and production transferred to Serbia where workers’ wages are three times lower than in France.
During our long struggle against the closure of Colombes, we were received at the Elysee Palace by an employee of François Mitterrand in the early afternoon and we had the impression of having interrupted his nap. To the Minister of Industry, another day, Loïc Le Floch-Prigent, chief of staff, told us about the Michelin group’s decision: “you cannot make a donkey who is not thirsty drink”.
What happens to staff made redundant with a plant closure
In part, I became a journalist because the management of my factory refused to reclassify the trade unionists who had led the fight against the closure. On the other hand, because I had acquired, over the years, an editorial practice as a militant worker. But for the vast majority of my co-workers, finding another job was often difficult and the pay was sometimes halved or even three. I republished nine of their testimonies, which had already appeared in another book in 1990, in “Halte aux spoliations” (1) the book I wrote in 2019, in the form of an open letter to President Macron to denounce his policy on service of the rich. Here are a few excerpts from what seven of my dismissed colleagues suffered, the first three of whom, two women and one man, were CGT unionists:
“Odette had worked for 26 years cutting the fabrics that go into making tires. For her, the various machines no longer had any secrets, to the point that she knew, on occasion, how to advise the adjuster in charge of the modifications to be introduced on the machine to cut new pieces of fabric. Licensed at 54, she was offered refresher courses in French, mathematics and housework… ”.
“Jean made tires for the Concorde and for all wide-body planes. What required a very sharp qualification and a great physical strength to hold out on these positions. It was even necessary to resort to a strike two weeks in a row to take this reality into account in the 1970s. After a long period of unemployment, Jean, boosted by connections, became ATOSS staff of the National Education. His pay has been cut in half ”.
“Arlette was a laboratory technician with the responsibility of a supervisor. Like her father and her husband, she had always worked in this factory. Laid off at 43, she was unemployed for two years. Known and appreciated in her neighborhood, she then found a part-time job shared in two pharmacies for the shelves of medicines. With a pay equal to a third of the previous one ”.
Yazid could read and write. He was capable of occupying fifteen to twenty different positions in his workshop. Laid off at the age of 52, he then never found anything. Like him, some 200 Moroccans, both good workers, remained on the sidelines. Yazid, a father who left his family in the country, dragged his misery as an unemployed person for several years in the Parisian suburbs. Perhaps he joined from his mountain in the region of Agadir… ”.
“François started out as a worker before becoming team leader, then foreman. Licensed at the age of 50, he did a landscaping internship. With his new diploma and piston, he was able to become an auxiliary municipal gardener in his municipality of residence. He started at the minimum wage, a pay three times less than that which he had at the factory as foreman ”.
“Jacques and Gilbert were distraught people with fragile hearts. The first died of a heart attack, thinking he was too old to be picked up anywhere. The second died the same way the day he was due to show up for a new job. Others have committed suicide. Many have divorced and some have slipped into marginality ”.
It is of all these former colleagues who have worked with for nearly 18 years in the factory that I have been thinking since yesterday when I saw the employees of Bridgestone express their concern and their indignation.
Gerard Le Puill