(Reuters) — The U.S. tire executive who infuriated the French by calling workers at a doomed Goodyear factory "not worth saving" might have formed a different impression of France had he visited a Dunlop factory across the street.
The Dunlop plant near Amiens in northern France was the mirror image of the plant that Titan International CEO Maurice Taylor, nicknamed The Grizz for his gruff demeanour, had considered buying before dropping the idea and complaining the workforce spent as much time talking as working.
But the two plants, whose shared parent is Goodyear Dunlop, chose different destinies four years ago when Dunlop's unions accepted tougher labour conditions and Goodyear's rejected them.
Now Goodyear faces closure, while Dunlop has received more than 50 million euros (C$67 million) in investment.
"The bottom line is that our jobs are staying, and across the street there are 1,173 guys who are going to be on benefits," said a Dunlop union leader who asked to remain anonymous to avoid adding to what he called "severe" tensions with Goodyear workers. "Draw your own conclusions."
Union leaders at the two plants on the outskirts of Amiens, where riots erupted last August, were friends before a management request to merge the plants and switch to four daily work shifts from three previously tore them apart in 2009.
Goodyear is not alone in demanding higher productivity; struggling carmakers Peugeot and Renault have also pressed unions to accept more stringent work conditions, with the latter near a national deal.
In Amiens, Goodyear's CGT leader Mickael Wamen rejected the plan, which came in exchange for salary rises and investment to renovate tools, while Dunlop's CFDT accepted it. Two months later, Goodyear faced its first in a series of redundancy plans.
Wamen managed to have two such plans overturned in labour courts before Taylor stepped in, seeking to snap up the plant's tractor tire section and keep 537 jobs as part of a global sweep of all of Goodyear's tire-producing facilities.
But after a year of talks, Wamen's CGT rejected the bid, saying Taylor's vow to run the plant for two years was insufficient. In a stinging letter in late February, Taylor told Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg, who had defended the CGT, that he could keep his "so-called workers."
"Your government let the crazy Communist union destroy the best-paid jobs," Taylor told Europe 1 radio after his letter to Montebourg was leaked to French media.
Montebourg responded in a prickly letter of his own calling Taylor's views "extremist" and "insulting."
However, asked about the CGT's behaviour at Goodyear and allegations of intimidation at Peugeot's Aulnay plant near Paris, he said: "I told them, don't confuse the prize in front of you with what you think you might get."
If another buyer were to materialise for the plant, whose production line, unlike Dunlop's, has not been modernized to produce standard car tires, he said: "The CGT will have to accept some concessions, and so will the buyer."
Compromise or blackmail?
Goodyear Dunlop in Europe, Middle East and Africa belongs to the larger Goodyear Group based in Akron, Ohio.
But the subsidiary's fate is inseparable from that of France's auto industry, which is struggling with shrinking European demand and is at the heart of a broader decline in industrial competitiveness that has battered exports.
The CGT's Wamen did not return calls for comment or reply to several voice messages. However, CGT-linked activists at the Amiens Nord plant lashed out at what they called a "smear campaign" against the CGT, and said Taylor had mis-represented the workers by saying they only worked three hours per day.
Taylor had visited when production at the plant was down to 2,700 tires per day from more than 20,000 in October last year. Idle workers had no choice but to stay in the factory to avoid being docked pay for not showing up, they said.
With the stench of rubber fumes thick in the air on a freezing afternoon, Goodyear workers finishing an overnight shift said they backed the CGT's position, with reservations.
"I think they were right overall," said Thierry, 42, who works on a moulding station and does not belong to a union. "But I don't understand why they rejected the voluntary redundancy plan last year; I would have earned 80,000 euros and could have started job training."
A spokeswoman for Goodyear-Dunlop said a downturn in Europe's auto sector had cut demand for tires, leaving it no choice but to seek higher productivity.
But workers rejected that argument and said Wamen was right to reject the four rotating shifts, which would have made them work a sequence of two morning shifts, two afternoon shifts, two nights, then two days' rest.
Several Goodyear workers said such conditions were detrimental to health and well-being and had caused divorces among Dunlop's 950 workers.
Dunlop's union leader said conditions were more strenuous but called them "manageable."
"We need to move away from a mentality where we push labour conflicts to their limit. They manage labour relations much better in Germany. Why can't we?" he said.
But with production falling at Dunlop, too — down to about 9,000 tires per day due from a capacity of some 20,000 -—many emerging from a night shift feared their compromise had won only a brief reprieve.
Unions at a German-owned Continental plant nearby had also accepted tougher labour conditions in 2007, only to be shut down in 2010 at a cost of 1,120 jobs.
"I feel like a zombie," said Ahmed, a 32-year-old Dunlop worker who moved over from Goodyear last year. "I don't know what day it is, my back is rotten, I'm too tired to talk."
Asked if he was happy to have a job while his former colleagues faced unemployment, Ahmed chuckled weakly and said, "Yes, I'm delighted. But come back next year and we'll all be at the jobs agency together, just like old times."