Can a European council stop a closure?
Twenty-three years ago, on 27 February 1997, the Renault car group unexpectedly announced the closure of its Belgian plant in Vilvoorde at a press conference held at the Hilton Hotel in Brussels. Simultaneously, the French company’s management called an extraordinary meeting of the plant committee to inform union representatives of its decision. But news travels fast it did so even before social media and the internet – and the more than 3,000 Renault-Vilvoorde employees, in addition to approximately 1,500 workers in direct supply companies, already knew from the radio that they were about to lose their jobs. What followed is a milestone of socio-labour mobilisation and strategic use of the European institutions. Most significantly of a then almost experimental piece of EU regulation, Directive 94/45/EC on European Works Councils.
The Renault-Vilvoorde case began like many other attempts by a local community to resist a workplace’s closure. The plant’s employees went on strike for several months and put into practice several of the most classic elements of protest in the common repertoire of collective action: they occupied the factory premises, prevented vehicles from leaving the factory, held mass demonstrations in the streets of Brussels and tried to put as much pressure as possible on the company’s management and the Belgian authorities. So far, nothing new or remarkable outside the territory directly affected by the company’s decision. A local conflict within the long chain of value creation of a large transnational company. An isolated (and isolable) problem for the company’s management, once the appropriate communication exercise has been applied: unbearable cost pressure, loss of competitiveness and the inevitability of relocation in a context of productive re-specialisation. Despite public solidarity, the Renault-Vilvoorde plant’s closure was seen as one more event in a generalised outmigration process of lower value-added industrial processes to other global regions.
But the plant’s workers innovated. Perhaps accustomed to this word because of the emphasis of business discourse on the continuous improvement of production processes, so fashionable from the 1990s onwards, they realised that restricted to the local, their voice would be drowned out in the din of globalisation and their programme of mobilisation would quickly run out of steam. They, therefore, decided to make use of Renault’s European Works Council in two ways. Through the network of contacts provided by this labour representation body, which included union representatives from other European plants and countries, they organised a day of ten-minute solidarity stoppages at production sites in Belgium, France, and Spain first transnational European strike. More importantly, to consolidate the Europeanisation of the conflict, they denounced Renault management to fulfil its obligations towards the European Works Council. The French court ruling obliged the company to suspend the closure of Vilvoorde until the workers’ rights to information and consultation were satisfied, which, according to Directive 94/45/EC, recognises the right of the European Works Council to be informed and consulted in good time and an appropriate manner “in exceptional circumstances affecting the employees’ interests, in particular in the event of transfers of undertakings, closure of undertakings or establishments or collective redundancies” and, in any case, before any irrevocable decision is taken. A year later, another judgment, handed down by a Belgian court, ordered the company’s president, Louis Schweitzer, to pay 10 million Belgian francs to manage the closure process.
The Renault-Vilvoorde workers indeed lost. The plant was closed in the summer of 1997, once the management had made amends and, amid great tension, informed and consulted with its European Works Council about the cessation of production in Vilvoorde. The workers gained time to negotiate a social plan with better conditions than the company initially offered. The legalisation of the conflict at European level caused a major shake-up at the top of the multinational’s management. But the significance of the Vilvoorde case went much further. It set a legal precedent whereby multinational companies with operations in the European Union are subject to democratic control over their decisions to transfer production and relocate. Some may consider this control to be of very low intensity. Still, at least it exists and is accessible to workers fighting against closure, as is now the case in Alcoa’s plants in A Coruña and Avilés. The outcome of the Vilvoorde case also brought home to European public authorities the need to strengthen the legal mechanisms that limit and order the corporate restructuring processes of multinational companies. Some may also think that, so many years later, European workers are still waiting for someone in Brussels to pick up the gauntlet and to supplement national regulations on corporate restructuring and collective dismissals in a truly ambitious way.