Offshoring strikes refining industry, workers strike back
By Tara Patel
They also called for strikes later this month as a labor dispute over the future of the industry in France escalates ahead of regional elections.
Management of Total, Europe’s largest refinery, have until Feb. 15 to restart the Flanders refinery or “we will take possession of the site,” the CGT, FO and Sud Chimie unions said in a joint e-mailed statement. The CGT union also called for 48- hour strikes at French refineries during the week of Feb. 15.
Total plans to halt refining operations at the Flanders plant permanently after the recession eroded demand for oil products. The refinery was idled in September. The French company, which last year said it may sell refining assets in Europe, will announce a final decision on the future of the site before the end of June.
Total delayed a final decision after the government, which faces regional elections next month, urged the company to protect the local economy and jobs with a plan for a “substitute” business activity.
Union members held noisy demonstrations at Total headquarters in the La Defense business district two days ago amid talks with management about the future of Flanders.
Hundreds of workers with drums and horns crowded into the building’s atrium and smashed a glass security barrier. This led security personnel to seal off access for more than four hours to elevators leading to upper storeys, where the office of Chief Executive Officer Christophe de Margerie is located.
Total has said it would guarantee “each employee a job at Total that is a fit with his or her competencies” as well as “helping to secure” the future of local contractors. The complex employs 376 workers and has about 400 sub-contractors.
Union leaders including Charles Foulard of the CGT have said the dispute has wider implications beyond Flanders of protesting Total’s strategy to gradually pull out of refining in France, where it operates six of the country’s 12 plants, in favor of overseas expansion.
The company is among several European refiners to lower operating rates, idle plants and seek to sell others in a bid to save costs and maintain profit after the recession cut fuel use. European refining margins dropped to their lowest level in at least two years in December, according to data on the Web site of the Union Francaise des Industries Petrolieres trade group.
Total will create a Refining Operations Technical Support Center and training school at the Flanders facility, allowing it to keep two-thirds of the refinery jobs, it said. The Paris- based company is also in talks to invest in a planned liquefied natural gas terminal near the Port of Dunkirk as it seeks to maintain jobs.
CGT representatives have also said Total won’t restart the idled crude-distillation unit at Gonfreville. The unit was scheduled to close in 2012, according to a plan announced in March.
Total plans to reduce Gonfreville’s capacity by 25 percent to 12 million tons a year while raising the proportion of diesel output and lowering surplus gasoline. The proposal would lead to the loss of 555 refining and petrochemical jobs in France.
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