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Is the 'boss-napping' story overblown?

As Caterpillar managers file suit, French government plays down problem.

Employees gather outside the Caterpillar France site in Grenoble on March 31, 2009. Dozens of workers facing the sack at a factory run by Caterpillar detained the plant's director, the head of human resources and two other managers. (Robert Pratta/Reuters)

PARIS — By the end of May, more than 700 employees of Caterpillar France will have received their termination notices. It will close a turbulent chapter in the U.S. company's French operations, which gained notoriety for a "boss-napping" incident.

Earlier this year, French workers facing layoffs started detaining executives as a bargaining tactic of last resort. At Caterpillar and other companies, workers held the managers captive to protest plant closures or demand better severance packages.

At first, neither the companies nor the government moved to stop the boss-nappings. But as their frequency increased, the government started taking a firmer tone against the practice. Detained managers also began seeking legal remedies over the sequestrations.

“We are in a state of laws,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon told reporters last month at the height of the media-driven frenzy. “The government will not accept the taking of hostages, whether they are bosses or any other person in charge.”

When asked how specifically the government planned to address the matter, Fillon replied that it was up to businesses to act if they so chose; the government would not interfere in their stead.

Four executives at Caterpillar, detained for 24 hours in late March, acted by filing a criminal complaint almost a month after their seizures. Jim Dugan, a spokesman at the Peoria, Ill.-based construction equipment manufacturer said in statement to GlobalPost that “certain Caterpillar managers (as individuals) rather than the company, filed suit against a certain number of unnamed employees related to the sequestration. Beyond that, we would not plan to discuss this legal issue.”

He continued: “As it relates to the status of the social plan, we have been following the prescribed process and we are moving toward our plan of reducing the workforce by 733 in order to bring production levels in line with demand.”

Some employees have filed a complaint of their own against the Caterpillar managers, claiming they were slandered, according to Nicolas Benoit, a representative of the CGT national trade union. The employees say they were called “hooligans” and “violent.”

“We are not violent people; we’re mothers and fathers who were fired, who wanted to defend our jobs,” Benoit said, when reached by telephone. “Caterpillar never wanted to hear that.”

Benoit said the managers’ suit was without merit given that they barricaded themselves in their offices because they didn’t want to face waiting employees and the press. He also said Caterpillar bosses refused to consider options that might have salvaged jobs at the southeastern factories in Grenoble and Echirolles, such as half-time work or allowing older workers to voluntarily retire early.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/france/090519/the-boss-napping-story-overblown