- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

GRENOBLE, FRANCE (AP) - For a second straight day, desperate French workers facing steep layoffs at a Caterpillar factory held four of their bosses at the U.S. manufacturer’s plant in the Alps, union officials said.

The workers also made a direct appeal to French President Nicolas Sarkozy to save their jobs, said Nicolas Benoit, a representative of the CGT union at the Caterpillar plant in Grenoble.

“We expect a strong political response,” Benoit said. “The goal is to save jobs.”

The conflict between workers and management at Caterpillar marks the third time in the past few weeks that French workers have detained their bosses to protest layoffs stemming from the global economic crisis.

Unease and unrest have been spreading across France as more jobs are lost, and the public becomes increasingly frustrated by the government’s failure to stem the effects of plummeting economic growth.

Last week, workers at a 3M plant south of Paris held the company boss for two days, and earlier this month workers at a Sony plant held a similar protest.

The economic contraction in France is expected to be the worst in more than three decades, and unemployment is expected to reach nearly 10 percent this year.

Union representatives appealed to Sarkozy to seek the release of European funds aimed to counter the effects of globalization.

“I am going to save the site,” Sarkozy said on Europe-1 radio Wednesday morning when asked about the fate of Caterpillar. However, he offered no concrete solutions to the plant’s plight.

The union leaders at Caterpillar say they have no room to maneuver in negotiations and want immediate talks on a plan to save jobs.

The atmosphere at the plant was calm Wednesday morning. Workers brought the managers croissants and chocolate pastries for breakfast.

The workers had detained five managers on Tuesday, but allowed one of them who has heart problems to leave. The others were held overnight in Caterpillar offices inside the plant.

The two sides are at odds over the amount of the layoff package being offered to workers, with the workers demanding 110 million euros and management holding firm at 48.5 million euros.

Caterpillar France says the layoffs are justified. In February, the company said it was facing a 55 percent loss of orders between 2008 and 2009.

In response to the worsening economic prospects, Caterpillar in January announced job cuts that will ultimately eliminate 20,000 positions worldwide.

Peoria, Illinois-based Caterpillar said it was hoping for a quick solution to the problem.

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