Strike at Swissmetal moves into second week

The Swissmetal strikers say they are not about to cave in Keystone

A stand-off between strikers and management at the Swissmetal Boillat group in canton Bern is continuing, with a major demonstration planned for Wednesday.

This content was published on November 23, 2004 - 17:40

Workers and factory managers in Reconvilier, angered by restructuring plans, are calling for the head of CEO Martin Hellweg.

On Tuesday Elisabeth Zölch, the head of canton Bern’s economics department, held separate meetings with both sides in an attempt to break the deadlock.

Tuesday marked the eighth day of the strike at the group, which manufactures semi-finished copper products.

The company is currently undergoing a restructuring process aimed at integrating the factory in Reconvilier with the group’s other production facility at Dornach in canton Solothurn, each of which employs 400 people.

Workers are angry at having to cope with demands for greater flexibility without being compensated. They say they have not had a pay rise for four years.

Root cause

But the root of the problem, according to staff, lies with the strategy of the new chief executive, whose departure is top of the agenda for the strikers.

“The worst thing is that the factory is working well and there are more than enough orders,” said Hung quoc Tran, production manager at the Reconvilier factory.

Industrial action broke out a week ago on Tuesday after a member of the group management, André Willemin, was fired. The news spread around the factory like wildfire.

The 400 workers, staff and production bosses immediately went on strike for an indefinite period.

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Hung quoc Tran, who added that tensions had been high since Hellweg joined the company in June last year.

Restructure with refinance

The 37-year-old German was hired to reshape the heavily-indebted company. Shareholders approved his plan to restructure the group by refinancing it with a capital increase of SFr51.3 million ($44.32 million).

“It’s all very well that he succeeded in refinancing the company, but his style of management is very curt and he never listens,” Hung quoc Tran told swissinfo.

Concerned management members wrote to the board of directors demanding that Hellweg be replaced.

“Our head tried, like a good Swiss who seeks a compromise, to convince the board, but he was fired in the space of five minutes,” added Hung quoc Tran.

François Carrard, chairman of the board, has conceded to the media that “it is not so much a strike which started at the grass-roots level as a management conflict.”

Impatience

Hellweg has not hidden his impatience at developments. When presenting the company’s nine-month figures on Monday, he said the strike was making Reconvilier a “risk site”, especially since the company had plans to inject a minimum of SFr50 million into the factory.

The Unia union, which got the green light from staff committees and the company to start new negotiations, admits it is in a difficult situation.

“The longer a strike continues, the more difficult it becomes to put an end to it,” commented union representative Fabienne Blanc-Kühn.

The events are upsetting the whole region. The Boillat factory, founded in the 18th century and supplier to the watch industry, has employed generations of local residents.

Every day, a procession of strikers and sympathisers comes together in the streets of Reconvilier, a village of 2,300 people.

“We have magnificent support not only from all the surrounding villages but also from customers from all over Switzerland,” commented Hung quoc Tran.

A bigger demonstration is planned for Wednesday, with political representatives taking part.

swissinfo, Isabelle Eichenberger

Key facts

Martin Hellweg was hired in June 2003 to reshape the heavily-indebted company.
Shareholders approved his plan to refinance the company with a capital increase of SFr51.3 million.
During the first nine months of the year, Swissmetal improved its turnover by 22 per cent to SFr155.4 million.

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In brief

The Boillat factory, which specialises in copper-based products, was founded in Reconvilier in 1855.

In 1986, it merged with Dornach and Selve to form the Swissmetal-UMS Swiss Metalworks Holding, which is based in Bern.

The factory at Reconvilier in the Bernese Jura and the one in Dornach, canton Solothurn, employ 400 people each.

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