Is boss-napping a protest too far?

Featured October 09 Words by Ian Wylie And Rosie Carr
Is boss-napping a protest too far?

YES SAYS ROSIE CARR

Losing your job is always tough. As a cause of stress and high emotion, it's right up there with divorce. And being turfed out onto the unemployment scrapheap is made doubly painful when your employer sends you packing with the bare minimum of cash to get you through the months ahead. But can unfair treatment ever justify terrorist actions - kidnapping, threatening to detonate bombs and making sinister phone calls to families of the hostages?

Rather alarmingly, some people think the French workers who recently resorted to these actions had no choice. France's history suggests drastic action is more likely to be tolerated there. Even so, it's hard for outsiders to stomach the view that the bosses got what they deserved and the workers were rightfully fighting for a better severance deal. Where is the logic behind that argument? All across Europe companies are shedding jobs in an effort to survive the recession. There will be many more losses. Should we encourage all those workers to imprison their bosses and threaten violent action to secure extra-fat payoffs? If we tolerate militant union workers using violence to walk away with more money than they are legally entitled to, we will cripple every company and descend into anarchy.

Would the unions approve if bosses turned the tables and began employee-napping in an effort to persuade them that they should accept less? Hardly.

And would we approve if the unions decided to kidnap, not bosses, but foreign workers and immigrants because "they were taking our jobs"? Would we nod sympathetically and say: "Well, they were forced into it, there was no other option"?

It's not as if European welfare agencies refuse to support the unemployed. However long it takes, your housing costs will be paid and you can live fairly comfortably.

Workers often complain that the bosses are the last to lose their jobs. That's because companies rely on their managers to make sure the job gets done even if that means long hours and sleepless nights worrying about problems and finding solutions. If you want the perks that go with being a manager, then apply for the job. Still sure that terrorist-style tactics are necessary?

Companies aren't there to keep workers in the lap of luxury, or to provide them with a job for life. The role of a company is to achieve its business aims and make profits. None of the companies targeted by the angry workers were breaking the law or refusing to honour their contracts. In what other area of life do we allow signatories to throw violent tantrums when the deal's not going their way?

Two hundred years ago in England, bosses were terrorised by workers for buying machinery that could do the work of dozens of men. These Luddites burnt down factories and attacked bosses for destroying jobs. But, unlike today's terrorist workers, history has not made heroes of these men. Their nickname has come to mean backwards looking and resistant to change. And history shows the Luddites were wrong to resist change, as the machines actually created jobs.

Today's terrorist-workers should be similarly condemned, not condoned. Rosie Carr is deputy editor of Investors Chronicle magazine

NO SAYS IAN WYLIE

The CEO has called a meeting to announce mass redundancies across your company but omits to mention he and his board of directors will keep their jobs and still collect fat bonuses and enhanced pensions. With little more than statutory pay-off, you'll struggle to pay your mortgage, service your car loan and feed your kids. So, what do you do? a) meekly accept your fate; b) write to your member of parliament to complain; or c) join your co-workers in preventing your CEO from leaving the office until a more satisfactory deal is agreed?

How you answer may depend upon your nationality. Answer c) is proving to be a particularly Gallic way to vent anger over the economic crisis and threats to jobs. In France, "boss-napping" by workers who face mass job cuts and miserly redundancy payouts may even come to be chronicled as the hallmark of President Nicolas Sarkozy's years in office.

Of course, workers in France have a long and proud tradition of direct action, from port-blockading fishermen and track-sitting railway workers to congestion-causing farmers who herd their sheep into city centres. Boss-napping is simply a 21st-century continuation of that French tradition - and, by and large, a fairly innocuous one. In an age of 24/7 rolling news stations, it powerfully highlights workers' grievances, far more than other forms of protest. In most cases, workers stage a peaceful sit-in, order in some pizza and wait for their managers to offer some concessions before allowing them to leave.

Unlike the big, general strikes of previous generations, boss-napping doesn't inconvenience many people. Locking the boss up for a couple of hours is a relatively harmless way for workers to let off steam. Is it morally defensible? Well, probably not, though a poll showed that almost half of French citizens believed it an acceptable action for workers facing layoffs. Ségolène Royal, the Socialist presidential candidate defeated by Sarkozy in 2007, has said that although it's obviously illegal to deprive someone of their liberty, she believes there are times when "workers must smash the barriers of absolute injustice".

Boss-napping is certainly a more spirited response than surly resignation or timid acceptance of one's fate.

In this recession, which many believe was precipitated by greed at the top of big banks and other companies, can workers be blamed for expressing their feelings of injustice and anger? What, they are right to ask, have they done to contribute to their job losses, other than work their hardest and put trust in their employer? It's no accident that many incidents of boss-napping have been at companies with head offices outside of France, prompted by a sense of despair over decisions taken with little sensitivity shown for the local situation.

Of course, we would never condone anything illegal. Violence, or the threat of it, is unacceptable. But we mustn't allow President Sarkozy and others to demonise boss-nappers as violent thugs. Most are just mothers and fathers with families to provide for. They know they cannot defend their jobs. Most just want a reasonable payoff. Companies, and their bosses, who can offer that security, have nothing to fear.

Ian Wylie writes for the Financial Times and the Guardian


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