The wonderful world of bossnapping

In March 2009 four executives of the American company Caterpillar, including Maurice Petit pictured above, were held hostage for 24 hours in the management headquarters in Grenoble France by workers seeking better redundancy pay.

By Evan Johnston

If you’ve never heard of bossnapping, it’s exactly how it sounds: workers kidnapping or detaining their bosses with the aim of pressuring them to concede to their demands. But who, exactly, are the targets of bossnapping, and what does it look like?

It varies depending on the context, but the “bosses” being kidnapped range from managers and human resource directors to executive officers. The common feature of the targets — besides the general level of insufferable dickishness that is a common affliction of upper management in every workplace — are those who have some degree of power over hiring/firing and the overall labour process.

There is some flexibility, too, in exactly what constitutes a “bossnapping”. It can range from kidnapping your boss from their home (think National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation); kidnapping your boss from work and holding them in a separate location (think 9 to 5); to the most common form, which is keeping your boss locked up somewhere in the workplace, usually in their own offices.

In the jargon of industrial relations literature, bossnapping is sometimes referred to as “management sequestration,” which is really just a testament to the supreme ability of academics to suck the life out of everything exciting.

Sud Aviation: Nantes, 1968

Bossnapping exploded into mainstream consciousness in 2009 after a series of widely reported incidents in France, but it has a long and venerable history linked to periods of rising class struggle. Perhaps one of the most notable cases occurred in Nantes, France during the factory occupation at Sud Aviation in 1968.

Workers at Sud Aviation had been holding symbolic 15 minute strikes in protest of cuts to wages and hours as a result of reduced demand for orders. At the same time, there were also rumors of a complete plant closure or lockout. As the general strike began across France, workers in one section of the factory refused to return to work after their 15 minute strike, and decided instead to march through the factory and convince the rest of the workers to join them.

The occupation was on, and approximately 2,000 workers barricaded themselves inside the factory. Then, as Andree Hoyles describes in Imagination in Power: Occupation of Factories in France in 1968, “a group of twenty members of management [were] detained for over a fortnight,” held in their offices, but generally treated quite well: access to food, water, and their families.

The bossnapping was not the rogue action of one or two impatient radicals, as is sometimes implied, but was instead part of a broader, co-ordinated process of worker self-organization during the occupation. “A group of over twenty strikers stood guard outside, in two-hour shifts,” writes Hoyles, and “at every general meeting, a vote was taken on whether to release them or not.” While the level of trade union activity was not very high at Sud Aviation before the general strike, there were organized Trotskyists at the factory who helped to push for more militant action.

One detail from the Sud Aviation occupation that I particularly enjoy is that “a loudspeaker blared out the Internationale as ‘an effective way for bosses to learn the Internationale without ideological effort’”. In fact, similar tactics were reported by the New York Times during the most recent wave of bossnappings, with bosses from Caterpillar France having been subjected to “a night of pounding revolutionary rock music.” Music, it seems, will always have an important role to play in revolutionary struggle.

Caterpillar: Grenoble, 2009

It should be no surprise, then, that the next wave of bossnappings also took place in France. On March 31, 2009, in the face of a drastic round of job cuts, about 40 workers at the Caterpillar factory in Grenoble, France, stormed their bosses offices and barricaded them inside.

The workers took four managers hostage, including Nicolas Poultnik, the chief Executive of Caterpillar France, and held them for 24 hours. Their goal was to ensure a fair severance package as the company gave layoff notices to 733 of the 2,700 workers at its two factories. This was in the immediate aftermath of the global economic crisis, where Caterpillar was cutting 25,000 jobs worldwide.

In the short-term, the bossnapping paid off. As Bloomberg reported, in the aftermath of the bossnapping, “the company upped its total severance package from €48.5 million to €50 million, amounting to an average €80,000 ($108,000) per worker. The same year, appliance maker Ariston agreed to severance packages of up to €90,000 for workers at a factory in Brittany who protested planned layoffs by locking the manager out of the building.”

Far from being a one-off event, the bossnapping at Caterpillar was one incident among a growing wave of similar responses to the economic crisis. As the Guardian reported, “the Caterpillar crisis was the third in March alone.” Other bossnappings took place at US pharmaceutical corporation 3M, and at Sony France.

Goodyear Tire & Rubber: Amiens, 2014

Jump forward to 2014, where in spite of laws passed by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy to clamp-down on bossnapping, it made a dramatic return at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Plant in Amiens, France, about 150 km north of Paris.

On January 6, after a court rejected the union’s (CGT) appeal against the plant’s closure, workers occupied the plant and took  took HR director, Bernard Glesser, and production manager, Michel Deilly, hostage until the company agreed to higher severance packages for more than a thousand planned layoffs.

Goodyear, an Ohio-based corporation, had been looking to close the plant for several years, citing the state of the European automobile and tire markets. According to CGT, the closure put approximately 1250 jobs at stake, and they demanded that severance packages being offered to employees be increased from €20,000 to €80,000 (from $27,000 to $108,000).

According to a statement released by the CGT: “We just want to continue to work and not swell the ranks of the unemployed and marginalized, and if for that we have to resort to extreme methods, we won’t hesitate to do that.”

Over 100 workers occupied the plant, and barricaded the managers inside for 30 hours until a settlement could be reached.  However, the company refused to negotiate while Michel and and Bernard were held captive, so they were released the following day.

Soon after, a settlement was reached, and CGT ended its occupation of the plant. In the end, while Goodyear refuses to release the details, CGT claims that they were able to win severance pay that was three times greater than what was initially offered. It was an important win for the union in incredibly difficult circumstances.

However, this bossnapping was not without consequences. While it is true that bossnappings generally do not lead to criminal charges, the Financial Times reported in January that eight former workers of Goodyear have each received 2 year jail sentences for their role in the bossnapping.

Specialty Medical Supplies: Beijing, 2013

While mainstream news outlets were chalking bossnappings up to a peculiarity of the French working-class, workers in China were about to prove them wrong.

In June 2013, workers at the American-owned company Specialty Medical Supplies, located in suburban Beijing, held co-owner Chip Starnes hostage for 6 days. And as we’ve seen before, it was a co-ordinated action that saw the active participation of the majority of workers.

One news report suggests that 80 workers managed to barricade every exit, and had shifts to ensure that they were guarded around the clock. While there were no reports of revolutionary music, they did regularly bang on the windows of his office and shine bright lights — but I can only assume this was to cheerfully remind him of how much they appreciated his business savvy and commitment to managerial excellence.

The reasons for the bossnapping should sound familiar: management had been expressing their interest in downsizing the company, and moving operations to India to cut operational costs. Workers feared for their jobs, and if the plant was going to leave, they wanted a fair severance package.

Workers had received word that 30 long-term employees had already received severance packages, but approximately 100 more workers became concerned that they would be left with nothing once the company decided to move.

“I feel like a trapped animal,” Starnes is reported to have said through the bars of his window, while workers who are confined to a cramped factory, have little to no say over their pay and working conditions, and are kept in the dark about whether their job will still exist in the days ahead, presumably have no idea what that feels like.

But after 6 day of captivity, Starnes and the Specialty Medical Supplies executives caved to the workers’ demands, and finally agreed to sign a new compensation agreement with the remaining 97 employees.

Zhongji Pile: Huizhou, 2013

Unfortunately for the Chinese ruling class, this wasn’t the only bossnapping happening that June. On June 30, more than 200 workers at the Zhongji Pile factory in Huizhou, Guangdong Province, surrounded the company’s office building and demanded that the five executives who were visiting the plant pay them the wages that had been kept from them.

As Han Tang reported for Labor Notes:

The workers said Zhongji, which makes concrete pilings for bridges, at first promised to pay them at least RMB 4500 per month (about $734 in U.S. dollars). But later their work hours were cut back because of the recession, and for the last three months they have not been paid.

What’s worse, the administrators declared they would sell the factory without the workers’ permission. This drove them to take action.

Radio Free Asia reported one worker as saying, “we won’t let them leave because if they go then there will be no one left in charge, the company won’t send anybody else.” The visit of the top executives provided a key opening for workers to have their grievances heard and resolved, and many feared that this opportunity wouldn’t happen again if the company was relocated.

The bossnapping was well organized. The executives tried numerous times to escape, but the workers had blocked all of the exits, and had groups of workers guarding them. One executive tried to attack a government official in hopes that he might be arrested, but workers wouldn’t let anyone out.

As usual, the bosses were not treated poorly — they received daily meals, and access to the outside world was provided. The only thing they couldn’t do was leave until the workers’ demands were met, and after four days of the occupation, the bosses caved.

On Thursday, July 4, the company announced that contracts with all workers will remain valid after the factory is relocated, and that salaries will be paid in accordance with those contracts.

According to China Labor Bulletin, confrontations between workers and management over wages, severance, and relocation have become increasingly common in the manufacturing sector, but exact numbers remain difficult to track. However, one pattern is clear: when workers act collectively, take control over their workplace, and show their bosses who really has the power, it isn’t long until they give-in to the workers’ demands.

What’s a manager to do?

The world of management has not failed to notice the threat that bossnappings pose to their livelihoods, and a small cottage industry has developed to help executives understand and navigate through such moments of crisis.

For starters, let’s just take a look at what is being said about it in Human Resource textbooks.

In Organizational Behavior: Science, The Real World, and You, the authors note that:

Public sentiment seems to be in the boss-nappers’ favor, because the majority believe that boss-napping may be the only way the employees’ demands may be heard. And boss-napping seems to have worked. At the Sony factory, slated to close with a loss of 311 jobs, boss-nappers got 13 million euro added to the redundancy package, and at 3m, where 110 jobs were cut, the boss-nappers secured a deal for ten months’ redundancy pay.

The Handbook on the Economics of Conflict points out that “[k]idnapping the boss is clearly illegal, but it was efficient in imposing a renegotiation on employers regarding the terms of redundancy.” They go on to grapple with why this illegal action is not only successful, but also widely supported:

The working class feel solidarity with those who lost their jobs and the middle class may also reckon selfishly that ‘bossnapping’ is not as inconvenient as massive strikes in which everything from trains and schools to the post office is shut down. Hence, popular opinion appears to be positively tolerant regarding lock the boss up unharmed for a few hours so that the workers’ anger could abate.

And In Human Resource Management: A Concise Introduction, we learn that “the phenomenon [of bossnapping] has sparked a growth in providers offering advice for executives worried they could be locked up.”

One such provider is Gilles Verrier, CEO of the French HR company Identité RH, who developed a “bossnapping survival kit.” The kit includes a cell phone pre-programmed with the numbers of family, police, and a psychologist, and a change of clothes.

Lus Laboris, a grouping of HR law firms, offers the following advice for those executives thinking about setting-up operations in France:

In order to protect themselves against this new risk, foreign groups established in France must focus on prevention. This goes mainly through the coaching of the management on how to handle such situations and the organisation of an effective dialogue between the employees and their hierarchy. Even if it cannot be justified, the sequestration of a manager is always the result of a poor or broken relationship between employees and their bosses.

Not surprisingly, while the HR textbooks and consulting firms recognize that the tactic is effective, none of them seem to recommend treating workers with respect and giving them what they deserve. Though I suppose it would be unfair to expect the technicians of capitalist exploitation to recommend “surrendering the means of production” as a remedy to the conflict between labour and capital.

The significance of Bossnapping

While there is much more that can be said about bossnapping as a tactic, today is a day to salute the courage and creativity of those workers who have decided to kidnap their bosses in their pursuit of justice.

In the face of cuts, closures, and the most cruel indifference that is part and parcel of the capitalist system, workers have always found new ways to resist and restore dignity to themselves and their fellow workers. Bossnapping is one such tactic, a high-risk one at that, but one that speaks to the desperate situations that workers around the world are put into as capitalism’s global slump marches on.

This piece was first publish on Evan Johnston’s blog 

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