Learning from France

The news out of Calais of the increasingly desperate attempts by workers there to save at least some of the jobs at the SeaFrance cooperative, which – as I’ve blogged here before  – had previously been contracted to run the MyFerryLink cross-channel ships, is not encouraging but should not blind us to the strength of the worker cooperative sector in France and to the considerable use which has been made in recent years of the SCOP cooperative legal form for rescues of businesses in difficulties.

One example is the now cooperatively run daily newspaper Nice-Matin, and I’ve written elsewhere about, for example, the printing company Hélio-Corbeil where about eighty jobs were saved and the textile firm Fontanille, based in the Auvergne, which after 150 years run as a family concern was successfully saved as a cooperative about three years ago. In many of these ‘rescue’ cooperatives, the trade unions have been key players in the restructuring work.

I think we need more information in Britain about these initiatives just across the Channel, particularly as links begin to develop over here again between parts of the cooperative movement and trade unions. Anyone able to take this on?

Dover-Calais ferry coop hits turbulent waters

Sadly it is looking increasingly unlikely that British holidaymakers will be able to choose a cooperative option when planning to take their car across to France.

The future of the workers cooperative (SCOP SeaFrance) based in Calais, which employs over 600 staff, is highly uncertain. Eurotunnel, which currently owns the My Ferry Link Dover-Calais ferries had previously contracted the management of the service to the cooperative. However, it withdrew from this agreement two days ago (June 2). SCOP SeaFrance is now likely to have to go into legal administration.

The story is complicated: the UK Competition and Markets Authority had ruled that Eurotunnel was breaking competition law by owning the ferries as well as the Channel Tunnel, and Eurotunnel put its ferry business up for sale in January.  As a consequence the cooperative joined a broader social enterprise venture which made a formal bid for the business, one of several received.

However after all this a major surprise: the British supreme court ruled last month that Eurotunnel was not, in fact, in breach of competition law. Eurotunnel say that, despite this, the sale is going ahead – and that their previous decision to terminate the deal with SCOP SeaFrance will not be revoked.

There remains a slim chance that a new cooperative solution of some kind may be possible.

Troubled waters at Calais

I have followed with interest over the past three years the successful operation of the cross-channel ferry MyFerryLink, which (following the collapse of the former company SeaFrance) has been managed as a workers’ cooperative (or in French, a cooperative society, a SCOP).

Encouraging, MyFerryLink’s business has been growing: turnover has grown from 74m euros in 2013 to 93m last year. Despite this, there are choppy waters ahead for the coop, however.

The arrangement has been a complicated one. It was Eurotunnel which purchased the boats from the old SeaFrance, and then sub-contracted with the newly established cooperative the actual running of the service. Eurotunnel’s involvement attracted the critical attention of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority on the basis that the Channel Tunnel’s operator shouldn’t also be running boats. The net result has been that Eurotunnel announced in January this year that it was selling the business.

Where this leaves the coop is not clear. Any new owner of Eurotunnel’s boats might be happy to maintain the arrangement with the coop – but then again, it might not.

It’s a difficult time. It’s further complicated by the fact that the chair of the Supervisory Board of the cooperative Didier Cappelle, one of the leading lights behind the original coop proposal, appears to have lost confidence in the management of the coop.

I’ll try to keep you posted as the story develops. (Meanwhile my thanks to Angela Greenwood who, by complete coincidence, gave me this afternoon last Thursday’s copy of Libération which ran a full page feature on developments at MyFerryLink. The piece is also available at the moment on Libé’s website.)


Quelle aventure!

This was the headline on the front page of last Saturday’s edition of the French regional paper Nice-Matin celebrating the successful outcome of the struggle to save their jobs at the paper by turning it into a workers’ coop.

You may have read my blogs here on the Nice-Matin story earlier in the Autumn. The paper had been driven into liquidation by its previous owners and although several other bids were received by the liquidator all the others would have involved swingeing cuts to the workforce. The cooperative sought funds partly through a successful crowdfunding initiative.

As the group say to their supporters, one battle over, another is starting: “We’ve got to succeed. For ourselves. For you. To prove the point. To silence the sceptics. So… to work! But for the moment, we’re taking a deep breath and savouring the moment”.

(That’s my translation; feel free to do better yourself. The link is here.)

Calais cross-channel ferry coop hails legal decision

A little cheerfulness has been breaking out over the past two days in a windy and wintry Calais…  or more precisely among the 533 employees of the cross-channel ferry company MyFerryLink which has its main base there.

MyFerryLink operates three boats on the Dover-Calais crossing, and is structured as a workers’ cooperative incorporated under French law (to be technical, it is a SCOP, a société coopérative et participative).  The coop was created two years ago, with trade union support, after the former ferry operator SeaFrance went out of business and the majority of MyFerryLink’s workers are ex-SeaFrance staff.  You can read the piece I wrote at the time for The Guardian here.

When the cooperative was established it did a deal with EuroTunnel, who purchased the three ships MyFerryLink needed and leased them back to the coop.  EuroTunnel also encouraged freight operators with hazardous cargo to use the boats rather than the tunnel. However this arrangement fell foul of the UK Competition Commission which ruled in July that EuroTunnel had acquired an unfair market share. As a consequence MyFerryLink were told they would have to stop using Dover port, potentially putting the fledgling venture out of business.

The Competition Commission ruling was partially overturned at an appeal earlier this week in London. Although the legal battle is continuing, the response in France has been to see the tribunal decision as “a victory and a relief”,  according to MyFerryLink senior management.  “We’re proud of all that the staff have done since the start of this adventure, which has been difficult,” said Raphaël Doutrebente, deputy Director-General for the cooperative in an interview yesterday with the newspaper Libération.