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?

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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.)

 

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.