Airbus workers stage rare protest over job cuts

TOULOUSE, France/BERLIN (Reuters) - Thousands of Airbus workers marched alongside an airport runway in France and staged an ‘empty chair’ protest in Germany on Wednesday to protest against plans to cut up to 15,000 jobs.

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The European planemaker announced the 11% reduction in its workforce last week, saying its survival was at stake from the collapse in air travel due to the coronavirus crisis.

At Toulouse airport in France, where Airbus is based, some 7,000-9,000 workers walked out of factories and staged a procession on a track near a runway, carrying union-supplied picnic bags and a banner reading “No Compulsory Redundancies”.

The 1-1/2 hour strike was the first at Airbus since 2008 as the company’s usually harmonious labour relations are frayed by the restructuring plan. Flights were not affected.

Corentin, 20, who has been working at Airbus for nine months, was attending his first ever demonstration.

“We are barely starting our active lives and thought we’d have jobs until the end of our careers. Nobody could have imagined this,” he told Reuters.

“Some people bought an apartment; I’m building a house. Of course we’re afraid for the future,” he said.

Many workers were reluctant to speak to media as unions embark on negotiations to try to scale back the cuts.

“Airbus has a real responsibility to get to grips with its restructuring which is excessive and gives a terrible example to suppliers,” said Jean-Francois Knepper of Force Ouvriere union, one of three majority unions at Airbus organising the march.

The militant CGT union, which is less well represented at Airbus but which dominates the large French aerospace supply chain, plans a further day of protests on Thursday.

In Hamburg, Germany, workers laid out 2,000 empty chairs to symbolise job losses there. The regional head of the IG Metall union said Airbus might seize on the crisis to create cheaper new jobs outside Europe where its biggest plants are located.

In the Bavarian city of Augsburg, workers released bunches of red balloons inscribed with their demands.

“Fear is growing from day to day”, Sebastian Kunzendorf, head of the work council at Airbus unit Premium AEROTEC, said.

Asked to comment on the protests, Airbus referred back to a statement last week by CEO Guillaume Faury that it was facing the “gravest crisis this industry has ever experienced” and was committed to limiting the social impact of its reorganisation.

Unions have declared a “red line” over forced cuts, backed by the French government which has called the plan excessive.

Airbus has refused to rule out its first ever compulsory job cuts but has offered to spare at least 3,000 of the 15,000 jobs in return for extensions in French and German furlough schemes and government research aid.

Reporting by Johanna Decorse, Alexander Huebner; writing by Tim Hepher; editing by Jason Neely and Elaine Hardcastle