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Titan boss, French official spar over workers' habits at Goodyear Amiens plant

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(Republique Francaise photo) Arnaud Montebourg

AMIENS, France—In his inimitable shoot-from-the-lip style, Titan International Inc. Chairman and CEO Maurice "Morry" Taylor Jr. recently created somewhat of an international incident with his rapier-sharp comments on the habits of French workers.

An acrimonious exchange of letters between Mr. Taylor and French Minister of Industry Arnaud Montebourg has erased all doubt that Titan has dropped its plans to acquire Goodyear's Amiens North farm and passenger tire facility in France.

(Titan International Inc. photo) Maurice Taylor Jr.

In a private letter leaked to the press by the Ministry of Industry, Mr. Taylor blasted the "so-called workers" at Amiens North, a plant Goodyear owns and recently announced it plans to close.

"I have visited the factory several times," Mr. Taylor was quoted in news reports as saying in his Feb. 19 letter. "The French workforce gets paid high wages but works only three hours. They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three. I told the French union workers this to their faces. They told me this was the French way!"

Mr. Montebourg wrote back in a publicly released letter Feb. 20, expressing anger at Mr. Taylor's words.

"May I remind you that Titan, the company you lead, is 20 times smaller than Michelin, a French technological leader with a worldwide presence, and is 35 times less profitable?" Mr. Montebourg asked at one point in the letter.

"Are you at least aware of what Lafayette did for the United States of America?" he asked in a later paragraph.

Goodyear Dunlop Tires France decided to sell the Amiens North plant in 2009, after the approximately 1,200 workers at the Goodyear-brand facility rejected a company proposal to streamline operations and cut costs. The Amiens South plant, which makes Dunlop-brand tires, accepted the plan.

Among other things, Goodyear proposed a four-shift, seven-day workweek at Amiens, with each worker getting two days off in continuous rotation.

"These inhuman conditions would further undermine workers' health and any weekend family life," wrote a reporter for the World Socialist Web Site, a left-wing news outlet—published by the International Committee of the Fourth International—supporting the union at Amiens, in July 2008.

Goodyear reached a tentative deal with Titan in 2009 for the Amiens North plant, but over the next three years Goodyear and Titan were unable to persuade the union to accept the terms of the acquisition, which included phasing out passenger tire production at the facility and having only agricultural tire production there.

On Jan. 31, Goodyear announced that the Amiens North plant was uncompetitive—with passenger tire production there losing approximately $55.4 million in 2011. The company had no choice but to close the facility, the Akron-based tire maker said.

At this point, Mr. Montebourg wrote Mr. Taylor, offering to act as a mediator between Titan and the union at Amiens. Mr. Taylor replied with his Feb. 19 letter.

In a Feb. 21 interview with Tire Business, Mr. Taylor said there was nothing left to mediate.

"The union wanted us to guarantee seven years of employment," he said. "And we were going to spend tens of millions of dollars, just to be treated like that? I told them, 'Screw you, you're stupid.'"

Mr. Taylor—who has had his tussles stateside over the years with the United Steelworkers union—declined to release a copy of his original letter, because he had intended it strictly as private correspondence. However, he said Mr. Montebourg's proposals were unrealistic.

"That's when I sent back a letter asking, 'What world are you in?'" he said.

Titan already has a wheel-manufacturing plant, Titan France S.A.S., in Saint-Georges-des-Groseillers in northwest France.

"They're doing a great job!" Mr. Taylor said. It was only the union in Amiens, he said, that gave him trouble.

Mr. Taylor said he resented not only that the ministry released his letter to the press, but also that Mr. Montebourg made his reply public before he even sent it to Mr. Taylor. In any case, the Titan executive said he planned to send another reply to Mr. Montebourg.

"Politicians always try to get up to something," he said. "Where they miscalculated is that they didn't do their homework. I don't back away from a little fight."

In a statement provided to Tire Business, Goodyear declined to comment on the exchange of letters between Messrs. Taylor and Montebourg.

"Our focus is on our associates in Amiens North," the company said. "We have begun the consultation process with the appropriate employee representatives there. As this is the first step in the consultation process, we cannot provide an estimate as to when it would conclude."

Despite their recent war of words, Messrs. Taylor and Montebourg have at least one thing in common: They have both sought to lead their countries. Mr. Taylor was a Republican presidential candidate in the U.S. in 1996; Mr. Montebourg ran as a Socialist candidate in the French presidential primary in 2011.

To reach this reporter: mmoore@ crain.com; 202-662-7211.

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