Battle over McDonald's 'union stronghold' in Marseille

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A McDonald's restaurant in the north of Marseille faces closure in the coming days as it gets sold to a mysterious new owner. The current owners of the franchise say the fast-food restaurant is closing simply because it has made heavy losses in recent years. But unions and staff insist the sale is simply a ruse to get rid of an outlet whose employees have successfully led many forms of industrial action in recent years, both locally and nationally. As Dan Israel reports, the 70 staff have now made an official complaint of attempted fraud on the part of the franchise owners.

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Their restaurant is due to close its doors for good on August 7th and they have resolved to do all they can to stop it. The 70 staff at the Saint-Barthélemy McDonald's branch in the north of Marseille are in the middle of a conflict with their current owners who are proposing to sell the business to a mysterious buyer. The employees do not believe the new plans for the restaurant are serious proposals. Instead they believe that the closure of this 'McDo' outlet is a ruse, and stems from a desire to get rid of a restaurant whose unionised staff have been behind some high-profile industrial campaigns and actions, both at local and national level. In a bid to halt the move the staff, backed by an inter-union group, have deposed an official complaint against the owners with the prosecutor in the Mediterranean coastal city for attempted fraud.

“As far as we're concerned it's a fraudulent set-up, whose aim is to remove this restaurant from the McDonald's orbit at any cost,” says the employees' lawyer Ralph Blindauer, a specialist in industrial action and employment cases. The fraud complaint is not the only legal action the staff are taking. On July 30th the lawyer was at the High Court in Marseille seeking to get an extension to the obligatory consultations the owners have to conduct with the restaurant's works committee. And on August 20th the lawyer will apply to the same court to have the entire sale process annulled. Meanwhile Ralph Blindauer has also applied to an industrial tribunal in a bid to stop the staff being transferred from their current company to the new one.

The staff themselves are stepping up their action. On Saturday July 21st they invited the leader of the radical left La France Insoumise ('France Unbowed') party and Marseille MP Jean-Luc Mélenchon to protest with them. The local Senator Samia Ghali has also made clear her support. In a letter she called for the legal system to “take the side of the employees whose only concern is to save their workplace, their income and household stability”.

Radical-left politician and local MP Jean-Luc Mélenchon in Marseille with McDonald's staff on July 21st, 2018. © La Luciole Mélenchantée

The restaurant currently belongs to a group of six McDonald's outlets in Marseille and nearby Vitrolles, of which 50% is owned by McDonald's France 50% by the person who manages them on a day-to-day basis, franchisee Jean-Pierre Brochiero. Several years ago he was the director of human resources for McDonald's in the Paris region. It was on May 7th this year that Brochiero announced to staff representatives that he was going to sell all his restaurants, which he has run since January 2015.

Five of the restaurants and their 300 or so staff will be sold to another Marseilles McDonald's franchisee, Mohamed Abassi. But the one at Saint-Barthélemy, which has recorded losses of between 480,000 and 890,000 euros a year since 2013, will be sold to another buyer and is due to become an Asian halal restaurant, according to documents sent to employees. But just a few days before the official transfer deadline they know little more than that about their future.

“I was committed to finding a buyer who had a well-founded plan and had the best guarantees for employment, as the restaurant is planning to employ 70 staff from its opening,” said Jean-Pierre Brochiero when questioned by Mediapart. The company said in a press release: “This proposed sale, inside the McDonald's network and outside, offers the best possible guarantees for preserving jobs in the six restaurants. An unfailing commitment which Mr Brochiero has shown from the start.”

But such statements infuriate staff representatives at the Saint-Barthélemy outlet. “McDonald's doesn't accept responsibility for wanting to close that restaurant, and are completely distancing themselves from the future buyer's redundancy plans,” these representatives told Mediapart. Christophe Lomonaco, from the CFE-CGC union, says that the proposed sale is a “sham”. Despite having lengthy meetings with their current boss on the 12th, 22nd, and 28th of June and the 2nd of July, staff feel they have received few concrete details from management about their future. However, Jean-Pierre Brochiero insists: “In the last three months staff representatives have asked 383 questions about the proposed sale to buyers. They have got 383 detailed replies.”

But Christophe Lomonaco says: “The supposed buyers have not deigned to reply to the invitation from the [works council] to explain their plans. There's no trace in France of the company that's supposed to be buying us, Hali Food & Co.” The only reference that management has been able to give staff is an entry on the companies register in Tunisia, dating from March 2018. “We're told that the company will be created in France when the project is finalised but in truth the responses that have been given to us have changed depending on the questions,” says Christophe Lomonaco.

“The cancellation of the management-rental contract with McDonald's is supposed to take place on August 7th, and the works are supposed to go on for two months to transform the restaurant, but to our knowledge no planning application has been made and no request for short-time working has been lodged,” says Kamel Guemari, the staff representative from the FO trade union and one of the key figures in actions and protests at McDonald's branches in Marseille. The current owners said that an application for building work was imminent.

There is even uncertainty over the exact identity of the new company's owners. Several different names have been flagged up in documents that have been supplied, without saying clearly who the buyer is. These documents, which involve a market study and an outline of the new plans, are also thin on other detail.

From reading the file of 40 or so pages, largely consisting of information about the “Muslim community and halal consumption in France”, the staff have simply learnt that the new owners want the new restaurant to be “in the listings of great 'in', chic Asian halal restaurants”. And that the new management wants it to be a “pretty place characterised by quality of life as well as the diversity of cultures, religions in the Mediterranean”.

The market study concludes, optimistically: “Hali Food & Co will position it as a restaurant that is 100% halal, innovative and which will be visited by the majority of the Muslim community in Marseille.” Both the buyers and the current management refer to another halal Asian restaurant in the Plan de Campagne shopping zone north of Marseille which they say “works very well”. Union representative Kamel Guemari says: “But this restaurant is nothing like us, it employs around ten people at most and is not run by the company which is supposed to be buying us.”

Jean-Pierre Brochiero insists, however, that the “Hali Food project is a strong one” and that the business plan makes provision for an “investment of 500,000 euros”.

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