Restructuring: communication as a mean to prevent social conflicts
In fall/winter 2020-2021, the closure of Bethune’s Bridgestone plant (863 employees) made the headlines. It quickly became a key stake for the upcoming regional elections, as well as a national issue debated in Parliament and on the main radio and television programs. The confrontations within the company were lively and animated, and in the meantime, external demonstrations were numerous and tense. This did not rescue the site, but it did lead the group to accept XXL social support measures and to define an ambitious reconversion plan with the public authorities.
In fall/winter 2022-2023, the clothing retail sector has been undergoing a true cataclysm, particularly within the mid-range market. Camaïeu, Go Sport, Kookaï, André, San Marina… announcements of suspension of payments and judicial protection requests have been multiplying. In some cases, such as for Camaïeu and San Marina, these were followed by pure and simple judicial liquidations. Thousands of jobs are being cut or threatened all over France without any significant reactions, both locally and nationally. These restructurings appear to be inevitable. Public opinion, and in its wake politicians, do not seem to feel concerned. The consequences of the war in Ukraine – particularly inflation- along with the issue of pensions reform which has been polarizing all the debates, are largely overshadowing this seemingly unstoppable movement.
Indeed, restructurings in the services industry, and particularly in the retail sector, have always provoked fewer reactions and conflicts than those in the industrial sector. This is due to multiple reasons: the dispersion of jobs in many small stores, lesser union membership, the smaller weight of these businesses in the local economy, the greater weakness of pressure tactics, and a greater fungibility of activities – as one store can replace another, especially in large metropolitan areas. In the past, prestigious brands such as C&A, Mark & Spencer or Virgin were able to close all, or part of their stores, without much difficulty and at costs that were nothing like those observed in the industry at the time.
However, one may wonder if this lack of reaction is not part of a larger pattern. For several years now, the restructuring of the automobile subcontracting industry has been going on relatively quietly. Many, though not all, of the plant closures it has caused escaped the media’s radar. Recently, this was the case for Sifa and Tenneco in Orleans, SAG in L’Horme in Loire and Faurecia in Mulhouse. This change might be explained by the size of the companies, new habits, and the Sapin law of 2013. The latter which, by imposing predefined deadlines and giving a central role to the labor administration, refocused the discussion on support measures. Moreover, these restructurings are the consequence of an inevitable societal change: the ecological transition, the electrification of mobility, as well as the disappearance of stores are the result of the development of digital purchases. The French can hardly object to the effects of the evolution of their own consumption habits.
This does not mean that companies facing such a situation should or can afford to ignore a targeted and proactive communication. Quite the contrary: now more than ever, companies need to explain why and in what way restructuring is inevitable, how it fits in with broader societal trends, and at the same time, develop the pedagogy of support measures to allow them to move as quickly as possible from the “why” to the “how”. All of this, in order to use communication as a means to prevent social conflicts.