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Why Won’t This French Company Talk To U.S. Workers?

March 25, 2016
By Joe Maniscaclo

Airgas workers are getting the cold shoulder.
Airgas workers are getting the cold shoulder.

New York, NY – The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is calling on one of the largest providers of industrial and medical gases in the world to quit taking toxic anti-labor cues from stateside advisors — and immediately start talking with worker representatives. 

In a controversial bid that’s sparking anti-competitiveness concerns, Air Liquide — a Paris-based multinational conglomerate with nearly $18 billion in worldwide sales — is poised to purchase the biggest distributor of industrial, medical and specialty gases here in the United States for a whopping $13.4 billion. 

“Air Liquide is going to do much better in the U.S. if they build a more civil relationship with their organized workers,” Tim Beaty, Teamsters director of Global Strategies, told LaborPress this week. “They need to have a conversation with our leadership now.”

The company being purchased is called Airgas, and its shareholders okayed the blockbuster sale to Air Liquide last month.

But instead of continuing the rich European tradition of cooperatively working with organized labor for the greater good of all – the Teamsters charge that Air Liquide appears to be intent on adopting the sour relationship Airgas started creating with U.S. workers in the months prior to the French-based company’s initial bid to buy them out, in November 2015. 

Airgas locked out Hingham, Massachusetts workers during contentious contract negotiations earlier that year. Since then, the company has failed to advance bargaining in places like Ohio, Illinois, New York and West Virginia — where Airgas attempted, also in October 2015, to decertify the union after workers rejected what was widely considered a substandard contract proposal. 

The Teamsters responded with pickets and protests. They also reached out to their counterparts in France, where the relationship between management and employees is one of — as Beaty describes it — “mutual respect.” 

“The idea of folks belonging to a union is common, natural and part of the everyday routine,” Beaty said. 

Financial analysts overseas have expressed concerns that Air Liquide might be biting off more than it can chew, and paying too much to acquire Airgas.

“Before a company goes into a new country, they depend on local advisors,” Beaty said. “It may be the case that Air Liquide’s advisors here in the U.S. have some sort of anti-union bias. But that company is going to have a much better understanding of what it’s buying if it enters into a conversation with us.”

Air Liquide operates in over 80 countries. In the U.S., where it  employs more than 5,000 workers, it also maintains some 2,000 miles of pipeline. Teamsters already represent workers at seven Air Liquide sites in North America. Until now, the union says its dealings with Air Liquide have been “fairly reasonable.”

On the picket line...
On the picket line…

“We’ve had a decent relationship with Air Liquide, so when we heard about [the Airgas purchase], we were hopeful,” said 

Tom Curtin, part of the Teamsters’ Strategic Research and Campaigns department. “We’re disappointed that [Air Liquide] has taken a tact of silent approval for what’s going on at Airgas.”

Working for the industry-leading gas suppliers can be dangerous. In the past three years, Airgas employees have been injured in explosions at plants located in both West Virginia and California. 

“This is an industry that requires expert workers who understand safety and have a good relationship with the client in order for the company to be successful,” Beaty said. “We think that Air Liquide understands this. We think that Air Liquide wants a professional workforce that feels good about where they’re working every day.”

In France, Air Liquide workers are represented by a union that has a place on a special council which regularly meets with management to discuss all sorts of important company decisions. 

“Something going on in the process of the merger has led to a negative relationship [between management and labor],” Beaty added. “Air Liquide is making a mistake if they think that Airgas’ recent labor/management policy changes are a good thing for Airgas or Air Liquide —they’re not.”

Air Liquide has not yet responded to requests for comment. 

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