Although no information is circulating about the stock of oxygen cylinders in France, which are very useful in these times of acute health crisis and which Italy cruelly lacks, the only factory capable of producing them in Europe remains closed. The employees of Luxfer’s oxygen cylinder factory in Gerzat (a town located in the northern suburbs of Clermont-Ferrand in France) are calling for the “total and definitive” nationalization of the factory and the immediate restart of production in order to deal with the current health crisis and to be able to alleviate the demands in France and other countries. After years of neoliberal decline that mistreated public hospitals, resulting in the exhaustion of staff, reduced budgets, a decrease in the number of hospital beds, a decrease in the stock of masks and, ultimately, catastrophic management of the current crisis, will the French government persist in not intervening to regain control of this factory, which is essential for curing patients suffering from covid19?
On 26 November 2018, in front of 136 employees gathered in the factory canteen, a manager from the British group, Luxfer Holding PLC, owned by funds such as Fidelity and BlackRock, coldly announced the defenitive closure of the site acquired in 2001. Production would stop in May 2019. The factory, although profitable and with an important order book, would close in June and all employees would be dismissed. With a turnover of 22 million euros and a profit of one million euros in 2018, 55% more than the previous year, this closure is still difficult for employees to understand. However, they would discover the strategy of the group, which has a quasi monopoly: according to the delegate of the French trade union CGT, Axel Peronczyk, it would be a matter of replacing the very high quality products manufactured at Gerzat with lower quality products manufactured outside France, with lower manufacturing costs and sales prices increased by 12%.
In early January 2020, the company management had the loading baskets destroyed, but when the excavators arrived a few days later to destroy everything, the employees were occupying the factory. The occupation prevented the management from destroying the machines and lasted until March 19, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. In order to respect the confinement decreed by the government, the employees in struggle decide to leave the site and place it under the responsibility of the Prefecture.
Luxfer de Gerzat, which produced some 220,000 bottles a year, almost 950 bottles per working day, supplied not only Europe and Russia, but also East Asia, North Africa, South Africa, Australia, Japan… Half of this production was for medical oxygen, 40% for equipping firefighters with self-contained breathing apparatus and 10% for industry. These high-pressure gas cylinders are used in particular to relieve the symptoms of respiratory distress in patients with covid19. They are used at home, in hospitals when connections to large oxygen tanks are no longer available, in field hospitals established to relieve overcrowded hospitals, as is currently the case in Mulhouse (France), and during patient transfers.
The workers in struggle literally understand President Macron’s March 12 speech, who said, “What this pandemic reveals is that there are goods and services that must be placed outside the laws of the market,” to demand a total and definitive nationalization of the Gerzat plant with an immediate restart of activity to avoid shortages and save lives.
In response to the president of the French employers’ organisation Medef, Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, who said on 23 March that “there should be no taboos in this matter”, when it comes to nationalizing companies in times of crisis, Luxfer probably does not need nationalization to then be privatized again once the crisis has passed, but rather to put a precious asset back in the hands of the public once and for all.