Last week, France was blanketed by a dome of heat, resulting in exceptionally warm temperatures. It even broke the previous record set in 1949, making September 4 the hottest day ever recorded in France during the month of September. The French national meteorological service, Météo-France, points to a remarkably long and intense heat wave which has lasted late into the season, clearly pointing to the impact of climate change, which tends to extend summer heatwaves.
At the Stellantis plant in Hordain, France, where Peugeot and Citroën vehicles are assembled, outside temperatures exceeded a scorching 30°C (86°F) every afternoon from September 5 to 10.
Faced with this situation, management was initially obliged to apply the first level of the “heat plan,” which is triggered when temperatures reach 30°C, and involves distributing a single bottle of water to each employee. In most cases, however, employees have to fight to obtain this minimal provision, with management quick to point out that it’s “only 29 degrees” — a temperature measured outside the plant, which doesn’t reflect the even hotter indoor temperatures. Management also refuses to take temperatures in the workshops, as requested by the CGT, one of France’s main labor unions that represents Stellantis workers. According to the union’s general secretary Franck Théry, “They know very well that if they do that, they’ll have to give ten-minute breaks quite often”.
Franck Théry explains: “Under normal circumstances, working conditions are very difficult, and in this heat it’s even worse. It’s unbearable. There’s no ventilation or air conditioning in the workshops. If it’s 30 degrees outside, it’s 36-38 inside, so after a while, employees can’t stand it any longer.”
A nationwide protocol stipulates that management must install fans. Last week, however, there were none. Several workers collapsed. At some workstations, the heat is even more unbearable, such as in the iron-working shops, where welders are required to wear leather overalls, hoods, helmets, and gloves. To top it all off, the showers that are supposed to allow workers to cool off after work are in poor condition and too few in number.
“The Only Thing They Understand is Mobilization”
“With climate change, there will be more and more extreme heat. Every year we have hotter and hotter days. We will be asking to review the heat plan and the water plan. Management is always waiting until the last minute. It’s hit or miss,” said Théry.
But to receive these extra ten-minute breaks and cancel overtime, the protocol demands that the outside temperature reach at least 32°C three days in a row, or that the temperature reach 32°C and the humidity exceed 50 percent — thresholds well beyond normal working conditions in the plant. For Théry, who denounces the unbearable afternoon conditions in the workshops, “Yes, there’s a protocol, but then it’s a question of humanity.”
Faced with these unhealthy working conditions, part of the afternoon shift in the trim shop went on strike for the first time last Friday. At a time when management is constantly cutting jobs at the plant, the smallest walkout can now bring production lines to a halt. The workers clearly understand that they have power in their hands. In fact, as soon as the strike began, management changed its tune and agreed to the ten-minute break, even though the requirements of the protocol had not technically been met.
For Théry, it’s proof that “if people don’t mobilize, nothing will happen […] They conceded the ten minutes last Friday because of the walkout. Nevertheless, when we came back on Monday, it was still as hot as ever.”
Monday afternoon, some twenty workers from another shift once again walked out for over an hour to demand fans, as well as the extra ten-minute break that management had denied them. Théry concludes: “The only thing management understands is mobilization. As long as the cars go out, even if the guys get sick, they don’t give a damn.”
Against this backdrop, the plant’s CGT is already anticipating the onset of winter and the impact of potential cold snaps on the most exposed workers, who work near airlocks and vents. They fear that in the event of a harsh winter, they will once again be forced to call a walkout to secure the installation of portable heat pumps.
Originally published in French on September 12 in Révolution Permanente.
Translation by Emma Lee