TOULOUSE, France, Feb. 28 -- As Airbus launches its long-awaited restructuring, managers at the European planemaker face a challenge they haven't tackled in years: persuading angry labor unions to cooperate on job cuts.
The restructuring announced Wednesday includes staff reductions, plant disposals and a manufacturing revamp. The objective, managers said, is to better integrate the company, which operates 16 sites in four countries and directly employs 57,000 people. Airbus officials say the makeover is necessary because the company is suffering from the weak dollar, costly delays building its A380 super-jumbo jetliner and rising investment needs for its planned twin-aisle A350.
Labor unions in France and Germany immediately staged protests in both countries.
Airbus chief executive Louis Gallois said at a news conference that he understood the workers' anxieties and that managers would have to "explain ourselves and justify ourselves." But he said the measures are necessary to ensure that Airbus regains its competitive edge against U.S. rival Boeing and has the resources to continue developing. "We have very responsible unions," Gallois said later when asked whether he fears labor unrest. "I don't think they will jeopardize our delivery schedule."
Gallois presented a plan to reduce overhead staff -- employees not directly focused on production -- by 30 percent over four years. The cuts include 5,000 of Airbus's staff members and another 5,000 people employed by suppliers or contractors.
Airbus's parent, European Aeronautic Defence & Space, will take a charge of $927 million against its first-quarter earnings to cover severance costs, Chief Financial Officer Hans Peter Ring said.
Airbus also plans to dispose of three plants in Germany and France and seek outside investors for another three plants, which could be sold. Those plants employ several thousand people.
Germany's IG Metall labor union attacked the divestment plans and called for a protest Thursday at the Airbus plant in Laupheim. "We won't stand idly by, watching as our site is sold off piecemeal," said Michael Braun, an IG Metall delegate at the plant. Workers at a plant in Meaulte, France, stopped work Wednesday to protest plans to enlist outside investors in the facility.