BAT seals the end of a proud tobacco dynasty

Boncourt has to compensate for a fifth of the tax revenue in one fell swoop. How is that supposed to work? Looking back at a labor dispute – and a proud industrial history.

Those who worked at Burrus often stayed for a lifetime – a photo from 1960.

Alain Gassmann/Photopress/Keystone

Yves Defferrard lives in Orbe in Vaud. The trade unionist has hardly seen his family in recent weeks. He spent all but one night a week in a hotel in Pruntrut, Jura, so that he could be back in time for the negotiations with British American Tobacco (BAT) in the morning.

The bottom line is that it didn’t do much good: the global tobacco company will close its cigarette factory in neighboring Boncourt. The company announced the decision in principle on October 27, followed by several weeks of negotiations with staff groups and trade unions. On December 15, BAT communicated the final decision. The “painful adjustments” are necessary in view of the current economic and market conditions in order to remain competitive, it said. As the media office confirms when asked, the step is being taken even though the production facility in Boncourt has always made profits in recent years.

220 employees lose their jobs – a shock for the region and the entire canton of Jura, which had to celebrate its first Federal Councilor on the day after the bad news. And yet union secretary Defferrard is not bitter: it was only thanks to the weeks of labor disputes that it was possible to draw up a social plan “that also deserves the name”. The difference to the original BAT offer, for example in relation to the exceptions or the creditable work experience, is “enormous”. The group management also praises the “quality of the exchange and the efforts to come up with constructive suggestions”, but does not want to comment on the content of the social plan.

The social cushioning measures do nothing to change the fact that soon no more tobacco products will leave the huge production halls spread throughout the village. It is the end of a factory in which iconic cigarettes such as Parisienne or Lucky Strike will still be rolled for a few months (and will have to be imported in the future). But it is also the end of a centuries-old industrial dynasty that shaped the development of one of the most peripheral regions of Switzerland like no other company. And it’s perhaps a bit the end of a time when the blue haze was still a sign of good taste.

Alain Gassmann/Photopress/Keystone

Alain Gassmann/Photopress/Keystone

Left: Some of the tobacco comes from Switzerland – in the past more than today. Right: Burrus patrons made good money, but also provided relatively progressive working conditions.

Alain Gassmann/Photopress/Keystone

Those who came to Burrus stayed

In the distant 1814, Martin Burrus, a winemaker from Alsace, founded a tobacco factory in Boncourt. In the beginning the cut leaves were put into pipes, with the industrialization the production of cigarettes began. The business prospered and remained in the hands of the Burrus family for six generations until it was sold to the Dutch Rothmans Group in 1996. A little later, this merged with BAT.

The rural Ajoie, located at the extreme tip of the Jura and surrounded by France, not only supplied part of the raw material, it was (and is) also an ideal reservoir for workers. Anyone who was employed by Burrus was proud of it – and often stayed for the rest of their professional lives. The Catholic entrepreneurial family was generous towards the employees and introduced socio-political benefits – pension fund, health insurance, family allowances – at a time when they were still a long way off at the national level. “We had great working conditions. Otherwise I wouldn’t have stayed with the company for 39 years,” says pensioner Patricia, who is walking her dog in front of one of the production halls.

The best maintained football pitch in the Jura

The Burrus heirs built magnificent villas on the rolling hills around Boncourt, and the widow of the last patron still lives on a hill. They were fine, but they also felt their responsibility to the community. Thanks to the tax revenue, the village of 1,200 is not only the municipality in the canton with the second lowest taxes (after Les Breuleux, the home of Elisabeth Baume-Schneider). It also has an infrastructure that other towns of comparable size can only dream of.

In addition to a post office, a coop and two bank branches, Boncourt has an indoor swimming pool, a multi-purpose hall, a nationally known music band, a basketball club in the top league and, according to legend, the best-kept football pitch in the Jura. Without the direct or indirect support of the tobacco industry, a significant part of this infrastructure would never have been possible, or at least not to this extent. In addition, several former Burrus properties are now used as old people’s and disabled homes. Where the patron once managed the company’s fortunes, the municipal council now meets in impressive, listed premises.

In recent years, the global corporation BAT has been less directly involved in local affairs than the Burrus directors once were (three of them, François, Henry and Léon, also served as mayors). But it was a reliable and plentiful source of tax revenue that kept the infrastructure alive.

Christoph Ruckstuhl / NZZ

Christoph Ruckstuhl / NZZ

Left: Boncourt has only 1200 inhabitants, but an amazing infrastructure for its size – typical workers’ houses here. Right: The cigarette factory dominates the townscape, several production halls are spread over the whole community.

Christoph Ruckstuhl / NZZ

Now net contributors to financial equalization – and soon recipients

And now? What will happen to Boncourt after BAT leaves? Municipal councilor Josué Boesch leans on the solid wood table and says with a mixture of regret and laconicism: “Yes, we will have to tighten our belts.”

Because the tobacco multinational is still by far the most important contributor to the community. Due to tax secrecy, Boesch is not allowed to give exact figures. The most significant elimination is the company’s tax payments. In addition, there is likely to be a loss of tax revenue from cross-border commuters who are subject to flat-rate taxation and possibly from BAT employees who currently live in the community and could move away or at least earn less. Last but not least, the group is one of the most important consumers of community services such as water and waste management.

According to estimates by the community, the cigarette factory will cost the coffers between 1.5 and 2 million francs – around a fifth of the annual budget of 9 to 10 million francs. This will be particularly noticeable in 2024 and 2025, since BAT will still pay part of the taxes in the coming year. From 2026 onwards, Boncourt is likely to receive money from the cantonal financial equalization system, in which the municipality will even be the most important net contributor in the entire Jura in 2023. What a brutal turnaround in just a few years – and what a symbol of a community’s dependence on a single company.

Mandatory, recommended, «nice to have»

So how do you compensate for the loss of a fifth of the budget in one fell swoop? Municipal councilor Boesch takes a sheet of paper and says: “There are not too many options: we will increase revenue elsewhere and at the same time have to drastically reduce our costs.” That means: tax rate up, which should bring in around half a million. Selling real estate in order to have some short-term relief. Cuts in funds for the numerous clubs. And so forth. “We checked all the expenditure items and divided them into four categories: mandatory, significant, ‘nice to have’, insignificant,” says Boesch.

And then there is the indoor swimming pool, which, despite good use, has an annual operating deficit of over half a million Swiss francs. Does it now face the same fate as the Parisienne factory, especially since there is another swimming pool fifteen minutes away in Pruntrut? “We are trying to prevent it and are looking for alternative financing. But we can’t rule anything out,” says Boesch.

Of course, the financial impact does not end at the municipal borders. The entire canton of Jura, which already has one of the weakest resources in Switzerland, is also facing a serious problem. When the decision to close was final, the canton hastily organized a press conference and summoned three out of five members of the government.

Anything but token sales

Again, for reasons of tax secrecy, the authorities do not disclose the importance of BAT (which also has a headquarters in Lausanne with fewer employees). Only so much: It is about “one of the most important taxpayers in the canton”, according to CFO Rosalie Beuret Siess. The first concern is now the implementation of the social plan, which will be accompanied.

In the medium and long term, the canton’s main interest is that the industrial site remains as intact as possible. According to reports, BAT intends to sell the buildings and land as soon as possible. But which companies could be interested in such large-scale production facilities at the extreme tip of Switzerland? «The location offers interesting opportunities for the settlement of new industrial activities. Our offices are available to support the process,” says Beuret Siess.

Municipal councilor Boesch appeals to BAT’s corporate responsibility. «We know how to assess our low weight compared to global corporations and have little legal recourse. But we will do everything we can to ensure that there are no token sales and that the area does not degenerate into industrial wasteland,” he says. It is ultimately about the future of the community, which depends largely on the local jobs.

No more future in the Ajoie

Boesch is thinking of people like Maurice*. He’s lived in Boncourt all his life – and nothing would keep him from there if he weren’t one of the 220 BAT workers who are set to lose their jobs in the coming months. His eyes water when he talks about it. “We’re like a family, a really tight-knit group. Losing those ties hurts almost more than being fired,” he says.

But now he hardly sees a future for himself in the Ajoie. His girlfriend already works in another part of the canton, so he will probably follow her. In view of the ongoing shortage of skilled workers, he, the young engineer, is not particularly worried about his professional future. But a feeling of powerlessness remains, mainly because the production site has always made profits and “good solutions” have been on the table for the continued existence of the factory.

It is an extremely uncomfortable scenario for a community when the young, working population moves away. And yet the local politician Boesch does not exude bitterness when he talks about the future. “Jurassians are fighters. We will recover from this low blow, »he says. If he smoked, he might light a cigarette now. A Parisienne, probably the last.

(*name changed by editor)

Parisienne has been one of the best-known and best-selling cigarette brands in Switzerland for decades. (KEYSTONE/Str)

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