The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Germany:
The response of Opel workers to layoffs

Oct 25, 2004

Opel, owned by General Motors, has almost 10,000 workers split between three factories in Bochum, in the western part of Germany. When management announced in October that it intended to lay off more than 4,000 workers at this location alone, it was like a bomb going off. Something occurred that rarely happens in Germany. The workers immediately stopped work, catching the union officials unprepared; the workers ignored the numerous legal obstacles that are supposed to prevent the outbreak of wildcat strikes. For six days, production was completely stopped. Due to the lack of parts, a Belgian GM plant was shut for a day as were plants in Antwerp, southern Germany and northern England.

Twenty years ago, there were more than 20,000 workers at Opel's Bochum plants, twice the number of today. The workers gave concessions in the form of lower wages and an increased work load for many years, supposedly to "save jobs." But just like here, the concessions didn't save jobs. For several months now the workers knew that GM was preparing another attack. The company's proposal to eliminate 4,000 workers also meant that thousands more jobs could have been lost in the area at parts plants under contract to Opel.

The workers were enraged. They demanded no layoffs and no factory closure. Then, for the first time in 20 years, workers occupied a factory. Management tried to intimidate them by bringing in 40 extra security guards.

The strikers got a show of support from other workers who organized collections or stopped by with food. Others from nearby work places came by to show their solidarity with the strikers.

Now workers are waiting to see what negotiations will bring. If GM is negotiating at all over these issues, it's due to the fight made at Bochum. Union officials had tried to convince the strikers to go back to work and stop their strike. So workers can scarcely trust them.

At Bochum the union delegates elected to the works council negotiate alone with the management, without having to answer to the workers. And in this case, the delegates did everything they could to put an end to the movement. While strike funds usually replace part of strikers' lost wages, this time the unions didn't even use the funds to feed the strikers.

One thing is clear: to win, the workers will have to count on themselves – and on other workers.