This is the translation of an article about recent struggles and class divisions in the global automobile industry by collective 'wildcat' from Germany. It was published in Wildcat no.95, Winter 2013/14.
In the last auto-article we expressed the vague hope that the defensive struggles in Western Europe and the US would come together with the offensive ones in the East (and South). Although actions and strikes in and around car and supplier factories have increased around the globe, they haven’t, up until now, converged. Struggles are happening against the background of a polarisation of car companies into 'winners’ and ‘losers’, as well as internal divisions within companies. Exceptions were strikes that emerged in the South African auto industry and at Dacia in Romania. Fiat workers in Serbia at a new factory in Kragujevac were also able to push through a considerable wage increase very soon after the plant became operational.
Winners and Losers
The crisis is dividing the workers into those that are fighting against the closure of their factories and those others that are being showered with money in the form of wage increases, company bonuses etc. (‘showered’ in relation to other workers) – while their work becomes ever more intensive. For example, Porsche in Germany shortened working hours by an hour per day whilst not cutting workers' wages. The ‘winners’ stand in a relatively good position in contrast to the ‘losers’ (not only at Opel/General Motors but also at ‘Schlecker’ [drug store chain in Germany, which closed hundreds of branches] and so on) –but they also lose ground in relation to the bosses. The core workforce at VW in Germany get a one thousand euro premium even in the midst of the company's violent cost-cutting programme. Work becomes extremely intensified, attacks on workers happen with increasing frequency – at BMW and Daimler, the ‘secure permanent workers’ are also being confronted with the fact that nothing now is ‘secure’ or ‘permanent’. 350,000 agency and contract workers work in the German car industry – half as many as those employed directly by the corporations.
Daimler Bremen (Germany)
In the meantime, the repeated strikes in Bremen show that the ‘permanents’ are also trying to fight against further outsourcing. Their wage increases and premiums depend on the low wages of those that work in sub-sub-sub supply chains – but what use is that if at some point there are no more 'permanents' left? The last action took place on the 1st of October 2013. When it became known that Daimler wanted to outsource production of the press and weld shop, 2,000 people stopped work for 2 hours. Shortly after came a short-lived blackmail attempt of the management, saying that parts of the new E-Klasse model shouldn’t stay in Bremen, although work had already begun on building the new production unit. These actions, in which a big part of the workforce took part, could only delay the outsourcing. The logistics in the press and weldshop unit is now run by a company called Rhemus under much worse working conditions. The employer wouldn’t let itself be deterred through symbolic actions and one or two hour strikes.
Divisions within the company
Meanwhile, a production system similar to those in H&M and Wal-Mart has been imposed in the auto and supplier factories, Behind the ‘big brands’, an innumerable number of workers in numerous subcontracters are linked together in a production and logistics supply chain. Most well known in Germany is BMW in Leipzig, where a third of the workforce are permanents, a third contract workers and the remaining third are agency workers who are employed by over 20 different subcontractors. Daimler also wants to further decrease the amount of parts produced directly in the assembly plant. New factories are already planned with this in mind, and ready to run in a way in which the largest possible number of workers in the plant are employed by separate companies. It’s more difficult to enforce these divisions in the old factories because there, the workers resist attacks on their existing ways of working. Therefore, the conditions there will never get worse for everyone at the same time, but rather only for a limited section of workers. The strike at Maruti Suzuki in India two years ago was a milestone because it could overcome these divisions. Temporary and permanent workers occupied the factory twice for several days and could push through better conditions for everyone. After that, a wave of repression followed, but this short burst of workers power, once the divisions were dissolved, was important.
That this doesn’t happen easily and isn’t just a question of will or ‘consciousness’ was made clear in the year-long conflict around agency and contract work in South Korea. The latter has always been illegal in the country but persisted nevertheless at Hyundai. Even though workers there won a court case to get permanent contracts, Hyundai didn’t care and carried on with the contract system regardless. In 2010, temporary and contract workers occupied a whole unit in the factory in Ulsan for 25 days to demand their permanent contracts. The permanent workers didn’t get involved in this, which obviously marked a big division and the limits of the struggle. Ever since temporary work was legally limited to 2 years, Hyundai fires temporary workers shortly before the end of this time period. Unfortunately, the reaction to this is not always an offensive struggle but sometimes desperate acts like suicide or actions of a single worker e.g. to occupy a electricity pylon or cranes to create at least a ‘public awareness’ by demonstrating their willingness to put themselves on the line.
A further attempt took place on the 14th August 2013 at the same factory. Temporary workers gathered in front of the gates without the support of the union and demanded a wage increase because they were only getting 60 per cent of the wage of a permanent worker (approx. 1100 Euro). The KMWU (Korean Metal Workers Union) alleged that a media campaign about the permanent workers ‘aristocracy’ that “costs Hyundai more than in the USA” would have hindered a common struggle. Nevertheless, the same union a month later enforced a 5 per cent wage increase for the permanent workers, a one off payment 5 times higher than a month’s wages plus (!) a 9.2 million WON (around 6,500 Euro) productivity bonus. As if the media and 'negative' public perception would be the problem, not the division in the factory!
That leads us to the role of the unions, who are called in if the workers ‘feel’ too weak, mostly during the many struggles against the closures and worsening conditions we’ve seen in the last few years (e.g. Neupack, S.X). At Iveco in Weisweil iin Freiburg (Germany), the workers organised an effective gate blockade by phone-tree and stopped the removal of machines. But they left the negotiations to IG Metall (metal union). At the end of September, a year after the gate blockade, the lights went out and the factory closed. The same story at the headquarters of Renault Trucks in Brühl. At the beginning there were demonstrations that were reported on continuously by the local media, then negotiations with IGM, then a ‘sozialplan’ (sponsored training for dismissed workers, severance packages, redundancy payments etc.), and finally, closure in June.
The same situation is playing out on a larger scale and time-frame at the Ford plant in Genk (Belgium) and PSA in Aulnay (France) – with the difference being that parts of these workforces tried to bring other workers into their actions. On the 7th November 2012, about 250 union-organised Belgian Ford workers stood in front of the gates of the Ford plant in Cologne (Germany) and expressed their anger. It was reported widely in the media but the action didn’t bring them any closer to their German co-workers. The short wildcat strikes of a small number of workers at supplier factories had more substance, that could bring production to a standstill. Now the Ford workers get on average a144,000 Euro severance payment but the conditions for the workers at the suppliers have also essentially improved: they get the same amount of severance pay and despite the introduction of a new law that stipulates that workers can only apply for benefits when the severance payment is 'exhausted', they are able to claim unemployment benefit immediately.
The strike of initially 500 PSA workers in Aulnay. whose numbers went down to 200 workers (out of a total 2,500 in the plant), went on for five months and couldn't kickstart a wider movement, despite a tour of strike activists and a large amount of workers, who likewise were about to lose their jobs. After that it was easy for PSA to freeze the wages in the remaining French plant for two years and to reduce overtime payments. In Aulnay most people now leave with up to a 100,000 Euro severance payment, some were transferred to other PSA factories in France. During the struggle, the striking workers were subjected to the usual threats, acts of repression and slander from the media. The fact that the workers didn't act together but rather had already been divided at the outset of the struggle became the biggest problem. By ending the strike, they just about managed to evade the imminent defeat. New job guarantees, withdrawal of the criminal cases, pay covering the strike days, a 19,700 Euro 'premium' for every striking worker who left the job immediately, and severance pay taking into account the strike days when calculating the pension money - in the end that was as good as they could have got.
The disillusionment after such a struggle usually turns into an anger against the union; they've 'betrayed' us yet again because they obstructed so much. In this way, we overestimate their capabilities in two ways and thereby let ourselves be deceived. Firstly, the union can't create a unity and secondly, if such a unity exists beforehand, they wouldn't be able to destroy it. An example of this is the three week strike of workers at Daimler Trucks in Portland in the US in July 2013. The workforce is organised across four unions but despite the recommendations of two unions leading the negotiations (one mechanics and one paintshop workers union), who wanted to accept an offer by management, the workers of the two other unions (Teamsters and SEIU) also joined the strike action. Daimler got in strike breakers who weren't able to manufacture a single LKW (truck). The offer was improved and the workers agreed to it.
Struggles in booming factories
A modern car factory is profitable if it is runs at about 80 per cent capacity and manufactures 150,000 units a year. The capacity and output of some factories are actually well above that and provide the basis for workers struggles, in which workers are able to enforce things.
Fiat Kragujevac in Serbia
...is an converted factory, which was opened in the middle of 2012. Comrades report that the plant is "a type of forbidden town, from which hardly any information can be leaked to the outside". One worker earns 300-400 Euro net. That is lower than the Serbian average of about 400 Euro, a fifth of their colleagues in Italy and a third of their colleagues in Poland. Breaks are not long enough to even go to the toilet. But shortly after the opening, the workers threatened a strike and got 13 per cent more wages, an increase in their christmas money and a 320 Euro premium payment. In May, a sabotage action hit the headlines, where 31 finished cars were scratched with slogans against Fiat and for higher wages. At that point the workers became interesting for the radical left scene: anarcho-syndicalists organised protest demonstrations in front of the factory in Kragujevac in front of the Polish plant in Tychy.
Dacia in Romania
In March 2013, some of the workers went on strike for two days in Pitesi for a wage rise of around 500 RON (112 Euro), which is about 25 per cent of the wage of an assembly line worker, and against the work-step time of 40 seconds. Not only the management, but the union too called the strike illegal because under 20 per cent of the workforce would have taken part. After that, the negotiations went on for another four weeks, which ended in 220 RON more for workers, 110 for white-collar workers, plus a five per cent individual wage increase (six per cent for foremen). The yearly premium ('Easter money') was raised from 1023 to 1680 RON gross (376 Euro).
Since the big strike at Dacia in 2008, management threatens the workers with relocation to a new 'state of the art' factory in Morocco, which is now the biggest car factory in Africa. They say that the wage of one worker in Pitesi is double that of a worker in Tangier, who earns 320 Euro (Renault in Tangier pays 12-15 per cent above the legal minimum wage). State subsidies in Morocco are attractive and the machinery supposedly more energy-saving than in Pitesi. They emphasise the good location of Tangier with its little utilised major port, which is only 14 kms away from Spain. And the most important thing: most of the workers in the new factory are supposed to 'work hard' for their 'first real job'. But up till now the First Time Correct (FTC) rate (for a flawless product that doesn't require re-working, an important reference point for the capitalists) is rarely above 70 per cent, expensive repair work is a daily occurrence. A training centre is run by Renault and funded by the government, where half of the workers who are trained fail the exam. Before they are 'allowed' on the assembly line, they have to repeat their manual operation 6000 times! When they finally get through all of that and start work, a section of them soon afterwards get fed up; they just don't come back after the Ramadan holiday.
Strikes in South Africa
The big exception in the past year was South Africa. After a massive struggle in winter in the mining and agricultural industries, a part of the car production process came to a standstill for weeks during the summer. It started as early as May with a two-day strike at the Mercedes factory in East London (in S. Africa) against the same plans as in Bremen (Germany): outsourcing of logistics work, against unpaid overtime, against one of the managers in the paintshop and for travel expenses. The work stoppage began with an extended lunch break and developed into a wildcat strike. The NUMSA union stepped straight into negotiations with the management, who had already obtained a legal notice against the strike. On the third day NUMSA was able to move the workers to resume work. At the time, the demand for a 20 per cent higher wage was already public knowledge. It was a small taste of things to come: a three-week strike in the car factories and another four at the supplier factories.
On the 8th August 2013, 2200 workers at the BMW factory in Rosslyn entered the strike. NUMSA supported the demand for a 50 per cent increase in the shift bonus. On the 19th August, 10,000 workers from all the other seven car manufacturing factories joined the strike. Membership of NUMSA (who had organised the strike) ranged from two-thirds (in VW) to 80 per cent (GM, Toyota) across all these factories. Workers demanded 14 per cent more wages and allowances for housing, medical care and commuting. A line worker earns 8,500 Rand (620 Euro), of which 20 per cent goes on travel costs.
At the end of August, BMW threatens a relocation of the factory and postpones planned investments, the newspapers complain about the insecure conditions for investors. The boss of NUMSA emphasises that the car companies are dependent on their South African factories because they'll rarely find such low labour costs and receive such high state subsidies. After a three-week strike, there is a 11,5 per cent wage increase for 2013, 10 per cent for 2014 and again 10 per cent in 2015; a yearly travel voucher of 1200 Rand, 750 Rand housing allowance, and a 70 per cent company contribution for health insurance. An assembly line worker now earns 10,300 Rand (760 Euro) on average a year. Production had scarcely started again when it had to stop again. As well as organising the petrol station workers, car sellers and so on, NUMSA organised a strike of the auto-supplier workers, which lasted a month. The result: an immediate ten per cent wage increase, an 8 per cent rise in each of the following two years. These results are due to the continuous struggles. in which NUMSA also has to achieve an increase in real wages, they don't want to suffer the fate of NUM in the mining sector. From capital's perspective, the long-running wage agreements have at least re-established a relative stability for future planning.
The attack on one prepares the attack on the next
The polarisation in the crisis into winners and losers leads to big differences in conditions for struggles. Accordingly, the struggles develop in different ways. The factory closures in Western Europe and the attack on the 'permanents' shows that everyone is affected at some point. In the old factories in Germany that's no longer just the logistics companies but also 'core competence' manufacturing departments like pressshop and weldshop and engine production. Nobody is safe anymore. The feeling of no longer being untouchable has spread to the auto industry. Therefore struggles are important in which workers manage to overcome the divisions into permanent workers, agency workers and contract workers. Trade union attempts to overcome these problems by 'applying the law' (legalistic struggles, 'legal case struggles') have ended in defeats; the divisions between workers have further deepened due to separating walls, company rules which prohibit them from speaking to each other and through dismissals. In contrast to this, there are encouraging first steps being undertaken in Bremen e.g. by not obeying the company rule of not speaking to the contract workers, or the factory-wide assemblies of Daimler workers concerning contract work. Opel Bochum is the first automobile factory in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, which will be closed without offering workers alternative employment - and without there being new sectors that would be able to suck in workers on a similar mass-scale into a productive cycle. In Germany as well, workers are in search for new answers - and this is where we can get involved: in front of the gates or in conversations. Or why not getting a job in one of the plants ourselves, as contract or temporary workers? Opel in Bochum is constantly looking for new people, because the sickness rate of the permanents has increased rapidly.