Strike at TRW auto supplier in Germany, 2007

An account of a successful strike at TRW automobile supplier in Krefeld, Germany, April 2007.

Submitted by Steven. on January 11, 2010

"Hardly anything comes out of the blue"

On Sunday, the 1st of April the night-shift at the car parts supplier TRW in Gellep-Stratum refuses to start working. They just gather in front of the factory gate. There is no call for industrial action and there is no need for an official strike ballot. No production worker - neither foreman nor technicians - goes to the machines or assembly line. The next day, the morning shift and then the late shift remain in front of the gate, as well - until at the evening, after the beginning of the night-shift, the company withdraws the dismissals of ten workers and announces that it will not restrict the work of the works council, as it had threatened to do. The workers of the night-shift turned up with blankets, food and drinks, they would have continued the strike. If that had happened assembly lines at some car manufacturers would have come to a halt.

This remarkable action of solidarity and self-organised resistance did not make it into the news, only a few regional daily papers reported about it later on. But these small seeds of resistance, which might appear unspectacular at first glance, point a way out of the powerlessness and weakening of the workers' movement. Therefore we met up with four workers, some of them members of the works council. We talked in more detail about how it happened that the company's work-force as a whole overcame their fears of the employers' policies of intimidation and black-mailing and instead showed their own strength.

"There was no trace of fear. Some years ago we had some negotiations and we had to give away things. One and a half years later the same happened. At some point... we just had had it. We always had to tighten the belt and they cannot get enough". This is how a Turkish worker, who has been working in the company for twenty years, described the atmosphere before the strike kicked off. Such an action was in the air for a long time. "There have always been these kinds of thoughts cropping up: We will just throw down tools, that's it, we are stuffed, it cannot continue this way. But there was never the right occasion in order to do that kind of thing". The attempt to intimidate all workers by dismissing ten of them triggered the opposite reaction, because everyone felt targeted. "We did not know who would be next, after these ten work-mates because the employer wanted to dismiss more people. They said that there will be more people to go". Despite the fact that there had been smaller 'remaining doubts' during the preparation of the action and despite the mutual confirmation of not having had a sound sleep during the night before the strike, the carefully examined general atmosphere was simply too unambiguous: "Everyone said, also in the white-collar departments, that they have had it up to here. You first thought, alright, this is a single voice... But then more and more people came and said: 'No, these guys think the same; they also think that at some point this all has to stop'. And when we stood outside the most common argument was: 'We should have done this much earlier on'.

Earlier on it was about rescuing the production location
The factory in Gellep-Stratum near Krefeld, where 454 employees manufacture crank shafts and steering links for BMW, VW or Iveco, belongs to TRW Automotive, one of the biggest global automobile suppliers. At the production location in Krefeld, half of the workers are from a migrant background, there are very few women employed. Worldwide, 63,000 people work for TRW, in 26 different countries. In Germany, TRW employs about 12,000 workers at 17 different production locations. In 2003, the company was taken over by the investment capital firm the Blackstone Group. At first things did not change much, but during the market decline in 2003/2004 TRW started to black-mail workers with production re-location and to force concessions from employees at all locations. Meanwhile in the Czech Republic, 3,000 workers work in eight different TRW factories. Particularly in the mass production segment, the increasing pressure is very palpable.

In January 2004, in the plant in Gelsenkirchen-Schalke, which employs 1,000 people, TRW announced the re-location of the ball-and-socket joint production to Dacice in the Czech Republic. By cutting holiday pay and by establishing a 35-hours working week out of which only 32 hours are paid, a contract was settled which gave job security to 770 jobs in Schalke. TRW proceeded in similar ways in their other factories. In May 2005, the IG Metal (metal union) in Heidelberg (south of Germany) stated: "TRW attacks the collective contracts, increasing pressure on the jobs, wages and working times. Like many other automobile suppliers, TRW increases the pressure on their employees in all plants. Everywhere it is the same story: the company is not running badly, some production segments make double-digit profits - but the parent group is still not satisfied. Therefore plants are closed, production lines are re-located to low wage countries and the remaining employees are asked for concessions in the form of wage cuts and longer working hours. In some plants - Schalke, Alfdorf, Radolfzell and Düsseldorf - TRW has already forced such 'location agreements'. In St.Leon-Rot, Aschaffenburg, OSS Radolfzell, Blumberg, Barsinghausen, Krefeld, Koblens and Neuwied, TRW issued similar demands or announced concrete measures."

At the end of 2005, a 'location security agreement' (an addition to the existing collective contract) was settled for the plant in Krefeld, which had been relocated from Düsseldorf to this 'green field' in 1994. For four years the workers renounced their claim certain wage entitlements which sum up to 8.6 million Euros. In return, a number of 454 jobs was fixed, and the company could only fall short of this number if it got the agreement of IG Metall. For the workers the settlement resulted in an annual wage cut of 5,000 Euros. The workers could cope with this wage cut only because previously people earned relatively high wages. "In the administration district the workers in our company pay the highest member-ship dues on average (for their union membership, which is calculated as a percentage of the gross wage). We do not earn badly here. And this is what we want to sustain", a works council member declares.

At the same time the work load and pressure increased: "Of course, the pressure to perform has increased enormously. Now the employer organises work-shops in our company. Machines have been shifted and re-composed, so where formerly six people worked; now their number has been reduced to five and the pressure has been put on their shoulders". A work-mate insisted: "Where previously three people worked, now one is left."

Paradigm Shift: "Hunting Season"
What triggered the anger and finally the action was the attempt of the newly installed management to further down-size the work-force despite the 'location security agreement' - and the impudence with which the management tried to do this. As early as autumn 2006 they negotiated with the IG Metall and the work council about the cut of 45 jobs. "We re-calculated and came to the conclusion that there we are short of exactly 45 people - if we compare the norm fixed by the company with the actual production, what else is a fixed norm good for. Nevertheless they continued to increase the pressure; they offered voluntary leave schemes, part-time for the older workers. They increased the pressure to cut down the core staff. This is a strategy which does not necessarily originate from this local production unit, we rather assume that it comes from the group headquarters, according to the slogan: 'Make sure that you replace people." The company wants to hire more temp workers. According to a company-based agreement the company cannot employ a temp work-force of more than six percent, which amounts to 27 temp-workers. Given the current market situation, the management thinks that this number is not sufficient, but they would need the agreement of the works council to increase this number.

In order to by-pass the agreement of the union, which would be necessary to cut jobs for 'company-related' reasons, the management used the proven way of dismissing people for 'personal' reasons. At the end of March 2007, the company passed five applications for dismissals 'due to illness' on to the works council. A works council member called this new policy of the company a 'paradigm change'. Part of this paradigm change was that the company negated on the company-based agreement on the exemption of a second works council member from work (according to company size, a certain share of works council members can be exempt from work). The company-based agreement fixed the exemption of two members. When the numbers of workers employed sank under 500, it meant that legally only the exemption of one member could be claimed.

The works council refused the dismissals and reacted by publishing a series of notice-board announcements under the appropriate title 'Hunting Season', because the works council saw a systematic relationship to the 'back from illness'-conversations (obligatory meetings between workers who had been on sick leave and managers after their return back at work), introduced by the new HR boss, who had taken up office in 2006. On the 20th of March 2007, the works council announced: "The 'back from illness'-conversations which has run for some time now, organised by our employer only due to his 'duty of care', has shown its first results. The works council has received five applications for dismissals due to illness-related reasons, which bypasses our additional collective contract. Other dismissals have been announced without giving concrete reasons. The general reasons given by the employer were: 1. the number of work-force is too high, 2. the sick-leave rate is too high. As you would of course expect, the works council will react 'appropriately' to this, despite its restricted rights of co-determination".

The notice 'Hunting Season 2' two days later mentioned a total of ten illness-related dismissals and pointed out the relationship to work strain and its consequences: "Among those who are supposed to be dismissed are some employees who recently have ruined their health, also due to working over-time. According to the will of the employer they are now supposed to be 'placed at the disposal of the labour market'. This means soon being on Hartz IV (currently 345 Euros/month)!" The works council announced that they would only agree to overtime under the condition that the dismissals were withdrawn. From then on they refused all over-time - which would turn out to become an important factor of success for the strike. On the 23rd of March, the 'Hunting Season 3' announcement added that among the ten dismissed work-mates are five severely handicapped workers. "Our employer seems to stop at nothing. No one seems to be safe anymore!" This is true even for the white-collar staff, because in their department, as well, the new management has re-structured and replaced people.

The works council hoped that the refusal of overtime would build up enough pressure because the market situation is good and production is already lagging behind. But the management displayed itself as being unimpressed and intended to enforce things violently. On the 30th of March, they again verbally applied for the approval of over-time. They offered to put the dismissals on ice for the time being, saying that they could be debated after Easter again. The works council first wanted to consult among themselves. Five minutes later, an older Turkish worker called and said that she had found a dismissal letter in her post-box. Being questioned the senior manager confirmed the dismissals and announced that he would pronounce two more on the very same day. The notice 'Hunting Season 4' published these incidents. Two members of the works council went to the senior management and told him that there was no common ground for 'trusting cooperation' anymore.

Organised Spontaneity
"Hardly anything comes out of the blue", said a worker when we asked him how the strike came to happen. On Sunday the works council and the shop stewards met in order to discuss about what they could do. That things could reach this point was clear beforehand. "We debated about it for a while. What will we do once the first dismissal actually comes up because application for dismissal does not yet mean dismissal? Theoretically, the employer can proceed with the legal dismissal procedures up to the hearing of the works council... the employer does not have to pronounce them. Yes, what will we do in this case? At this point our legal means as a works council are exhausted". Another worker remembered the Sunday meeting. "The idea came up: Let's inform the work-mates who arrive for the Sunday night-shift. That became a self-propelling mechanism that was not an actual debate. It was the last straw. If you see the context: we accepted wage cuts and now they try to fuck us over from behind our backs. We accepted the wage cuts in return for job security and now we do not have job security after all. What for, then?" Before the night-shift arrived at work, the word spread: "Particularly our foreign work-mates, they always have a mobile on them, and when we realized that the atmosphere was like it was... then half of them already had their mobile in gear. Some of them arrived straight away, wearing the IG Metall cap, here we go! In these situations particularly amongst the foreign work-mates a certain enthusiasm breaks out. The Germans are a bit more... doubt-raiser types."

Already during the afternoon the preparations started. Given that the token strikes of the IG-Metall collective contract conflict were about to happen, the full equipment was already on the spot, the red union banners and caps. Symbolism was taken care of as well. When the union banner was hoisted it first hung under the TRW flag - the workers insisted on correcting it. When the night-shift arrived it was already a sure thing that all would remain outside the factory.

Due to the tense order situation (production lagging behind) the workers had thought that after some hours at the latest, negotiations would start and an arrangement would be found. But the management did not budge. They appeared only the next morning to the regular working hour and acted as if they were unconcerned. "Through their body language, as well... at one point we gathered people down here in order to up-date them about the current stage of things. Then our boss opened this window up there widely, stood at the window with a cup of Cappuccino, leaning against the frame and stirring his cup, and the whole gang stood in front and looked in his direction. They took it as a provocation."

Surely, the workers had also reckoned on the management taking more drastic steps against the action - which did not happen in the end. No calling of the police, no personal intimidations. In the afternoon, when the late shift also remained outside the factory, a phone call of the IG Metall comes in. The employers' association considers a collective grievance claim against the union or a legal process aimed at the removal of the works council from office. But finally negotiations with the IG Metall and the employers' association took place.

The deciding factor was the effective production bottleneck. The trucks queued up in front of the gate, but it would have been of no use for the company to clear the way to the factory premises by police force. The workers found out that there were hectic calls from clients who were waiting for their parts. "During the night we had a look at the stock. There was nothing, because for the two weeks prior over-time had been refused. They actually lived from hand to mouth". And the truck drivers in front of the gate took it easy. One of them assured a worker: This happened to him some weeks ago in front of a TRW plant in France, as well, and he had to stay there idle some days due to a strike, too. The truck drivers were provided with rolls and drinks by the strikers, who at first still got the food from the private canteen in the factory. In a ridiculous action the management put pressure on the guy who ran the canteen not to provide the strikers with food - as if he could starve out the action.

During the course of the day, the atmosphere at the gate got better and better. Quickly some beer tents were organised, and the nice weather promoted a festive mood. "The climate change makes striking in Germany much easier", as a worker puts it in dry humor. The discussion came up again about why they had not done this earlier. The experience that it actually worked to stay outside together fostered self-confidence: 97 percent took part in the action, and 60 percent of the total work-force is unionised. Now the workers are not willing to compromise anymore. At the first moment the management reacted with a counter-demand: the share of temp workers is supposed to be enlarged, but this is rejected as insolence.

"This was remarkable: During the course of the afternoon we had a situation where the employer said: We took the dismissals back, they are not valid anymore. We also took back the cancellation of the company-based agreement on the exemption from work of a second work council member. This meant that the company-based agreement would still be in force, so they would have been able to cancel the agreement again. At this point the workers reacted brilliantly. The employer did not expect this: they said that as long as this is not arranged, we will not go back in. Despite the fact that it was clear that he would withdraw the dismissals. Then it took another two hours before we arrived at a new agreement... Partly the employer was a little bit bizarre. When we announced the provisional results that the dismissals would be withdrawn, we stood outside with a loudspeaker to inform everyone, and this was the first and only time that the employer came outside, with the whole leading management. They came out, six, seven, eight of the management and our impression was that they, as well, wanted to say something about the topic, something like 'The dismissals are off the agenda now'. But when they saw the reaction of the workers - 'we are not interested at all, we have two demands to be met!' - they looked quite crestfallen and buggered off."

After the beginning of the night shift the works council announced the result: 1. All ten dismissals are withdrawn, 2. the second exemption from work will be guaranteed till the next works council election, 3. the demand to be paid for the time on strike can not be enforced, but the workers can compensate for the strike hours from their working time accounts. "We think this is well invested money for such a solidarity action!", the works council wrote in their announcement. 4. There would not be any disciplinary measures against any employees. Then work resumed after 25 hours of strike.

Questions of Power
At the end of the strike the workers were close to a mass embrace, "at the end the atmosphere was euphoric". On the shop-floor the new self-confidence is palpable. The workers had taken part in token strikes and in demonstrations before, but an action of such kind is something new for them as well. Only during the 70's had this kind of thing happened, an older worker remembers. On the shop-floor people ask at any occasion, 'so when do we walk out again?' A works council says smilingly that they have to hold people back: "Guys, I have the impression that some people think that we had taken over power here!" During the token strikes at the end of April, beginning of May, the TRW workers walked out several times - and this despite the fact that due to the location job security agreement they would only benefit partly from a wage increase in the collective contract. If it had come to a full strike, the IG Metall would have been able to put them on top of the list of the plants dedicated for strike action.

During the eventful times they did not manage to inform the media and public as they left it to IG Metall. But the other TRW plants were informed in the very same night. "Of course, solidarity messages arrived: Great, this helps us, as well, if you lead the struggle in the name of us, too. Recently works council elections took place and works council members made the strike a topic, mentioned it in their reports, and in all plants the reaction of the management was: 'Don't you dare!'"

The workers at TRW still have to face up to the currently most important conflict in the metal industry throughout the country. As part of the location job security agreement the implementation of ERA (new wage group model which assesses work places on an individual basis and triggers a lot of discontent everywhere) has been postponed to 2010. But they know what they will have to confront themselves with: "This will surely become a topic of big struggles. The employer sees this (ERA) only as a measure to cut costs. At TRW in Gelsenkirchen-Schalke 700 objections have been filed against ERA-ratings - out of 780 workers employed in the factory!"

Published in Express, Zeitschrift für sozialistische Betriebs- und Gewerkschaftsarbeit, 5/07

[prol-position news #9 | 9/2007]