Extensive background information and analysis, and an account of a wildcat strike of Opel/GM car workers in Germany.
It is one of the last warm days of autumn; the oil price is rising and at Opel in Bochum, they are playing football. The work has stopped, the workers are striking and the young Peter Jaszczyk is their leader. A large, strong man, 30 years old, long hair, convinced communist. Faced with the rise in the price of petrol he is demanding a wage increase for him and his colleagues. He is aware of their strength. In Bochum, they make the axles for factories in half of Europe. Production has now slowed down everywhere. For the management there is no other choice. They have to increase the wage of the Opel workers, by 8.5 percent plus extra bonuses on top of the regular wage.
That was then. In 1973.
It is one of the last warm days of autumn; the oil price is rising and at Opel in Bochum they are worried. The work has stopped and the workers are striking. That was three weeks ago. This time they do not feel like playing football. This time they are afraid for their jobs… In Bochum, they still build axles for other factories, but today there are rumors going round that the management want to relocate the production to the Czech Republic. The workers ended the strike after one week. Since then the union and works council have been negotiating with the board of directors. In the next few days, they will agree, and then the tragic numbers of jobs axed and wage cuts will appear in the newspaper…
That is today. In 2004.
For the employees it is a year of defeat: First Siemens threatened to move the production of mobile and cordless telephones from Bocholt and Kamp-Lintfort to Hungary. Then DaimlerChrysler announced they would possibly be producing the Mercedes C-class in Bremen and South Africa instead of Sindelfingen in the future. Finally, VW are considering over 30,000 redundancies if the personnel costs in the West-German plants do not drop significantly.
- Published in “Die Zeit”, liberal weekly newspaper, on November the 11th, under the heading “The disempowerment of the workers”
Alone against the rest
Fear over losing ones job, threats of relocation and outsourcing, the closure of workplaces, wage freezes and increased pressure at work (and to accept any kind of work) leads to “disempowerment” of workers, so they say in “Die Zeit”. It that true? Does this strike not show just the opposite? A few hundred workers organized themselves independently from the union in the clear knowledge that they could force Opel, Europe-wide, to its knees – and how! It impressed hundreds of thousands of workers, provided the VW workers with a substantially better final agreement than their personnel manager Hartz had intended and given a new dynamic to the rather timid discussion about the Monday Demos. The strike in Bochum was the first item on the news every day and parliament held a special session to discuss it…
Colossus on clay feet
Producing about 5.5 million vehicles per year, General Motors is still the largest car producer - and is hit particularly hard by the worldwide sales and overproduction crises. The discount battle in the USA and Canada (where 50 percent of the cars are produced) has lead to GM paying out for every car sold, and over 1000 dollars per car goes to pension payments, a mark of the (past) workers’ strength in the USA. That is why GM is particularly affected by the falling sales - and the Opel shares on the German market have fallen below the average amount. The 2003 business year saw GM make losses of 286 million dollars in Europe. The years gains of 3.8 billion dollars for the company as a whole is recently based on gains in the financial sector (we described a similar development for Ford in Wildcat 68). These 3.8 billion gains are much more than out weighted by the 15.5 billion Dollars lacking in the pension funds.
Car production is only possible with a high number produced per factory, which means a high capital investment and a strong connection to the location. The car industry has reacted to the crisis of the last three decades with ever more rationalization measures: today, less than ten percent of the total costs are spent on wages. The worldwide over-capacity puts pressure on the prices - something the car companies try to evade through ever faster product cycles and by churning out new types of cars (town cars, SUV, Vans, Mini-Vans, Fun cars), in order to achieve a short-term advantage over their competitors. Complains about “mis-management” relate to the fact that Opel has not had a ”sales booster” on offer for a long time, hiding the general problem: the car industry is in over-accumulation crisis. The constant costs in the factories are too high. “Constant” are not only the costs for machinery, “constant” are also the wages and pension funds, which cannot be cut.
The complaints about mis-management reveal a second problem: for years now, the automobile companies have not been able to come up with solutions other than repeating the same cost cutting measures repeatedly. Outsourcing leads to a disproportional growth of the supplier industry. The cost-cutting pressure of the automobile companies forces the suppliers into a concentration process - in future there will be 30-50 mega suppliers left, worldwide.
Cost cutting and increasing use of electronics on the new car models leads to a deterioration of the quality, expressing itself in more frequent and expensive product recalls. Despite this situation, the research and development departments are being downsized (Synergy effect). However, looking at the downsizing and cuts alone gives us a false picture of the situation: since the low point in 1994, the number of people employed in the sector has increased by 130,000, today about 775,000 people work in the car industry (plus another 1 Million in supplier industries). Most of the new jobs are created in the supplier industries, in line with their share in the production of 75 per cent. The car industry is the most effective sector in Germany but not able to accumulate sufficient surplus value.
The just-in-time strategy has reached its limit: the original intention of the new production structure (outsourcing, low stocks etc.) was to diminish the impact of industrial actions; then the workers discovered the vulnerability of this structure and their power within it. If the automobile companies declare today that the production strategy “one car model in one factory” [Alleinfertigung] is the new remedy, they will create new bottlenecks and will potentially become more vulnerable to collective actions of the workers. If the new Astra is only produced in one plant, the production cannot be compensated or shifted with short notice if a strike does occur.
Here we can see the general problem of the most advanced capitalist mode of production: either it creates flexibility, which means it will be expensive, or it creates dependences, which makes it vulnerable. The 7,600 workers producing the Astra and Zafira models in Bochum can be replaced with short notice by their colleagues in Ellesmere Port and Antwerpen, where they produce these models as well or by the colleagues in Gliwice, where they assemble the next generation model of the Zafira. This parallel production structure is cost intensive and therefore on the agenda of the negotiation process.
The power of the workers in Bochum today is based on them producing the axles and gearboxes, and in their pressing plant. The production of the plants in Antwerpen (Belgium), Rüsselsheim (Germany) and Ellesmere Port (Britain) is dependent on the “bottleneck” Bochum and on about 2,000 workers working in these specific departments.
The workers in Bochum were aware of the key position that they have. The desperate attempt of capital to overcome the profit squeeze means that the workers have an even greater potential to interrupt the international production chains effectively. The media does not like to write about this fact, because it has absolutely nothing to do with “disempowerment”.
In Bochum, the workforce has been “socially acceptable” halved from 19,200 (in 1992) to 14,200 (in September 1999) to 9,700 today, (without any mass redundancies, mainly by not replacing retired workers). The leap in productivity means that despite this even more cars are (or could be) produced today. The union mediates the downsizing and the intensification of work. As compensation, they got some adjustments to the collective contract. The IGM (Metal Workers` Union), the works council, and some retirement age workers taking on part time work were happy. Capital however was not happy for very long; everything developed too slowly at Opel, the social peace was paid for too dearly. Forster, who was taken over from BMW board of directors in 2001, didn’t achieve the set targets, despite his cost-cutting program, Olympia, which had made two billion Euros in cost- and turnover “improvements” by the end of 2003. The company works council was always willing to negotiate. In November 2003, they introduced the program 30-plus, which reduced the weekly working time to 30 hours, due to there being not enough work for the number of employees in Rüsselsheim. Included was a minor wage compensation for the workers. Despite all this ‘progress’ and despite of the showcase factory in Eisenach, they expected losses of 400-500 million Euros on the European market in 2004 - and the sales numbers of cars in the USA slumped even sharper in autumn 2004.
Overall, Opel has many reasons to join the frontal attack, of Siemens, DaimlerChrysler, Karstadt-Quelle. Moreover, for the workers the time of socially compensated downsizing seemed to have ended: “Either we walk out now - or Hartz IV [the new, harsher, unemployment benefit] is waiting for us tomorrow”.
Self-organized - against union and management
In the plant in Bochum the group Gegenwehr ohne Grenzen (GoG, Resistance without Borders) has been active for a long time. They started in the 70s as an independent group, standing as candidates in opposition to the union in the shop steward elections, without falling for the trap of the various ideologies of party politics or for the role of mediator focused exclusively on their company. One of the struggles in 1973 was for information meetings between the works council and the union shop stewards that would ensure a permanent flow of information to and from workers in the different departments. But the class struggle in 2004 goes beyond this kind of institution: a 35 years old warehouse worker is one of the spokespersons of the workers but is modest when describing his role: “Any of my work mates could do this just as well”. The workers do not want a strike committee, but have assemblies every two hours instead, where information is exchanged and decisions are made.
In 2000, two days of spontaneous strike by the workers created a domino effect of missing parts for other Opel plants. The tactics of the strike in 2004 were based on this experience and those of two other spontaneous actions that happened between 2000 and 2004. The activists were aware of the fact that their power was based on the factory and its productive links with the other plants. The gates were blocked immediately and stayed locked throughout the whole strike, in order to prevent the delivery of completed parts. Whole gangs of workers roamed the departments in order to “convince” those still working of the necessity of the strike. 1,000 to 2,000 workers were actively involved in blocking the gates. For six days, they only went home to sleep. They were busy discussing, they gave interviews and established new contacts within the factory and with workers from other plants. By occupying the factory, the weakness of the “strike-free” weekend, which has been problematic before, was turned around: on Saturdays and Sundays, the strike opened itself to the outside, and not only relatives came to the “family days”, many workers from other companies used them to express their solidarity. The feeling of being a fish in water was evident during the demonstrations. The strikers were quite happy to have a go at the work-mates who had not been seen in the factory or at the gates for days and who now posed with their union caps on the demo.
The management reacted with dismissals and warnings. They had a list of 20 - 25 alleged ringleaders, but at first, they only sacked one uninvolved worker and one active works council member and the spokesperson mentioned above received several warnings. These threats could provoke new reactions. The question remains, is what we are seeing “disempowerment” of the workers or to a new workers autonomy?
Unionists, Cops and Dog-collars
During the dispute the works council members who follow the official IGM line didn’t dare to act openly against the strike, but they had their revenge later by making sure that strike activists were not re-elected as shop stewards. They also used the regular information meeting in the factory to manipulate the workers who were not engaged in the blocking the gates.
After the sixth day of strike, when the other plants were finally brought to a halt, the union answered with a call for an international day of action. For the protest in Bochum town centre, they mobilized the priest, the mayor and party and union reps against the strikers. In their speeches, they all spoke more or less openly in favour of ending the strike. Active strikers were banned from the stage and they did not get a chance to speak. The IGM was finally able to enforce itself on the general assembly the following day. As well as a manipulated ballot sheet, the IGM relied on ID-checks, security guards by the stage and missing microphones at the assembly.
In order to confront the workers, the union gathered pious priests and skinhead-type security guards around itself. This time they were still able to avoid calling on the cops to intervene, which was allegedly threatened if it did come to prolonged strike actions.
At Opel the 500 million Euros cost reduction is not on the negotiation agenda, merely how they will achieve the cost cuts, something that IGM boss Huber had already made clear at the beginning of the wildcat strike:
FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, conservative newspaper): “Lower wages, longer working hours, cuts in bonuses? What are you going to scarify?” IGM-Huber: “Longer working hours can be counted out due to the existing under-utilisation of capacity. In addition, wage reduction alone does not help. I am not telling any secrets if I say that we will have a closer look at the extra payments at Opel.”
On 9 December 2004, the preliminary result of negotiations was announced: in Germany between 8,500 and 10,000 jobs were supposed to be reduced through redundancy payments, early retirements, outsourcing of departments and by shifting workers to special government sanctioned “employment and training” agencies. This is a third of all the staff! In Bochum 2,900 workers are supposed to change over “voluntarily” to so-called transfer associations. The extra costs of one billion Euros (for the redundancy payments etc) are met by the remaining workers giving up extra payments (see Huber). Over 60 per cent of the personnel, costs of the transfer societies are paid for by the ministry of employment.
Contrary to its official announcements, the IGM does not expect that enough “volunteers” will be found, so right away they created a so-called “arbitration committee”. The aim of this board is to set up lists of ”dispensable” workplaces for each department, in line with “industry standards”. There is also a legal test case planned, but not in order to attain security against dismissals. Just the opposite, the aim is to establish criterion that can be presented as examples for further redundancies and which would exclude the possibility of appeals or objections.
The next steps of the negotiation process deal with the possible outsourcing of departments (spare part department, axle production), wage reductions and maybe at some point they will look at employment security up to 2010.
The outcome of the negotiations at DaimlerChrysler and VW give a hint of what to expect any actual “security” is of course - as laid out in the contract - excluded; instead, the union is defined as a negotiating partner. The union principle “equal wage for equal work” does not count anymore: people who are hired more recently will permanently earn less. Service departments will have a worse status. The core staff is more or less left in peace, but they are increasingly outnumbered by temporary workers, workers of outsourced departments and recently hired employees who earn less. Those working for many years continuously in these core departments have become a minority. For most of the workers a few months or years of unemployment are as common as cash-in-hand work, temporary work and travels abroad.
The unions attempt to re-define their diminishing role as a “social partner”. The “employment security” fits the wage reduction and work intensification just like the 35-hours week fitted the flexibilization of working time, like a hand in a glove. In this way, the “partners” in this wage agreement were able to force through the cost reduction and wage cuts as a kind of “social partnership”. Above all, this means taking the decision as to timing out of the hands of the workers. Instead of a hot autumn, we saw a series of conflicts and negotiations where one part of the deal was avoiding them taking place at the same time: KarstadtQuelle had been settled before the strike at Opel started; the wildcat had been defeated before the dispute at VW intensified etc... Because the main danger would have been the copycat effect: Bochum and Wolfsburg (VW) on a wildcat strike at the same time - unthinkable!
In the IGM magazine, the article about the Opel strike was published under the headline “fighting and negotiating”. The union fights for its function within capitalism and therefore against the workers. Like the formulation of the expert for wage- and collective, contract Hagen Lesch, working for the employer-friendly Institution of German Economy (Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft): “That is part of the tasks of the unions, to rein in radical developments”.
“We should stop the production at GM European-wide; otherwise the bosses will play us off against each other”. (Worker at Vauxhall)
From the stitched-up Siemens workers, to the B10 motorway occupation by Daimler workers in Mettingen, to the six days of wildcat strike in Bochum... The factory is still the most concentrated expression of the capitalist contradiction, not only in terms of production of surplus value, but also as an arena of class struggle. During the strike, the self-organized coming together and collectivity in the factory offers a glimpse of a new society. This experience might develop a similar importance for the future class confrontations, as did the wildcat strikes in the 70s. However, the conditions have fundamentally changed, after 35 years of capital’s crisis the class has to free itself from a common downward spiral. Only in a new independent movement, can they have the necessary experiences and discover new possibilities.
A continuation of the strike in Bochum could have directly involved tens of thousands of other workers from the supplying industries and the other GM factories in the dispute. Apart from their innumerable amounts of solidarity declarations, these workers kept practically silent and did not join the strike. Incidences of open workers` power remain isolated in a few factories, but nonetheless they are connected by the production process and have been for some time. Across the big companies and the supplier chains, this can be avoided by diverting the production process. In small and medium-size companies, a small number of confident workers are able to make a big impact.
The IGM and works council’s structure was left out of the organization of the strike, which also indicates a new quality of the class confrontation. There were single work-mates with official functions who acted in solidarity with the strike, but for many activists it is clear that the officials have been in their way and that next time they should be “excluded or locked out”. The information meetings, which have been fought for, can also only be an intermediate step towards independent workers assemblies.
Despite the independent organization and practice of the strike, the demands remained defensive: “No compulsory redundancies”, “No dismantling of plants 1, 2 and 3”.
The IGM and its concept of “employment security” can happily support these demands. Despite the independent struggle against management and the company works council, the workers relied on exactly these two bodies in the negotiations. Those workers who wanted to give negotiations a chance and voted against the strike are now confronted with a provisional result that confirms, and makes more concrete, the initial threats that lead to the strike.
The strike shows the current boundaries of class confrontation. The unions try to save themselves and to confirm their role - the workers can only rely on themselves and are going to have to adjust their future actions accordingly.
The current class composition leaves space for a new workers’ autonomy. This autonomy can only be experienced within struggles and, in order to be successful, these struggles have to be waged against the negotiators, too. The wildcat in Bochum has shown once more: class struggle is not a democratic and institutional event, but a living confrontation, which requires a determined and activist core as a reference point for workers that are more cautious. Both will now have to reflect on the results of the negotiations and the strike itself.
The “volunteers” for the redundancy program are supposed to be found by January, and then both sides expect a re-emergence of the confrontation. This will have to be at a higher level. As one activist at a meeting put it: “To give in now, to take a step back, would be hard. The step forward will also be a hard one!”
This next step of emerging workers’ autonomy - against the “disempowerers” and “negotiators” - we should support!
Whilst the production at the European Opel factory was still running behind after the strike in Bochum, the second round of negotiations began at VW on the 28 October; the ‘hot’ phase of the pay round.
The VW firm also made losses in 2004 in their car-producing department (38 Million Euros in the first nine months) and has had to balance this against gains in the financial services branch. The personnel boss Hartz wants to instigate a 30 percent saving in personnel costs by 2011. To start this there will be a two-year wage freeze and a lower starting wage for new employees in order to bring the VW wage in line with flat rate agreed by the IGM collective wage agreement for Niedersachsen (it is currently 20 per cent higher). Even before the second round of negotiations began, the works council and the IGM reduced their demand from 4 percent to 2 percent. They were indicating that they were prepared to negotiate on the lower starting wage when it comes to getting employment guarantees.
For VW conditions, workers are ready to struggle. At the first round of negotiations on 11 October, 7000 workers in Emden and Kassel had already downed tools. A delegation went to visit the strike at Opel. But even when a few thousand VW workers protested by driving very slowly in their cars and so slowing traffic for hours during the negotiations in Hannover and when the information meeting in the research and development plant blocked the HGV entrance, they never achieved the independence that they did in Bochum. In Emden, Kassel, Braunschweig and Salzgitter it once again came down to warning strikes and demonstrations with the usual few thousand people taking part. VW had an official agreement of no strikes while the original collective contract was still running, but as soon as this was over there were strikes in all the VW factories on the 1 and 2 November _ these were the first (warning) strikes in Wolfsburg for 20 years. With 50,000 workers striking, almost the entire company workforce took part. There were huge demos outside where the negotiations were taking place in Hannover.
The actions that the IGM organized at the end of the official no-strike agreement is a testimony to how much the workers in the factory are ready to fight, as well as to the lessons of Bochum, using focused, controlled warning strikes and information meetings to keep the discontentment under control. The mobilisation kept the IGM and company works council from pushing through a strike ballot, the results of which could not be predicted. Instead, on the 2 November, the negotiation results were suddenly presented.
A 28-month wage freeze, which is half a year more than the VW management had originally demanded. An end to the yearly bonus payments and new results orientated bonus scheme brought in 2006. In 2005, there will be a one-off payment of 1000 Euros. The work time account will be extended to plus/minus 400 hours and the possible weekly working time rose to 40 hours. In order for workers to take early retirement from the working life, they can accrue 66 hours a year onto a life-work-account. This raises the weakly working time by a further 2.6 unpaid hours.
The pay for apprentices has been reduced and now be only 85 percent of the apprentices will be taken on. The other 15 percent will be placed with the VW daughter company AutoVision, where extra trainee places will be created. There is a lower wage agreement there as at VW. The employment guarantee until 2011 contains a revision clause.
Nevertheless, one cannot simply refer to this as walkover by the employers. The wages of the permanent employees remain the same. However, a two-tier system and a split workforce have been created with the lower starting wages. The wage levels will drop in the long term. The permanent workforce will be directly affected financially by the cuts in bonus payments and the loss of the overtime bonuses. Ever increasing flexibilization of work time means that workers have ever less of their own time at their disposal. Although most of the workers are pissed off, the spark from Bochum has not caught light. This is partly because at VW - the showpiece of the German social partnership system - the higher wage was not won in the self-organized struggle, but rather as a result of the negotiations. However, exactly this pacification of the large VW workforce using generous wage packages is also now in crisis. It still worked this time, but the legitimation of the works council and the union is showing cracks.
Now we are leading 2:0, they are taking the best players off the field. [I.e. in Antwerpen and Rüsselsheim the production has ceased and the union is now finishing the strike]
In the future struggles the international chains of production will hit considerably harder, as we have shown, so I am very optimistic.
It has to be much harder. Like at Opel where they shut down the production completely. So that they know what is going on here.
- VW workers, 28 October, in Hannover
Eisenach: The factory for experiments on living workers
(From Freitag (German Magazine), 14th of February 2003, www.freitag.de/2003/08/03080601.php):
One example of cost-cutting and increased productivity is the Opel factory in Eisenach (East Germany), which was opened on the 23 September 1992. In the following eight years about 2 million Deutsche Mark (about 1 billion Euros) were invested. The factory has a production capacity of 178,000 cars per year, and of employing about 2,000 workers. The works council boss, Harald Lieske, is boasting that in contrast to other German Opel plants, they work three hours more per week and earn 25 per cent less. In November 2003 so-called ‘corridor-days’ (Korridortage) were agreed on for periods of low sales: all workers in production are asked to give up one shift (eight hours). Part of the deal is that the staff in Eisenach got guaranteed employment up to 2007. However, by 2001, there were several periods of reduced working hours (short time) and the annual production was only 137,000 cars. In order to achieve this number they had to get the Astra production to move to Eisenach, the Corsa already being produced there, and all with very short notice. In summer 2003, this was given back already. For 2004, the production of 158,000 up to 160,000 of Corsa was taken. Now about 1,800 people are working there (the promised 2,000 was never reached). This will not change after the negotiations.
“Last year Eisenach celebrated its tenth anniversary. The media reported euphorically about the most modern car plant in Europe. The fact that we have been the guinea pigs, which General Motors used in order to test new production models on, models that now are enforced in other Opel-plants, they did not say a word about. Today we are worn out by the enormous strains that the assembly line demands of us. Many workmates have problems with their backs and joints. The spirit of Hartz is noticeable with us too - they demand total flexibility from all employees. Last year, when sales were down, they cancelled shifts and left them unpaid. For years now, no new people have been hired, not even to compensate for the turnover, which results in a catastrophic situation of understaffing. When it all goes pear-shaped because of the staff deficit, they hire temporary workers for 5.80 Euros per hour. Everyone can see that they are second-class employees; they even get given different work clothes. If they get ill, the temp agencies sack them immediately”.
“We stay in!” - Chronology of events
Opel-boss Forster renounces any further employment guarantees of the kind that had previously been given.
The management announces that new MiniVan (the next generation of Zafira) will partly be produced in Gliwice (Poland) instead of Bochum.
Opening of the “battle for production location” between Trollhättan in Sweden and Rüsselsheim about the common platform production of the next generation Opel Vectra and Saab 9.3. The decision is meant to be made at the beginning of 2005. Management and works council negotiate a contract of “production location security”. (Employment is guaranteed by slashing bonuses including all Christmas bonuses and a cancellation of wage increases until 2009).
12 of October 2004
The GM-leadership declares “the most radical cost-cutting program in the 80 years history of American car producers in Europe”: 500 Million Euros cost reduction and 12,200 jobs cut in Europe. The German newspaper FAZ quotes a GM-manager: “If we take into account all facts, we would have to shut down the plant in Bochum. But of course we can’t just go ahead and do something like that.” The quarterly report was due to be published on the following Thursday, giving more official information.
Thursday, 14th of October 2004
When the first reports appear in the media, the early shift at Opel Bochum gets together for a 45-minute meeting to consult. The news becomes more concrete: 10,000 jobs are supposed to be cut in Germany, 4,000 of those in Bochum, 3,500 in 2004. The late shift in plant 1 agrees to down tools, plant 2 and 3 follow their example. At 4:32 pm, Bochum is silent and the gates are blocked. Groups of workers take a walk through the plant, the paint and press shop, calling on the few who are still working to stop. Most of the time they succeed. Union and works council warn the workers not to “act rashly” and try to postpone things to the international day of action on the following Tuesday, 19th of October. Repeatedly they spread rumors that people are back at work. Nevertheless, every shift assembly votes for the continuation of the strike.
Saturday, 16th of October 2004
Foremen and security guards try to smuggle parts out of the factory, but some attentive pickets manage to prevent this. Rumors about a possible lock out of plant 2 and 3 are raising the mood to such an extent that the police in Bochum declare they will not to plan an intervention at this point in time. In front of plant 2 a “family-day” takes place, which becomes an expression of the broad solidarity the strike finds in the local population, with activists from the Monday-Demonstrations and with many delegations of workers from other companies.
At the weekend 16th/17th of October 2004
The IGM-boss Hubert makes clear what the official line of the union is: “Nevertheless, I am expecting that on Monday regular working relations are back on the agenda. If not, we will not be able to effectively negotiate with General Motors...”
Monday, 18th of October
At 6am, the workers in Bochum vote for the continuation of the strike, but the other plants are still working. The management had prepared itself for the strike. There had been stockpiling of goods during the previous few weeks, the managements had ordered extra shifts. During August management and the works council had already agreed to eleven ‘corridor days’ taking place in October in Eisenach, meaning compulsory time off for the workers during the strike. In Rüsselsheim the production workers (except from those in the press shop) are sent home on Thursday, the cancelled working hours are subtracted from the annual work time account. Finally, the late shift in Antwerpen feels the impact of the strike: necessary parts are not delivered. The strike starts to hurt. Still, in Trollhättan and Antwerpen the union’s principle is to defend “their own” plants: they prevent “their workers” from striking. In Ellesmere Port, the union secretary speculates on an advantage for “his plant” and does not inform the workers about the strike. Luckily, the leaflets of some Trotskyist group spread the word in the end.
Tuesday, 19th of October
The production in Antwerpen and Rüsselsheim comes to a halt on Tuesday, Ellesmere Port follows on Tuesday afternoon and Kaiserslautern is expected to stop on Thursday. On the international day of action, the whole European union apparatus is gearing up for action: demonstrations, anti-Americanism, workers pride, Opel-ideology, but everything that mentions or could relate to the strike is excluded. In Bochum, all bourgeois personalities and institutions are set into motion, the mayor, the priests, the union functionaries, the media, the company management, the minister for finance and economy and his chancellor. Even the parliament meets for an extra session. A united front is supporting the IGM (Metal Union) in order to tame those workers “who had gone wild”. Management and the company works council promise in a joint declaration “to look for a socially acceptable way to adjust the number of employees within the framework of re-structuring”. The same morning, management had already threatened the ‘ring leaders’ of the strike with legal consequences. After the demonstration, the atmosphere at the factory gates is agitated, while the union is already talking about given preconditions for a new negotiation process and is calling for an end to the strike. Nevertheless, the workers assemblies of the early and late shift vote in favour of continued strike action.
Wednesday, 20th of October
The union seems to accept the demands of the activist workers for a general assembly of all three shifts and rents the Ruhr Congress Centre for Wednesday morning. Instead of a rank-and-file democratic assembly people face checks of their company IDs, their pockets and bags are searched, there are no microphones for the assembly, only for the stage, which is blocked by security guards, so no one other than the works council members and IGM-reps are allowed to talk. No discussion, only a secret ballot. The ballot sheet reads: “Should the works council continue the negotiations with the management and work be started again? Yes or No”. The fighting collective of the workers is turned into individual bourgeois voters. Despite this 1769 workers still voted in favour of strike (over a quarter of the assembly), but the majority (4673 workers) voted against.
“This solidarity gives us the hope that we could hold out in an even longer dispute.”
- From an interview with Manfred Strobel, published in “Express, newspaper for socialist work in companies and unions”, 10 November 2004.
Manfred Strobel is a long-standing member of both Autokoordination, a group of critical car industry workers, and GoG, existing since 1974. He was expelled from the IGM (the metalworkers’ union) in 1984 because he stood as a candidate on an anti-union list for the works council elections.
“People are not like one would like them to be. A lack of consciousness is not a defeat, but is rather linked to the wider political struggle. A lack of consciousness could also be due to the mistakes of the “left”, the “left co-manager”. You cannot break out of the de-politicisation of the political class, the church, the unions etc in just seven days. Consciousness is not something you can decree, dictate or order. It develops itself through understanding and learning in the confrontation itself and from the point of view of a possible on-going perspective. The critique of the bourgeois economy is one thing, and an important one, the other thing is the development of an at least conceivable post-capitalist vision, but this is thin on the ground. In addition: the strike in Bochum - with aspects of a workplace occupation - was a defensive struggle from the outset, and not one that attacked the system. […]
[But it was] a small conquest for emancipation: The employees had organized themselves. From Thursday on it was clear, the workforce would discuss and decide together every step and every action. Without any great vote or anything, the gates were occupied in order to stop the HGVs leaving the factory with goods - they could drive away empty. In the works council office there were lists on display that anyone with a suggestion could add too. We quickly managed to wrangle the necessary technical equipment out of them. At regular info-rounds, the actual situation of how things stood was made known and discussed. The mic was open for anyone and everyone - with only one limitation: no party political agitation. That, and other things, worked amazingly well and things did not seem to be that difficult - apart from little to very little sleep that you or someone else had at during this time. The workforce was certainly no homogeneous community, but we had good solidarity; also with lots of different opinions and perceptions. I think, that lots of us had the impression that this was coming from us, and not from above. That was our strength and our power. This is self-organization and that despite the IGM and Co-managers, who piped up at the top of their voice, in public, that they were against this form of confrontation… But what should you expect from these Hubers and Franzens? It was totally our thing!
Loads of people came from Bochum and other places, loads of donations of money and other things. Our material needs were more than taken care of! People opened a bank account for the financial support. This solidarity gives us the hope that we could even win a longer dispute. No one can guess at this point how long it will go on for. When we look at the actual changes that are being threatened, we are discussing a longer continuous confrontation - maybe a few weeks. […]
Cited from the Contract
§ 6 The Revision Clause
In the event of significant changes to the basic conditions or the economic environment, the following procedures can apply:
6.1 The parties to the collective bargain shall commit to holding a review meeting. It is required that one party requests the review meeting and also that it is not immediately apparent that the company’s economic reaction mechanisms can be implemented, or these prove insufficient, such as the reduction of overtime, cutbacks of external labour, the use of mobility and the relocation of production. The aim of this review meeting is a mutual adherence to section 4.
6.2 If an agreement between the parties to the collective bargain cannot be reached, a common arbitration board will be called to arbitrate.
6.3 If this procedure also cannot reach a result, then the existing wage contract can be terminated with three months notice at 30 of June or 31 of December of the year. The wage contract will not be effective after such notice.
6.4 In the case that the wage and conditions contract is terminated, the agreement on the security of the location and the workforce (of 28 September 1995) is correspondingly terminated in its respective version at this point of time.
prol-position news #1, 3/2005
[From wildcat no. 72, January 2005. You can find more articles on the situation and struggles in the automobile industry in this newsletter. On DaimlerChrysler see the article on the wildcat-website (http://www.wildcat-www.de/en/wildcat/71/w71edaim.htm).]