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Saved? – At least for now

| Text: Lisbeth Lindeborg

For the past few months General Motors (GM) has been on the rampage in Europe. The attacks were directed at the three German Opel plants in Rüsselsheim, Bochum and Kaiserslautern, plus Swedish Saab in Trollhättan. 12 000 jobs are going, the German wages are lowered, working hours are increased – and the only guarantee is that the plants won’t be closed before 2010.

GM gave their notice to workers in October. Initially there was a lot of indignation:

”Why should we pay for the mistakes of the American company management?”

In Bochum the “Opel-makers” took illegal strike action, and got support from other GM plants, including those in Antwerp and in Poland. Since then intensive negotiations were going on in the wings but the situation was a bit like
being on thin ice. If anything, the GM notice showed that the trade unions find themselves in a dead end street with less and less space for negotiation well knowing that the threatening exercises from GM were to be taken seriously.
Symptomatic for that is what happened in Bochum. There they were told they would have to cut jobs by forty per cent and that the plant’s existence was at stake. Then all of a sudden the number 2 executive of GM Europe arrived in Bochum with a proposal in his briefcase. 6 000 workers came to the meeting in the big Gruga-hall in Essen. We guarantee you work until 2010, Forster said, but only if you accept a twenty per cent pay cut.

A few years ago such a proposal would have been met with an outcry. But not now. In Germany holding down a job is the abso-lute priority. With 5,2 million people registered unemployed  – plus another 3,3 million on the dole - pay has become secondary.

Due to the new unemployment policies of the Schröder government, and the Hartz IV legislation, everyone who has been unemployed for more than a year loses his or her unemployment benefit, and is paid a oneoff payment of 345 Euro a
month. With a brutal push into poverty like that, belligerence gives way to a certain degree of pliability. For GM this means that they could put the employees against the wall, backed by government policies. The German Opel-workers are experiencing what amounts to blackmail.
In Trollhättan, the situation is more pragmatic. They were promised the production of the new GM Cadillac. But the notices given to 840 metal workers and 450 white-collar workers remain.

”Among us we’ve been discussing what kind of organisation we should have in future”, says Pål Åkerlund, from the local union branch. All costs, including wages, are 30-40 per cent lower than in Germany, Saab in Trollhättan felt their case was strong enough to argue for their continued existence. In addition the intervention from the Swedish government including financial support to make the Trollhättan plant more advantageous no doubt helped to save it.
The important thing is that we decided to stick together, that the company did not succeed with their strategy of divide and conquer, confirms another local union branch member, Chresten Nielsen. Not only do we who work at GM need our European work councils, but we need a world council, he says. In Trollhättan the union still has room to individually cushion the fall when the projected job cuts become reality. Swedish labour mar-ket policies grant better protect- ion to workers, through the work of the Trygghetsråd, a state-run body helping redundant employees to find new careers.

Early March negotiations stopped and GM laid down a proposal. On March 5th the executives and trade union officials signed an “agreement for the future”.

Yes, 12 000 have to go, 6 000 get redundancy pay: an average of 80 000 Euro, the rest will leave as pensioners. Kaiserslautern har to take a pay cut of 6,5 %, in the other plants bonuses will be cut and there are no pay rises to come for the extra hours. Rüsselsheim got the best deal and was allotted Opel Vectra and Saab 9-3. They hope to survive until 2015. In Trollhättan production level will be kept with Saab and Cadillac. No there was no Champagne just a beer at the pub “Zur Dmark” behind the Rüsselsheim plant. “Just now we are relieved, but the worry and fear are with us”.

In Trollhättan the word “temporary reprieve” makes the round. They all know what GM - ”restructuring” means. Most of them have seen Michael Moore’s film ”Roger & Me” – a portrait of what used to be the car-manufacturing city of Flint, which was destroyed and left no winners but many losers. Hopefully Bochum and Trollhättan won’t be next.

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