The swift angry and determined answer of the workers at Opel’s Ruhr area factory in Bochum to General Motor’s announcement of 12,000 redundancies throughout Europe has seized the headlines in Germany. They immediately went on strike to stop this threat. GM’s plans would mean 4,000 of Bochum’s 9,600 workers losing their jobs. The Bochum workers’ determined unofficial strike has already become a symbol of resistance to the German ruling class’s demand that the mass of the population accept lower living standards. Today over 20,000 workers marched through Bochum’s city centre in protest at GM and in solidarity with the workforce. This was part of the European action day called by the trade unions that saw protests at GM plants throughout the continent.
Like the battle of the nearby Rheinhausen steel workers during 1987/88, the Opel workers have put on the order of the day a fight back against the German government and bosses’ joint offensive against the living standards won over many decades. The Bochum GM workers live in an area with an average 14% unemployment rate and have seen one wave of job cuts after another, they feel they have no alternative but to fight.
But today’s battle at Opel/General Motors is not against an isolated attack in one company.
The past months have witnessed in Germany one attempt after another to drive down living standards, lower wages and cut the welfare state.
The Social Democratic/Green coalition government have set the pace – lengthening public sector workers’ working time without any increase in pay; planning to introduce performance related pay throughout the federal sector and, from January 1st 2005, cutting long term unemployment pay and removing all state benefits from 500,000 unemployed. The regional and local governments have followed a similar course, with the addition of actual cuts in pay. Every single party, from the CSU to the so-called "left" PDS, in the German parliament has implanted these sort of policies in the different levels of government they all participate in.
Recent months have seen the private sector starting to follow the government with job cuts and making workers work longer for no extra pay. Sometimes, as with the Schering chemical company, the bosses have openly announced that they are attacking simply to increase their rate of profit, in Schering’s case, from 14% to 18% in three years. Others like shopping group KarstadtQuelle are victims of the stagnation of Germany’s economy and increased competition from their rivals. In every case workers pay the price.
Until now the trade union leaders have only made verbal opposition. Sometimes, as in April this year, the trade union leaders have organised protest rallies, but they do this with the idea that these protests will be a safety value for letting off steam rather than a mobilising stage in a wider militant campaign. Even now the IG Metall leaders are saying they will oppose compulsory redundancies or plant closures, thereby implying they will accept other attacks and "voluntary" job losses.
When General Motors announced that 12,000 jobs will go in Europe the chair of the combined Opel works council in Germany announced that the "the word strike will not pass my lips". But the workers in Bochum had other ideas, that very night the night shift walked out on strike. Their strike was not officially led by either the works council or shop stewards, but was inspired by the long standing group of left workers active within that factory.
Bochum is a key factory in Opel/GM’s production system in Europe that, in the words of one German paper, is "the lever in the hands of the Bochum workers". The Bochum strike is already stopping production at other plants. A determined appeal from the Bochum workers, if necessary over the heads of the trade union and work council leaders, to the other Opel/GM workers could mobilise the entire German and European workforce in action.
Determined action could block this attack and force concessions. Worldwide GM is still a profitable company. While in the third quarter of this year its auto division lost $130 million, mainly due to giving rebates in an increasingly tight market, GM’s financial operations’ profit rose from $630 to $656 million.
If GM goes ahead with its redundancies workers’ should occupy the plants. Sit down strikes have a special place in GM’s history. It was the famous mass factory occupations in Detroit in 1936/7 that first forced GM to recognise and negotiate with trade unions.
But while a serious fight back can defeat this particular attack, the general crisis in the capitalist economy is forcing bosses to return to the offensive again and again. That is why within this struggle socialists will be arguing that only nationalisation, under workers’ control and management, and democratic planning can utilise the skills and resources of both the workforce and plants to meet real human needs rather than the profits of the ruling class.