Germany: 20,000 people march in solidarity with striking Opel workers

Strike needs to spread not end

In a very loud and militant mood the workers at Opel’s Bochum factory marched through their town on 19 October 19 – the international day of action called against the thread of job losses at General Motors internationally. On strike since October 14, the Bochum workers have stopped production with determination and militancy. But they have faced increased pressure from all sides, including their trade union leaders, church leaders and politicians to resume work. On 20 October, a majority of the Bochum workers voted to resume work.

Stephan Kimmerle reports from Bochum on the demonstration:

The focal point is the threat of 4,000 direct job losses at the Opel Bochum plant, plus probably another 20,000 jobs in the region that are in jeopardy, if redundancies at Opel are carried out as planned. This would mean a further decline in a region that already suffers 14% unemployment.

The Opel workers received support from thousands of fellow workers from the steel and mining industry in the region. Moreover, delegations from all major companies which had been involved in industrial disputes recently visited the Opel workers to express their solidarity. Amongst them were striking bus drivers from nearby Leverkusen and workers from the Daimler plant in Bremen. A group of Daimler workers from Stuttgart, the so-called "rebels from Mettingen", wearing T-Shirts with a picture saying "Steinkühler break on the B 10", blocked the road while carrying a banner against "job killers and wage robbers". (The "Steinkühler break" was a 5 minute break per working hour which had been in place at Daimler until it was lost recently in the huge cuts package). As one representative of the works council from Mettingen put it: "We are experts in blocking roads"

Many demonstrators had banners referring to the crisis at the Karstadt supermarket chain, were workers face an increase in the working week and a loss in wages. Many placards linked this demo to the Monday protests against Hartz IV – the package of unemployment benefit cuts being implemented on 1 January 2005.

There was a strong presence from the IG BCE chemical workers’ union, which, unfortunately, promoted bosses’ arguments about "defending Germany’s competitiveness". On their flags was the slogan: "Industrial location Germany – put people first".

Hella workers from Recklinghausen demanded: "Your fight is our fight. Workers must go into the offensive".

A delegation of Porsche workers from Stuttgart, and representatives from Mahle, were present at the demonstration, as well.

Marc Treude, a Socialist Alternative member, and recently elected councillor from Aachen, who was recently sacked from his job at Cinram for publicly criticising the company’s plans to make 350 people redundant, promised to "use my position in the council to publicise your struggle and to organise solidarity".

Socialist Alternative members from Berlin, Cologne, Aachen, Kassel and Saarbrücken handed out a message of solidarity, distributed leaflets and sold ‘Solidarity’, Socialist Alternative’s newspaper. Socialist Alternative argued for an expansion of the strike to other GM plants and the formation of strike and action committees.

During the closing rally of the demonstration people could have got the impression that the main aim of a number of speakers was to convince the Opel workers to restart production as soon as possible. There was a lot of talk about solidarity and praise for the Opel workers, but there was no mention of the next steps to take the struggle forward. Representatives of the works council and Bochum’s mayor stressed instead the importance of "carrying out fair and equal negotiations" and the need "for both sides in the conflict to compromise". A Catholic bishop was booed and whistled at after he said "it was now time to resume work" and that "compromise also means renunciation". A Spanish trade unionist who explained that it is the capitalist system which leads to job losses and attacks on the living standard, received the best response of all speakers.

Strike actions have an effect

The strike action, which due to legal reasons relating to the labour law, is officially called an "information meeting of the work force", started to have international repercussions for GM. "The wildcat strike at the Opel Bochum plant causes more and more difficulties for the company: The Antwerp plant in Belgium had to stop production because it relies on specific material normally produced at the Bochum plant. In the main plant, in Rüsselsheim, parts of the production came to a halt", ‘Spiegel’ -online reported (19/10/04).

Obviously, this leads to increased pressure on the striking workers. The national leader of the IG Metall (metal and engineering union), Peters, and politicians all agree that the strike must come to an end now. The President of the Employers’ Association, Hundt, summed up: "…wild cat strikes are illegal in Germany. They put Germany’s position on the world market into jeopardy and damage the peace in the workplaces." He went on to say: "According to a report in the daily newspaper,"Die Welt", the Opel management is considering to look into the possibility of immediate sackings of the ring leaders. This should be pursued on the basis of their offences against the current labour laws."

What next?

However, these threats have not had any effect, up to now. At the same time, it is clear to the Opel workers that they can not win the struggle on their own. There is an urgent need for a strategy to expand the strike to other plants. If that does not happen, frustration will take hold. One worker already expressed his scepticisms by saying, "They have never come out on strike with us".

The potential of the combined strength of the trade unions – involving the IG Metall, ver.di (united public services and finance union) and the IG BCE – was visible on the demonstration. But there is little trust in the trade union leadership. "What are they actually doing for us?" was a question echoed by many workers present at the demonstration.

There are two crucial elements in the situation at the moment. The workers have to take charge over their struggle and need to elect strike and action committees which take control and decision over the next steps in the struggle. Secondly, pressure needs to be put on the trade union leadership to expand the strike actions. They need to involve other Opel plants, but need to go beyond that as well.

Volkswagen is negotiating terms and conditions on Thursday, 21 October. The VW workers are confronted with demands by the employers to cut down wage costs by 30% over the next few years. Daimler in Bremen is talking about "too much personnel". What is necessary is a common struggle of all workers confronted with wage cuts and redundancies.

A clear warning has to be given in regard to the recent type of agreements that allegedly guarantee the non-removal of production to other countries or promise to keep jobs. The experience with Opel’s previous round of cuts – the "Olympia plan" – shows that those promises are empty shells and act as a lever to open the race to the bottom. An increase in the working week means to produce the same amount with less people. Subsequently, this will lead to an increase in job losses.

The promises made to allegedly save the Bochum plant, but which do not mention saving all the jobs, are just a means to bribe the Opel workers and make them resume work again. A decision to resume work can only be taken after holding an aggregate of the whole of the work force. Enough time needs to be given to fully discuss the grounds on which they are meant to restart production.

Postscript

On Wednesday, 20 October, Opel workers decided to resume work after having been out on strike for 6 days. A more detailed report which will deal with the decision to go back to work will be published shortly.

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