Germany: Lessons of the Opel strike

"This was a sell out!"

The unofficial walk out at the Opel Bochum plant ended on 20 October when the majority of the works council manoeuvred to give the strikers no real choice but to vote "Yes" in the ballot to resume work.

"This was a sell out," said one Opel shop steward when commenting on the way the Works Council [the legal body representing the workforce] had asked the Opel work-force on how to proceed in the struggle against threatened job losses at their plant.

Only after coming under pressure from below did the majority of the Works Council agree to call a meeting of the whole of the workforce to "discuss" how to proceed with the unofficial walk out which had gone on for six days. The strike received widespread solidarity from people in the region and from workers facing similar attacks across the country.

The workforce meeting was a complete farce, with only the members of the Works Council and the local trade union official allowed speaking.

There was no space given for workers to ask questions or to discuss the question on the ballot paper that was put in front of them and voted on at the end of the meeting. The ballot paper cunningly linked the issue of re-entering negotiations with management to the question of resuming work.

It asked, "Shall the Works Council continue to negotiate with the management and work restarted?" As a consequence, 4,647 of the 6,404 workers present voted in favour of going back to work.

"Workers and shop stewards relied on the works council but they mislead us". This is how another shop steward sums up the role of the majority of the Works Council. And indeed, their approach must be seen as part of a conscious strategy to end the strike. This raises the important question of democratic decision-making and control over the running of the dispute.

Ironically, because of the lack of official trade union backing, workers and shop stewards were more in control of their dispute than would normally be the case. They held regular meetings to discuss the day to day running of the strike, which proved to be vital to keep the strike solid.

Due to the role of the trade union leadership during the dispute, as well as in other disputes over the lengthening of the working week, cuts in wages, and the implementation of cuts packages at Siemens and Daimler – where they the trade union leaders did not launch a serious fight back against the bosses’ attacks – Socialist Alternative (SAV), the CWI in Germany, made the following proposals to the striking workers in Bochum:

To form and elect an action strike committee, which would allow democratic discussions and would have been in charge of deciding over every next step in the struggle. This democratic and accountable body could have been used as an alternative to the official trade union structures.

As it turned out, the union leaders, instead of officially backing the strike and paying money to the strikers, organised a return to work although no meaningful concessions were won.

As reported, trade union officials used their weight in the course of the struggle – despite generally expressing their solidarity – to convince the workers of the need to compromise if the company promised no compulsory redundancies and no complete plant closures.

While the strike had just started to have an effect beyond Bochum and was causing a loss in profits for General Motors (The Antwerp plant in Belgium had to stop production and also in Rüsselsheim, the main German plant near Frankfurt, parts of the production came to a halt.

The same was true at the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port near Liverpool) which put workers in a much stronger position to actually win the dispute, the trade union leadership adopted a strategy that opens the door for another defeat. They made sure that the work force had played their strongest card – the strike- before re-entering negotiations with the bosses.

Manoevring between both sides

When listening to the comments and remarks of some of the trade union leaders and leading representatives of the overall Opel works council, you can easily get the impression that they have forgotten what trade unions have actually been built for. Trade unions are meant to be fighting and democratic organs run by and for the working class. They are meant to represent the interests of the working class against the attacks by the bosses whose interests are fundamentally different to those of the working class.

Mainly due to the fact that many of those trade union leaders are financially far better off than the workers they represent, they seem to have a lot more in common with management. In an interview on Deutschlandfunk (a German radio station) on October 19, Jürgen Peters, Chair of the IGMetall made it clear that he did not even intend to defend all the 10,000 jobs in jeopardy at General Motors in Germany. He said he was looking to find a common solution with management that would have to imply the following: "Firstly, no plant closures. This is something we cannot take."

Secondly, we want that a future for the plant becomes visible. We want to negotiate how to save the future of those plants beyond 2006, 2007 and 2010. And of course, we do want security for the people working there. That is why we say: ‘We have to negotiate how we will be able to introduce such a massive restructuring programme [worth € 500 million in cuts] without having to put up with compulsory redundancies’. […] I know that I have to take into account the interests of the company- that is not a question at all-, but I do have to take those of the workers into account as well."

Klaus Franz, Chair of the overall Opel Works Council, said in an interview with "Die Welt" on October 24, that negotiations were proceeding in a positive way. The objective to dismiss compulsory redundancies and plant closures would remain and that he thought that this was not too unrealistic.

They union leaders creating illusions in the outcome of the negotiations with the bosses without even mentioning the possibility to return to strike actions if General Motors does not comply with the demands of the unions. There is no mentioning of what concessions the unions officials are ready to make.

Given the developments at Siemens and Daimler, where workers were forced to put up with an increase in the working week and cuts in wages, it is very likely "that GM managers would almost certainly demand significant cuts in wages in return"(Financial Times, October 19)

Disappointment and frustration with the role of the trade union leadership and representatives of the works council is also reflected in the comments of rank and file workers and shop stewards: "Klaus Franz rather belongs to management than being a representative of the trade union". They also criticised Jürgen Peters for not bothering to show up at the strike. Some of the workers also called on the head of the works council in Bochum to step down because "right from the start, he tried to make us resume work as soon as possible".


Given these experiences, the question of building alternative bodies and of challenging and eventually replacing the current trade union leadership is vital for future struggles. As Socialist Alternative put it in one of their leaflets: "The consequence of the dispute must be the following: You who have been the backbone of this dispute have to improve the way you are organised. Relying on the majority of the works council and the DGB (German trade union federation) leadership means defeat.

The structures which developed in the course of the dispute need to be developed further; they need to develop into committees in defence of all jobs and all plants and need to be based on the rank and file of the workforce. Their task would be to coordinate future resistance. Those committees need to establish direct links with the workers in other plants and companies who are facing similar attacks. At the same time, we cannot allow Huber and Peters to run this union but have to struggle for a change.

That is why critical trade unionists should get together to build a fighting opposition within the trade unions. If you took the initiative for a national conference of critical autoworkers, than this could be the starting point for a strong opposition within the IGMetall. Workers from the different European General Motors plants should be invited to that conference as well to make sure the bosses do not play us off against one another"

Self organisation is obviously one important aspect but at the same time, it is important to discuss a strategy with which to defend all the jobs.

Despite overcapacities in the auto industry internationally, General Motors made a profit of $3.833 billion in 2003. In spite of discussing a lengthening of the working week and mass lay offs, the working week needs to be reduced to 30 hours a week without loss in pay and without increasing the workload. This would be in the interest of all workers in the auto industry.

In order to implement it, a serious struggle is needed which would tackle the profits of the giant auto companies. A discussion of how to overcome this system – which is only interested in making profits – needs to begin if jobs are meant to be secured. It is not management mistakes that have lead to the crisis in the auto industry but increased competition, and the Ubersattigung of the market.

Bosses frightened

Alerted by the militancy of the Opel workers, the head of the employers association demanded to look into the possibilities of suspending the so-called ring leaders of the dispute. Workers also reported that they were filmed and photographed.

One of the spokespersons of the American Handelskammer in Germany believes that the capability of reforming Germany’s industrial location has been put into jeopardy: "In case the dispute escalates, this will be a sign that there are still strong elements of traditionalism in place. After the compromises achieved at Karstadt Quelle, Daimler Chrysler, this would be a serious backlash which would have international repercussions".

Indeed, the wildcat strike in Bochum marked a turning point in the class struggle in Germany. Wild cat strikes are illegal in Germany and not a common feature in industrial disputes. So far, the trade union leadership had been able to bottle the anger of the working class and maintained a grip on struggles. This is one of the reasons why workers at Siemens and Daimler suffered a defeat.

The determination and militancy of the Opel workers had an inspiring and encouraging effect on other workers. Opel workers themselves say that they have learnt a lot in the course of the struggle and that they will still cause major problems for General Motors.

Even if it is difficult to exactly foresee future developments of the struggle, the German working class has once proven it will not give in to the bosses and government’s attacks without a fight. The trade union leadership will do everything they can to regain control and to present the outcome of the negotiations as a success. Workers need to draw the conclusion from this very important struggle and need to take the first steps to rebuild the trade union movement.

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October 2004