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German Walkout Starts Fightback
WORKERS AT Opel's Ruhr area factory in Bochum made a swift, angry and determined answer to General Motor's (GM's) announcement of 12,000 redundancies throughout Europe. Their unofficial strike has hit the headlines in Germany.
Their strike is a symbol of resistance to the German ruling class's demand that most of the population accept lower living standards.
These workers have put back on the agenda a fightback against the government and bosses' offensive against living standards won over many decades.
Bochum has a 14% average unemployment rate and has suffered one wave of job cuts after another, GM workers 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 seen one attempt after another to drive down living standards, lower wages and cut the welfare state in Germany.
The Social Democratic/Green coalition government set the pace - lengthening public-sector workers' working time with no increase in pay; planning to introduce performance-related pay throughout the federal sector and, from January 2005, cutting long-term unemployment pay and removing all state benefits from 500,000 unemployed.
Regional and local governments followed a similar course, adding actual cuts in pay. Every party, from the CSU to the so-called 'left' PDS in the German parliament has supported this in the different levels of government.
Now the private sector has followed the government with job cuts and making workers work longer for no extra pay. Schering chemical company bosses openly announced that they are attacking simply to increase their rate of profit from 14% to 18% in three years.
Shopping group KarstadtQuelle are victims of the stagnation of Germany's economy and increased competition from their rivals. Workers pay the price.
UNLIKE NOW, the trade union leaders only made verbal opposition or if they organised protest rallies, hoped they would allow workers to let off steam rather than be a mobilising stage in a wider militant campaign.
Even now the IG Metall leaders say they will oppose compulsory redundancies or plant closures, implying they will accept other attacks.
When GM announced that 12,000 European jobs will go, the chair of the combined Opel works council announced "the word strike will not pass my lips".
Workers in Bochum had other ideas - the night shift walked out on strike that very night. Their strike was not officially led by either the works council or shop stewards, but was inspired by the longstanding group of left workers active in that factory.
Bochum is a key factory in Opel/GM's production system in Europe, and quickly had an effect on other plants such as Antwerp. That, according to one German paper, is "the lever in the hands of the Bochum workers".
A determined appeal from Bochum workers, if necessary over the heads of the union and work council leaders, to 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 profitable. While in the third quarter of 2004 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 redundancies workers should occupy the plants.
Sit-down strikes have a special place in GM's history. Mass factory occupations in Detroit in 1936/7 first forced GM to recognise and negotiate with trade unions.
But while a serious fightback can defeat this attack, the general crisis in the capitalist economy is forcing bosses to return to the offensive again and again.
That's why in this struggle, socialists will argue that only nationalisation, under workers' control and management, and democratic planning can use the workforce's skills and the resources of the plants to meet real human needs rather than the ruling class's profits.
Addendum: 22 October 2004
After this article was written a mass meeting of Opel Bochum workers was held on October 20. At this meeting the Works Council presented the motion - "Shall the Works Council continue to negotiate with the management and work restarted?" - to a "Yes/no" vote.
Against opposition a majority of the Works Council deliberately mixed together the issue of negotiation and returning to work as part of a conscious strategy to end the strike. Of the 6,404 workers at the mass meeting 4,647 voted, in a paper ballot, "Yes" to this motion.
Vauxhall Ellesmere Port
"Designed To Treat Workers Like Machines"
GENERAL MOTORS employs 7,000 workers in the UK, including around 5,000 at Vauxhall Ellesmere Port.
David Wevill, a member of engineering union Amicus at Ellesmere Port, spoke to the socialist about the company's attacks on workers at the plant.
"Losing 12,000 jobs is the equivalent of a whole plant closing. About 300 are going to be made redundant at Ellesmere Port, mostly staff they say. But there's a European day of action on 19 October to protest about the closures.
"Our opening pay offer was 1.5% below the retail price index, with an increase in the working week to 40 hours, with no increase in pay. They also want to increase our pension contributions, which is basically a pay cut anyway.
"It's a complete drop in living standards and quality of life when you're talking about a cut in leisure time. It took 20-odd years to get the working week down to 37.5 and they want to increase it to 40 in one fell swoop.
"But the whole atmosphere is bad. I think they just use the threat of closures to push things through. Workers in Poland voted to accept a 15% drop in pay in order to get a model to their plant.
"In California GM have a project - the New United Motors Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) to experiment with methods of timekeeping. They call it 'management by stress', not stress management, the threat of plant closures is always part of it.
"All these management systems, like KITA (Kick In The Ass) are designed to treat workers like machines. They keep a high level of tension amongst the workers.
"They start off with things like 'teamworking' that sound OK but really that makes workers do their own timekeeping. Trackworkers tell me how the labour has got really intense now."
NUMMI is a joint GM/Toyota project. It is GM's most efficient plant and builds the Toyota Corolla and the Geo Prizm.
Productivity there is at least 50% higher than other GM plants and nearly as high as a Japanese Toyota plant.
But it is an old plant, with the same, although fewer, workers that had worked in the plant for GM. So the productivity gains have only been achieved with massively increasing the intensity of working. One worker described a shift as: "An eight-hour aerobics class."
In The Socialist 23 October 2004:
Workplace news and analysis
Socialist Party features
International socialist news and analysis