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Opel Workers - Down But Not Out
WORKERS AT the Opel plant in Bochum ended their solid, unofficial six day walkout on Thursday, 21 October.
The walkout was a response to General Motors' threat to sack 12,000 workers across Europe. 10,000 jobs are meant to go in Germany alone. This would be a major blow to the Ruhr area which in previous years has already suffered from the collapse of the mining and steel industry.
With the retailer Karstadt Quelle and Opel, two of the main employers in the region, threatening mass lay-offs, the future looks grim for many workers and their families. The unemployment rate already stands at 14% in the area.
OPEL WORKERS had received widespread sympathy and solidarity for their struggle. "Your fight is our fight" was a common expression of solidarity of workers who visited the Opel workers from other car plants and workplaces across Germany.
Moreover, 50,000 took part in an international day of action organised and called for by the trade unions. In Bochum alone, 20,000 joined the demonstration in support of the striking workers and at the same time to protest against the government's attacks on unemployment benefits and redundancies at Karstadt Quelle.
Despite this marvellous show of solidarity on the part of the Bochum working class, the main aim of trade union speakers, politicians and church leaders at the closing rally was to convince workers to resume work instead of providing a strategy how to win the struggle.
Representatives of the works council and Bochum's mayor stressed 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".
Role of the trade union leaders
AFTER SIX days the strike was having an effect on other Opel plants which rely on parts from Bochum. The Antwerp plant in Belgium had to stop production and also in Rčsselsheim, the main plant near Frankfurt, some production was halted. The same was true at the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port, near Liverpool.
This powerful position could have been used as a starting point to force General Motors to make concessions and to call upon workers to join the strike until all threats of redundancies had been dismissed. This would have put workers who are facing negotiations on terms and conditions in other car plants in a much stronger position and would have encouraged them to stand up against the demands of the bosses.
Instead of building the strike and officially backing the Opel workers - who did not receive any strike money and subsequently lost about █500 - trade union leaders tried to convince workers to go back to work and leave their fate to negotiations with the bosses.
On top of that, workers at Bochum had to put up with attempts of intimidation and repression. The chair of the employer's association demanded to look into the possibility of sacking the so-called ring leaders of the dispute. It was reported that workers had been filmed and photographs had been taken.
Socialist Alternative members who had intervened into the strike demanded that a decision to go back to work should only be taken after the whole of the workforce was given the time to fully and democratically discuss the back to work deal.
The opposite happened. First of all a majority in the works council only agreed to hold a meeting of the whole workforce after it had come under pressure from below. At the meeting itself, it was only the works council representatives and the local union official who were allowed to speak.
The formulation on the ballot paper deliberately mixed together the issues of negotiation and returning to work, part of a conscious strategy to end the strike. While many workers were in favour of the works council to engage in further negotiations with management, this did not automatically mean they were in favour of resuming work. On the ballot paper however, those two aspects had been combined into one question and you had to answer yes or no. 4,647 of the 6,404 workers present therefore voted in favour of going back to work.
This was not the end
"THIS WAS a sell out" said one of the shop stewards. He continued: "Workers and shop stewards relied on the works council but they misled us." Some workers asked the head of the works council to step down because "right from the start, he tried to make us resume work as soon as possible".
However, one worker added: "The dispute has not come to an end yet, we have learnt a lot in the past six days. We will still cause major problems for GM". This is an indication that workers do not seem to think that they have suffered a major defeat and are ready to take action again as soon as they feel GM is coming back for more.
While the trade union leadership claim they have struck a victory by forcing GM to negotiate a plan to secure locations and to prevent mass lay offs, the Financial Times says: "GM managers would almost certainly demand significant cuts in wages in return"(19/10/04).
The strike at Opel Bochum once more expressed the anger and determination of the German working class. The fact that they took actions without the official backing of the trade union leadership marks a turning point but also emphasises the need to build a strong opposition inside the trade union movement that can eventually challenge the current leadership.
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