General Motors cuts jobs across Europe

GM Europe makers of Vauxhall (Opel) announced this month that they are planning to cut 12,000 workers across the continent – the equivalent to 20% of the European workforce. They are carrying through these attacks to put them back into profit.

GM Europe makers of Vauxhall announced this month that they are planning to cut 12,000 workers across the continent – the equivalent to 20% of the European workforce. GM Europe has been losing money for the last 4 years – but this has been spiralling for the last few years. The loss in 2002 was £51 million, by 2003 this had risen to £115 million. They are carrying through these attacks to put them back into profit.

Most of the job losses will hit plants in Sweden and Germany. At GM’s two remaining UK plants there will be 340 job losses at Ellesmere Port and 94 at the Luton van plant. These come on top of an already massive closure programme of GM in the UK that saw the closure of its then largest plant in Luton nearly three years ago.

In response to the GM cuts 50,000 took action, at the end of last month, across 13 plants on the continent; 25,000 workers took to the streets in Bochum in Germany, which will be one of the main focuses of the job losses while 20,000 demonstrated in Rüsselsheim. At Bochum a spontaneous reaction of the workforce resulted in a seven-day strike that was only brought to an end after leaders of the IG Metall union undermined the strike by failing to give it backing. The IG Metall leader Ludyer Hinse was quoted as saying “I am sick of hearing all the talk about wildcat strikes. The unions want to keep things orderly here.” The ballot that was put to the workforce posed the question “Should the works committee continue talks with the company and work be resumed?” This loaded question meant that workers voting against would be voting not to resume talks with the company. The action in Bochum forced a layoff at the plants in Ellesmere Port and Antwerp because of consequent component shortages of axles and exhausts after only six days, which was only lifted after the Bochum workers resumed work. This shows how easy it is for workers to put the screws on the company.

The numbers of car workers have been reduced both through productivity gains and by cuts in capacity over the past years. Lean production has made production far more efficient because production and delivery is planned down to the finest detail. However, these things have all come together to put far greater power into the hands of a smaller group of workers, because large stockpiles are no longer kept an stoppage even in a small plant has the power to hit production immediately.

The unions must exploit this situation. It is now easier to halt production by calling out strategic sections of the workforce. The industry is fighting a defensive struggle at the moment to preserve conditions that are coming under attack. Up to now the unions have taken a soft approach of partnership and compromise – in Britain especially the unions have presided over deals that increase flexible working practises and hold wages low. Workers have gone along with many of these deals out of an honest desire to save their jobs. However, this approach has definite limits – workers cannot make concessions forever.

The announcement of the cuts at GM come at the same time as the announcement of the loss of over 1,000 jobs at Jaguar in the Brown’s Lane plant in Coventry. This in spite of the 1998 agreement which owners Ford signed guaranteeing the position of West Midland plants. This is the same old story; the bosses sign up to deals when there is money on offer, or when they want to blackmail the workers into accepting attacks – as soon as the bottom line takes them elsewhere deals are conveniently forgotten. It is of course important to get the bosses to sign up to such deals, but at the end of the day we must be prepared to back these up with force, which is the only thing the employers understand.

Over the last decade the heart has been ripped out of the British motor industry with the closure of the biggest plants and the gradual chipping away at most of those which remain and the transfer of production into low wage economy’s such as Poland, where wages at the GM Gliwice plant, which opened in 1998, are as low as £2-88 per hour.

At the Rüsselsheim plant, in Germany, the IG Metall chairman of the Opel joint works committee, Klaus Franz, told the workers: “We were and are prepared to find a solution via dialogue.” He said workers had to be prepared to make sacrifices – as long as income reductions did not exceed 10 percent! This cannot be allowed to go on – the unions need to have a change of approach.

During the dispute supporters of Socialist Appeal distributed leaflets at Ellesmere Port, produced in conjunction with our sister publication in Germany ‘The Spark’, with an appeal from the Bochum workers for international solidarity action over the job losses. The Trade Unions should now be calling for co-ordinated action across Europe to prevent the destruction of the car industry. In a situation of over capacity in the European car industry the unions should be arguing for Government intervention through nationalisation for job protection and a shorter working week, instead of calling for wage reductions. They should also be assisting the Polish workers in Gliwice to raise their wages above the poverty threshold.

  • Only a fighting programme can save the auto industry
  • The big three private sector unions must begin to use their muscle to save jobs and link up an international campaign to defend jobs.
  • No further closures! No further job losses!
  • Pressure must be bought to bear on the Labour Government to nationalise any plant threatened with cuts under the control and management of the workforce.
  • If Labour will not act in the interests of the workers we must kick out the careerists and put in a leadership who will.