Opel Workers Get the Boot

Derq Quiggle Dec 1, 2004

BOCHUM, Germany—Bochum is a gray, gusty city in Germany’s Ruhr Valley where residents identify as strongly with automobile manufacturer Opel as the citizens of Flint, Michigan, once identified with General Motors. It even gives off the deteriorating, day-late, dollar-short feel of Flint – more so now that GM, the owner of Opel, recently announced it will lay off 4,000 Opel autoworkers, or roughly 50 percent of the global giant’s remaining regional workforce.

Reaction from Opel workers, who feel the company belongs to Bochum, was immediate and furious, resulting in an illegal weeklong strike, which was ultimately futile. Every sector of Bochum society, from the mayor’s office to local restaurants to the city’s many theaters, drew up placards and got into the streets to support workers and express their outrage at the “Wild West” methods of General Motors’s management.

The struggle of Opel workers in Bochum illustrates how traditional, democratic forms of protection against giant corporations have become impotent and can no longer influence corporate decision-making. GM will continue to downsize operations in Germany and Western Europe, even as it increases production in Eastern Europe and South Korea. The local origins of Opel, the decades of blood and sweat with which local workers have drenched its factory floors, are made irrelevant. Opel workers were especially outraged by the reason GM gave for the layoffs:

“To maintain competitiveness,” which translates as “to increase profits.”

What makes the Opel story unique is how the fury of workers and their supporters was skillfully managed by the leaders of one of Germany’s largest unions, IG Metall, by an array of German politicians, and by uninformed, myopic journalists.  Instead of focusing on the dynamic interaction of global and local political actors who encouraged GM’s cut-throat management, many GM critics manipulated Bochum’s legitimate outrage into predictable denunciations of the United States.  Germany’s leading weekly magazine Stern devoted an entire edition to the GM-Opel debacle. Its cover page is revealing: A Gulliver-sized, red, white, and blue cowboy boot with GM embossed on the sole is about to step onto an Opel trademark composed of Lilliputian, picketing German workers. The image is brilliant. But, like all propaganda, it dangerously confuses complex causes and obscures responsibility.

In the same vein, many local speakers indulged in anti-American tirades. They complained about lousy American cuisine and the immorality of Hollywood but didn’t blame the GMs layoffs on the pro-free market policies of the European Union (new EU member-nation Poland will supply GM five highly efficient workers for the price of one German worker) or ask how German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s economic initiatives might actually have encouraged GM’s schemes.

Opel’s downsizing comes at a time when German leaders are Reagan-izing the country faster than Bush invaded Iraq. The Opel workers’ fury about the layoffs is driven by fear of the future.  Schroeder’s economic restructuring plan, which takes effect in January, place severe restrictions on unemployment insurance.  Many of the workers GM lets go will find themselves free-falling right through a newly frayed social safety net.  The narrow-mindedness of IG Metall’s anti-American rhetoric does not contradict its efforts to establish a transnational labor movement, as it has seemingly achieved in Brazil where the German-based union represents workers at VW’s Brazilian plants.  As Peter Evans, a union scholar from the University of California, Berkeley, explains:

“IG Metall and CUT (Brazil’s largest trade union) share a common interest in trying to tame the volatility of global neo-liberal job flows and preserve as much and as long as possible the extent to which their employment retains some element of social contract.  They both understand that becoming mesmerized by the geography of jobs will undermine that larger goal. They also understand that the corporate organization of the firms for which they work presents them simultaneously with a powerful structure of domination which must be resisted and with an invaluable set of opportunities that must be seized.”

However, there is a critical strategic error in the unions’ not being “mesmerized by the geography of jobs:” Such thinking leaves a union powerless to affect corporate decision-making at the local level. IG Metall will survive as a union, but only if it’s willing to chase automobile manufacturers around the globe. What good will it do Bochum’s autoworkers when IG Metall opens an office in China?

What Evans describes as an internationalist agenda, is merely a survival plan for the union. IG Metall begins to meet the ideal of a modern corporation: “to be anywhere (in terms of its own advantage) and nowhere (in terms of local accountability).”

So much for local workers

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