The news of the strike of almost 50,000 General Motors (GM) workers in the US has spread like wildfire in German companies. Here, too, the signs point to a storm. Working conditions have changed dramatically in recent years. In the car factories and their suppliers, one rationalisation programme follows the next. Fixed jobs are replaced by temporary work, contract work and other low-wage jobs.
Many thousands of jobs are at stake. In early summer in Europe, Ford announced 12,000 job cuts, BASF announced 6,000. Since the beginning of the year, GM has announced 14,000 redundancies, Volkswagen 7,000, Jaguar 4,500 and Tesla 3,000. Almost every day brings bad news.
An Opel worker, who preferred to remain anonymous out of fear of repression, said the GM strike is a very important development. He is not surprised at all that the workers were now taking up the strike: “Exploitation has spread all over the world, this is a general development that is being satisfied everywhere. We made the experience here ourselves.”
“Opel-Werke have long belonged to GM,” he continued, “but two years ago they were sold to the French PSA group. There, too, more and more people are being turned into temporary workers. They’re easy to throw out when you don’t need them anymore. The same system is to be implemented more and more with us. Then the workers that can’t just be laid off are transferred to outside firms like Segula.”
Murat Yilmaz, a works council member at BMW in Munich, told the WSWS that from his own experience he had to tell the striking GM workers one thing above all: “In Germany and all over the world, the official trade unions are on the employers’ side.” Every worker must understand that, he said. “Unions like IG Metall and UAW cannot be reformed. Workers have to regroup. They need to build new, uncorrupted organisations where only workers are represented.”
Murat himself has been in opposition to IG Metall for years and has even set up his own trade union, which is why he is targeted by the IGM and the BMW group. When he announced in March that a works council had offered him to be elected to the supervisory board as an “employee representative” with the help of the votes he had organised, he was dismissed without notice by BMW, for this reason among others.
The IG Metall-led works council agreed to the termination. Murat has been out of the company since the beginning of April and is taking legal action against his dismissal. But he feels that “times are changing,” and that now was the time to make international contacts: “Workers must stand together internationally.”
Jochen Kuhlmann, a construction worker from Berlin, wrote to the WSWS : “I hope that autoworkers in the US will now be able to free themselves from the clutches of the trade unions, especially the UAW. The UAW’s monstrous corruption scandal may provide an opportunity to organise the strike and form action committees to maintain control from the outset. We already have connections to our Mexican and Canadian co-workers in the automotive industry.
“That would be a great encouragement for all autoworkers in the world, especially for those in Europe and Germany, who have to deal with a ‘smarter’ corruption of their trade unions through the so-called ‘social partnership.’
“I wish the autoworkers in the US much strength and perseverance in their labour struggle to finally free themselves from the increasing hustle and bustle, from poor and unequal pay, and to fight for every job and for decent social benefits.”
Michael Krannich is 52 years old and a carpenter by trade. He wrote to the WSWS:
“I live in Stuttgart, a city that can also be described as motor city. There are several car factories and important suppliers here. The Porsche plant in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen, Mercedes-Benz plants in Sindelfingen and Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, as well as suppliers such as the Bosch plants in Stuttgart-Feuerbach and the Mahle piston plants in Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt.
“The fact that GM workers have been on strike…has made many residents of the city sit up and take notice. I hope that the industrial action at the GM plants in Detroit will send an international signal to all autoworkers. The working class is an international class exploited worldwide by the same corporations and financial institutions. Workers must seize the opportunity here and now to enter the labour struggle and fight for better wages and fair social benefits.”
Sandra is a young mother from Stuttgart, whose husband works for the US government in Germany. She told the WSWS:
“My German uncle has worked for Daimler for 40 years. I also wanted to take a job at Daimler as a temporary worker, but decided to take a different path after hearing so many negative things. And yes, I heard about the strikes at GM. My father-in-law retired a few years ago after working there, and we still have family at GM in Michigan.”
Asked about the corruption scandal at GM, Sandra said:
“I have heard about the corruption scandal, and I believe that it is not only GM workers who should go on strike. It’s time for the people who built these companies to stand up and face these huge companies. They should realise that they are nothing without the workers who do the dirty work for them—just to make them richer.”
When asked whether she would advise Daimler employees in Germany to follow the example of their co-workers in the US and also go on strike, Sandra replied:
“Yes, I would advise Daimler workers to do the same. Especially Daimler workers in Germany. Because once you get up, you’re a thorn in the side of the company, and they might try to get rid of you afterwards. But workers in Germany have been better protected thanks to the social system and therefore have more freedom. In the US, a job loss would be a real struggle.
“Sometimes you just have to do what has to be done. It is unacceptable for large companies to earn billions of dollars and neither pay their workers properly nor provide them with health insurance. It’s the same at Daimler. They now hire workers from temporary employment agencies who do exactly the same work as permanent employees, but work under terrible conditions for the minimum wage. The government should put an end to this. Nobody should be employed by a large company that treats workers so badly and then pays them only the minimum wage, so they remain dependent on state support. It makes me mad!”
Sven Ehm, 35, is a forklift driver in Berlin. He wrote to the WSWS:
“I wholeheartedly support the strike of the autoworkers of General Motors! What the car companies do is an injustice!
“My late father, who was only 55 years old, had worked for Daimler Benz in Berlin-Marienfelde for 38 years. Even then, he could see that large companies like Daimler Benz were hiring more and more temporary workers in order to make even more profit. Although the temporary workers do the same work as the permanent employees, they did not even receive half of the salary the permanent employees earned.
“I was even in a temporary employment agency a few years ago and could see with my own eyes what was going on there. I was not even allowed to take part in a registered IG Metall strike. I was told I had the right to participate, but would not be paid for the time I did not work in the company. So much for the beautiful democracy in Germany! Also, the permanent employees had only frustration. The only ones who were doing well were the suit-wearing gentlemen from the executive floor!
“I have also read about the conditions workers at Ford, Chrysler and General Motors are working under, and I definitely cannot endorse that! I very much welcome the fact that the workers of General Motors in the US are organising a strike and, in the end, are carrying it out! I hope that action committees will be created to give workers a platform—in the US and also in Germany!”
The current corruption scandal of the UAW is hardly reported in the German media. But workers in Germany can also tell a tale about the corruption of the trade unions, especially in IG Metall.
During the last major industrial action in the area of responsibility of IG Metall, more than 30 years ago, which was carried out against the closure of the Krupp steel mill in Duisburg-Rheinhausen, the IG Metall functionaries and works councils received “replacement jobs” after the sale of the industrial action, while the steelworkers lost theirs.
Franz Steinkühler, who as chairman of IG Metall pulled the strings at the sell-out in Rheinhausen in 1988, had to resign from his post five years later because he was suspected of having used his supervisory board position at Daimler Benz for insider trading. He had bought shares for a million marks. When a journalist asked him where he got this money from, Steinkühler replied: “IG Metall pays well.” After his retirement, Steinkühler went into business as an asset and management consultant. In an interview, he explained that nothing has changed for him, he is now only paid directly by the employers, instead of by the union members.
One of the biggest scandals of IG Metall involved the VW works council 15 years ago. The chairman of the works council, Klaus Volkert, had donated prostitutes and luxury trips to the works council at the company’s expense. Volkert was eventually convicted of “infidelity” and imprisoned for almost two years. He had received far more than €300,000 a year for his work on the works council, not including luxury travel.
His successor, Bernd Osterloh, a trained industrial clerk, joined the VW works council in 1990. At that time, he received €6,500 gross per month, or €78,000 per year. As chairman of the works council, his annual salary reached €750,000, not counting the more than €200,000 he receives each year for his work in the Presiding Committee of the Supervisory Board.
Osterloh’s colleague at VW subsidiary Porsche, works council chairman Uwe Hück, surprisingly left the group in February of this year. Hück is said to have received €400,000-€500,000 annual salary for years. He was also deputy chairman of the supervisory boards of Porsche Automobil Holding SE and Porsche AG. For both posts, he additionally took in five- and six-figure sums.