Wildcat strike shuts GM plant in Germany

Threatened layoffs cause 3-day stoppage at factory that employs 10,000


FRANKFURT, Germany - Just days after it announced deep job cuts in Europe, the General Motors Corp. is battling a wildcat strike at one of its biggest German auto plants, and a threat of wider disruptions.

Workers at the Opel assembly plant in Bochum refused to work yesterday for the third day, blocking the entrance to the factory and brushing aside the pleas of German politicians to compromise.

GM, which owns Opel, has begun negotiations with union representatives at all its European plants over a cost-cutting plan that is aimed at saving 500 million euros ($623 million) a year in labor costs, and could result in a reduction of up to 12,000 jobs, most of them in Germany.

In Bochum, an industrial city in the Ruhr Valley, workers are demanding that GM guarantee it will not lay off workers or shut the factory. The plant, which employs 10,000, is considered particularly vulnerable as GM weighs moving production to lower-cost sites in Eastern Europe.

"It's unfortunate that workers there feel the need to strike," said a spokesman for General Motors, Tony Cervone. "With a couple more days of perspective, I think they'll approach it differently."

But worker representatives said they planned elaborate new protests today in Bochum and at Opel plants across Europe. With speeches and rallies, including a march into downtown Bochum, union officials said the assembly lines would remain shut down for several days.

"It's not a matter of time, but a matter of what's the offer" from the company, said Ludger Hinse, head of the Bochum chapter of IG Metall, the metalworkers' union, which represents Opel employees.

Hinse said that IG Metall was not directing the strikes, which suggests they are a spontaneous expression of worker unrest - even desperation. Like other Ruhr cities, Bochum has been drained by an exodus of heavy industry; the Opel plant is one of the few major employers left.

IG Metall's reduced role is another sign of changing times. Once a dominant force in labor talks, it has stumbled in recent confrontations with carmakers. In 2003, it was forced to abandon a strike for a shorter workweek in eastern Germany because of a lack of support from the rank and file.

Wildcat strikes are illegal and extremely rare in Germany, and politicians are scrambling to defuse the confrontation. The prime minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Peer Steinbrueck, pleaded with the workers to stay "level-headed," while the German minister for labor and economics, Wolfgang Clement, urged them to go back to work.

The disruption of the Bochum plant could have a ripple effect across GM's European network, according to analysts. In addition to assembling the Opel Astra and Zafira, the plant makes engines and gearboxes, which are shipped to the giant Opel plant in Ruesselsheim, outside Frankfurt, as well as to factories in Belgium and Poland.

"For some components, it can be a problem in a matter of hours," said Graeme Maxton, an analyst at Autopolis, a consulting group in London. "Certainly, three or four days is approaching the limit."

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