Dark clouds are gathering over the car plant, Opel Antwerp. What everybody’s been afraid of for a long time seems to have come to pass: the remaining candidates for taking over the factory, the Austrian-Canadian-Russian supplying company, Magna, and the Brussels-based RHJ International holding, both want to close the plant sometime in March or April next year, when the last Opel Astra will be rolling down the Antwerp assembly line. All 2,700 Opel employees and thousands of workers in supplying companies are facing hard times. But does it really have to be that way?
New profits based on social massacre
It is an undeniable fact that too many cars are being produced worldwide, compared to demand. This problem already began to surface during the 1970s crisis, but up until the current crisis, profits have been able to keep on rising because productivity has been systematically increased (read: longer working weeks for car industry employees, ‘rationalisations’...), the consumer has been given access to cheap loans and investment has mostly gone into financial activities instead of real production. The outbreak of the 2008 financial crisis, however, which resulted in the profit bubble’s bursting, has led to the collapse of this way of doing things.
An enormous decline in the demand for cars worldwide has resulted in huge production cuts on the part of the big automotive concerns, leading to hundreds of thousands of job losses. However, the declining demand for cars is in sharp contrast with the insufficient transport millions of people are forced to put up with and the need for to make transport friendlier to the environment.
It is the urge for short-term profits that drives investors like Magna and RHJ International to sit on Opel like vultures on a fresh corpse. With at least €1.5 billion of financial support from the German government, 11,600 lay-offs (from a total of 55,000 Opel employees), and a total wage cutback of €1.25 billion, Magna is quite keen to cough up the 308 million € required to shut Opel Antwerp down. It should allow them to quickly recreate ‘value for stock owners’ on the backs of laid-off workers and tax payers. But things are not yet decided in their favour yet. GM is tempted to prefer the other candidate: their plans are not very different from Magna’s, but RHJ International would be prepared to sell Opel back to GM in 2014, when the brand is profitable once more. Moreover, the third candidate, BAIC, a Chinese car manufacturer (put out of the race before) as an important competitor for GM would be strengthened if the factory had gone to them. All of this goes to show how capitalists are able to turn the crisis in the automotive industry – which is pouring misery over hundreds of thousands of workers’ families – into a lucrative business.
Political lobbying by union leadership amounts to nothing
In the meantime, the strategy of the trade union leadership and the Flemish government is showing its bankruptcy in a painful way. By investing in the productivity of the Antwerp branch, which would apparently be comparable to the Bochum (Germany) branch, they were hoping to convince the candidates of a takeover to spare Opel Antwerp. Or to put it another way: their plan was to set Belgian workers up against their German colleagues, to save the Belgian plant at the expense of the German workers. The union leadership’s main focus seems to be to lobby all the governments that are involved and the stock owners, hoping to spread job losses over several Opel factories. On July 17, the trade union representatives of the Opel plant stated in Het Laatste Nieuws that they had “complete confidence in the Flemish government”.
During the discussion about the assignment of the new Opel Zafira production, the local union leadership in Antwerp claimed that “they could produce it 18% cheaper than the Bochum factory”. This kind of ‘productivity promises’ competition is exactly what the bosses want to see. By focusing on productivity, the ball is always placed in the bosses’ hands and at the end of the day, workers get nothing for it. In ten years time, Opel Antwerp has fallen back from 8,000 workers to 2,700, and those left were forced to work harder and make more concessions, all because of ‘productivity issues’. But ten years on, all this seems not to have sufficed and the factory is closing down after all. The struggle that needs to be waged should not be targeted against workers in foreign branches and over a dispute about productivity, but against the bosses concerning the scale of profits and where profits are going and, eventually, control and management over production. The unions must oppose job losses, demands such as a shortening of the working week and a decrease in work pressure should be included in sets of demands.
Only nationalisation under workers’ control & management can guarantee Opel Antwerp’s future
It is clear that both candidates for takeover do not have any solutions for the sector’s overproduction, and on top of that, they want to push the costs of the crisis onto the community. At the same time, we are faced with great challenges, such as a solution to traffic congestion, the cost of mobility, environmental issues etc, ...There is an urgent need for mass investments in public transport, the development of environment-friendly cars, and a solution for the enormous work pressure in the automotive sector. But as long as profits remain at the centre of the debate about the industry’s future, the interests of working people are left behind.
Opel Antwerp has the potential to become a symbolic case. A government favourable to the interests of working and unemployed people and their families, would nationalise the company (with no compensation for share holders, unless there is a proven need) and develop a sustainable and harmonious transport plan. The €500 million of financial support the Flemish government has already promised to the new owner would suffice to cover – partially, at least - the necessary reconversion costs to build means of transport that could be used for public transport. Such a government would build up a centre of knowledge for environment-friendly automotive technology around the company – for example, by extending the already existing centres of research in our universities and school faculties. This would set an example for other industries to shorten the working week, lower work pressure, and increase wages up to a decent level. All of these measures would undoubtedly create a lot of jobs, and, moreover, it would be a lively and inspiring example for workers in the automotive industry worldwide.
One prerequisite for a successful nationalisation is the implementation of real workers’ control and management. The trade unions – among others – have an important role to play in organising the workers and running democratic elections for workers’ representatives, who would then have a decisive say in what way the factory can serve as a useful instrument in society. All kinds of layers in society that are more or less involved, such as representative organisations of public transport users, employees of the bus and train companies, trade unions, scientists...should be involved in the discussion about the factory’s future. New democratic organisations need to be created to let the debate be held amongst all sections of the general population.
Unions must turn their backs on ‘funeral director’ strategy
To make such a scenario come true, a struggle arising from the bottom, including Opel Antwerp’s employees, and those of supplying companies and other companies both in and outside of the sector, will be necessary. In the end, this struggle is important for all of us: it could be an example of how workers, through mass struggle, can end capitalism’s efforts to make them pay for the current crisis. Moreover, it would open the discussion of what an alternative society - a socialist society - could be like. For a viable future for the sector to be possible, this struggle needs to be extended to other countries and foreign branches of Opel and other car dealers.
Trade unions, as representatives of the workers’ interests, are to take up a leading role in this struggle. They could present the workers with a plan to nationalise the factory and organise a discussion. To do this, staff meetings need to be organised that also include workers from supplying companies. An international strategy is also essential. A meeting that includes all worker representatives of all Opel plants in Europe about the company’s future would be a good start. A plan to heighten pressure on national governments, with actions that are gradually increased, is needed. On the basis of a struggle for a nationalised company, international solidarity throughout car industry branches in other European countries can start to grow and take concrete forms. In short: only a fighting mentality, with trade union leaders involving the basis maximally in discussions about the struggle’s proceedings, can guarantee a future for Opel Antwerp and the entire sector!