Lessons of the workers’ struggles at Opel

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The six day strike at Opel in Bochum in October 2004, in response to the threat of mass redundancies and possible plant closures by General Motors, was the longest and most significant, spontaneous, unofficial strike in a major plant in Germany since the great wildcat strikes of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

For almost a week, the working population followed with interest and great sympathy the events in Bochum. At the other plants of General Motors (GM) in Europe, the workforces openly expressed their identification with and admiration of the courage and combativity of their colleagues at Bochum. The importance of the seeds of solidarity that have been awakened by this workers’ struggle can be measured by the fact that the employers, as long as the strike was in progress, did not dare to take legal action against the strikers. Of course, the bosses made the usual threats, denigrated the so-called ‘ring leaders’, spread rumours about vandalised cars and machinery, and threatened to call in the police if the strike did not immediately cease. But the propertied class understood perfectly well that the use of open state repression would be more likely to transfer the (mostly) still passive sympathy of the other workers into open indignation and active solidarity.

The meaning and context of the struggle at Opel

Although the IG Metall trade union and the factory council of Opel Bochum justified the ending of the strike with the argument that the workers had obliged the employers to return to the negotiating table, the main demand of the strikers – that there would be no sackings – has certainly not been met.

However, the significance of this struggle lies above all in the fact that it has demonstrated the capacity of the working class to act as an independent force in present day society. It was no coincidence that the conflict at Opel gave rise to a debate in the bourgeois media between sociologists, on the one hand, who talk of a ‘return of the class struggle in the marxist sense of the word’, and ideologists of the ‘alternative globalisation’ and the ‘struggle against work’ movements, on the other, who long ago declared the workers’ struggle to be dead and buried. Such discussions serve not just to confuse the workers, but also to enable the ruling class as a whole to understand that the period, especially after 1989, when it was possible to deny the reality of the class struggle with some credibility, is slowly drawing to a close. The deepening antagonism between rich and poor, between capital and wage labour, and above all the resistance of the workers under attack, has opened the way towards the recovery of its class identity by the proletariat. This in turn is one of the main preconditions for more powerful and conscious defensive struggles by the proletariat.

Like all significant workers’ struggles, the strike at Bochum did not come as a bolt out of the blue. Such class struggles are always part of an international series of combats. Today the proletariat is beginning to fight back against the new, qualitative sharpening of the capitalist crisis and attacks against its living conditions (see WR 279). A particular feature of the situation is the central role being played by the question of unemployment. Mass layoffs and plant closures multiply. The attacks against the unemployed become increasingly brutal. The growing importance of unemployment is beginning to take concrete form. On October 2nd 2004, in the Netherlands and Germany, simultaneous demonstrations of 200,000 people in Amsterdam and 45,000 in Berlin took place against the state’s attacks on the unemployed. In September 2004 shipyard workers at Puerto Real and San Fernando in Andalusia, Spain, struck and demonstrated against mass layoffs. Another feature is the national and international simultaneity of the attacks, as the crisis at Opel and Karstadt in October ‘04 clearly expressed.

However, it is a fact that such significant workers’ struggles, which affect the consciousness of the class as a whole, are effectively signalled and prepared in advance through other, less spectacular skirmishes in the same or neighbouring sectors. Thus, there was already a spontaneous downing of tools four years ago at Opel in Bochum in response to the threat of redundancies. In the spring of 2004 there was also a wildcat stoppage at the Ford car plant in Cologne. Above all, there is a common foundation to the strike in Bochum and the protests three months before at Daimler-Chrysler. It was the work force at Mercedes that in a sense summoned the class to struggle. They put into practise the lesson that one cannot, and must not, accept the blackmail of the ruling class without putting up a fight. They countered the attempts of the bosses to play off the employees of the different plants against each other, through the reawakening of class solidarity. In this sense, the Opel Bochum workers received the flame of courageous struggle from their Mercedes colleagues. It seems to us that this common framework - which those Mercedes workers, who travelled from Stuttgart to Bochum to participate in the October 19th day of action spoke of - is important to underline.

How the struggle was divided and sabotaged

The different ‘critical trade unionists’, have tried to explain the resumption of work in Bochum after six days without the main demands of the workers being met, by the manoeuvre of IG Metall and the factory council leadership on October 20th. Of course, the formulation of the alternative, upon which the striking workers were made to vote – either ending the strike and opening negotiations, or staying on strike without negotiating – was a typical example of a union manoeuvre against the workers. The endless continuation of an already isolated strike was thus presented as the only alternative to breaking off the struggle. In so doing, the decisive questions were brushed aside. These are: firstly, how to make the enforcement of the workers demands as effective as possible? Secondly, who should negotiate: the unions and the factory council, or mass assemblies and the delegates chosen by them?

However, we intend to show that the ‘critical trade unionists’ were themselves involved in the emergence of this false alternative between giving in, and staying out on a long and isolated strike. We will also show that the organisation of the division and the defeat of the struggle began long before the 20th of October.

When the news broke of planned redundancies in Europe, the workers at all the Opel plants reacted with indignation and the downing of tools. Just as at Mercedes during the summer, where strikes took place simultaneously in Sindelfinden (Stuttgart) and Bremen, thus demonstrating that the work forces of the different plants were determined not to let themselves be played off against each other, here also the plants singled out, Bochum and Rüsselsheim (each threatened with anything up to 5,000 layoffs), reacted together. IG Metall and the factory council at Bochum did not even try and put a brake on the initial combative élan of the workers. But instead, everything was done to ensure a rapid resumption of work at Rüsselsheim. This is a fact which has been systematically ignored by the leftist media. If they even mention it, it is in order to give the impression that the workers themselves, i.e. those at Rüsselsheim, were the cause of this division.

The fact is that the quick resumption of work at the ‘mother plant’ of Opel near Frankfurt (Rüsselsheim) was experienced by those at Bochum, who stayed out, as a weakening of solidarity. In this way the wedge of division, which the Mercedes workers had been able to keep at bay, was felt to be at work already on the second day of the movement at Opel.

How can this be explained? A few weeks before the announcement of the elimination of some 12,000 jobs in Europe, GM had already made it known that, in the future, it would build its middle of the range models from Saab and Opel at only one plant in Europe, either at Rüsselsheim or at Trollhätan in Sweden, and would close down the other plant. And when the ‘master-plan’ for the salvaging of the company was released in October, it was immediately made known that the question of ‘either Rüsselsheim or Trollhätan’ would be negotiated as part of this package. During the first day of the strike, the factory council and IG Metall in Rüsselsheim left no doubt about the fact that they would not tolerate any further solidarity action with colleagues in Bochum, since this could lead to the plant in Rüsselsheim losing out to its ‘Swedish rival’. If the union, the factory council and the SPD had really been concerned, as they claimed, about the common defence of the different plants, they would not have called, as they did, for separate demonstrations by the different plants on October 19th, and could have easily organised a common action. Instead of this, the Bochum and Rüsselsheim workers were constantly kept at a distance from each other, to make sure that they would never get the opportunity to meet and discuss their common interests. They did not even allow a small delegation to go from Rüsselsheim to Bochum or vice versa to deliver a solidarity greeting. Instead of this, the factory council at Rüsselsheim was warning against the ‘hotheads’ on the Ruhr, while their counterparts in Bochum repeatedly made sarcastic, indirect remarks about the solidarity of the ‘dear colleagues’ in Rüsselsheim. To get an idea of the scale of the hypocrisy of the trade unions during the “European day of solidarity”, it will be sufficient to mention how the Swedish trade unions, at a workers’ assembly, first produced their usual phrase-mongering about their solidarity with the Opel workers, only to subsequently triumphantly announce that the Swedish Prime Minister Persson had promised to intervene personally to ensure that the mid-range cars will be built there in future and not in Rüsselsheim!

The workers faced with false alternatives

What of the situation at Bochum, where the strike continued? There, the official representatives of IG Metall and the factory council adopted such a low profile at the beginning of the strike, that part of the media accused them of having lost control of the situation. Others criticised them for surrendering the field to the trade union radicals. Just a few days later the unions demonstrated how little they had really lost control by putting an end to the strike with relative ease. However, it is true that, during the first days, the union leadership did indeed leave the field to the ‘radicals’. As soon as it became clear that the workers at Bochum were being left alone with their strike, these pseudo-radicals, as the most faithful representatives of trade union ideology, began campaigning for a long, drawn-out strike to the bitter end. Over a century ago, when workers in struggle were mainly dealing with individual capitalists, they could indeed impose their interests by striking on their own. But ever since these family enterprises became giant corporations, which at the national level are fused with each other and with the state, the workers have to fight as a class: they have to extend and unite their struggles in order to be able to put up an effective resistance. Today, as in the 20th century, the trade union ideology of isolated, separate struggles, has become a bourgeois point of view, a recipe for the defeat of the workers. At Opel in Bochum, it was used once again as a way to divide the workers. While a majority of them – already sensing the dead end an isolated strike was leading to – were voting to go back to work, a combative, embittered, minority, wanted to stay out regardless of the consequences. Some of them even accused the majority of having betrayed the common cause. Now, the division was in place, not only between Bochum and Rüsselsheim, but also within the Bochum work force.

Afterwards, the representatives of a ‘strike to the bitter end’ claimed that if the strike had lasted only a few days longer, the capitalists would have been obliged to capitulate. In support of this, they point out the vulnerability of the present day ‘just in time’ production methods. These arguments are not very convincing in view of worldwide overproduction and overcapacity, not least in the car industry. But in addition, there is much more at stake in the workers’ struggle than simply shutting down production. It is above all a question of tipping the political balance of class forces in favour of the proletariat, through the extension and unification of workers’ struggles.

The development of an autonomous class perspective

It is nonetheless true that, after a week, the bourgeoisie was in a hurry to end the strike at Bochum, but not because there was any threat of a worldwide collapse of production at GM. Here, we have reached the crux of the problem. The strike at Bochum did indeed impress the bourgeoisie, making the defenders of the system nervous. Not primarily because of the consequences for production, but rather because of the possible consequences of this struggle for the other workers, for the development of the consciousness of the class as a whole. What they feared was not even, in the first instance, the extension of the immediate struggle to other parts of the class. The situation, the general combativity and above all the level of consciousness were probably not really ripe for this. What they were most worried about was the manifestation of workers’ combativity in the context of a growing simultaneity of attacks against all workers. The massive attacks against the employees at Karstadt came just before; those at Volkswagen just after the struggle at Opel. What the ruling class fears is that the working class, spurred on by struggles such as at Opel, will slowly but surely recognise that the workers of the different companies, branches or regions have common interests, and need a living solidarity.

The struggle at Opel already posed a greater challenge for workers than at Mercedes. At Opel the potential for blackmail was much more threatening, including the possibility of shutting down entire plants. The workers answered this challenge, at least in Bochum, with an intensified combativity but not yet with a further development at the level of class consciousness. That is not surprising. The class today is more and more confronted with the increasingly visible bankruptcy of the whole social formation that is capitalism. It is evident that the proletariat will have to try again and again before it can even begin to understand the scale of the whole problem; that it will repeatedly recoil in the face of the vastness of the task. It is the job of revolutionaries today to support workers in the struggle to acquire a class perspective of their own. This is why the ICC distributed a leaflet during the day of action in Bochum and Rüsselsheim, which did not satisfy itself with calling the workers to struggle, but attempted to stimulate political reflection within the class.

19.11.04.

(From WELTREVOLUTION 127, paper of the ICC in Germany and Switzerland.)

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